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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mike Oldfield

Tubular Bells

Review by John Pierpoint

It's now 40 years since this classic and genre-busting album was first unleashed on the world. Mike Oldfield has revisited the music many times over the years (including the Mike Oldfield Boxed quadrophonic mix, Tubular Bells 2, Tubular Bells 3, The Millenium Bell, Tubular Bells 2003), possibly recognising its status as his biggest cash cow. But the endless reworking and re-releasing cannot detract from the power, genius and significance of the original, which has certainly stood the test of time.

The album was recorded using early multi-track technology, with Oldfield himself playing most of the instruments. The boundaries of the technique were pushed to their limits by arranging the album as two 20-minute pieces of seamless music – a prodigious feat in those analogue days! To modern ears, the production sounds fairly rough, with many instruments obviously out of tune (and a few bum notes here and there!), but the rough edges give it a charm that may be lacking from over-produced modern albums, and the sheer originality, exuberance and freshness of the music more than compensate for any technical shortcomings.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 3 at

Track by Track Review
Tubular Bells Part 1
The album starts with that now familiar and portentious compound-time piano melody, which was famously used for the soundtrack of “The Exorcist.” Put aside any satanic expectations, though. In the context of the album, this is a benign, inviting tune, that gently meanders through the first few minutes of the piece, evoking soothing images (aside from some spine-tingling organ stabs). The melody is taken up and augmented by other instruments, and various other themes weave in and out (sometimes playing across the rhythm) as the tune is developed through several phases, before rising on a bass organ glissando to level out with a feeling of relaxation. A Spanish guitar and glockenspiel reinforce the feeling of calm. This doesn't last long, though. A new, frantic piano sequence clatters into existence before being subsumed by a darker mood, as bass and ridiculously distorted guitar play a heavy riff on top of ominous gravelly organ tones. A heavily-phased low-register melody (originally a bowed cello?) then muscles in. The rising organ glissando returns to open out on another gentle scene, with rippling mandolin, and an acoustic guitar melody. A tolling bell gives a Western shootout feel, reinforced by a whistling theme. The next section features slide guitar. It repeats with slide guitar doubled, before a horrendously trebly electric guitar cuts in for a few bars, followed by a chorus of hummed vocals. Then Oldfield kicks in with one of his many hook-laden heavy guitar riffs, composed of very rapid compound-time barre-chord changes. Like many other people, I have fond memories of learning to play this from the record when I first picked up the guitar. In many ways, it's these cleverly-crafted addictive little gems that are Oldfield's most enduring contribution to rock music. Chimes call a halt to proceedings. An introspective acoustic guitar piece provides an atmospheric pause in the music, allowing time to recover before the final movement. This begins cautiously, with guitars and distorted bass setting up and then cementing by repetition a busy, complicated riff. Underneath this slides a simple yet deliciously eerie organ part. This repeats several times to establish the mood before the fun begins. This closing section is almost a “young person's guide to the studio”, as one instrument after another is introduced – literally! by Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band frontman Vivien Stanshall – over the top of this backing. Each instrument is brought to the fore, playing the same iconic triumphant melody line, before settling back in the mix, jostling for space with the other parts as the next instrument is brought in. More and more layers are added as each new instrument joins the mix, culminating in the tubular bells of the title. Then the music gently eases away, on a soothing carpet of female backing vocals, fading to a final lone acoustic guitar picking out a beautiful and melancholy tune which winds down to a final chord.
Tubular Bells Part 2
Side two (as it was) has a more relaxed pace, with longer sections that develop more gradually. It begins with acoustic guitar harmonics that introduce a cocktail of intricate interwoven guitar tunes, with underlying organ and female vocals. Following a key change, more guitars join, then mandolin and finally piano. This levels off to a gentle sea-shanty on organ, with the guitars continuing now as the backing. The music swells, as female vocals and mandolin join. A Scottish-sounding theme comes in, with sustained guitars effectively mimicking bagpipes. Tuned kettledrums pound away underneath. This rises in a crescendo, with more sounds piling in, until a piano gliss introduces the next movement. A full drum kit comes in, which gives this section a more normal rock band sound, with an upbeat feel. It's structured like a pop song with verses and choruses, but Oldield does his incoherent, growling "Piltdown Man" vocals, so forget about making out the lyrics! Electric guitars (and violin?) play screaming solos. This comes to a sudden halt. Slowly tumbling organ chords (reminiscent of Richard Wright) emerge, with delicate guitar runs superimposed. More guitars stack up to produce a lovely effect which evokes sea-birds over a wild coastline (maybe a musical version of the album cover). Near the end it shifts to a major chord, giving a church-like ambience. Guitar noodling swirls about. The final section is almost an afterthought: a brisk rendition of traditional English folk tune “The Sailors' Hornpipe” that speeds up with each repetition until it's racing away at breakneck speed. It's worth checking out the “Mike Oldfield Boxed” version of the album for an alternative version that features Oldfield and Tom Newman stomping around the house drunk, while Stanshall does a Huw Wheldon–like documentary commentary - hilarious!
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