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Michael Gordon Oldfield was born in Reading (Berkshire County, England) on May 15, 1953, the youngest of three siblings. Raymond, his father, was a doctor and Maureen, his mother, a nurse. Like him, his brothers also developed important musical careers. Terry Oldfield is a flutist and film score composer, while Sally Oldfield has been a prominent pop singer in the '70s and '80s.

Mike displayed amazing musical talent from an early age. By the age of 12 he was already playing folk music in Reading pubs and by 16 he was one of the leading guitarists on the London acoustic scene, following in the footsteps of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Precisely at that age he formed the duo The Sallyangie with his sister Sally, coming to publish an album called Children of the Sun (1968), and two other singles in 1969 and 1972, all of them released by the label Transanlantic.

The Sallyangie

Following the experience of The Sallyangie Mike began playing bass and electric guitar in a new band formed by former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers. In the group, called The Whole World, Mike made important friends who would collaborate with him in the following years, such as the pianist, avant-garde composer and conductor David Bedford, the drummer William Murray and the singer Britget St. John. With Kevin Ayers' group he recorded two albums: Shooting at the Moon (1970) and Whatevershebringswesing (1971). After a short tour Ayers dissolved the group without any resentment remaining between them for this fact.

Kevin Ayers & The Whole World

At the time, Ayers and Oldfield were sharing a flat in London. With remorse for having dissolved the band, Ayers gave young Oldfield a tape recorder so that he could record the compositions he made locked in his room. At the time, Mike Oldfield was following with great interest the career of Terry Riley, an avant-garde composer who was experimenting with synthesizers. It seems that A Rainbow in the Curved Air, as well as the music of J. S. Bach, served as an inspiration to the young Oldfield for the conception of the first bars of Tubular Bells.

We have briefly explained the biographical period between 1971 and 1973 on the Tubular Bells page.

After recording Tubular Bells Mike Oldfield, at only twenty years old, retired to the mountains. Tired by the genesis of his first great work, he wanted to rest, fly model airplanes and go to touch (and drink) in the pubs of Kington. He became a regular at the old Penrhos Court Hotel, where he met some local musicians, including flutist Leslie Penning, a specialist in medieval music.

Although Mike Oldfield needed a break after the release of his first album, Virgin Records needed something else. Richard Branson visited Oldfield at The Beacon and, presenting him with a Farfisa organ, pressured him to make a new record. This is how Hergest Ridge (1974) arose, inspired by the rural environment of Herefordshire and specifically by the homonymous mountain that rose in front of his house, making the border between England and Wales.

Hergest Ridge from The Beacon.JPG

Mike Oldfield was never quite satisfied with that second record. He got bored recording it at The Manor with Tom Newman and he got desperate because he didn't quite like the ideas that came up. In fact, it is one of the albums that he has played the least live and that he has tried to "fix" the most by mixing it over and over again.

On the other hand, the aesthetic contrast between Hergest Ridge and Tubular Bells is enormous. Oldfield once said that "...if Tubular Bells was the sound of the city, Hergest Ridge was the sound of the mountain."

The reception of the disc was irregular. Everyone wanted a second great masterpiece, and Hergest Ridge disappointed some music critics. But it was well received by the public, reaching the first position in sales in the United Kingdom, displacing Tubular Bells to second. Despite everything, today it is undoubtedly one of his canonical works, much loved by his followers.

The following year Mike Oldfield went to work hard on his third album. Annoyed by the bad reviews of Hergest Ridge, he asked Richard Branson to bring a complete recording studio to his house so he could use it at his leisure. No sooner said than done, he set up the studio in a bedroom at The Beacon. At the beginning of the year his mother had died, and Mike thought of a record with a "Celtic" sound as a tribute to the Irish origins of his mother, who was born in Dublin.

Mike Oldfield surrounded himself with very diverse musicians and filled his third album with surprising instruments from musical traditions as diverse as rock, classical music, Greek folklore, Celtic Irish music or African percussion. At the request of our musician, the Irish singer Clodagh Simonds wrote some verses in Gaelic where the word Amadàn (crazy, stupid) appeared. Oldfield liked this word so much that he adapted it as the title of the album, which would eventually be called Ommadawn (1975). Mike Oldfield has stated that he worked on both Ommadawn and Tubular Bells, and that in fact it is one of the albums with which he feels most satisfied. Some surveys reveal that for the majority of his followers it is the best album of his career along with his debut.

Mike Oldfield and Les Penning at The Beacon

Ommadawn's critical and sales success was instantaneous and gave Mike Oldfield an undisputed reputation as a young musical genius. All this earned him a period of tranquility that he took advantage of to move. That year he had been looking for a big house to build his own studio, and he found it in a little town called Bisley, in the county of Gloucestershire. The mansion, from the 16th century, is called Througham Slad, and in the hayloft he installed a first-rate recording studio.

In 1976 the compilation Boxed  was published, with new mixes of the first three albums and an album of collaborations with his friends David Bedford and Leslie Penning. Also that year and the following year he worked on the recording and production, in his own studio, of albums by other artists such as Pierre Moerlen or Pekka Pohjola.

Oldfield also never stopped producing new material. Every year he published a few singles with arrangements of different music, especially traditional songs. But it was the year 1978, three years had passed since Ommadawn, and his followers were asking for a new album.

What his fans didn't know was that Mike Oldfield was deeply depressed. A compulsive smoker and drinker, he suffered from the LSD consumption of his London years and generally presented a worrying psychological picture. Although he had started working on a new record with Tom Newman, he had not been quite satisfied with the results. It was then that he decided to undergo different treatments, being especially relevant a kind of shock therapy called Exegesis, which roughly consisted of a group simulation of rebirth. It seems this therapy worked, at least initially, and Oldfield changed overnight: he cut his hair short and shaved, presenting a highly studied image. He gave interviews, he was giggly and funny... and he even appeared naked on the cover of a magazine! nothing to do with that introverted young man who lived isolated in the countryside surrounded by instruments and animals.

Richard Branson was delighted. In a few months Mike Oldfield had announced the publication of his fourth album, this time double, and the start of a European tour to promote the album. For the making of the album, which would be called Incantations (1978), Oldfield dismissed hours of testing in the studio and sought a completely different sound from that of the previous albums, with the participation of a small orchestra and a minimalist aesthetic that brought him closer to the music of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman.

Mike Oldfield in the time of Incantations

Incantations closes, in our opinion, the first creative phase of the composer from Reading. That is why we stop here this brief biographical review. Mike Oldfield is currently 70 years old and lives in the Bahamas with some of his children and grandchildren. Although he assured that he was working on a fourth instalment of Tubular Bells, the 50th anniversary edition contained only 8 minutes of new music. In the last fourteen years he has only published two albums, and the last one is from 2017. Since then, nothing of his life has come out, hiding in mystery as he has done on other occasions. 

If you want to know more, we encourage you to watch the BBC documentary The Mike Oldfield Story and read Changeling: The Autobiography of Mike Oldfield and Tubular Gold to complete his story.

Text by Xavier Alern

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