by Mike Oldfield
288 pages, Virgin Books
Review by Pat Black
When you read the words Tubular Bells, your brain has probably done one of two things: you’ve either visualised the album cover, or your inner radio has played the opening piano riff.
As cultural legacies go, Mike Oldfield’s first and best-known album is not a bad one, although it’s a lazy mistake to assume that he did nothing else of note. A handmade album, Oldfield wrote and recorded his instrumental masterpiece in 1972/73 when he was just 19. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, conjuring visions of bearded prog rock fans who love to pore over liner notes. He’s often tied in with new agey concerns and phoney hippy values, and carries a certain cultural cache which the punks and their attenuated successors like to spit at. He is a genius, though.
Changeling is Oldfield’s autobiography, published in 2008. It’s a journey through his musical output from Tubular Bells right up until that point. Although much of the book concerns the conception, execution and aftermath of Tubular Bells, it’s also a candid look at Oldfield’s mental struggles – indeed, a good chunk of the royalties for this book have been donated to mental health charities.
An awkward, lonely child, Oldfield has fond memories of Christmas and flying model planes with his father as a young boy. But his mother suffered from alcoholism, and the knock-on effect on family life must have been dreadful. Although Oldfield’s tone is warm and chatty he is quite clear that he was a bit of a loner as a youngster, wrapped up in his own worlds. These inner spaces found expression in music.
School’s strictures were not for him, and he got out as soon as he could. A child of the sixties, he grew up listening to and eventually playing folk music in clubs at a very tender age, running the gauntlet of London’s streets at night, guitar case in hand, when he was in his early teens. He was a prodigy, and formed a band with his sister, Sally, which drew the attention of record executives during the flower power era.
Oldfield mentions how Marianne Faithfull was his sister’s pal at school, and how he would often stay over at the London flat she shared with Mick Jagger while she effectively babysat him. I guess these connections can’t hurt if you’re setting out on a musical career.
He joined Kevin Ayers’ The Whole World band as a bassist, graduating to guitar and drawing attention to his skills on the fretboard. This big break came after an astonishingly cruel trick was played on him by an executive who made Oldfield cart an entire speaker stack through London’s streets to an audition. Speaking of the whole world, I think about 99% of its population would have told this guy precisely where to ram his speakers, but the naïve young Oldfield soldiered on. If the smirking exec did this to mess with the boy for his own amusement, then fate would decree Oldfield had the last laugh. Something about the lad’s determination and awkwardness – allied to his musical skill – seemed to spark sympathy, and he joined the band.
Often, such whims of fate either enrich or destroy us, and the Mike Oldfield story has many examples of this. Another lucky break comes when Oldfield makes a demo of what would become side one of Tubular Bells, and gets the chance to present it to Richard Branson, who was then looking to put a record out on the market under his own label, Virgin. Oldfield got to The Manor, the Oxfordshire country pile which Virgin used to hire out as a recording studio… only to find he had forgotten the tape.
A chauffeur, whose name Oldfield cannot recall, then did something very kind. He had a few hours spare in between driving a band around at the studios, and he decided to take Oldfield on the long trip to his home and back so he could pick up the tape. Had this not happened, Oldfield might have dropped like a stone beneath the waves of history.
Tubular Bells was a hand-made album in a very literal sense. Oldfield protests that it sounds raw, with plenty of mistakes in it. It sounds smooth as silk to me - but the creative processes and the frustration in failing to get the music down just as he wanted it sound hellish, and his repeated rejections must have been disheartening. It’s an analogue jumble of spliced tape loops, with bits of cardboard pushed into tape machines to allow multiple track recordings and other distinctly lo-fi techniques. Compared to the digital age where you press a button and a computer does just about everything for you, this is steampunk.
The album, you could say, did alright. Branson was on his way. Oldfield tells us that the same wasn’t quite true for him, at least not immediately. After a deal was signed to put the piano riff for Tubular Bells into The Exorcist, and with an edited single hitting the top ten in the US charts, the album started flying off the shelves all over the world. Oldfield tells us that by this time, he was still getting handed a basic wage and luncheon vouchers. As green as they come, he had allowed Branson to become his manager, reckoning that the record company chief would look after him and take care of all his financial affairs. Once Oldfield was nailed with tax demands, and it dawned on him that his arrangements could have been handled a little more to his advantage, a long and sometimes bitter legal battle broke out between Oldfield and Branson. It’s only recently been put to bed, with Tubular Bells coming back under Oldfield’s control. The relationship between the pair has been mercurial, though they seem to be on good terms now and Branson is unequivocal about how important that LP was to Virgin.
If The Exorcist was instrumental to the album’s success and status, then the movie is a fine metaphor for what its composer was enduring in his head. Throughout this time of success, he was fragile, suffering from panic attacks and social phobia. He had to be almost literally coaxed onto a stage to play Tubular Bells live (Richard Branson offered Oldfield his Bentley if he would agree to a televised concert). Then he ran away to Hergest Ridge, his place in the country, disconnecting the phones and cutting himself off. I’d imagined it was a grand stately home, but in reality it was a run-down old house on a mountaintop where the wind lifted the carpet off the floorboards.
Blissful isolation, then; but the laws of thermodynamics are quite clear about a closed system.
Oldfield kept himself separate from society apart from the odd trip to a local pub to play his guitar. He combated his reclusive nature through alcohol, his days of dabbling with drugs having ended before Tubular Bells following a bad trip. Oldfield recalls a vast hallucination of humans and planets just being simple machines as part of an unimaginably larger picture, and this vision left him terrified. Oldfield sees this as an integral part of his mental health struggles, but I’d argue they had been set in train long before the acid experience. Environmental factors, with his parents’ marriage fracturing as his mother was repeatedly confined to hospital, didn’t help. But there must be some genetic influence in there, too – both Oldfield and his mother were over-fond of the bottle, and used it as a way of escaping their anxieties.
As albums continued to find success for Oldfield as the seventies wore on, he achieved a breakthrough with a controversial therapy technique known as Exegesis. Here, people gathered in a sort of AA format, the famous and unknown alike, in order to scream out what frightened them before undergoing a bizarre ceremony where individuals are "reborn" – through a chamber of cushions meant to represent the birth canal. The whole enterprise sounds weird and cultish to me, with a little echo of the ancient redemptive technique of baptism. Nonetheless, Oldfield makes it clear that this therapy was of immense use to him, a breakthrough in how he felt and acted. No sooner had Oldfield done this than he was taking part in nude photoshoots and telling interviewers everything he could about himself – somewhat unwisely. He liked Exegesis so much that he married the founder’s sister (it didn’t last). You could argue that Exegesis made him into a bit of a twat, but a weight seemed to have been lifted from his shoulders. Nowadays he’s more into meditation and psychotherapy as a means of unburdening himself, but he is positive about his experience of the programme.
Oldfield is a bit spacey, for sure. Like Neil Young in Waging Heavy Peace, Oldfield clings to late sixties ideals, with an agnostic view of spirituality, mysticism and matters hidden from human perception which we might uncover thanks to evolution or scientific breakthroughs. It’s easy to snicker at such concerns – but then you remember the social, political, economic and cultural morass the western world is currently in, and you half-wish you could believe it too.
During the Exegesis phase Oldfield made Incantations, and he seems a little dismissive of that album. For me, while Tubular Bells takes the gold medal, Incantations is a strong silver (yes, even before Ommadawn). But the progress of the seventies brought about upheavals for Oldfield professionally. Punk happened, and all of a sudden Mike Oldfield and the prog rock guys with their odd chord progressions and experimental sounds were the oldest of old hat.
Oldfield seems bitter about punk and its champions, lamenting the fact that fashions and tastes change and guttersnipes sharpen their knives accordingly. Plus ca change, mate. There is a heartbreaking moment where Oldfield is invited to sit in front of Virgin executives and discuss where his music is going, just after they decided to throw their weight behind punk. I could have wept for him – remember, he was only about 24 at the time – when he writes: "I began to wonder if these guys actually cared about music at all."
He suffered something of a backlash, and still bears the scars. But it’s a cheap shot to have a go at Mike Oldfield as being symbolic of any musical movement. For one thing, he is an individual, out there on his own, doing his own thing. There’s no distinct style, no signature look, no set grooves for him to slide into. For another, it’s mostly all his own work, whether that’s the playing, recording, production, and mixing. Tubular Bells was a labour of love. It was – that word again – handmade. His entire career was a do-it-yourself job. He does what he wants, when he wants. In sum, this makes Mike Oldfield more punk than punk.
Ultimately, as in any other cultural endeavour, for me all music criticism boils down to: Do you really like it? Is it is it wicked? Everything’s subjective. And while fashions and tastes change, the music should remain. That was the whole point, you would hope.
Anyway, Oldfield enjoyed his success, moving to ever-bigger properties and indulging in his hobbies. For a guy who was terrified of flying – that perfect storm of claustrophobia as you’re wedged into a seat and agoraphobia as you look out the window – he seems to have taken an unusual pleasure in learning how to pilot small planes and helicopters. Perhaps he saw it as therapy; nonetheless, he has been involved in some rather hairy episodes in the skies.
Once, he decided to take Richard Branson up for a trip in a small plane. Branson was a practical joker, and Oldfield decided to take a bit of revenge on the Virgin boss by practising stalling and restarting the plane in the air. That must have been a million laughs.
Branson took revenge of sorts by then taking Oldfield up in a hot air balloon, which went out of control and landed on top of a bakery. Branson, who takes opportunism to the level of genius, milked the attention the whole farce brought him for all it was worth.
Even more worryingly, Oldfield took a TV crew featuring a young Paula Yates up for a flight so that they could interview him at the controls. What Oldfield didn’t tell them was that he was not yet qualified to fly instruments-only. With the airfield swaddled in fog, Oldfield decided it was too late to pull out of the engagement, causing utter terror when he came in to land much too fast. Yates’ then-husband, Bob Geldof, confronted Oldfield about this incident later, and no bloody wonder.
Scariest of all, Oldfield and his band were almost destroyed in a storm which had grounded all flights throughout the whole of Spain, while their pilot blithely flew into the midst of the maelstrom. At one stage the plane was sucked into near-vertical climbs, utterly helpless in the grip of nature at her worst. "We were all crying… We were sure we were going to die." This incident spawned the front cover of the album Five Miles Out.
Later works such as the happy accident hit single Moonlight Shadow get some time in the spotlight, alongside his later bites at sequels to Tubular Bells. There’s not nearly enough on the creation of another brilliant album, the one-hour continuous loop of mayhem that is 1990’s Amarok, but I can understand why the book is heavier on the 1970s than any other decade.
Anyone looking for gossip about Oldfield’s personal life will be disappointed. We must respect that need for privacy, but I am curious about how Oldfield has managed to have a couple of divorces and several children to different women without writing much about it. It may be that geniuses are not easy people to live with. Or that solid non-disclosure arrangements are in place.
Oldfield ends on a hopeful note, explaining that things have worked out for him. He’s "more or less" over those demons, he’s patched things up with Branson, and he’s still making interesting music – not something you could say of many of his peers. He now lives in the Bahamas, and was the subject of a rather snipey profile in the Daily Mail last year – no bad thing. It was great seeing him take a bow before the London Olympics as part of Danny Boyle’s well-received opening ceremony, and he is said to be working on a new album as the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece comes and goes.
But for me, the magic will always be in that moment I first put on Tubular Bells after rooting through some vinyl albums my brother left in his old room on a long summer’s evening. Dropping the needle on the scratchy old vinyl, the hiss, the spinning bells on the label… another world opening up.
It’s ace. If you haven’t ever listened to it, please give it a go. Just don’t be expecting to hear a hit single.