Classic Album: Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells

I used to listen to Tubular Bells endlessly when I was about sixteen. Back then it seemed like some the most exciting music ever made, two massive suites of throbbing instrumental prog recorded by one bloke, a few mates, and one of the great British raconteurs as Master of Ceremonies. Two dozen years later my opinion of Tubular Bells is somewhat more realistic. While it is a hugely influential album, and it is a supremely clever piece of music, its reliance on repetition can render some parts of it a little dull, that is until the next layer of music is added to the mix. If nothing else you’ve got to admire Mike Oldfield’s skill and patience in putting this album together, though I do suspect that there might have been the odd overdub.

Tubular Bells has moments of gentle beauty, big slices of widdly prog, some strangely exciting moments where Oldfield just decides to rock out, parts which defy explanation (The entire Piltdown Man section still baffles me, as does ending the album with “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”), and it still has time to be one of the key releases in the evolution of electronic and ambient music. As instrumental orchestral rock music goes, there’s little than can compare to it.

As much as his fans salute the intense genius that is Mike Oldfield, he has admittedly struggled to match the artistic and commercial success of Tubular Bells ever since, despite repeated attempts to recapture its slippery appeal by way of sequels, orchestral follow ups, and even complete re-recordings using new fangled technology. Perhaps part of this is the fact that, despite the technical virtuosity, and it being painstakingly constructed from dozens of overdubs, the original version of Tubular Bells was largely organic, and subsequent attempts to remove even the most minute error have robbed this largely instrumental behemoth of its humanity.

For all that Tubular Bells was Mike Oldfield’s singular vision, a particularly special mention should go to the brilliant genius that was Vivian Stanshall, who was the Master of Ceremonies at the end of the first side of the album, and perhaps betrays Oldfield’s biggest influence when he was kicking around ideas for his most iconic album. Admit it Mike, Tubular Bells is just a bigger and more pretentious version of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “The Intro And The Outro”, isn’t it?. The truth is out.

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