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Tubular Bells
Mike Oldfield

Virgin VR 13-105
Released: October 1973
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 45
Certified Gold: 3/26/74

Mike OldfieldAn unknown English teenager playing over 20 instruments has produced the most important one-shot project of 1973. It is a debut performance of a kind we have no right to expect from anyone. It took Mike Oldfield have a year to lay down the thousands of overdubs required for his 49 minutes of exhilarating music. I will be playing the result for many times that long.

Oldfield has assembled the sounds of a wide range of musical instruments both in succession and on top of each other. At times there is a solo passage; on other occasions he generates an orchestral sound. Tempo and dynamics vary. There is no predicting what he will be doing three minutes hence. Yet there is constant unity as strands of one section of the piece carry into the next. The transitions are as impressive as the themes.

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Some of Olfield's instruments speak plaintively, others aggressively. There are no lyrics to Tubular Bells, but human voices to occasionally appear. The only talking role is that of the master of ceremonies, Viv Stanshall, who figures in the work's most effective segment. Pealing bells and a church organ introduce a babbling undercurrent of instruments. Stanshall suddenly utters, "Grand piano!" at which point said piano enters with a clear statement. Stanshall names another instrument and it solos. Tension increases simultaneously with the crescendo of the music. Viv's phrasing as he suspensefully announces the entrance of each guest instrument contributes to the building effect.

When he finally intones, "Plus -- Tubular Bells!" the bells strike out triumphantly. It is a moment of exuberance rare to recorded music, a triumph over the recurring bass line that conveys a spiritual release. A female chorus "aaahs" away to supplement the semi-religious atmosphere. Just when one fears Oldfield may take the easy way out and end with a crashing din, he drops the bass and concludes side one with a guitar solo that is extremely peaceful.

Trying to convey what Tubular Bells bears musical resemblance to is fruitless. I remembered music by Sam Cooke, J.S. Bach and Dick Rosmini when I first heard the album, but the associations are as personal as yours will be. People will hear different things in Tubular Bells because they will bring to it their individual musical experiences, some of which Oldfield will no doubt have incorporated.

The segue between the female chorus and an instrument is so skillfully executed one doesn't immediately notice the change. One passage carries a Hawaiian feel, another a bolero, while the coda takes us to a country hoedown. At one point a male voice expresses nuances of disgust and frustration without uttering a single word or stepping out of tempo. The only weak portion passes for a B horror film soundtrack, but it is brief.

I first heard this album in the home of a disk jockey who feels Tubular Bells will be a lasting work of the rock era. I cannot see into 2000, but I can say that this is a major work. And in the land of should-be, it is already a gold album.

- Paul Gambaccini, Rolling Stone, 11/8/73.

Bonus Reviews!

Michael is one of the musical masterminds that has invented a one-man-symphony album, believe it or not. It starts from a simple guitar riff, and with the help of overdubs we soon find Mr. Oldfield building crescendos to passages of enormous sound. For some, Tubular Bells may be strictly a mood piece, but it goes beyond that. Heavenly.

Jon Tiven, Circus, 11/73.

This album's break came with the use of its theme on the soundtrack for The Exorcist. "Tubular Bells" has since gone on to become a hit single, helping to change a popular album into a smash. Oldfield has yet to tour the United States, but his instrumental one-man show (he plays everything through overdubbing) has caught on as a clever novelty -- it's progressive program rock. Light, rather showy and cute in places, it probably makes pleasant background music for a dinner conversation.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 6/6/74.

A musician with the technique and formal imagination of Terry Riley or Philip Glass can create electronic keyboard meditations worthy of hokey adjectives like "mysterious" or "majestic." The best I can come up with here is "pleasant" and "catchy." Oldfield isn't Richard Strauss or even Leonard Cohen -- this is a soundtrack because that's the level at which he operates. C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The very manner in which Tubular Bells was created in the studio mitigates against it under the microscopic examination of CD. Oldfield, the one-man orchestra, plays all the instruments in the piece, having built up the music note by note over a six month period on a multi-track recorder in Manor Studios. The elaborately layered music now sounds both softly distorted and gently compressed. Noise intrudes at times, in the opening of Part 2 for instance, while the bass energy of the CD has been boosted into a grunt.

It is rumoured that initial copies of the CD taken from unprepared master tapes were nevertheless released. These were a sonic catastrophe but current CDs are reportedly much improved.

Tubular Bells is as relevant today as Levi relaunching loon pants.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

The rock/classical crossover was a tricky area, even in 1973 when insular musicianship and elongated soloing was generally applauded. For a virtual unknown like Mike Oldfield to shunt out a fifty minute conceptual piece, however, and expect it to compete on a commercial and artistic level with the aforementioned acts, seemed absurd. Nevertheless, its unprecedented success provided the rock on which Richard Branson built his Virgin empire. Cleverly, Oldfield didn't allow himself to get too carried away with po-faced aspirations. To his credit, he maintained a simplicity throughout the piece, allowing familiar melodies to flow back to the centre at irregular intervals. The effect was startling. In many respects Tubular Bells had more in common with a string of five-minute pop songs than some cumbersome example of elongated musicianship. Its true faults would only surface several years later as the very techniques he used would inevitably attain a dated feel. That said, a small sample of the album proved evocative enough to chill the spine of anyone watching The Exorcist. Perhaps significantly, you are more likely to find Oldfield at an Ibiza rave than in a concert hall. His sense of experimentation, at least, appears to have moved with the times.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

Further reading on
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Mike Oldfield Lyrics

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When fresh-from-the-folk-clubs prodigy Mike Oldfield first presented his epic Tubular Bells concept to Virgin label owner Richard Branson, he was slightly intimidated by the social gulf he perceived between the perma-grinning ex-prep school entrepreneur and himself. This fueled a determination that can be heard to this day behind every note of this most misused album, which today finds itself as much the fodder for dinner-table background muzak as it is the hallowed listening material for progressive rock freaks.

Musically, TB is a fantastic mish-mash of rock guitar, (both rhythm guitar grind, with all the primitive overdrive the early Seventies could muster, and blues-tinged lead), soupy bass, and a whole slew of instruments centered on the ethereal chime of the bells themselves. Oldfield sits at the hub of the melodic chaos, orchestrating proceedings with a degree of precocious confidence that is surprising, given how little he has chosen to deviate from this route in subsequent decades.

The caveman grunts in "Part 2" may become irritating after a few listens, but the madcap humor Oldfield injects into the project makes such excesses forgivable. Listen out for the fantastically inebriated Bonzo Dog frontman Viv Stanshall, who introduces each instrument as they enter the main theme and the volume spikes that reveal the young Oldfield's inexperience -- but also serve to accentuate the organic composition.

Less exciting sequels overlabored the Tubular Bells point somewhat, but Oldfield stuck stubbornly to the ambient, experimental template he had pioneered so memorably and the album is still a '70s essential.

- Joel McIver, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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