You’re probably sick of hearing me say, “I didn’t know much about [author of the book of the moment] until I read the book”, so I’ll simply say Mike Oldfield’s story was nothing like I’d expected.
I remember when I was in Grade 7 one of the older kids at school talking about the experience of listening to Tubular Bells, and I’d built it up to be this amazing piece of music that would completely alter my mind. After that build up, I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even if I actually heard it before listening to Tubular Bells II, which was released in 1992. What I do remember is that around the time I was listening to Tubular Bells II, there was one of those end of the world rapture prophecies floating round. I hadn’t quite weaned myself off my grandmother’s religious views at this time, so I wasn’t too sure whether to believe this or not, but I clearly remember thinking if the world was going to end, that was the music I wanted to be listening to when it happened.
Also around this time I went to see the musical Hair (at the Theatre Royal), which I loved, and I had the cast recording on high rotation along with Tubular Bells II at that time. When I was reading the book I thought it was kind of cool that Mike Oldfield had been in the orchestra for the original production of Hair during its West End run in the early 1970s. Strange grooves.
And for with that rather long and rambling introduction, here’s my thoughts on the book.
It’s broken up into five groups of three chapters, and begins with an intense description of a rebirthing process Mr Oldfield went through in 1978 (the Exegis seminar), where he faces his demons and survives, an experience that he describes as resulting in “the huge blood-crazed demons that had been stalking [him] for the previous 20 years suddenly disappeared”.
Most of the book is about his life from when he was born in 1953 to 1981; the final chapter covers the period from 1990 to 2006, and there are four short interludes written in 2006 and 2007 that cover his thoughts on Family, Spirituality, Fame and Rebirth. I liked the structure. It was hard not to feel the pain of the little boy who never fitted in, and whose family gradually fell apart as he grew up.
He writes of Christmas 1960:
My dad had made me a beautiful model of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier [he was into planes]. It was complete with little tiny planes, each on individually painted. I remember that Christmas like it’s locked in my brain because of that model. The fact that my father made it and hand-painted it himself really impressed itself on me. When I was later to write music, maybe that was part of why I wanted to pay great attention to detail, to make sure it was something really special. To be worthwhile, I knew it had to be really big, epic and important, not something to be thrown away. Perhaps those feelings go back to that wonderful Christmas present.
As a child, Mr Oldfield came to music as a release from his problems at school and at home. He writes of how he would listen to records and spend hours trying to work out how to play a certain piece: “It was like a switch went on in my head: I’d finally found something that I really liked and I really wanted to do. . . . I must have looked completely obsessive, but for me it was a way of escape.”
At the age of 12 he started playing regular gigs at the Reading Folk Club. His older sister Sally was playing in the clubs as well, with her friend Marianne Faithfull, and he says of the time that he he wasn’t really socialising, as most of the people he was around were older. He was using his guitar as a means of communication and escape from school, his mother’s mental illness and family problems. He writes:
I understood music like other people didn’t. I felt it and saw it very deeply, with crystal clarity. When I listened to a piece of music I could see all its components, its parts and how they fitted together. I didn’t just sit back and think, ‘oh that’s nice.’ If someone said something like that to me I would be furious with them, ‘What do you mean, can’t you see what’s going on? It’s brilliant!’ Music to me was something different, a vast kaleidoscope of magic and wonder. To this day my mind boggles at how superficially some people listen to music.
In music, he had found a way of coping with life. He writes that it was a sanctuary where he felt safe, it was something that he found interesting – and it was something that made him socially acceptable.
Mr Oldfield recalls his first music class at school after his family had moved from Reading to Harold Wood, where he had to conform to the rules. While he created beautiful harmonies, it wasn’t what the teacher had wanted, and he found the whole experience boring. However, he credits this teacher for introducing him to one of his favourite pieces of music, Sibellius’ fifth symphony, and he says that the beginnings of Tubular Bells started from him wondering how he could do something like that piece.
It was at this time that he was introduced to LSD and hash, and he explains that things wouldn’t have happened the same way without drugs:
That first experience might have flipped a few switches in my brain that led to the utter paranoia I experienced later, which left me feeling incapable of doing much at all for years and years. Through all of that came my life as it is, Tubular Bells and everything else. I wouldn’t put it all down to my drugs experiences but they made me who I am and made the music the way it was.
His experiences with drugs were relatively short-lived though. Following a horror trip in 1970 when he saw reality as it really was, which was the beginning of a decade of panic attacks, he says he’s never touched LSD again.
By this time he was waiting for his 15th birthday so he could leave school. In the meantime he recorded some demo tapes with his sister Sally, under the supervision of Mick Jagger. They ended up recording an album together under the name Sallyangie, but eventually Mr Oldfield felt as though he was in his sister’s shadow and he wanted to do his own thing.
The book continues to tell the story of Mr Oldfield’s first band, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, which he joined at the age of 16. He notes that he felt like he was the young boy in a band of much older guys, and he didn’t think they took him seriously -they tolerated him, but he wanted to be as good as them. It was with Kevin Ayers that he first started drinking, which he says helped his guitar solo in the show become one of the wild points – like Angus Young of AC/DC (who actually doesn’t drink!).
After this band disbanded, Mr Oldfield continued working with Kevin Ayers and eventually ended up at Shipton Manor, owned by Richard Branson, having been given the chance to work on the album that would become Tubular Bells.
This was recorded over two periods in 1972 and 1973, and the book describes the huge amount of work he put into this album that became a monstrous hit – and how he signed a contract with Virgin that in the end committed him to 17 years and 13 albums with the label. On becoming famous, Mr Oldfield writes:
Eventually I realised that I couldn’t have any true friends any more, because I couldn’t trust why they were being friendly. . . . It’s horrible but I couldn’t see any way of avoiding the feelings of mistrust. To succeed in the music business you have to be very savvy and worldly wise. If anyone can rip you off they will, without a second’s thought. . . The paradox is if you become strong and tough enough to deal with it, you could lose the sensitivity needed to create whatever it is, the music, the art.
Mr Oldfield goes on to describe the difficulty he had following up such a successful album (Hergest Ridge, the difficult second album), his increasing dependence on alcohol, and the release of his more successful third album Ommadawn in 1975. As the 1970s progressed the world of music was shifting to punk and Virgin, which was essentially a one-artist label, was feeling like a laughing stock, debating whether to drop the “progressive” label and focus on punk. Mr Oldfield writes that he wasn’t marketable at that time, and was constantly attacked in the music press. Consequently he lost his spark and music became a chore to him. It was around this time he attended the Exegis seminar, after which he felt like he was floating on a cloud. He decided he needed a new way of living and working – he writes that it was like starting a completely different life.
He writes of becoming a father, losing his fear of flying then learning to fly, and even going on tour, which he had refused to do in the past.
The final two chapters of the book cover 1981 to 2006. He writes of the settlement agreement with Virgin and another breakdown he had at the end of the Discovery tour in 1984, the break up of his relationship and the albums he made in a more commercial vein with actual songs on them (this was the Moonlight Shadow period). He writes that that last album he made that was full of songs was Earth Moving in 1989. His next album Amarok, was another instrumental album. Richard Branson had wanted him to call it Tubular Bells II but he refused. He said he wanted to do Tubular Bells II, but that wasn’t it. As a result, he says, Virgin didn’t promote it, and it didn’t sell well. He says this is a shame because it’s probably one of the best things he’s ever done.
It’s a single 60-minute piece, which was probably difficult to isolate a piece for radio or release from, and has been described as Mr Oldfield’s protest album against Virgin, and apparently includes Morse Code spelling out “FUCK OFF RB” about 48 minutes in.
Mr Oldfield finally did get to make Tubular Bells II, released in 1992 on his new label Warner. He describes working on it as a joy and that it, and therapy, helped him get through the break-up of his family, his second relationship break-up involving children.
The book ends with Mr Oldfield’s musings on “now”:
I’ve had to learn what I am and it’s not a musician, it’s something else. To me, a musician gets out his instrument and just plays or entertains. That’s not me at all: What I can do is transfer the essence of a feeling or emotion, express it in music. … I’m an interpreter, a sonic mood translator if you like. I can take the beautiful feelings you get in life, and the horrible ones as well, and I can turn them into aural sounds, give form to them in music . . .
From now on my music is not going to be cool, it’s not going to be hip or sexy. It’s going be hand-played and mathematical; it’s going to be as complicated as I feel it needs to be. I’m not going to care if anyone likes it or buys, it, which is exactly the way I felt when I was 19. . . If I can somehow persuade people how to play again properly, to stop concentrating on how good they look on TV and really start to do interesting things with music, then I’ll try to do that.
I found Mr Oldfield’s story fascinating and knowing the stories has made me want to track down more of his work. I’m currently listening to Ommadawn, which I love and have on high rotation. I think I’ll figure out the Morse Code in Amarok next!
Post script: As I was putting this post together, I learned that Mr Oldfield’s father, Raymond Oldfield, passed away last week. In the book Mr Oldfield says that he has tremendous respect for his father, and that he’s learned how important it is to accept your parents the way they are. He learned in the Exegis seminar that “we look at our parents like gods” and that “if you don’t grow up and see them in their proper place, as proper human beings, you can carry on your whole life looking at them through the wrong perspective”. I think I know what he means there, and it’s a good lesson to learn.