Funny how things turn out. The powerful Virgin brand grew out of a shy but precocious teenager who played the guitar and just about any other instrument he could get his hands on.
It was a project that no one, even that teenager, would have believed would take off. Fortunately, one of those who saw a flash of inspiration was a renegade young head of a record store.
50 years ago this week, Mike Oldfield’s tubebuilder Bills rang out — and Richard Branson’s show business empire headed for the stratosphere.
The seminal work became largely an iconic album of the 1970s, selling 2.7 million copies in the UK and 18 million worldwide, making it one of the UK’s 50 best-selling albums. Figures show that it spent 287 weeks in the UK charts.
The anniversary has rung many bells.
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While avoiding nearly all public contacts, Oldfield has overseen an extended release of the album.
Alongside the original work is the remixed piece he wrote and performed at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, possibly his last major appearance, along with the 2018 intro to the never-arrived Tubular Bells 4 which Virgin Records says “might well be the last”. A piece Oldfield has ever scored.”
He’s long lived a reclusive life, moving to the Bahamas in 2009 — and now retired.
Of his Caribbean revue (apparently rather low key, rather than Millionaire’s Paradise) he released a statement: “Listening again to the musical outpourings of a teen with anxiety, it’s hard to believe I was, in fact, 50 years ago.
The music doesn’t seem to be filled with anxiety, but I just know the years of work and stress that have produced Tubular Bells.
“It was all live, first perform performances with no second chances or trick the studio like we used to do that day.
“I thought little when I was making tubular bells that anyone might hear them, let alone celebrate them five decades later! Thank you to everyone who has listened over the years.”
This past Monday also marked the 70th birthday of the man who led a promiscuous life but let the music do the talking. His childhood was filled with problems – his mother suffered from drinking, drugs and mental health problems – yet he managed to learn the guitar.
By the time he was 15, he was touring with his older sister Sally as the folk duo The Sallyangie, recording the 1968 album Children Of The Sun.
They split up but he found a job in the ultra-progressive band Kevin Ayers & the Whole World – his guitar solo on the long, languid title track of their album Whatevershebringswesing is an enchanting taste of what’s to come.
A month after his 17th birthday, they were playing a free concert in Hyde Park, supporting Pink Floyd who premiered their soon-to-be debut album Atom Heart Mother.
By 1971, Mike was a session musician, playing with reggae singer Arthur Lewis who was recording at his new Oxfordshire studio, The Manor.
It was created by Richard Branson after the success of his Virgin Records store, above a shoe store in London’s Oxford Street.
Oldfield’s early tapes of his work—then called Opus One—were passed to Branson who gave him a week’s recording time.
Impressed with the results, Branson attempted to interest major labels in the album.
“I knew when I heard the demo that the world needed to hear it too — but I’ve had rejection after rejection,” Branson said on his Virgin blog. “So, we decided to launch our own record label to release this album. It was a big risk because it was so different from everything else that had come before it and there was no other music like it at the time.”
It was a complete album that was created almost entirely by one guy who played 20 instruments and who had just turned 20 a few days before it was released.
He had a hypnotic voice close to New Age but not without a sense of humor.
Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band as master of ceremonies provides the instrumentation, culminating in “Tubular Bells!”
Then there’s the caveman sequence that showcases Oldfield’s growls and screams, his response to Branson’s request for some vocals until there’s a hit single.
The record was a success, but six months later an unexpected occurrence in an already unlikely story turned him into a legend.
The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, took his gently undulating opening theme to replace the film’s original score he wasn’t happy with — so bestowing glory across the Atlantic on the record.
In 16 months from early 1974, it was out of the charts for only four weeks. It eventually reached No. 1 – only for Oldfield to knock himself off the top spot with his follow-on Hergest Ridge, making him the only living artist other than the Beatles to manage the feat.
Oldfield’s mixture of bravado and insecurity returned shortly after launching his business.
Not eager to play the star on stage, he accepted Branson’s London show, featuring Steve Winwood and Mick Taylor of the Stones, but tried to back out at the last minute.
Branson promised to give him his Bentley if he continued – Branson lost his car but his future was secured in a way Oldfield might not have been.
More successful albums followed as well as singles – Moonlight Shadow and his version of the Blue Peter theme, which opened the popular children’s TV show for a decade from 1979.
But he never managed to escape the sound of the bells: There was Tubular Bells II in 1992, Tubular Bells III (1998), The Millennium Bell (1999) and Tubular Bells 2003, a digital re-recording of the original on its 30th anniversary.
In the late 1970s, he became involved with the cult-like Interpretation group and underwent treatment for his drinking problems. His first marriage, in 1978, to a relative of the group’s leader, lasted only three months.
Three more marriages followed, with seven children. Oldfield moved to Ibiza in the 1990s, then moved back to England before finally settling in the Bahamas in 2009.
For Branson, the record took him to incredible heights — one of the billionaire’s Virgin Atlantic jumbo jets is named the Tubular Belle in her honour.
- The Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary Edition, released Friday, features the original album remastered plus nine other pieces, including the unheard Tubular Bells 4 in five years.
- Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Tubular Bells, mixing guitars and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – plus theatrical works by Brian Blessed – features excerpts from Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, as well as Moonlight Shadow.
- The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is offering Sunday Express readers £15 worth of tickets to see the video games in concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, 6 June, at 7.30pm. Featuring music from The Last of Us, Fortnite, World of Warcraft, and many more. To book a visit rpo.co.uk/whats-on/eventdetail/1969/-/video-games-in-concert?buy and enter the code Express when you go out
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