When I write, I write about memory. I don’t know why that is, particularly – I only identified it myself a few years ago, when I was ploughing through the piles of unfinished story ideas and almost-finished novels which litter my hard drive. Even the tagline for Going Back says that “some memories are not memories at all…” Some writers have subjects; mine appears to be the power and fallibility of memory.
All of which is to say that my original direction for this post was to do with not remembering exactly how and when I first heard Tubular Bells and wishing I could indulge in a little time travel to go back and experience that first listen again in the familiar comfort of my teenage bedroom.
I can, of course, picture the bedroom; my father still lives in that house, and when – pandemics permitting – I go over and visit, I can stand in the middle of that tiny boxroom and wonder how on earth I fitted everything in – so many books, so many records, so many football and music magazines – there was barely enough room for a bed and a wardrobe, although I was not a large child, so that probably helped.
One of the things I cannot figure out is where I put my faithful old red plastic record player. I did move the furniture around in there from time to time, so that doesn’t help, but I can’t bring to mind now which piece of furniture I must have balanced it on – a low table of some kind, perhaps, with enough space underneath for my slowly growing record collection? I just can’t picture it.
I know it wasn’t on my desk – dad had rigged up for me a cunningly hidden desk inside my built-in cupboard; it was situated over the top of the stairwell, and had a sloping floor, which I suppose stopped me letting my junk pile up down there, but also reduced its usefulness as a closet. We removed the door and dad mounted a large wooden surface across the width of the cupboard, with just enough space for me to pull up a chair and write my never-ending stream of history essays on. The record player didn’t live there, because there wouldn’t have been enough room for it.
I sat here, behind my current over-sized desk pondering this for some time, and my thoughts started to drift, as my thoughts tend to – I must have borrowed Tubular Bells from someone at school; it was how you heard new things in those days. I must have played it on that red record player with its low fidelity mono speaker, thereby reducing the effect more than a little, and I must have pored over the sleeve, making notes which would go on the cardboard insert of the blank tape I recorded it on.
Such a shame that home taping killed music, wasn’t it?
I found myself wondering about the stories I knew about the album – I knew about Richard Branson and Virgin Records; about Oldfield obsessively refining it to make it all sound the way it had in his head, and how side one was his original vision, and side two had been recorded in a less organised way, and I wondered to myself –
How the hell did I know all that?
By the time I first heard it, Tubular Bells wasn’t news. It didn’t appear in the music weeklies I was reading; indeed, by the time I was reading those, Oldfield was already on to the next album, or the one after that. By the time I owned Oldfield’s live album, which I’ll come back to later, this was all ancient history, so what was going on?
Yesterday morning (as I write this, of course), I had a revelation. I had poked at my memory long enough and hard enough for it to dislodge something long buried under the piles of trivia I keep there. I had a sudden insight into something I at first dismissed as irrelevant: one of the pieces of trivia I hang on to is the fact that Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks used to be in a band together called Vinegar Joe.
Now, first, what possible benefit is there to me of knowing that? Secondly, where the hell had I found that out? I thought a little more, and I remembered a book. There was a book, and it lived in the school library.
The library was down at the far end of the English Department corridor, and contained, as all school libraries do, copies of improving texts which could be studied – I don’t remember the arrangements for borrowing, but I know you could duck in there and read things, which I rarely needed any encouragement to do. One day in 1977 or so, a new book appeared in the reference section – extraordinarily, the school had a copy of the New Musical Express Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock Music. I don’t know who made the decision to acquire that, but I do know for certain that but for whoever that person was, this, and many other examples of me writing about music, simply wouldn’t exist.
Now I think about it, it was a magnificent treasure trove. I, and many of my similarly obsessed peers, pored over it at lunchtimes and break times. We pretended to be carefully studying the history of Roxy Music and not even noticing those decidedly not-safe-for-school album covers, lovingly reproduced in living colour for our education and edification.
I read it, piecemeal and over a period of time, cover to cover. And it was between the covers of this magnificent volume that I learned so much of the trivia which clogs my brain to this day. I learned of Henry Cow and Egg, and so many other bands I would never quite get round to hearing, but would be able to name drop for years, and I learned about the history of Tubular Bells and Virgin Records, and now a lot more things make sense to me.
I never owned my own copy of it, although I wish I had now. Presumably it was frighteningly expensive at a time when acquiring albums was a bit of a stretch, and in any case, was out of date as soon as it left the printer, but what a magnificent thing it was; the closest a music-obsessed teenager in 1977 would come to being able to look things up on the internet.
So when I first put on side one of Tubular Bells, I kind of knew what to expect. Listening to it in 2021, of course, I’m immediately prompted to think of The Exorcist, but I hadn’t seen that back then (nor did I for many years afterward); back in about 1975 – my best guess for when this first reached my ears – I was engrossed in two separate things; identifying each instrument as it arrived, helpfully spelled out on the sleeve in what I assumed was the correct order; and trying to follow what was happening to the music.
There are no lyrics to distract me, so it’s all about hearing that theme weave in and out of the accompaniment and following the bass line until a second theme fades in and pushes its way to the front. Had the music teachers at school assigned this for us to analyse and break down, I suspect I’d know a lot more about music theory than I actually do. As it goes on, it seems less straightforward to follow – some of the instruments which come in just do their own thing without necessarily relating to what’s gone before. I wondered then, and wonder now, if there had ever been a temptation to break it up into individual tracks in places.
Listening now, of course, is intensely nostalgic – bits I’d half-forgotten swim back into focus just in time as one theme fades out and I suddenly remember which melody is coming next – there comes a point with all music where it doesn’t really matter if it works as a formal composition, it’s just familiar and makes sense on its own terms. About fifteen minutes in, I realise with a start that this is probably the only album which will appear in this entire list which doesn’t feature any drums beyond the timpani on the second side. Did I notice that at the time? Did anyone remark on it, or did we just take it for granted that the rhythm was entirely driven by the bass guitar?
Then Viv Stanshall pops in to take us on a tour of the instruments, and it all makes perfect early-seventies sense. Of course Viv Stanshall is announcing the instruments as if they are negotiating the entrance of some unfathomable social event. I did know who Stanshall was – I suspect the Bonzos had an entry of their own in the Encyclopedia, and in any case, John Peel was the home of the Rawlinson End broadcasts – played among the offbeat and obscure during those late night radio programmes I definitely wasn’t listening to when I should have been asleep.
The only issue I had with Tubular Bells then, and still do to an extent, is that side one really does tell the whole story; the second side feels like a bit of an afterthought, as pleasant and entertaining as it is. Even now, having had all these years to think, I don’t know if I have much to say about it beyond it being in many ways more of the same, albeit with some different instruments and a little slower paced. If I’d had my own copy, I don’t know how often I’d have gone to the trouble of turning it over each time.
As it was, however, I had taped it from the copy which belonged to whoever it was who was brave enough to lend it to me in the first place, so my tape – lovingly transferred from the single speaker on my red plastic Fidelity HF42 record player to my cheap plastic cassette recorder via the ‘included’ microphone placed as close as possible to the source to minimise the background noises – played the whole thing all the way through, so if I wanted to listen to the other side of the tape (I think a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac compilation, though I could be wrong), I’d have to listen to this the whole way through, even trying to ‘sing’ along with the Piltdown Man’s grunts and howls.
Of course, for all that I ‘knew’ Tubular Bells at the time, it can be plainly seen from my primitive recording set up that I hadn’t really heard it. Playing it through my computer speakers from a digital download about thirty years after it came out was a significant improvement, but it wasn’t until I acquired my own second-hand vinyl copy a few years back and listened to it through a really good pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I really heard it all the way from the grand piano intro to the recapitulation of the theme on acoustic guitar at the end, and then on into the Sailor’s Hornpipe.
Of course it’s better, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect on me as that fuzzy old tape had.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
There are a lot of Mike Oldfield albums out there, several of them reinterpretations or reimaginings of Tubular Bells; I can’t in all honesty recommend many of them, because in most cases, all I’ve ever done is give them a listen or two and then gone back to the original version. However, we had a copy of Five Miles Out for many years (I suspect it was Zoë’s rather than mine originally) and it’s still good, especially the title track and that one Hall and Oates made famous.
Compilations to consider?
Not that I’m aware of – as with so many of the artists who have gone before, I’m not sure how you could break Oldfield’s music into small enough chunks to fit on a ‘Greatest Hits’ – there’s one on Spotify, and it runs to two and a half hours…
I had a copy of Exposed when it came out – there was a documentary – maybe a South Bank Show – about the live show at the time, and it intrigued me enough to get my own copy. I remember it being interesting, but essentially a live version of the Incantations album followed by a live version of Tubular Bells with an orchestra. I haven’t heard it in many years, though.
Oldfield’s autobiography, Changeling, looks intriguing, but I’m afraid I’ve never read it. The relatively recent BBC documentary is available (at least it is here in Canada) on YouTube, and is definitely worth a watch.