The return of Mike Oldfield

Unfortunately, the father of orchestral pop is better celebrated for his earlier accomplishments

April 8, 2014

 

Pressed to name a long-lost “buried treasure” who’s way overdue for a Nick Drake or Neu!-style rediscovery by the rock underground, Mike Oldfield is at the top of my list.

Forever best-known for the 1973 album Tubular Bells, which provided the most memorable musical moments to that year’s classic religious horror flick The Exorcist, the British guitarist started his career playing what might be called epic, symphonic psychedelic-surf instrumentals, with the unique twist that he largely was a one-man orchestra, recording most of the instruments himself via a pioneering use of multi-track overdubbing that arguably leads in a long, twisting line to the best of today’s most innovative bedroom-laptop auteurs. (Hello, Dan Deacon!)

Granted, this is a bit of a guilty pleasure on my part—those 14-year-old progressive-rock obsessions die hard—but when a publicist pitched me on the arrival lo these many years later of new Oldfield—via his old label Virgin Records, no less—my heart leapt with joy, despite the fact that previous comebacks have been somewhat disappointing (he has twice “re-imagined” Tubular Bells for new digital technology, with vastly underwhelming results) and that much of what he’s done in the last three decades has been just vaguely pleasant New Age music.

Alas, Man on the Rocks fails to live up to this fan’s expectations, sharing more in common with latter-day pop excursions by fading prog heroes (see: Mike + the Mechanics or the dreaded Asia) than with quality vintage Oldfield, or even those Tubular Bells remakes. For his 25th solo album, our boy apparently wanted to do something a bit rockier and more song-oriented, so he recruited some studio musicians and a particularly bland and generic singer (Luke Spiller) and collaborated with them largely via Skype, resulting in thoroughly unmemorable, hook-free, and meaningless ditties such as “Sailing,” “Dreaming in the Wind,” and “Following the Angels,” redeemed only slightly and briefly by his typically elegiac guitar solos.

Oh, well; we still have old Oldfield, and I’m sticking with my contention that a lot of that is very much worth rediscovering and celebrating, starting with that infamous musical millstone around his neck. Oldfield recorded some 28 instrumental parts for Tubular Bells—including everything from Spanish guitar to Lowrey organ to glockenspiel—saturating the master tape with some 2,000 overdubs. The album sold more than 16 million copies, putting Virgin Records on the map, and introducing classical music for people who wouldn’t otherwise touch the stuff, or rock ’n’ roll that rejects conventional song structures, vocals, and instrumentation. (And who ever said you couldn’t rock out with a glockenspiel?)

A masterpiece of headphone rock, the lulling tour of Oldfield’s bedroom world is interrupted only when Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band makes his grand entrance to introduce each of the instruments: “Double speed guitar… one slightly distorted guitar… plus… tubular… bells!” And that’s as likely to prompt you to freak out and spill the bongwater today as it was way back when, especially if you’re listening via the preferred method of headphones.

Classic stuff, I tell ya, and very nearly as strong were two follow-ups also adhering to the formula of one long instrumental per vinyl album side: Hergest Ridge (1974) and Ommadawn (1975). But Oldfield wasn’t only a studio wizard.

The first live performance of Tubular Bells drew together an all-star ensemble featuring Mike Ratledge of the Soft Machine, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Steve Hillage and Pierre Moerlen of Gong, and Fred Frith of Henry Cow. The guitarist also popped up alongside Ayers, Nico, John Cale, and Brian Eno in the ultimate art-rock supergroup recorded on the album June 1, 1974. Later, he toured with a fifty-member band captured on the excellent 1979 live album Mike Oldfield Exposed. When I saw him in the early ’80s fronting a somewhat smaller but still pretty impressive big band, not long after the release of Five Miles Out (a much better song-oriented album that, curiously enough, included the tune “Family Man,” later a hit for Hall & Oates), he blew my teenaged mind—just like his best albums still do today.

Mike Oldfield, Man on the Rocks (Virgin)

Rating on the four-star scale: 1.5 stars.

 

The Oldfield You Really Need to Own

 

Tubular Bells, 1973 (4 stars)

Hergest Ridge, 1974 (3 stars)

Ommadawn, 1975 (3.5 stars)

Mike Oldfield Exposed, 1979 live album (3.5 stars)

Five Miles Out, 1982 (3 stars)

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