Tubular Bells

Progressive hippy jam studio music was in the air

So, here in the mail is a VG+ US copy of Mike Oldfield’s classic Tubular Bells, for which I paid $4.00 US (VG+/VG). Some folks might consider that overpaying since there are many copies available, but it’s a fair price for a copy that plays cleanly.  

by Marshall Bowden

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I am intimately familiar with this album, but I never previously owned it, having instead recorded a borrowed library copy onto cassette tape. I might have downloaded it from Napster back in the day. And, of course, I have streamed it. It’s a pretty unusual album, but not the only one of its kind. What is most interesting about it is the way it is situated at the crossroads of progressive rock, hippy jam, experimental music, the burgeoning interest in studio technique, electronic music, and what would become known as new age music and, eventually, smooth jazz, ambient, and chill-out sounds. 

Of course, there is also the story of how Richard Branson went from catalog record sales to brick and mortar record stores to building a recording studio and starting his own record label. The studio, known as The Manor, became a profitable studio, but Oldfield’s initial studio time was donated to him by Branson after producers Simon Heyworth and Tom Newman heard some demo tapes of Oldfield’s and recommended recording him. 

Besides a couple of shorter pieces that became individual sections of Tubular Bells, Oldfield had a longer piece entitled ‘Opus 1’ which became the haunting opening section of Tubular Bells. He had recorded these on a recorder left him by Kevin Ayers, whose band Whole World Oldfield had joined as bassist. Whole World recorded one album, but Ayers split to join Gong (another hippy experimental group) and left Oldfield with a two-track recorder and a Farfisa organ. Oldfield converted the recorder to four tracks by covering the erase head on the tape, allowing him to overdub two tracks to each tape track. 

Tubular Bells & Influences 1973 contains music that inspired Mike Oldfield as well as music with similar ideas recorded around the same time or a little later.

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Oldfield wasn’t the first or only one doing this. Composer Terry Riley’s “In C” is somewhat similar to what Oldfield is doing with Tubular Bells, but his 1969 recording, A Rainbow In Curved Air, is a recording that Oldfield has stated was an inspiration. Rainbow influenced a lot of experimental and rock musicians–the opening sections of the piece are an obvious influence on Pete Townsend and the Who’s work with tape loops on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Reilly” (the latter named, in part, in tribute to Riley). 

Oldfield was also influenced by the album Zero Time released by Tonto’s Exploding Head Band. This group was made up of two engineers who worked with Robert Moog to develop T.O.N.T.O (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) and create a record utilizing the synthesizer without regard for the commercial possibilities of doing so. Though the compositions use synthesizers, the way they structure and use thematic material is less minimalistic than what Riley does, making it more in line with Oldfield’s ideas as a composer. 

Listening now one can see the breakthrough that Tubular Bells represents–a long instrumental piece with changing moods, time signatures, and sections–while also acknowledging that some of the thematic transitions are handled awkwardly and don’t really make sense. Both Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, the followups albums, seem like more mature compositions. The last ten minutes of the first side of Tubular Bells are taken up with a series of instruments, each introduced by Viv Stanshall. Each in turn plays the first movement’s theme over a bass and guitar riff, building to a triumphant climax when Stanshall exclaims “Yes…Tubular Bells!” 

But the record got a huge boost when the opening four minutes or so were edited into a single and used in a scene in the film The Exorcist. Director William Friedkin was looking for music to fill in the movie’s soundtrack. He had first hired veteran film composer Bernard Hermann, who declined after seeing a cut of the movie. Next, Friedkin hired Lalo Schifrin, another veteran film composer who produced a tense, atmospheric soundtrack that was completely terrifying–and not at all what Friedkin wanted. Though “Tubular Bells” was just one of a handful of tracks that Friedkin had chosen for the film (he also chose a selection by Ligeti) it became most identified with The Exorcist, so much so that some people don’t like to hear it to this day. 

Virgin Records had a hit on its hands with its first release and shortly thereafter Branson signed electronic German bands Tangerine Dream (who would provide the soundtrack for Friedkin’s movie Sorcerer) and Faust. He also released an album by Gong, another hippy/spiritual group. Oldfield’s album was seen at the time as a type of progressive rock, as bands like Yes and Pink Floyd released albums with long songs and instrumental passages. But unlike those records, Tubular Bells had no lyrics and that was part of what made it unique.

‘Tubular Bells’ live at the BBC 1973

The listening public was primed for music that demanded attention, music that took time to develop, or music that didn’t really develop at all, relying instead on a repetitive pattern that changed based on manipulation. For example, a pattern can be phased so that it overlaps with itself and this phasing can be repeated so that each successive phased repetition overlaps with the one before it. This shifts our perception of what we are hearing.

This kind of listening is less common today when people seem less likely to devote a period of time to fully experience a piece of music before deciding whether they like it or not. Other influences also conspired to make people more receptive to music that was more searching or meandering: the popularity of meditation and various Eastern philosophies, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and an openness to new experiences come to mind. 

1973 was some kind of cultural watershed, presiding over the release not only of Tubular Bells, but also Autobahn, Dark Side of the Moon, and Tangerine Dream’s Atem. Electronic music, ‘space music’ was definitely getting cooked into the rock music at the time and so was a more meditative sound, something that would eventually spawn events as diverse as the creation of a New Age Music category to basically hold anything that was instrumental, outside the box, or calm, and the attention to detail of ECM Records, where everything–the performance, the production, the recording–was in service to capturing music in the moment. 

Mike Oldfield has revisited Tubular Bells several times in the years since, recording a second and third installment, adapting the piece for piano and other instruments. The composition has also been transcribed and performed by an orchestra. Oldfield performed it live in 1973 and again in 1981, remaining very much a studio creature, which is perhaps as it should be. 

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