Oldfield's magnum opus and assorted hits, remastered for the 21st century.
Chris Jones 2009-06-09
In 1972 the reclusive ex-bass player from Kevin Ayers' band The Whole World, after several rejections, had his demo of a single, instrumental piece of music, entirely self played, finally enthused over by a recording engineer by the name of Tom Newman. Newman happened to be helping to build a new studio called simply The Manor in Oxfordshire for his boss, a certain Richard Branson. Thus it was that what was originally titled Opus One was released as the first album on the Virgin Records label under the title of Tubular Bells. Five years in the charts (one of these at number one) later, and history had been made. And now, 35 years later, with the rights finally reverting to Oldfield, The Collection sees the work get what must be a definitive remastering.
The irony of the anniversary being marked by another label is immense. Richard Branson's empire was founded on Tubular Bells' success and while the hippy ideals that marked the label's origins may well have faded into the mists it seems sad that subsequent bad blood (free copies given away with the Mail On Sunday without Oldfield's permission) has soured two inextricably linked strands of musical history .
As for the original two-part opus itself. In these digital days the feat of writing and recording an entire multi-instrumental piece by oneself seems insignificant. But once you consider that the demos that secured Oldfield his contract were recorded on a two-track Bang & Olufsen reel to reel machine with bits of cardboard used to block the recording heads, and that even the manor where the first piece was recorded wasn't complete at the time the task becomes more impressive. As a piece its place in history, other than as the accompaniment to William Friedkin's Excorcist, is assured by its role as precursor to what came to be known as 'new age' music: equal parts Terry Riley (the introduction's juggling of time signatures in both 7 and 8), vari-speeded prog rock and folk (he'd been a teenage folkie with his sister Sally). True, by the suite's second half the ideas are a little thin on the ground (the 'Piltdown Man' section was sheer drunken extemporising) yet as a whole it still satisfies; its moods as rolling as the English countryside. And this very Englishness is, of course topped off by head Bonzo Viv Stanshall's turn as MC at the close of side one.
Accompanying the masterwork in this 35th anniversary edition is the 'collection' half of the offering, drawn from a selection of hits and highlights from the subsequent 30-odd years. These range from twee (Christmas hit, In Dulce Jubilo, the theme from Blue Peter, Portsmouth: what was it with hornpipes?) to the persuasively poppy (Family Man, Moonlight Shadow; with its famous tautological line about ''Four AM in the morning''). And of course more instrumental magic, the peak of which comes from his third album, Ommadawn; a piece which in some ways trumped his debut for a complete statement of pastoral bliss.
Oldfield's place in rock history is assured despite a mid-life crisis of sorts that saw him dally with Ibizan dance. That he came along at a time where youthful talent was still given room to breath, by entrepreneurs who had yet to lose the last glimmers of 60s idealism, is something we should all be grateful for.