Sunday 27 November 2011

Mike OLDFIELD: Tubular Bells

(#146: 5 October 1974, 1 week)

Track listing: Tubular Bells {Part One}/Tubular Bells {Part Two}

Although many observers find it easier to consider Tubular Bells the first New Age number one album, particularly given the involvement of an actual New Age pioneer, Tom Newman, as co-engineer, it is truer to consider it the most popular offshoot of an important and under-celebrated British counterculture. Robert Wyatt summed it up best in his remarks in an Invisible Jukebox feature in the December 1995 edition of The Wire, concerning the meeting point between progressive rock and experimental jazz at the turn of the sixties:

“The connection is very simple – Keith Tippett’s personality. A West Country bloke with a great big heart and completely unlike the Old Boy Network jazz mafia that was the London scene at the time. He had all barriers down, listened to everybody, open-minded, never put anybody down, and one of his things was to get all these different musicians from different genres together – particularly the South African exiles. He would get together these bands and get us into them and then we’d meet each other. So really you could put a lot of that down to one man.”

Tippett had much the same effect on the London scene as another teenager, Kevin Drew, would have on the moribund Toronto indie scene of the nineties; he saw the possibilities, ignored the limitations and set about persuading everybody with whom he came into contact that it would be a great idea if everybody worked and developed together. And so networks developed, and thanks to astute middlemen like Joe Boyd and John Cale, these spread to the States, this time via open-minded musicians such as Dave Holland, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin.

What I am trying to convey here is that this period – for argument’s sake call it 1968-76 – was one of the healthiest, liveliest and most creative periods for British music, and one I am truly sorry to have been too young to live through properly. In 1970 my father took me to the Lyceum theatre in Drury Lane to see Centipede, the enormous band that Tippett put together, containing all his mates, or as many of them as he could cram onto one stage, and to say it was a formative experience is putting it far too mildly; from what I saw, heard and felt – and this would be reinforced, not just by the subsequent double album that Centipede did (Septober Energy), but also by my subsequent discovery of Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ not entirely unrelated Escalator Over The Hill - I knew that this was what I wanted from music, a true melting pot where everybody played together, regardless of genre or outside demands, where everything linked to everything else, singular pieces in a gigantic familial jigsaw puzzle.

Talk to any of the great musicians who were active at the time and are still with us – and over forty years of informal chat and note-taking with the majority of these players have provided me with much important information, which I still intend to process into book form as time and opportunity allow (as this generation is now in its sixties and seventies, and over the last few years its members have begun to pass away in earnest, it is doubly essential that this information is retained) – and they will all tell you the same story; nobody made any money out of their music, there was a constant battle with funding bodies and oppressive State radio, but the creativity stakes were never higher, the barriers never lower.

Centipede consisted of fifty or so musicians (fifty-five on the album, frequently more onstage) from all walks of musical life; rock was represented by King Crimson, Soft Machine, Patto/Timebox and the Blossom Toes, jazz by representatives from the aforementioned South African exiles (Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath) as well as regulars from the Westbrook/Gibbs/Collier bands, the occasional loose Canterbury cannon, old associates from Bristol whose connection with Tippett went back to the Beat Boom days, and a score of young classical graduates from the Royal College of Music. Septober Energy was a bold attempt to make this musical collision work, and was almost immediately savaged by the critics; indeed, Tom Callaghan’s sleevenote to the Beat Goes On CD reissue a dozen or so years ago appears almost to dissuade the casual browser from purchasing, so hard does he find it to summon up any enthusiasm for the music. Yet the intervening decades, and Tippett’s steady progress as a musician and band organiser, prove it to have been undervalued; the music is deceptively simple (as opposed to simplistic), largely based on slowly-evolving drones, chants and riffs over which anything from serpentine jazz-rock via Berio-esque classical abstraction and demented Irish jigs to “wa-hey” freeform freakouts is superimposed. Its cumulative power is crepuscular but immense, and the fourth side – a reworking of “Green And Orange Night Park” from the Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening album – remains one of the most imposing and affecting sides of music to appear on any British record; as Elton Dean undertakes his marathon saxello solo, chants and riffs begin to build up behind and around him in a rough “Hey Jude”-type fashion before they finally engulf the solo voice and the music breaks down, or rises up, into a mass collective improvisation, miraculously held together by the iron grip of three drummers (one of whom, Wyatt, pounds merrily on his unmistakeable kit in the centre of the mix). Although not quite carrying the same impact as a concert performance – one of the saxophonists told me that the sequence in question had to be taped at ten in the morning, not the best time of the day for improvisers – the effect is mesmerising and empowering. You come out the other end thinking that anything is, and should be, possible.

If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time talking about Centipede and Septober Energy it is because it was one of the main inspirations for Tubular Bells. This is not immediately apparent on listening; the other main influence, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air, is far more palpable. But the teenage Oldfield, already giving a history of folk-rock (Sallyangie, Barefoot) and toe-dipping into avant-improv-prog-pop via his membership of Kevin Ayers’ Whole World, came out of the same background and carried the same enthusiasm for adventure. Even at eighteen his invention is evident; he negotiates the treacherous slaloms of Ayers’ 1971 Shooting At The Moon, in the company of the likes of David Bedford and Lol Coxhill, with great skill and acuity; his talking bass on “May I?” already marks him out as somebody to watch. Although Ayers developed the Whole World specifically to explore further the mechanics of the pop song (which he felt that Soft Machine had somehow lost), his group is strong enough to move from song to free and back without much prompting and with a great deal of empathy.

But Oldfield wanted to develop his own music, and with some encouragement and material help from Ayers and others, he set about laying down the basic demos for Tubular Bells. Were there other influences? Apart from those stated above, yes, but it is unlikely that Philip Glass or Steve Reich (neither of whom was widely known in early seventies Britain, although Glass’ records began to be issued on Virgin in the UK shortly after Bells’ success) would have counted, let alone Bo Hansson’s oft-cited Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings; since the latter, although available in Sweden since 1970, did not gain a British release until September 1972, by which time the main body of Tubular Bells was essentially complete (and in any case sounds much more like the Pink Floyd of Obscured By Clouds than anything by Oldfield).

Work on the piece continued fitfully, mostly in the room in Ayers’ then-home in Tottenham which Oldfield rented out, by clever manipulation of a reel-to-reel tape recorder which allowed instant overdubbing and “bouncing” of individual parts. Over this period he undertook other work to pay the rent, not only with Ayers but also as a part of the original line-up of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Harvey also secured Oldfield a day job as co-guitarist in the West End production of Hair). Despite all this, he remained anxious about his music’s prospects; most established record companies showed him the door, and it was only when nascent indie record shop/label proprietor Richard Branson floated the idea of Virgin Records that the prospect of releasing the music became a possibility. Engineers/talent scouts Newman and Simon Hepworth heard Oldfield’s demos, were knocked out and passed them on to Branson, who was likewise bowled over and offered Oldfield a contract and studio time to help knock the music into releasable shape (little change needed to be made to the original demos, which constituted “Part One,” while “Part Two” was composed and realised in the studio).

Released in May 1973, the record gathered enthusiastic notices, mostly of the kind which welcomed the kind of experimental rock which didn’t need to be dissonant or loud to proclaim its radicalism (which is not to decry, as many ignorant writers have since done, the important loud and dissonant work that was done in this period and write it off as “musical Marxism” – as if that were a bad thing). John Peel was so taken by the record that he spun it in full on his Radio 1 show, which in turn helped propel it into the lower reaches of the album chart; word of mouth, and particularly a BBC2 performance of “Part One" in November 1973, helped raise its popularity gradually. A concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall was also organised (much to the chagrin of the then-shy Oldfield, who took much persuading to participate), involving the likes of Steve Hillage, Fred Frith and Mick Taylor, filling out the record’s many guitar parts. Eventually William Friedkin heard the record and incorporated some of its main theme into the score for The Exorcist; although in truth there is little of the demonic about Bells, the gesture worked and the record went global. By the time the record eventually climbed to number one here, some seventeen months after its release, it was as established a part of the post-Beatles rock canon as Dark Side Of The Moon.

So what is there in the record to attract the careful or carefree listener now? It remained on the UK chart for a cumulative total of 279 weeks and sold in excess of 2.5 million copies in Britain alone. Clearly this sort of achievement is not attained without some level of “comfort,” even if the record in itself is often far from “comfortable.” Although Bells sounds almost nothing like Septober, the latter’s influence is measurable in different ways – the reliance on the gradual development and building up of different themes, the rather delightful naivety of its construction (there are many “bum” notes, but these add to the charm, unlike the well-intentioned 2003 note-for-note remake, which loses in spirit what it gains in technical accomplishment), the encyclopaedic embrace that it is the music’s intention to offer.

The music is so familiar that a section-by-section breakdown is, I feel, of little use; I do note, however, that Part One in itself offers a modest flick-through history of post-1955 British rock. Developing its two major themes, one despairingly minor and the other hopefully major, the music moves through discreet but distinct emotional peaks and troughs, from delicate single-note post-Jansch acoustic figures to mass electric thrashes. Within the intervening passages there is much reference to the Blues Boom, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac in particular, and a reddening sadness which never quite disappears despite such interventions as the Nasal Choir and accompanying pub piano. Eventually, just as the music is about to climb to a peak, it is cut off by bells, as though someone, or something, has died.

Out of the silence emerges a solo acoustic guitar (eventually joined by the ever-present Lowrey organ) which picks out a “Scarborough Fair”-type melody. This soon becomes brooding, however, and an angry crescendo is again abruptly stopped by a nautical line (“What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor”?) which turns into a long riff section sounding like Mayall’s Bluesbreakers playing with caps on their amplifiers so as not to awaken the neighbours. After a while the guitars and basses are joined by the voice of Vivian Stanshall, announcing the myriad instruments which will make up the fugal section. Inspired by, and hired because of, his work on the Bonzos’ “The Intro And The Outro,” Stanshall’s delivery works because it is done absolutely straightfaced and with tangible delight (contrast with the regrettably hammy contribution of John Cleese to the 2003 remake; he thinks he’s Basil Fawlty reincarnate, whereas Stanshall is funny because he stands stock still and makes no effort to be “funny”). The excitement builds up, and by the time of Stanshall’s awestruck “Plus – tubular BELLS!,” catharsis is released. The undertow disappears, wordless Stygian voices make the boat float, have raised the Titanic, and the music fades away to a calm sea of acoustic guitar, as though Oldfield had been in the folk club all the time, practising, the soundscapes only in his head.

Part Two is inevitably something of an afterthought, but works too in its own way; much of it is perceptibly a series of seascapes, quiet acoustic meditations conjuring up an introspective skipper, out on the ocean, gazing non-specifically at the horizon. But in the second of this sequence’s two themes there comes a heartbreaking move from minor key to major, as if to say; yes, it’s simple, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Eventually high voices and rippling electric guitar begin to create waves and eddies around the music; this leads to a solemn, timpani-led, Gaelic-derived melody which steadily builds to a climax (with live timpani acting as the bassline); dissonance finally introduces itself to the picture, and a rushing “Day In The Life”-style escalation is stopped in its tracks by…

…Captain Beefheart? Well, it’s the “Piltdown Man” section, where in Oldfield has much fun grunting, growling and screaming (if such things can be described as “fun”; the screams in particular exceed those on Lennon’s “Mother”) over Steve Broughton’s drums (hence it’s a sort of “Out Demons Out” variant, though complete with bizarre touches, such as the country-and-western hoedown which appears out of nowhere midway through). Is it a parody of post-Percy cock-rock (is even Oldfield joining in the seasonal sport of outstoning the Stones?) or a continuation of “I Am The Walrus”’ joke-obscuring anguish?

Suddenly the sequence is over and we return to soft guitars, mandolins, harmonium and organ drone, improvising on the previous Celtic melody; gradually all of the instruments drop out of tempo and begin to issue seagull-like cries or oceanic ripples (here is where the Durutti Column begins). Once again the pacific Lowrey organ leads the final minor-to-major move and all settles down in a satisfactory, dying coda…or does it?

The final sequence gives the game away, and it’s a bit like having a custard pie shoved in one’s face; yes, all that you have been hearing have been clever variations on…”The Sailor’s Hornpipe”! Very classical (Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams) in nature, very Lord Berners in its final gesture; the original intention was to have the mix with Stanshall, as proto-Through The Keyhole narrator, chase Oldfield and Newman through The Manor, conclude the disc but it was felt safer to end with a straight reading (both are present on the 2009 Deluxe Edition 2CD set; again there is a cleaned-up 2009 remix by Oldfield himself, and again I have based this piece on the original mix, to be found on CD2). It sends its audience out, slightly baffled but oddly moved.

I do believe that the success of Tubular Bells was the definitive gesture in recognising the importance of the culture which enabled it to happen; the number of impressionable teenagers hearing this and being influenced – especially since, at nineteen going on twenty, this was a record made by somebody almost exactly their age – must be incalculable; in itself it marks the beginning of DIY indie rock – this is almost certainly the first record in this tale to be primarily conceived and performed by one person, the partial exception of Band On The Run notwithstanding. But I imagine a whole galaxy of impressionable young Brits – be they Kate Bush or Jim Kerr – hearing this and delving further, including into the other titles that Virgin was able to make possible throughout the period as a result of the record’s success; records by Henry Cow, Comus, Faust, Wyatt, Hatfield and the North, and, as a result of gaining the UK rights to the JCOA catalogue, Escalator Over The Hill itself. Certainly Bells was the record which inspired me to dig deeper into the above, and beyond; I can’t imagine anybody of the period not being affected or changed by it in some way, whether directly or indirectly. It presaged a New Age, all right, and it’s not Oldfield’s fault that the definition of that changed, or was made to change; this initial trilogy climaxed in 1975’s Ommadawn (which, since it didn’t make number one, won’t be addressed directly here) with some of Oldfield’s angriest and most pained guitar playing and writing, and an emotional climax involving the members of South African exile splinter group Jabula which is as eloquent a requiem for Mongezi Feza as Blue Notes For Mongezi. He moved on to other things – and there is much to consider in comparing the double 1978 releases from Oldfield and Tippett, Incantations and Frames respectively – but once you come up as part of a mutually dependent culture, it stays, I think, with you, and in you, for life.