Plus… Tubular Bells

In which The Author issues a rallying cry

Last night, BBC Four broadcast a half-hour concert featuring Mike Oldfield and a host of musicians performing Tubular Bells live in the studio. It’s the second time it’s been shown on this tucked-away channel, and this time I was ready for it. By using a sneaky back-door Linux program, I was able to download it and keep it for ever.
If you read my blog regularly, you’ll already know that I’m a huge music fan. For me, buying Tubular Bells represented the first step from hearing ‘pop music’ (in other words, whatever was on the radio) to seriously listening to music. The LP was already the best part of a decade old when I first acquired it on cassette. However, as I was only six years old when Mike Oldfield first set up his gear at The Manor, I think I can be excused my fairly delayed responses.
At first I didn’t know what to make of it. The initial piano theme isn’t much to listen to, and (in retrospect) the bass guitar could have come in several bars sooner. After that, the multi-tracked instruments are added in layers, building into one of the most hypnotic, magical, and memorable pieces of ‘pop’ music ever recorded.
I didn’t know anything about Mike Oldfield at the time, apart from the fact that he’d recorded a radical new version of the Blue Peter signature tune for BBC children’s TV:

Shortly before that, he’d scored a minor hit with Guilty, the video for which used to be played in between programmes on HTV. Guilty was one of the first records I ever bought. I loved the repetitive riff, the layered structure, and the way it mixed proper instruments with the ‘new’ synthesisers which were just starting to break into the mainstream.
Even then, I didn’t know anything about Mr Oldfield’s career up to that point. Browsing in Woolworths one Saturday, I discovered Tubular Bells. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it changed my life. I’d never realised before that it was possible for one man to execute such a magnificent piece of work. I didn’t know that it was the LP which had kick-started Richard Branson’s Virgin record label, that it had lived in the charts for years, and I certainly didn’t know that the opening theme featured in The Exorcist. It just hit me somewhere between the head and the heart and turned me on (in a nice, drug-free way) in a way I’d never been turned on before.
When I chanced upon Pete Frame’s book Rock Family Trees, at the age of sixteen, I came across Mr Oldfield’s name tucked away in the Canterbury Bands double-spread. By turns, his musical adventures led me down numerous mossed-over alleyways, to Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine, Gong, Brian Eno, King Crimson… (See Leaving No Turn Unstoned.) I’ve listened to Tubular Bells hundreds of times, and it’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have discovered a large body of work which I know and love now if I hadn’t explored Mr Oldfield’s diverse pathways.
Anyway, I’m posting this tonight because the programme will only be on the BBC iPlayer for a week or so. The last time it was on, Vicki F. and I logged into an online forum and asked who else had been in the studio for the recording. We’d both recognised Mike Ratledge immediately; we’d seen his slightly sinister silhouette on a plethora of Soft Machine YouTube clips. Fortunately, someone was able to fill in the gaps: Fred Frith, Steve Hillage, Pierre Moerlen, Mick Taylor, Karl Jenkins, Tim Hodgkinson, John Greaves… It’s a premier league line-up of post-prog, pre-punk, avant-garde musical noodlers.
This is why I’m posting this tonight, in a particular appeal to my friends who have young children. I bet your kids are upstairs right now, listening to Miley Cyrus or some gangsta rap shit on MTV.
Go and get them!
Drag them downstairs (by their legs. if necessary), sit them down in front of the computer, fire up the BBC iPlayer, turn the speakers up to 11, and bawl (as loud as you possibly can over the noise from the stereo):
‘Listen to this, you bastards! Revel in this fucking masterful piece of composition, the sublime performances, the sheer virtuosity of the people involved. How dare you even mention Justin Bieber in the same lifetime as these magicians, you pathetic musical illiterates? Until you’ve seen and heard and appreciated this, you have no fucking right whatsoever to put “listening to music” as an interest on your UCAS forms!’
While they’re absorbed by the TV, make a list of ‘proper’ music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, The Beatles, whoever) to turn them on to when you get time. Even so, always remember that this is the moment where it all begins for them!
Then kick them back upstairs, roll yourself a fat one, and stick on Incantations to round the night off.
And that, my friends, is where a decent musical education starts…
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