Tubular Bells

Mike Oldfield

Virgin Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/12/1997

One of my earliest memories is going out shopping with my mom (who is partly - oh, hell, totally to blame for me being the music junkie I am today) to find a record. The film The Exorcist had just come out, and people all around the country found the film's title theme to be a haunting, but beautiful, piece of work. The record where it came from, Tubular Bells, was almost impossible to find in our area, but Mom got her hands on a copy. And the rest, they say, was history. (I went on to wear out her copy, replace it with another, and buy myself a copy which sits in the Pierce Memorial Archives "Hall Of Fame.")

It escaped notice of many people that, had it not been for one Richard Branson and his fledgling Virgin record label, Tubular Bells never would have seen the light of day, having been rejected by all the major labels. And that, kids, would have been a goddamn shame. This record is one of the best all-instrumental works I have heard since A&P brought back their classical record collection.

The whole album is one song, split into two movements. Oldfield, known only in his native Britain at the time, came up with this astounding project, one which took balls the size of cantaloupes to conceive and produce. I mean, he needed to write segments of music, in all styles and flavors, that blended together almost seamlessly. It had to be flawless - and he nbtc__dv_250 almost pulled it off - we'll get back to that thought later.

The portion of Tubular Bells best known to many is the first movement, the actual theme music from The Exorcist. The opening piano line, quickly melded in with an organ and bass line, immeditely captures the listener's attention. Oldfield played all but a few instruments on this one, and he is able to handle each one's nuances with astounding skill - it seems like he has an entire orchestra at his command. (He would, a few years later - check out The Orchestral Tubular Bells.)

A work this expansive is extremely hard to quantify in terms of success (like I mentioned in an earlier Jethro Tull review, how does one determine what movement is what? Was that the fifth or the ninth?), but the first side flows from one concept to another with remarkable precision. One minute it is a mandolin chorus leading the tune, the next it is wild fretting of electric guitar. The first side closes with the magnum opus, with Master of Ceremonies Viv Stanshall (in the only real vocal appearance on the album) introducing the instruments - including, of course, tubular bells.

The second side has some of the more "natural" music - with more of a folk rock feel, especialy in Oldfield's use of guitars and piano. (The "vocals" of Piltdown Man, which sounds like Oldfield after a rough night at the pub, was always a favorite of mine as a child, and is still enjoyable today.) The free-form movement near the end is interesting to hear as it unfolds, though sometimes it seems like Oldfield is having difficulty bringing his work to a close.

Ah, the close - a country, hoe-down that builds itself into a frenzy. Here is where Oldfield makes the only mistake on the entire album. This short portion of music sounds the most out of place - it is almost as if he figured he'd featured all the other types of music in Tubular Bells, may as well throw some country into it. Wrong. Still, this is a small flaw in an otherwise incredible work.

Oldfield never seemed to top Tubular Bells, not for his lack of trying. (He made a terrible mistake a few years ago when he released Tubular Bells 2, which seems to rework his master piece measure for measure. Avoid this one at all costs.) But if he were to be remembered for only this album, it's a grand way to be remembered. Tubular Bells is nothing short of a masterpiece, one flaw and all, and should be in everybody's collection.

As for myself, I know what Mom is getting this Mother's Day - I'm going to update her copy of Tubular Bells to compact disc.

Editor's note: I finally got around to reviewing Tubular Bells 2 four years after this review ran... did my opinion about that album change? Guess you'll have to dig up that review to find out.)

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin Records, and is used for informational purposes only.