Thursday, 18 March 2010
1. Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
Purchased : 23 June 1979
Having just said that I don't have much technical knowledge this is hardly the easiest way to begin !
So let's start with some history. We had no record player in the house until the autumn of 1976 when my sister bought a mono dansette with the interest earned on some three-year savings certificates my dad had set up for us in 1973 when a wealthy aunt died and left him a tidy sum of money. He let us know in advance that the windfall was on its way so the first LP I bought arrived before the player did. From the paper shop near my gran's it was a compilation of early 70s pop hits called something like Pepsi Party. Crushing disappointment ensued when it turned out to be just cheap near-instrumental muzak. Second purchase just before Christmas -and still my one and only classical purchase - was Holst's "The Planets" (inspired by a latent interest in astronomy) from the corner shop. This at least was the genuine article but wasn't a good pressing. Third purchase was one of those Top Of The pops albums with a sexist cover promising the hits of December 1976 led by Abba's "Money Money Money" which I adored. Oh dear, whoever was singing she didn't sound much like Annifirid ! I concentrated on singles for a while after that and those three lps ended up in jumble sales.
So we come to Mike Oldfield. My interest in this stems from the use of the first few minutes of it in a rather ambitious passion play at school in 1977 as produced by our chainsmoking, hippychick drama teacher Miss Ligman. My middle class with an older brother friend quickly identified this haunting captivating music for me - I knew Oldfield from the "In Dulce Jubilo/On Horseback" single only - and I wanted to possess it. I think this was the beginning of a realisation that there was a significant corpus of music out there beyond what passed through the singles charts. The snag being price for my father was not particularly generous with pocket money and I never was much good at saving up. So over the next two years my periodic visits to nearby Rochdale always included a visit to Bradleys Records which, this being Callaghan's seventies, inevitably showed the record had moved further out of my financial reach. Hearing the 1974 single excerpt on Jimmy Saville's Old Record Club whetted the appetite furtherThen in 1979 a friend (quite possibly the same one ) unlocked the door by mentioning Bostock's in the Manchester Arndale Centre which sold current LPs at discount price (I think by importing them from countries like Greece).
So when the second round of savings certificates matured that's where I headed and sure enough "Tubular Bells" was there at an affordable £3.69 so it finally arrived along with, regrettably, a pile of cheap horror novels by the likes of Guy N Smith and Pierce Nace (that one was about a castrated man training giant praying mantises to eat women's breasts IIRC) which I certainly haven't retained !
My diary entry for that day records "Found the LP a bit disappointing" which we'll explore further but for now proves that deferred gratification doesn't always deliver the goods. Notwithstanding this, as the only "real" LP in my collection for over a year it got a fair amount of play before gradually retreating to gather dust at the back of the rack. I would guess that yesterday was the first time it encountered a stylus since the early 80s.
So I am returning to it with reasonably fresh ears. That opening theme (the one everyone knows from "The Exorcist") is still wonderful and I have a greater understanding of what each instrument is doing now. Then it gradually gets superceded by other melodies, instruments and finally voices for another 35 minutes. It's beyond me to describe what happens in technical terms, there's a decent stab at this on wikipedia and Marcello will get round to it before the year's out at current rate of progress. I can only offer personal impressions and it seems to me the key is Oldfield's age. For all Oldfield's virtuosity this is still the work of a teenager and you can feel the hormonal eruptions in the sudden brief blasts of irrational raging hard rock that punctuate the otherwise serene melodies of the first side. There's also the puerile humour of the notes on the sleeve about "old tin boxes". And then the petulant response to Richard Branson's request for a vocal track the "Piltdown Man" section on Side Two where Oldfield (clearly influenced by Beefheart) contributes a variety of unpleasant vocal noises for around 5 minutes.( I think this more than anything accounted for my initial disappointment though I also felt let down by the melody from the re-recorded single being less tidily presented on the original). Of course all this resonated strongly with people of similar age and background to Oldfield and it found its way into thousands of bedsits and dorms; it is the only possible soundtrack to contemplate (and maybe something else ending in -ate) that arse-scratching tennis girl. This constituency alone can't account for all its sales; TB like its contemporary , "Dark Side Of The Moon" ,crossed over because it was accessible; there's no drum solos (in fact little drumming at all) or farty Tony Banks keyboard improvisations here. Oldfield's roots in folk ensure there's always a melody line just around the corner and the last couple of minutes are nothing more than a re-arrangement of an old sea shanty as if in acknowledgement of a debt.
There is of course a considerable back story to this LP. How a young Richard Branon took a chance on this petulant prodigy unable even to promote his work in the usual way and launched a still-expanding business empire on the results. It is THE album of the seventies the bridge between sixties idealism and eighties materialism in the most direct way possible. Of course as the poster boy for what we can loosely term "prog rock" Oldfield was an obvious target when the reaction against musical virtuosity kicked in three years later. When one considers that he was two years younger than Joe Strummer he had to be taken down by the hip young gunslingers if their version of the decade was to prevail. To judge from his recent Q interview he's still angry about this over 30 years later despite the positive re-evaluation he enjoyed in the early nineties.
So who do we know was listening ? Paul Hardcastle clearly as Oldfield had to be added to the composer credits for "19". New Order's "Elegia" also bears a heavy debt to TB. And Side Two introduces the bagpipe guitar sound that Stuart Adamson would bring to two groups just a few years later. The "Sailors Hornpipe" epilogue instantly brings to mind the Waterboys in their "Irish phase". But it's in those warehouses off the M25 that his place in our musical history was finally cemented. You could tack The Beloved's "Sun Rising" on to the end of TB and not notice the join.