Review: Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973)

Tubular Bells is multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield’s first solo album.

Comprising two long instrumental pieces by Mike Oldfield, a one-man band of just 19-year-olds, Tubular Bells is not only one of the greatest debut albums of all time, but also one of progressive rock’s greatest success stories.

Oldfield’s career as a professional musician began when he was just 15 years old. Released in 1968 with his five years older sister Sally Oldfield under the name The Sallyangie, Children Of The Sun is not a folk album of great quality, but the young Oldfield’s Bert Jansch and John Renbourn-influenced acoustic guitar playing was already promising.

With The Sallyangie fizzling out soon after the album’s release, Oldfield was looking for new challenges. After first trying unsuccessfully to become the bassist for the Family, Oldfield finally joined Kevin Ayers’ new band The Whole World in 1970. Oldfield started as bassist, but quickly moved up to guitarist as Ayers realised Oldfield’s talent. With Ayers, Oldfield recorded two excellent albums, Shooting at the Moon (1970) and Whatevershebringswesing (1971), which were important learning experiences, partly because Oldfield was able to try out the wide variety of instruments available at Abbey Road Studios during recording breaks – an experience that came in handy when he made Tubular Bells.

Oldfield started working on demos of Tubular Bells as early as mid-1971. At this stage, the working name was still the rather pretentious ”Opus One”. In September 1971, Oldfield played bass in the Arthur Louis Band sessions at Richard Branson’s newly opened country studio, The Manor. Oldfield took the opportunity to pitch his rough demo to The Manor’s in-house recording engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. Both Newman and Heyworth were enthusiastic about the demo and persuaded Branson to give Oldfield studio time to work on the music. Oldfield was initially given a week’s studio time in November 1972 to record the first half of the album. The second half was recorded in fragmented sessions in early 1973 whenever The Manor studio was not available to paying customers. During this period Oldfield practically lived in the studio and also participated as a recording engineer on a few albums (including Henry Cow’s Leg End).

Branson’s original idea was to sell Oldfield’s work to the highest bidder. A deal could have been negotiated if Oldfield had at least considered adding drums and vocals to his music, but that was out of the question. To Richard Branson’s credit, he didn’t force Oldfield to do it in the end. When he couldn’t find any takers for the album, he decided to set up his own record company, encouraged by Newman. The album, eventually called Tubular Bells, thus became the first release of Branson’s new Virgin label, under catalogue number V2001.

But what inspired the young Oldfield to make, practically on his own, a very unusual instrumental album with only two tracks over 20 minutes long? Conceptually, Keith Tippett’s Centipede album Septober Energy (1971), with its long songs and dozens of players, was an important inspiration for Oldfield. After experiencing Tippett’s Centipede concert, Oldfield wanted to create his own rock symphony. Where Tippett’s Centipede was at the crossroads of jazz-rock and art music, jazz was not a major inspiration for Oldfield, who was driven more by his love of folk and especially classical music.

Oldfield had also been impressed that Paul McCartney had played all the instruments himself on his unnamed and somewhat homespun 1970 debut album. Oldfield decided to make his own album using the same method. If the ex-Beatle could do it, why couldn’t he? Oldfield didn’t play Tubular Bells all by himself, though, as Oldfield is joined by a drummer, a flutist and a couple of vocalists.

Oldfield is often referred to (as I did at the beginning of this review) as a multi-instrumentalist and the cover of the album boasts a list of some ten instruments he played in the sessions. Most of these are various guitars, keyboards and percussion. The truth is, however, that although Oldfield was already an excellent guitarist at this time, he was still very much a beginner when it came to other instruments, such as keyboards, and played them only moderately with his enormous musicality and determination. And of course with the help of some 2000 overdubs required to achieve the complex puzzle of Tubular Bells. In this operation, of course, the invaluable assistance of the aforementioned sound men from The Manor, Simon Heyworth, and especially Tom Neman, who played an inspiring role in the sessions and, together with Oldfield, was eventually given the title of producer on the album cover.

A few prog bands (including Jethro Tull and the aforementioned Centipede) had already made some records with only one track per side of the vinyl and Oldfield decided to continue in the same vein. Although Oldfield was probably at least as much inspired by the classical music symphonies he loved so much. So Tubular Bells consists of just two long tracks filling the A and B sides of the vinyl.

Tubular Bells, Part One

The first half of Tubular Bells begins with a seemingly simple (but with a 15/8 time signature that adds a charming strangeness) piano pattern that is a clear nod to Terry Riley’s repetitive minimalism. Oldfield, however, does not remain a prisoner of minimalism for long, but gradually builds the music in a grander direction, adding and changing instruments and radically altering the mood. And in complete contrast to the principles of minimalism, Oldfield does not hesitate to solo wildly throughout the song on electric guitar. Oldfield’s very distinctive, tense guitar sound is already, if not quite perfected, then at least tentatively established as his own. In the years to come, Oldfield played a wide range of electric guitars and became known for his Gibson SG Junior, Stratocaster and later PRS guitars, but on Tubular Bells he only uses a Fender Telecaster, previously owned by pop artist Marc Bolan.

The moods of ”Tubular Bells Part One” range from effectively pastoral, beautiful passages to angsty, angry, rocking moments where Oldfield strums riffs with frenetic distortion on his electric guitar. These more traditional ”rock” moments sound quite original if only because they don’t have a drummer banging away in the background, as is usually the case in rock music and even prog 99% of the time.

The transitions from one section to the next are not always completely smooth, but the whole feels surprisingly fluid, especially when you remember that the composer is a 19 year old completely self-taught musician.

Oldfield’s (and his team’s) inexperience shows that on Tubular Bells the instruments may not always be 100% in tune or the timings perfect, but Oldfield’s immense musicality and sincere desire to make music of his own kind shines through even in the album’s shakiest moments. Throughout his career, Oldfield has been characterised by an incredible sense of melody. It was something he had already mastered at a young age with Tubular Bells. The album is full of beautiful melodies and memorable riffs that are neither obvious nor clichéd.

After the already iconic intro, the most famous moment of ”Part One” is its finale, where Oldfield adds instruments one by one to the hypnotically humming bass riff. Vivian Stanshall, the eccentric frontman of the comedy band Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, introduces the instruments, reciting the name of the instrument as it begins to play. The idea is ingenious in its simplicity and works perfectly with the multi-layered concept of Tubular Bells. The last instrument is of course the tubular bells, which chime very grandly. Oldfield and his recording engineers Simon Heyworth and Tom Newman went to enormous lengths to ensure that this instrument, which usually tinkles politely in the background of a symphony orchestra, would end the first half of Oldfield’s album as loud as possible. The album was even pressed on heavy vinyl, which had hitherto been traditionally reserved for classical music only, in order to capture the sound in the best possible way. Pop and rock had to make do with lighter recycled vinyl. Of course, this heavier vinyl then benefited the sound of the whole album anyway. Despite a certain roughness, Heyworth and Newman did a pretty good job with the sounds on the album in general.

The tubular bell that hit the dings at the end of Oldfield’s ”Part One” inspired the iconic album cover by artist Trevor Key. The cover features an oddly shaped bent steel tube floating in the air like a mystical monolith from 2001 Space Odyssey.

After the tubular bell climax, Oldfield plays a beautiful coda to the piece on acoustic guitar. The first 25 minutes of Tubular Bells are over and, at least personally, I can say that a quarter of an hour rarely goes by as fast as when listening to this music.

Tubular Bells, Part Two

The second half of Tubular Bells is often overshadowed by the first half, but it too works well and contains some truly beautiful passages. Overall, Part 2 is a little more acoustic, serene and low-key than the first half. But only in general, because after a long relaxed and beautiful intro, ”Part Two” contains, also, the most furious, heavy and strange moments of the album.

It’s funny in itself that perhaps the strangest part of Tubular Bells is also the only one that uses elements that are integral to rock music: vocals and drums. In the so-called ”piltdown-man” (the demo went by the more accessible name of ”Caveman”) section, Oldfield roars and howls made-up words in a strange growling boogeyman voice while guest Steve Broughton aggressively pounds his drum kit in the background. The vocals were a kind of middle finger to Branson, who dared to hope for a song on the album. To encourage his vocal acrobatics, Oldfield enjoyed a half-bottle of whisky in the pub. ”Piltdown Man” is a very peculiar but entertaining and strangely humorous episode in the middle of an otherwise quite serious album. What’s also funny about ”Piltdown Man” is that it allows you to humorously note that Oldfield also casually invented death metal vocalization. Mike is the original cookie monster! However, Oldfield did not continue his promising career as a growling beast. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he couldn’t speak for two weeks after his vocal revision.

The ferocity of ”Piltdown Man” creates a nice contrast with the next section which is an ethereal sequence of several minutes where Oldfield layers several beautifully strummed guitars over a minimalist buzzing organ background. This section, in all its subtlety, perhaps best illustrates how skilled and, above all, stylistically astute a guitarist Oldfield was even at this early stage of his career.


Finally, ”Part Two” and the whole album ends with an acoustic version of the traditional dance tune ”The Sailor’s Hornpipe”, performed at a frenetic pace. A drunkenly humorous version of this rally was also recorded, with Vivian Stanshall wandering around The Manor studio, humming oddities to the music. Fortunately, common sense eventually prevailed and the album ends with this crisper and all-round more functional instrumental version. The Stanshall version can be heard on the 1976 Boxed collection.

Tubular Bells was a total surprise hit when it was released. The album received almost unanimous rave reviews and sold millions of copies. Today, it is estimated that the number of albums sold would be somewhere around 16 million copies. The success of Tubular Bells had the short-term positive effect that for a few years Virgin Records financed several interesting progressive and experimental music bands such as Henry Cow, Hatfield And The North, Faust, Tangerine Dream and Gong.

After the album, Oldfield could easily have become a much bigger star if he had taken Tubular Bells on a world tour with the band. But Oldfield could not have cared less. And mentally, he probably simply would not have been able to do it. For even though Oldfield had hoped for success, as a sensitive and mentally troubled man he could not really deal with it and his reaction to the whole thing was to run away. At least Richard Branson managed to persuade Oldfield to do two concerts, the first of which was in front of an audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Oldfied’s backing band included the entire Henry Cow, members of the Gong, David Bedford, Kevin Ayers and, somewhat surprisingly, the Rolling Stones’ guitarist at the time, Mick Taylor. With a slightly smaller line-up, a TV concert was also recorded and aired on the BBC series 2nd House. These appearances certainly contributed to some extent to the success of Tubular Bells, but of even greater importance, especially in the American market, was the use of the album’s intro by director Wiliam Friedkin in his hit film The Exorcist.

So what is the secret of Tubular Bells’ success? Personally, I think it has to do not only with the fact that the album is full of great melodies and great guitar parts, of course, but also with the perfect balance between easy listening and layering with enough depth. Tubular Bells works well as background music, but also contains more than enough edge and detail to make it a rewarding experience for the focused listener. There is also an extraordinary sincere, even naive charm to the music. It’s easy to believe that Oldfield himself lives fully with every note he plays. But the ultimate reason for the album’s enormous success is probably the spirit of the times. The time just somehow happened to be just right for this album. For some reason, people wanted to hear Tubular Bells at that very moment. 16 million flies were right for once.

Rating: *****



Side A

  1. ”Tubular Bells, Part One” – 25:30

Side Be

  1. ”Tubular Bells, Part Two” – 23:50

Mike Oldfield: grand piano, clockwork, Farfisa organ, bass guitar, electric guitar, mandolin percussion, acoustic guitar, flageolet, honky tonk piano, Lowrey organ, tubular bells, drums, Hammond organ, vocals

Other musicians:

Steve Broughton: drums Lindsay Cooper: double bass Mundy Ellis: backing vocals Jon Field: flute Sally Oldfield: backing vocals Vivian Stanshall: master of ceremonies

Producers: Mike Oldfield, Simon Heyworth and Tom Newman

Label: Virgin

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