“Rained all day – went up Trev’s, borrowed… Tubular… “
Many people state that “this album” or “that album” changed their lives.
I can categorically state that Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” changed mine. In a roundabout way it MADE mine.
First released in May 1973 it carries the catalogue number V2001.
It was the first ever release on the then (very much) fledgling Virgin Records label, dreamt up by (then: dodgy entrepreneur, now: much-admired knight of the British realm) Richard Branson.
The dyslexic privileged son of a barrister, Branson started selling cut price records from the boot of his car to music outlets across London in 1970. Then he progressed to selling them via mail order directly to the public, taking out huge ads in the pages of the major music papers like Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds.
His actions in selling records at a discount – something that was, astonishingly, previously untested in Britain – began to undermine the legalities of “retail price maintenance”, a government mechanism designed to protect UK manufacturers and distributors. Thanks to Branson most of its restrictions ended up being removed – although books remained on the statute until the 90’s…and always had to be sold at the price stated on the cover!
This mild flaunting of the law would be something that Branson would repeat from time to time in his career. Indeed in 1971 he was arrested and charged with selling records on which he had paid no import tax – the result of a moderately successful scam in which he drove records out of the country (claiming back sales tax on the basis they were being exported) and then simply turning round on the other side of the English Channel and bringing them back into Britain without declaring them. Eventually caught, he ended up settling out-of-court with the Revenue, agreeing to pay back the taxes and a small fine.
With the success of the mail order company assured, Branson not only opened a little record shop on London’s Oxford Street (above a shoe store), but went into business with fellow entrepreneur Nik Powell (later to become a big name film producer) to start a record label, Virgin Records… so named because both were “virgins to business”.
Branson had already purchased a ‘country mansion’ in Oxfordshire, turning part of it into a luxurious recording studio – The Manor – which he leased out to bands and record labels.
Mike Oldfield – one time folk singer and backing musician for (ex-Soft Machine member) Kevin Ayers – had been touting around a concept piece known as “Tubular Bells” for for some time. Every record label turned down the notion, deeming it to be something that “wouldn’t sell”.
By chance, Oldfield played extracts from the piece to a couple of the studio engineers at The Manor, who then informed Richard Branson about what they’d heard. Branson and Powell jumped at the chance to release Oldfield’s composition as the first record on their new label.
Not long after its release – following a bunch of, let’s say – ‘middling’ reviews in the music press – Radio 1’s influential DJ John Peel played the album in its entirety one night. And again a few night later. Sales started to occur.
However, despite those early seeds, I think it’s fair to say that had one of the themes from Tubular Bells not been used – to extraordinary dramatic effect – in director William Friedkin’s late-1973 horrorfest movie “The Exorcist“, Richard Branson’s career (and mine!) could have turned out a little differently.
As it happened, Tubular Bells went onto be a huge seller, eventually reaching number 1 in the UK album chart in October 1974… but only, trivia fans may care to note, after his follow-up album “Hergest Ridge” had sold enough to reach the summit first!
It stayed in the UK chart for the next five years, peaked at Number 3 in the US Billboard chart and has sold an estimated 17 million copies worldwide since its release.
The album was recorded on a 16-track tape recorder – in a little over two weeks – at The Manor. Side One was recorded the week before anarchic musical comedy troupe The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were scheduled to be there, putting together their own new album for UA Records. This turned out to be somewhat fortuitous.
One of the better remembered pieces from Tubular Bells is the introduction of the various instruments …
reed & pipe organ…
double speed guitar,
two slightly distorted guitars,
and introducing acoustic guitar…
The Bonzo’s late – and ever so mightily GREAT – Vivian Stanshall was the master of ceremonies for this segment, and it was his contribution that gave the project its eventual name. The way Stanshall intoned “plus… tubular bells” inspired Oldfield so much that he discarded his original title; “Opus 1” (and, more luckily, Branson’s even lamer idea of “Breakfast in Bed“)
Most people incorrectly say that Oldfield recorded the entire album himself, playing all the instruments then overdubbing the results. This is actually untrue. Not only was his sister Sally in the studio with him, there was a percussionist, as well as other musicians on the string basses and flutes. However, let’s just say that Oldfield and (producer) Tom Newman’s overdubbing and mixing of all the elements is most definitely a major part of this complex and intricate composition.
I liked/still like most of it. Even the bits that sound like bagpipes.
With this caveat… “The Sailors Hornpipe” that ended Side 2 is a traditional hornpipe melody first heard in the late 18th century. No, I’ve never known why he used it either, despite its distinctiveness. I invariably lifted the needle from the LP long before this segment reached my ears and I still hit ‘stop’ at the appropriate moment whenever the album turns up on my iPod.
Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” ended up to be a turning point for me… even if I had NO idea at the time.
The album ended up initially funding the Virgin Records empire, including Branson’s growth of his retail chain in the mid-70’s. If there had been no retail chain I would never have got that Saturday job at the Southampton store. Meaning I would not have become a full-time assistant, or an assistant manager, or a manager, or a megastore manager, or an area manager for the chain before 1980 rolled around. Meaning my career grounding would not have been in the music retail business, meaning I would not have opened my own CD store, meaning I would not have met my wife, nor have been able to eventually sell the business for a sum of money I now continue to live off.
In fact, if it wasn’t for “Tubular Bells” my entire life would have been completely different. If I ever meet Mike Oldfield (unlikely… I don’t move in ‘those’ circles anymore) I think I might just have to kiss him. On the lips. With tongue.