Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield
Suggested by Mike Wootton
Perhaps the biggest omission from my musical milieu is Tubular Bells.
While I’d never heard Dark Side of the Moon before this project, I knew of Pink Floyd. With classic albums by classic bands, the acclaim of the album is mirrored by the fame of the band that created it. Thus, when enjoying a virgin listen to Sgt Pepper, or Pet Sounds, you can’t help but go in with notions of The Beatles or The Beach Boys. It’s rare fruit, then, when the art eclipses the artist, and Tubular Bells is one such kumquat, at least to this particular greengrocer.
I didn’t know that this album as the inaugural release for the Virgin record label. I didn’t know that it was a (largely) instrumental album of two meandering soundscape tracks, each exactly one-side-of-the-album long, which will certainly simplify my choice of standout song. I didn’t know that it was Mike Oldfield’s debut release, composition of which began when he was nineteen years old, and that he played almost every instrument on the record. I didn’t know that it’s the 42nd best-selling UK album of time, which sounds decent until you discover David Gray’s White Ladder sits at twenty-six.
Going in, all I knew was that Tubular Bells was the theme for The Exorcist, and of course it’s this particular refrain that opens the album’s account. It’s a ubiquitous sound, universally accepted as a shortcut for eeriness and dread, and the connection with this horror classic is what propelled the album into the public eye almost fifty years ago. Listening today, it’s impossible to separate the horror from the music, which begs the question whether Oldfield thought the music sounded scary when he wrote it.
As we move through what is laughably referred to as “track one”, the musical landscape shifts rather abruptly beneath our feet, as Oldfield moves from theme to theme, from genre to genre, from instrument to instrument, in a barrage of constant reinvention. At first, the changes seem stark, and make me question the need to slam these compositions into one amorphous blob of twenty-five minutes, but as I become more subsumed into the composition I spot call-and-answer refrains harkening back to previous sections. It’s nuanced, this, and satisfyingly intriguing because of it.
Track two is the same though-provoking miasma of styles to compare and contrast, each moored to one another by a deft ear and a boatswain’s craft. My standout section, in lieu of a redundant track choice, is the frankly bizarre growled demonic vocal offering around two-thirds through Side B. It was surprising, unnerving, but expertly delivered, tying the album back to The Exorcist in what was likely a mere coincidence at the time. The album then ends, inexplicably, with the theme from the old Popeye cartoons, which had me reeling. Did Mike Oldfield write this shanty jig?! Of course not, it’s a cover of a traditional arrangement.
Tubular Bells gets an unexpected 7/10 today. I enjoyed it, and had fun learning about the album and its creator. Barring a late surge, it seems Oldfield’s career reached its creative peak when he was nineteen, which boggles the mind, but despite his downhill slalom towards a life of Brexiteering and Trumpism, it’s a peak for which he should be applauded.