Tubular Bells is one of the most recognizable, innovative and influential albums that has ever been released. With almost 20 million copies sold it was a huge commercial success, and it has captivated and fascinated audiences the world over.
The fact that almost everything on the album was written, arranged and played by just one person makes it an even more stunning achievement. During the album’s recordings in 1972 and 1973, Mike Oldfield made use of a large variety of instruments, as well as the cutting edge of recording and production techniques of the day, resulting in 274 overdubs and hundreds of punch-ins.
Oldfield’s groundbreaking and spectacular debut album was inspired by folk, rock, prog rock, classical and minimalist music, and sounded revolutionary when it was released in 1973.
Its success is not only surprising because it consisted of just two long pieces, but also because it is largely instrumental, has hardly any drums, and contains nothing that sounds even remotely like a song.
Tubular Bells has been called ‘to the left of leftfield,’ but despite this, or perhaps because of this, it had a strong impact on pretty much all music at the time of its release. In the years since its release it became a foundational influence on a whole range of new genres, like ambient, new age, and more recent electronic music genres, including ambient house and ambient chill-out.
Tubular Bells changed music, and the album’s huge commercial success album obviously laid the foundations for the career of Mike Oldfield. He remained an active A-list artist until the announcement of his retirement earlier this year, at the age of 69.
On top of all this, the album also kickstarted the career of Richard Branson. An aspiring businessman in 1973, Branson had managed to progress from selling Christmas trees and budgerigars to founding the first Virgin record shop and setting up a recording studio.
Tubular Bells played a central role in the birth of Virgin Records, which Branson set up with the help of his music-loving South African cousin Simon Draper, businessman Nik Powell, and musician and producer Tom Newman.
The proceeds of the sales of Tubular Bells led to a dramatic expansion of Virgin Records, and it became one of the world’s leading record labels. It also allowed Branson in 1982 to found Virgin Atlantic airlines. Since then… well, without Tubular Bells, Virgin Holidays, Virgin Publishing, Virgin Radio, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Cars, Virgin Trains, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Media, Virgin Money, and all other Virgin ventures might never have seen the light of day.
In short, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells did not only change music, it changed the world. This is all the more surprising given that Oldfield and Branson were both young and inexperienced when they first met in 1972.
Oldfield was 18, and pathologically shy, traumatized by the mental illness and addiction issues of his mother, and several bad LSD trips that he experienced in the sixties.
Branson was only 21, and had no experience of the music industry. In fact, according to some of those around him, he was not particularly interested in music.
When his cousin Simon Draper managed to convince Branson of the merits of Oldfield’s demo tape, it still took a combination of Branson’s musical inexperience and naivety, and his risk-taking approach to business, for him to be willing to invest in Oldfield’s music.
Oldfield’s background also does not suggest anything of what was to come. He was born in Reading in 1953 to a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse. She suffered severe mental issues, and became addicted to anti-depressants.
Mike Oldfield started playing guitar at the age of 10, after his father gave him an Eko acoustic guitar. Oldfield was influenced by The Beatles, and the fingerpicking style of leading English folk guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Oldfield also learned to play electric, initially on a six pound Futura II guitar.
Not long afterwards he began a duo with his sister Sally called The Sallyangie, which recorded one album of acoustic music, Children of the Sun, on two 4-track machines. It was released in 1969 on the respected Transatlantic label.
However, Oldfield found the folk format too limiting, and started a rock band with his brother Terry, called Barefeet, in which he played a Fender Telecaster.
In 1970, when he was still only 17, Oldfield became the bassist of the band The Whole World, which had been founded by guitarist and singer Kevin Ayers, who was at the time already well-known as a founding member of the psychedelic jazz-rock band Soft Machine.
Oldfield played bass on two solo albums by Ayers, Shooting at the Moon (1970) and Whatevershebringswesing (1971), and also got to play some guitar solos.
Oldfield had already been composing music on the honky-tonk piano of his grandmother, and in early 1971 he recorded some demos at his flat in Tottenham, in North London. He used a Bang & Olufsen quarter inch two-track tape machine lent to him by Kevin Ayers. Oldfield also borrowed a Farfisa organ, and the opening riff of Tubular Bells was the first thing he played on it.
The music that Oldfield demoed on the Bang & Olufsen recorder was inspired by classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Maurice Ravel, and Jean Sibelius, and minimalist composer Terry Riley, in particular the repetitive organ patterns on his 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air.
Other inspirations include the musical Hair, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and two albums released in 1971: Zero Time by the electronic music duo Tonto’s Exploding Head Band, and Septober Energy by a large jazz orchestra called Centipede
To achieve his vision of an extended piece of music with many different instrumental colours on his demos, Oldfield had to overdub himself many times, which he managed to do by putting sticky tape over the erase head of the Bang & Olufsen. Using guitars, bass, keyboards, bells and other instruments, he constructed several demos that would later be used as source material for Tubular Bells.
With his demo tapes in hand, Oldfield tried to interest a number of major record companies in London in his music, including CBS, Island, and Harvest. However, he was turned down everywhere. No-one could see the potential of a long piece of music without vocals or drums.
Depressed by the lack of response to his demo, but still needing to make a living, Oldfield joined the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and also the stage band for Hair. When a bored Oldfield one evening played the Hair classic “Let The Sunshine In,” in 7/8 time, to keep it interesting for himself, but greatly confusing the dancers, he was fired.
At this point, Oldfield was, in his own words, a “starving musician.” He managed to get a job in the band of guitarist and singer Arthur Louis, who played rock, blues and reggae. The band went to rehearse in England’s first residential studio, called The Manor, in the village of Shipton-on-Cherwell, just north of Oxford. The house had recently been acquired by Richard Branson, and the studio was still under construction.
Oldfield gave a copy of his demos to the two engineers at the studio, Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. They loved what they heard and passed the tape on to Simon Draper. Branson and Draper told Oldfield that they loved the demos, but did not have any money, so instead they offered Oldfield the option of recording some of his music in the new studio.
The studio at The Manor has been built in a former squash court, with lots of input from Newman and Heyworth. Oldfield was given just one week to record at The Manor, most likely in September 1972. He had already mapped out the whole of Tubular Bells Part One, in his mind and in a notebook, and set to work.
The instruments he played on Part One were grand piano, glockenspiel, Farfisa organ, electric guitar, bass guitar, taped motor drive amplifier organ chord, percussion, acoustic guitar, flageolet, honky tonk piano, Lowrey organ, and, of course, tubular bells. Some of his electric guitar parts were recorded at lower speeds and sped up, resulting in what was called a “mandolin-like guitar.”
Electric guitars were mostly recorded DI into the Walsall desk, reportedly overdriving the input, and using the onboard compressor/limiters. Oldfield has since retained two of the desk’s input modules and one of the stereo compressors, to be able to recreate the sound he achieved on Tubular Bells.
Oldfield’s characteristic electric guitar sound is also the result of him using a classical guitar technique, playing the strings with the nails of his fingers and using lots of vibrato.
The announcements of the names each of the instruments used in the grand finale of Part One were done by Vivian Stanshall, well-known in Britain at the time as a musician, author, comedian, poet, and member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
It provided an extremely memorable and effective climax to the 26-minute long piece of music. The last instrument introduced, was of course, a set of chimes, aka the tubular bells. Oldfield had played them with a heavy claw-hammer to get the desired powerful sound, and ended up bending and cracking the bells in the process.
Surprisingly, and impressively, Oldfield managed to record the whole of the epic side one of Tubular Bells in his one allotted week. Draper and Branson were enormously impressed with what Oldfield had achieved during his week at The Manor, and suggested that he could live at The Manor, and record Part Two when the studio was not in use.
Because Oldfield had not fully mapped out Part Two yet, the recordings took longer and he ended up working at The Manor from February to April of 1973. This period included one month of final mixing.
Tubular Bells Part Two is more varied than Part One, with unexpected and dramatic switches in mood, sounds, and musical styles. In perhaps the biggest surprise, it ends with the traditional folk tune “The Sailor’s Hornpipe,” which Oldfield had been playing with Kevin Ayers’ the Whole World.
Richard Branson and Simon Draper were very excited by the final recordings. In fact, they had already been shopping Tubular Bells Part One to various labels. But like Oldfield, did not get anywhere. They considered releasing the finished album via mail order, but then decided to make it the first release on their newly formed Virgin Records.
Tubular Bells was released on May 25th, 1973, with the iconic cover by designer and photographer Trevor Key, which was inspired by the tubular bells that Oldfield had bent and cracked during the recording of Part One.
The album did well for a highly unorthodox release by an unknown artist on an unknown label, because critical reception was enthusiastic. The trendsetting British DJ John Peel played the whole of side one on his show. Peel’s endorsement gave the album an enormous amount of credibility in the UK.
To capitalize on the interest, Branson and Draper organised a live performance on June 25th, 1973 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of London’s most prestigious classical music venues, featuring many famous musicians.
As a result of the enthusiastic critical reactions and the publicity around the concert, Tubular Bells reached to number seven in the UK charts in July. Another live performance, in the studio, was filmed by the BBC on November 30th.
The concert was broadcast on BBC television on January 5, 1974. This was two weeks after the release of The Exorcist, a movie that would become a huge box office success and featured the first section of Tubular Bells
The Exorcist was released in December 1973, and its massive success pushed Tubular Bells back up the international charts, and broke the album in the US. It eventually reached to number one in the UK in October 1974, pushing Oldfield’s second album, Hergest Ridge (1974) to number two.
Tubular Bells became iconic. It crossed over between genres and audiences, and in the years following its release, it appeared to be in pretty much every household, in the UK and in many other countries.
It spent an amazing 279 weeks in the UK charts, and won Oldfield a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition. It also won an Album of the Year Brit Award.
Oldfield went on to have an enormously successful career, which also included many hit singles, for example “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983. Despite at one point declaring that he was fed up with the album, Oldfield has returned to it many times.
In 1992, he released Tubular Bells II, which was co-produced with star producer Trevor Horn. It also went to number one in the UK. In 1998, there was Tubular Bells III, which was produced by Oldfield alone and inspired by the electronic club and dance music he had encountered on Ibiza.
The Millennium Bell, released a year later in 1999, also draws on the original Tubular Bells. And in 2003 Oldfield completely re-recorded his original album using digital technology.
Tubular Bells has been used in many different contexts, including television series, advertisements, computer games, and more. Richard Branson named two of Virgin Atlantic’s aircrafts “Tubular Belle.”
Oldfield also performed a segment of Tubular Bells during the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. And Tubular Bells was ranked at number 17 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of “50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time.”
With the 50th anniversary of the release of Tubular Bells this year there will be tons of retrospectives and discussions of its impact and merits. There already was a 50th anniversary tour of Tubular Bells Re-Imagined earlier this year in Britain, directed by keyboardist, arranger and composer Robin A Smith, who has worked extensively with Oldfield. Smith summarised it perhaps best when he said:
“There’s no question that Tubular Bells is one of the most unique pieces of music written this century. It embraces so many platforms. It is highly complex, embracing minimalist, rock, serialisation, and in many ways heralded the emergence of new age music; chill and ambient. The wonderful thing about Tubular Bells is that it never seems to age. The actual composition is just perfect and is as spell-binding now as it was 50 years ago.”