Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells Turns 45

In Neoclassical and Progressive music, excluding the works of Mike Oldfield is a criminal omission. The multi-instrumentalist/composer/songwriter belongs up there in the pantheon of other geniuses in the caliber of Brian Eno (Here Come the Warm Jets), Vangelis (Earth), David Byrne (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), and Steve Hackett (Voyage of the Acolyte).

Born on May 15, 1953, Reading, Berkshire, England, Oldfield began his music career in his teenage years, playing Folk-oriented music with his acoustic guitar at various local clubs. In his diverse, enduring, and still ongoing musical excursion, Oldfield has on his sleeves an astounding discography of 26 albums! From the legendary masterpiece Tubular Bells of 1973 to last year’s Return to Ommadawn, Oldfield’s oeuvres are the sonic counterparts of paintings by the likes of Monet (Nymphéas), Van Gogh (The Starry Night), Picasso (The Weeping Woman), and Dalí (The Persistence of Memory) – which come in different styles, shapes, colors, shades, moods, and emotions – only that they were expressed in musical terms.

Released on May 25, 1973, as Virgin Records’ first-ever offering, Tubular Bells is an ambitious opus that Oldfield was able to pull off, tracking in most of the instruments himself. The first seed of what became a continuing fruitful musical journey, it was comprised by two lengthy, more-than-twenty-minutes-each compositions that occupy each side of the record. “Tubular Bells,” part 1, started with the eerie tiny bell sounds, slowly building up with a rolling bass line, synth staccato, and flute-sounding guitar melodies. The ensuing mood was highlighted by the trio of acoustic guitar, flute, and piano that conjured a quiet frolicking in the meadows. The sound then suddenly cascaded like a stream, giving way to the imposing cacophony of the electric guitar and then transitioning into the rustic Arabian carnival-esque mode.

The second section was a change of rhythm and style, driven by piano arpeggios and guitar strums that walked like balancers on a wire. The middle part reprised the main melody of the piece albeit in a slower and more romantic predisposition, and then it changed colors yet again, as the spirited, bluesy lead guitar and the music-box lullaby turned into a Blues Waltz and then into a piano concerto. The sudden syncopation and fuzzy guitar interlude then surely caught the listener by surprise, slowly shifting the tempo higher only to drop down as the tubular bells sounded off into the distance, marking the end of that section. Another pastoral guitar interlude ensued, which segued into double-time, bass-driven Ragtime. The bass then took on the carrier melody in the last segment of Tubular Bells’ Part 1, in which the narrator introduced the instruments one by one amid a choir of heavenly female voices until what was left were the chimes of the tubular bells and the plucks of the Spanish/Classical guitar.

Part 2 of Tubular Bells began with a solemn succession of 3/4- and 6/4-timed section that highlighted the mandolin and the flute and whose ambience conjured young maidens on a quiet noon on the prairies during medieval times. The simple revelry then became a grand, pastoral ascent to the Appalachian Mountains, featuring hand drums, bagpipes, and woodwind. After this came the so-called caveman section – returning the journey to the electric fanfare that this time featured a proper drumkit and intelligible growls and howls on top of the screeching, symphonic and metallic guitar ad-lib. A slow balladic part of the masterpiece ended the proper second side of the album, and then ultimately, Oldfield appended Tubular Bells with a playful and tuneful coda called “The Sailor’s Hornpipe,” which served as an effective ear-catching closer.

At the end of the last note, Progressive music satiates not only the brain; it soothes also the soul of a believer; it uplifts the spirits of the rest. It is not really about how the songwriter or the composer had painstakingly woven all the various rhythm and melodies that he created with those found instruments. Rather, it is about his flurry of emotions, expressed with his palette of sounds—of hope and despair, aspirations and frustrations, love and anger, pride and mistrust, belief and betrayal… through every weep of the guitar, pulse of the bass, whistle of the flute, yawn of the tuba, dance of the bow on the violin strings, crash of the cymbals, trickle of the chimes, ripple of the xylophone, kiss of the triangle, glide of his fingers and stomp of his feet, beat of his heart… the sound of Tubular Bells. That was Mike Oldfield in his younger self, when he was 19, with the firstborn of his grandiose, masterful works.

Purchase Tubular Bells:

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