Retrospective Review: Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells


"I never thought that the word 'tubular bells' was going to play such an important part in our lives ... Virgin going into space most likely wouldn't have existed if we hadn't hired that particular instrument."


That was a quote by Richard Branson in 2013, acknowledging the importance of Virgin Records' first album, Tubular Bells. Without Tubular Bells, there's a strong chance that Virgin Records, Virgin Trains, Virgin Atlantic and everything else under the Virgin brand name wouldn't exist today. So whether you love Branson or hate him, there is someone else you can blame for the fact that Branson now has a net worth of over $5 billion - Mike Oldfield.


Despite having a career that has endured for nearly five decades, Oldfield has never truly managed to surpass his first record. Tubular Bells is a magnum opus, something one builds towards for the majority of their career, so to open your account with an album of this magnitude is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Made up of two pieces that are each over 20 minutes in length, it's a feat of composition and scale that is almost unparalleled, even by his own later work.


If truth be told, Part 2 really does take a back seat here. That's not to say it's bad; it's very, very good - but Part 1 is iconic. That famous opening section became the theme to The Exorcist, and with good reason. In that context, it became tense and unnerving, not least because of its strange 15/8 time signature. What follows it in the full version is a fantastic, incredible wave of music, a storm in audio form. The tense opening,is followed by a calmer section about five minutes in, which is then supplanted by the aggression of the next part one minute later. It continues like this all the way through - it's a journey through a hurricane.


Additionally, it's worth acknowledging that Mike Oldfield was merely 19 when he did this, and when I say did, I mean it. He fully composed it and played every single instrument on the album, save for a handful - at NINETEEN. He hadn't even reached his third decade of existence when he fully composed and recorded a truly unique album which would go on to sell 15 million copies worldwide, with 2.6 million of those being sold in the UK, placing in the top 50 of best-selling albums in the country. That is a bit outrageous.


Mike Oldfield: the man to blame for Richard Branson.

And what is perhaps so key to note is that it's not perfect; indeed, it's difficult to think of an album with more imperfections in the recording. The calm section five minutes into Part 1 has clear timing issues between the instruments, and there is a particular guitar note at precisely 22:05 that is spectacularly wrong and out of key, standing out like an elephant in a line of hedgehogs. Oldfield didn't go back and correct it, which some might see as lazy, but I respect it. Nothing is perfect, and though that is an exceptionally sore moment for the ears, it's almost endearing in its own way.


When I was a child, my father played this album constantly and, acting my age, I pretended to hate it. But I secretly enjoyed it and as I've grown, I've learned to appreciate more and more about it. Now, I get chills 17 minutes into Part 1 as it starts to enter its final destination and the onslaught of instruments begins. Very few moments in music can top the one when the Master of Ceremonies, the late Vivian Stanshall, finally says "Tubular Bells!", which are swiftly introduced at a significantly higher volume than the rest of the instruments were. Pefectly understandable, given the context.


Part 2 is a beautiful piece of music and it would surely stand out from the crowd on any other album. But Part 1 is THE piece here; clever, iconic, astounding.


Tubular Bells is an album like no other - well, apart from its own sequels, on which he directly ripped off himself, essentially. In fact, it's long been a belief of mine that Oldfield's career has been based almost solely around two ideas: this and his hit single 'Moonlight Shadow'. Any attempts at a commercial song after 'Moonlight Shadow' were just 'Moonlight Shadow' again - listen to 'Crime of Passion' for proof. Okay, he dabbled in other genres, but those two heavily repeated ideas are where his major success has come from. But hey, if you're going to base your career on two ideas, they're not exactly bad ones to use.


Put simply, Tubular Bells is an essential record for anyone's collection. Imperfect it may be, but it's still a magnificent piece of work nonetheless. Nothing quite like it had ever been heard before, and there's not much outside of Oldfield's own collection that it can be compared to, even now. It's a fascinating listen and if it's not already on your CD rack or in your Spotify library, get on to it. You won't regret it.


9/10