The wonderful wizard

By Tom MacIntosh

Michael Gordon Oldfield, born May 15, 1953, English multi-instrumentalist musician and composer, became a giant force on the music scene behind his symphonic masterpiece Tubular Bells release in 1973, where he played over 20 instruments on the multi-layered opus. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s start where he started, at age 14, after teaching himself to play guitar, he teamed up with his sister Sally to form a folk duo Sallyangie, and a year later they put out their first album Children of the Sun. It was indeed an impressive start for the young lad from Reading, England.

Not only did his sister have the musical touch but also his brother Terry, who played flute and the tabla. After Sallyangie dissolved, the brothers formed a group called Barefoot, bringing Mike back to rock, but lasted just 6 months. His next adventure, at 16, took him in different musical directions. He started playing bass with Kevin Ayers (ex-Soft Machine) in The Whole World, together with classical enthusiast David Bedford and avant-garde saxman Lol Coxhill, and before long he was their lead guitarist. They released the album Shooting at the Moon in 1971.


He caught a huge break in 1973 with his masterpiece Tubular Bells, which was a collection of pieces forged in the studio, with the backing of a young entrepreneur named Richard Branson, who gave him free studio time to craft his work. Upon completion, Oldfield shopped the demo to various labels without success, so Branson and partner Simon Draper signed him on to their brand new label Virgin Records. Tubular Bells was their inaugural release and went on to blow open the charts and sales: it sold 2,630,000 copies in the U.K., it conquered the U.K. charts at #1 for months, and eventually would sell 16 million records worldwide, especially after it was used as the soundtrack for the Oscar winning film The Exorcist in the same year.  The album is a 49-minute instrumental adventure that passes thru an intricate composition of fused rock/folk themes using simplistic structures. One critic described it as “one of the finest instrumental tone poems ever”. Thirty instruments were used in its recording (like the bagpipes, mandolin, and several synthesiser treated guitar sounds) and Oldfield played most of them himself. The blond (old white) ‘66 Fender Telecaster he used on the entire album was once owned by Marc Bolan (T-Rex). He describes his style, “For a start, I use all five fingernails on my right hand, not a plectrum, so I get a very pure sound. That’s why people don’t seem to see me as a guitar player. When there’s a video of me, I don’t look like I’m doing very much…I use Celtic grace notes a lot. I use violin vibrato; I can only think of Robert Fripp who also uses that”. Some of the keyboards and synthesisers he’s used would be the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5s, the Roland JV 1080 and JV 2080, plus a Korg M-1, and for pianos, a Steinway and a Clavia Nord Lead. Not only did Tubular Bells launch Virgin into the limelight as a label, it also is given credit for leading the way in ‘new age’ music. Aan the cherry on top was winning the Grammy for Best Musical Composition in 1974.

The subsequent release was Hergest Ridge, which pushed Tubular Bells from #1 on the U.K. charts before being toppled again by the same album. He was still playing the Tele for that album, and admits it wasn’t until the following album that things changed, “What I didn’t have in those days - not until 1975’s ‘Ommadawn’ - was the searing Gibson sound. I remember, sometime mid-70s I had some money to spend, so I went to Denmark Street, paid a few hundred pounds and walked away the proud owner of a ‘69 Gibson SG. Ommadawn was a further exploration of sound, using a whimsical atmospheric approach and world music. With the advent of punk music, Oldfield felt somewhat at a loss, so he took a few years off to get his outlook fixed. He took a self-assertive course called Exegesis, which did exactly that; this once reserved fellow began to take bolder steps towards market accessibility, so he hit the road with European tour to promote his next record Incantations(some of which is featured on the live album Exposed).

In 1982 he put out QE2 which headed directly to the dance clubs. Gone were the lengthy orchestrations and here was something of a pop revival, as seen in the band’s cover of ABBAs Arrival. For most of the 80s he stayed in this comfort zone with efforts such as Crises (‘83), Discovery (‘84), and Islands (‘87) fit the pop genre nicely.

The journey continued for Oldfield into songwriting and some collaborations with leading singers over his ripping solos. The most memorable of these was on the hit track Moonlight Shadow, accompanied by Maggie Reilly. And in the U.S., he hit the charts once again with Hall & Oates covering his Family Man for their H2O release (1982). Then he turned his attention again to film and video, arranging the score for The Killing Fields by Roland Joffe, and producing the video for his ‘87 album Islands. He arranged the score for NASA’s The Space Movie, and contributed to making the soundtrack for The X Files.

Around this time things at Virgin were getting tense, Branson insisted he record Tubular Bells 2, but Oldfield didn’t like that title, so he cut another one called Amarok, an hour-long trip of changing themes, musical outbursts, and even a coded insult to Branson, in Morse, saying “Fuck Off RB. The album flopped commercially, and the last record Oldfield did for Virgin was Heaven’s Open, where he sings for the first time (all the leads).

Then came the Warner years, when he continued to explore new things. The first thing out of the gate was Tubular Bells II, a sequel to the original opus, which opened with a concert at Edinburgh Castle, then The Songs Of Distant Earth, based on a book of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke, which offered a smoother ‘new age’ feel. A fun fact about the sci-fi album is that Oldfield had an asteroid officially named after him, 5656 Oldfield, by the International Astronomical Union, the people who name the orbs zipping around above us. He is also an aviator/pilot with aircraft and helicopter licenses, (is there anything the man can’t do?)

In 1995 he took more interest in the Celtic sounds, and put out  Voyageur, no doubt after meeting Luar na Lubre, a Galician Celtic folk band in ‘92, in fact he covered one of their pieces called O Son Do Ar - the sound of the air. Tubular Bells III was released in 1998, it was inspired by the dance scene in his then new home in Ibiza, Spain. The following year he released 2 albums, Guitars and The Millenium Bell, both housing yet new sounds of  historic periods in the last millenium. As we have mentioned above he was a wizard at playing numerous instruments throughout his illustrious career, for example: apart from his Fenders and Gibsons, guitars like the 1989 PRS Artist Custom 24, with which he used a Roland GP 8 effects processor to get that overdriven guitar sound, and a variety of other fretted instruments such as the banjo, bouzouki, and ukulele, then on winds, the recorder, flageolet, penny and bass whistles, and Northumbrian bagpipes...and the list goes on to free-reeds, strings and unpitched and tuned percussion varieties.

In 2002 he marked another change in media direction with his Music VR project, a virtual reality computer game, the Tr3s Lunas, which allows players to interact with the world of new music. It is a 2CD set, one for the player and the other with the music. His following virtual reality game was called Maestro, with themes from his Tubular Bells 2003 album. You can play the games for free at Pure genius.

Mr. Oldfield has been involved in charities as well, composing an exclusive song Song of Survival for the group Survival International, and at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony he performed versions of Tubular Bells: Far Above the Clouds and In Dulci Jubilo.

Light & Shade was published in 2006, a double CD exploring concepts ‘light’ relaxing chill sounds and ‘shade’ a darker, sharper approach. But perhaps his best critical acclaim to come along in years was the rocker Man On the Rocks, where he plays mostly guitar but is accompanied by the talents of Leland Sklar on bass, keyboardist Matt Rollings, John Robinson on drums, Michael Thompson on guitar and The Struts singer Luke Spiller. It is a pop/rock set that gets its sources from Celtic rock/folk and has hints of Toto, Queen and Steve Miller Band, dealing with topics such as loss, struggle, freedom and redemption; a compelling addition to his mountain of work.

To look deeper into this man’s historical contributions to music we suggest you watch the 2013 BBC broadcast of Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story, and hour-long clip of admiration for his musical career and life. He was and is truly a giant among the best composers and musicians in history.