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Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells CD (album) cover


Mike Oldfield


Crossover Prog

4.10 | 1146 ratings

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3 stars During an advert break on TV tonight what should appear on the screen but the ubiquitous bent tubular bell from the cover of this album, advertising another MIKE OLDFIELD compilation featuring the album we know so well. How many times now has "Tubular Bells" been regurgitated in various guises since it was first released in 1973? Talk about a milch cow. With worldwide sales in excess of 25 million albums according to some, very few other progressive rock albums have had such an impact (on someone's wallet). Not bad for a teenager who had played briefly with KEVIN AYERS and THE ARTHUR LEWIS BAND, and recorded a demo tape which he played to Manor studio boss Tom Newman. Newman in turn played it to Richard Branson who, so one version of the story goes, only reluctantly gave the go-ahead to record an LP. Whatever the true story, it must have been one of the best decisions Branson ever made, as the album -- Virgin Record's first release -- became a money-spinner. The album was released in May 1973 just a few days after Oldfield's twentieth birthday.

The album has stamped itself so decisively on the public mind not just because of that eerie, repeating piano and glockenspiel theme at the beginning of the album that ingrains itself on the brain, but because the theme worked well as part of the soundtrack for the creepy and disturbing The Exorcist, which came out in the same year and turned the album into a hit in the USA (the album was already selling well in the UK before The Exorcist was released). The opening theme also makes a fine ringtone for one's mobile phone (Google lists 307,000 hits for sites providing the ringtone); in fact I used it myself for just such a purpose for a couple of years.

"Tubular Bells" is an odd album in many ways. The music sounds to me like a mixture of rock, folk, ambient, medieval and goodness knows what else. It consists of two LP-side-long, almost entirely instrumental, tracks. The two pieces are a real mishmash. I say instrumental, but there are a few vocalisations from a couple of females (one of who was Oldfield's sister, Sally) and from a nasal chorus and, bizarrely, a guttural, demonic voice (sounding very like Klingon) and howling briefly in the second track. The voice is Oldfield's and the sound is credited in the sleeve notes as "Piltdown Man". For those of you who don't know, Piltdown Man was a hoax in the UK in the early Twentieth Century: supposedly the fossilised bones of an early hominoid, the fraud was finally exposed in 1953 when the 'fossil' was proved to be the skull of a medieval man with the jaw bone of an orang-utan and chimpanzee teeth.

Also oddly, the rather amusing voice of the late Viv Stanshall of THE BONZO DOG DOO DAH BAND -- who happened to be in the studio recording their final album at the time -- makes a short 'appearance' towards the end of the first track as a compere introducing the instruments one by one as they come in and the music slowly builds to a crescendo. I suppose Oldfield thought it a good idea at the time but, much as I love 'The Bonzos' and Viv Stanhall, I'm not keen on the use of his voice in this case. Mind you, I'm not keen on the bizarre 'Piltdown Man', either.

Oldfield played almost all the instruments himself, layering musical sounds and themes over each other, mainly guitars (bass, electric and acoustic) of various types but also organ (Farfisa, Lowrey and Hammond) and piano, with some more-unusual instruments for rock music: the glockenspiel, flageolet, concert timpani and the tubular bells themselves. (Contrary to what some of the reviewers here have written, no synthesizers were used on this album.) There is much repetition in the music, as themes weave in and out, and the themes themselves consist of short, repetitive sequences.

Well, what do I think of it? It's generally pleasant, has a few memorable moments (apart from the famous beginning I like, for example, the brief distorted strummed guitar around 14:10 and remember it being used as a link on a favourite radio station), and is particularly impressive if you consider that it was conceived and played almost entirely by a teenager. But I have to say that I find parts of it just plain monotonous and unexciting. Overall, barring the few catchy riffs and themes, I find much of it unmemorable and, dare I say it, mediocre. It's often relaxing, almost hypnotic at times, but one or two parts are so repetitive that they start to grate, at least in my case (the acoustic guitar on the second side, for example seems to go on for ever). And it's a real mishmash. I'm almost certain I didn't buy the LP in the 1970s, as I seem to recall being thoroughly unimpressed with it at the time, but I did make the effort to buy the CD a few years ago so I can't say I think it is bad. I do dig it out occasionally for background music. For that reason, for the catchy main theme and for the sheer bizarreness of the project I'm going with 3 stars (good, but not essential). But I suppose it's one of those albums of the 1970s that everyone has to hear at least once. Hats off to Oldfield: what a lasting impact for a first album.

Fitzcarraldo | 3/5 |


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