The gestation of Tubular Bells began when Mike Oldfield was just a teenager. While his musical activity was linked to Kevin Ayers' group The Whole World, the young British musician composed his own music with the hope of recording it one day. In 1971 Ayers gave him a tape recorder and thanks to it he was able to record a demo with which he visited some record companies, but he only received refusals due to the apparent lack of commerciality of the project. Today we know that those companies did not know how to assess the economic viability of the proposal, the artistic value of Oldfield's music or the capacity of the society of his time to appreciate music of that complexity.
The project was put on hold for a year while Oldfield worked as a session musician in a new recording studio near Oxford. The studio, called The Manor, was owned by Richard Branson, a young entrepreneur who also have a record shop in the center of London. When the introverted Oldfield warmed up to Tom Newman, The Manor's sound engineer, he showed him the demo. Newman was so impressed that he convinced Branson and his partner, Simon Draper, to pursue the project. What all of them did not suspect is that they were supporting the making of one of the most influential works in the history of contemporary music.
At first Branson tried to find a record company that would believe in the project. Failing to do so, he decided to publish the album himself, which would become the first for the Virgin Records company.
Mike Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells at breakneck speed. Although he only had the few moments available on The Manor's production schedule, it took him a single week to record the first part of the album. Today we can listen to some of the material from that time on streaming portals, such as the original demos or an unappreciated first mix of Tubular Bells from 1972.
Oldfield had thought of a possible title for his first album: Opus One, but by chance while collecting the instruments that John Cale had used for a recording, Oldfield noticed the tubular bells and decided to incorporate them into his project. Logically, the album ended up taking the name of those percussion instruments.
Mike Oldfield needed a large number of instruments to record Tubular Bells and many of them he played himself: grand piano, honky tonk, Farfisa, Hammond and Lowrey organs, electric, acoustic and classical guitars, electric bass, mandolin, flageolet and percussion (concert timpani, tubular bells, glockenspiel, etc.) Also contributing were his brother Terry and Jon Field on flutes, his sister Sally and Mundy Ellis on vocals, Lindsay Cooper on double bass and Steve Broughton on drums. Especially noteworthy was the participation of the musician and comedian Vivian Stanshall as "master of ceremonies" at the end of the first part. Sound engineers were Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth, and the cover art, made iconic by the bent bell logo, was the work of Trevor Key.
Tubular Bells hit the streets on May 25 1973 and Richard Branson wanted to carry out a big promotional campaign, but to his surprise Mike Oldfield was not at all interested in getting involved. He refused to go on tour and only promised to give a presentation concert. It was then that Branson began to understand the complex personality of the musician. However, the concert was held on June 25 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a venue where classical music concerts are often held. Currently you can listen to a recording on Youtube.
Mike Oldfield left (although it might be better to say he fled) London with his partner and the Bentley car Branson had given him as payment for the concert. They drove to a house in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border, just opposite a mountain called Hergest Ridge. In that house, which still exists and which bears the name of The Beacon, Oldfield wrote the next few pages of his story. You can read them here.
Still in 1973, Oldfield returned to record live, this time without an audience, the first part of Tubular Bells for the BBC's 2nd House programme. For this he had most of the musicians who had played with him at the Queen Elisabeth Hall: guitarists Mick Taylor from The Rolling Stones, Steve Hillage, Fred Frith, percussionist Pierre Moerlen, Tom Newman and Terry Oldfield, among others.
Influential music journalist John Peel declared himself enthusiastic about Mike Oldfield's music. On his major BBC Radio show Top Gear on 29 May 1973 he played the entire album, exclaiming that Tubular Bells was "one of the most impressive LPs he had ever been lucky enough to play on the radio".
The promotion of Tubular Bells continued without the participation of our musician. David Bedford, a friend of Oldfield's from the days of The Whole World, arranged the record for guitar and orchestra. With the interpretation of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the participation of guest guitarists, such as Steve Hillage and Andy Summers, he went on tour in Great Britain. As a result of this initiative, the album The Orchestral Tubular Bells was published in 1975 under the direction of David Bedford, with Mike Oldfield performing the lead guitar part.
But without a doubt the most significant anecdote of the "incidental" promotion of the album was the inclusion of some of its fragments in the soundtrack of the horror film The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Without Oldfield's permission, Tubular Bells appeared alongside compositions by authors such as K. Penderecki, A. Webern, and J. Nitzsche. All this made him end up winning the 17th Grammy Award (1974) for best instrumental composition. In fact, the opening sequence of the Tubular Bells Intro has come to be considered "the music of the Exorcist", and has greatly influenced the composition of music for horror films. Oldfield himself has explained, in subsequent interviews, that when he found out that his music had been used for a horror film he was not amused, and that he received the Grammy at home, totally unaware of the importance of the award.
After the concert at Queen Elisabeth Hall Mike Oldfield left the stage, at least to perform his music. It wasn't until 1979, during the tour of his fourth solo album, Incantations, that the Reading musician performed Tubular Bells publicly again. The Incantations tour did not make a profit, but the financial losses from the concerts (around £1 million) were offset by sales of the live record that sums up the tour, Exposed (1979).
It is the case that the first two concerts of that tour were held in Barcelona, specifically at the Palau Municipal d'Esports on March 31 and April 1, 1979 and the following two in Madrid. The promoter of the concerts was Gay & Company, owned by Gay Mercader. We are lucky that the TVE program Musical Express, directed by Àngel Casas, was able to interview Mike Oldfield and recorded a private concert of the Incantations tour at the Televisión Española Studios. Barcelona and Madrid are, therefore, important cities in the history of Tubular Bells, even if they are so indirectly.
When it seemed that Tubular Bells would not give more news than the multiple sequels published later by Mike Oldfield, and which in our opinion should be separated from the original (except for the new recording of 2003 or the new digital mix of 2009), Mike Oldfield was called to participate at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony playing Tubular Bells. The part that corresponded to this album was a tribute to the National Health Service, as well as to children's literature. Oldfield carried out all the necessary musical arrangements to adapt his music to stage needs, something of which he would later be very proud. Anecdotally, it should be said that, along with our musician, his son Luke also participated in the ceremony playing the acoustic guitar.
Tubular Bells has currently sold more than fifteen million copies worldwide and Mike Oldfield is working, as he himself stated years ago, on a fourth sequel.
Text: Xavier Alern