Too long, too complex, too weird: the twisted history of Tubular Bells

The 'bent tube’ vinyl album cover of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells - Records / Alamy Stock Photo
The 'bent tube’ vinyl album cover of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells - Records / Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s like the lunar landings. Everyone knows where they were when they first heard Tubular Bells,” says Robin Smith, a musician who on February 3 embarked on a 32-date UK tour to perform Mike Oldfield’s 1973 ambient-prog-folk album to tens of thousands of fans.

Released 50 years ago this spring, Tubular Bells was a surprise smash that turned its teenage composer into a reluctant, and very wealthy, rock star. The album – which comprises just two vocal-free tracks that clock in at around 25 minutes each – sold 17 million copies, launched Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, soundtracked the scariest horror film of all time and even had its ‘bent tube’ cover reproduced on Royal Mail postage stamps. It also marked an early fusion of classical music and rock, leading to one of the most logistically-challenging – but ultimately iconic – music performances in BBC television history.

Smith is leading an eight-person ensemble in playing the album live (with the blessing of his reclusive pal Oldfield, who now lives in the Bahamas). It’s testament to the album’s enduring appeal that it’s still packing out concert halls from Exeter to Edinburgh, often with two generations of the same family, Smith says.

If you think you haven’t heard the album, you have. That spine-chilling piano motif with the odd time signature in The Exorcist, before Linda Blair’s head gymnastics rob you of your ability to sleep? That’s Tubular Bells. It’s unforgettable. But there’s more to the album than that one refrain. Much more. It encompasses everything from chamber music and folk to Metallica-like rock and Spaghetti Western vibes. And that’s just side one.

Given this, it’s no surprise that Tubular Bells’ success was unexpected on its 1973 release. Musically, it existed somewhere to the left of leftfield. The UK’s most popular albums of 1972 (that weren’t genre-straddling hits compilations) were either unchallenging radio-friendly releases by the likes of Donny Osmond, Lindisfarne and Scottish Opportunity Knocks winner Neil Reid, or rock and glam albums by bands such as Deep Purple and T. Rex. In 1973, Elton John, Slade and David Bowie dominated the charts. If Tubular Bells shared any musical DNA with anyone then it was prog band Yes, whose two-hour opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was also released in 1973.

The album’s release came about almost by chance at a time when struggling entrepreneur Branson was trying to break into the music game. After starting his career aged 15 with his national magazine Student in 1968, Branson had moved into mail order record retailing as a means of funding his publishing activities. But he’d landed in hot water with the authorities due to the creative way he’d accounted for Purchase Tax. He was hit by a huge fine which he paid for by doubling down on his music-related activities. This included opening more shops, creating The Manor recording studio in a crumbling country pile in Oxfordshire, and launching a record label if his team could find the acts. There was no guarantee this last bit would happen.

Simon Draper, the then-chairman of Virgin, told a recent documentary that most musicians didn’t want to sign with a start-up, underdog label. “Artists wanted the power and the money and the clout of a big international record company, so I was very limited in what I could actually do,” Draper said. On top of this, he says he wasn’t motivated by signing future hit-makers. “My motive was to make records that were important, ground-breaking [and] avant-garde, not particularly, necessarily, successful commercially,” Draper said. By default and design, Virgin’s hunting ground was limited.

How lucky, then, that one of the first bands to record at The Manor was a soul group called The Arthur Louis Band. The band’s stand-in guitar player was a young, shy 19-year-old called Mike Oldfield. And Oldfield had a side hustle. It was The Manor’s residential producer Tom Newman who first heard a demo for Tubular Bells on a “little tiny reel of tape” that Oldfield had handed him, a demo that he’d started aged just 17. Oldfield had already been rejected by various labels’ A&R men, who he later said thought he was a “nutcase”. But Newman thought the demo sounded “sensational”. He sent the demo to Draper who convinced Branson to use Tubular Bells to launch the Virgin label. Oldfield worked up the album in The Manor’s downtime, playing most instruments himself from the Farfisa organ to the flageolet flute.

Mike Oldfield in 1970 - Getty
Mike Oldfield in 1970 - Getty

“The great thing about having a studio was that we’d sometimes have empty time, [such as when] the band were sleeping,” Branson told the recent HBO documentary series about his life. “Mike Oldfield came down and stayed at The Manor, and in the empty times the engineers let him go into the studio and Tubular Bells was made. Simon [Draper, Virgin’s then-chairman] heard the tape, brought it to me, we both absolutely loved it, so decided to release it.”

Some accounts have it that Virgin initially tried to sell the album to larger record companies (with Virgin acting as Oldfield’s management or agent). One US record executive offered $20,000 if vocals were added. The offer was rejected. Once released, Virgin “had to use every trick in the book to get this music promoted”, said Branson. “We managed to get it into The Exorcist film, which really helped in America. Tubular Bells stayed in the charts for two or three years.”

The album’s first side demonstrates just how strange a piece of music it is. “It starts with a nine-minute serialistic mock-classical piece with all these rock lines going on underneath, and it then goes into a big epic folk melody and then goes into another piece which is almost Metallica meets Game of Thrones rock,” says Smith, its most recent champion. “It then goes into a bit of saloon music, followed by a sort of Ennio Morricone-Clint Eastwood thing, and then you’ve got this incredible master of ceremonies [the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall] announcing the instruments, a bit like Benjamin Britten’s introduction to the orchestra but over one of the hardest guitar and bass riffs you can possibly play. I mean, rigor mortis almost sets in after playing that riff.” The second side goes to a completely new place: “It was chill music before chill was ever done,” he says.

The album was a slow-burner but entered the UK charts in July 1973 and lodged itself in the top 10 (although it would be 15 months until it eventually hit number one). Aware of the success, BBC took the bold step in November 1973 of filming Oldfield and his band performing the entire first side of Tubular Bells for a Melvyn Bragg-fronted arts programme called 2nd House.

Pop music was nothing new on the BBC. The year before, Bowie had enthralled the nation’s teens with his rendition of Starman on Top of the Pops. But that song lasted three and a half minutes, not the best part of half an hour. It also had a singer for the cameras to focus on. Tony Staveacre, who directed 2nd House, tells me that filming Tubular Bells was “absolutely terrifying”, although he puts this down to nervous excitement. The 2nd House team was more used to filming clips from ballets than mind-bending musical opuses.

“We had one rehearsal and I think that was it. For a piece that is that intricate and has so many quite subtle changes – there are about forty different musical events and everything bleeds into the next section – we had to find a visual thing that would complement the music,” Staveacre, now 80, recalls. In order to create a “visual essay”, he set the group of 14 musicians up in the round, seated and facing inwards, a trope he borrowed from a 1957 CBS recording of a Billie Holiday concert. This allowed viewers to witness the performers’ eye contact as they wove Tubular Bells’ complex fabric. And he displayed visuals onto a vast 2nd House logo behind the band as the performance progressed. This was done using a then-cutting edge BBC technique called Colour Separation Overlay (green screen-type trickery involving blue light). It allowed fairground rides and rolling waves to accompany the music. The whole thing was filmed in one take.

Mike Oldfield in 1974 - Alamy
Mike Oldfield in 1974 - Alamy

The 2nd House broadcast is astonishing to watch today. This is partly due to Oldfield’s band. It included Mick Taylor, then a member of the Rolling Stones, Steve Hillage from Gong (another Virgin act) and composer (now Sir) Karl Jenkins, who was then in Soft Machine. “It was extraordinary. And they were totally professional. There was no rock star behaviour at all. Everybody was on time,” Staveacre says.

The show also represents one of the first televised collisions of the classical and rock worlds. The band was set up like a chamber group and members played from printed scores. Yet the musicians’ long hair and wild solos told of alternative shores. Oldfield wore a brown vest beneath his lank mane and played with an insouciance more suggestive of a jamming session in a student bedsit than a primetime slot on the British Broadcasting Corporation. This chamber-rock set up is common now – the show strongly brings to mind post-2000 Radiohead concerts, in which band members feed off each other to create intricate soundscapes – but at the time it broke ground. “It frightens me now to think how brazen we were in those days,” Staveacre says.

Anyone in doubt about how novel this all was need look no further than a wonderful online clip of a psychedelically-attired Hillage playing a shredding five-minute guitar solo at a later Oldfield show at the Royal Albert Hall, this time backed by a full orchestra. Behind Hillage sits a double bass player from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in white tie and tails. His face as the Gong man takes the music into increasingly far-out territory is a picture of bemusement. Worlds really were colliding.

The 2nd House film has been watched 5.6 million times since it appeared on YouTube five years ago. Staveacre says that although he never heard from Oldfield about the show, one person connected with Tubular Bells was very happy with it. “Richard Branson was well pleased. I believe a case of champagne came to my house,” he says.

Oldfield was always a shy man who had to be nagged into performing live back then. He hated the attention that Tubular Bells brought him and, suffering from extreme anxiety, fled to the Welsh countryside soon after. But he remained prolific: he has since released 25 further studio albums and various live LPs, collaborations and compilations. He also had numerous hit singles (including 1983’s Moonlight Shadow), has recorded a version of the Blue Peter theme and played at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. During a rocky patch with Virgin in 1990, Oldfield famously spelled out a message to Branson in Morse code on one of his tracks: “F-CK OFF RB.”

Robin Smith, who last saw Oldfield when they worked together on the Olympics performance, describes him as a “wonderful, beautiful person who doesn’t like the limelight”. I suggest that Oldfield’s refusenik tendencies and anarchic flashes make him a prog rock version of the Sex Pistols, another Virgin signing. Is this why he’s sitting this 50-year anniversary tour out? “Mike still has that [punk] attitude: ‘Take me as I am, I’ll give you music but don’t try and force me to do anything because I won’t,’” Smith says.

Besides, like Branson, Oldfield has a hot island to relax on thanks in part to Tubular Bells. And forget the lunar landings or the Sex Pistols. Oldfield has compared his album to another cultural phenomenon, one that came out of nowhere and, aptly, involved a boy wonder creating magic. “It’s always the outsider, the black sheep, that becomes the blockbuster,” he said in 2014 of his success. “Look at Harry Potter.”

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells – the 50th Anniversary Celebration is touring until March 31. Tickets: