"Tubular Bells" was an album that I literally grew up with, one of those records that my mother played over and over again from my infanthood into childhood (at which time I was capable of playing it myself). My parents only had the first three "classic" Mike Oldfield records, but I listened to them endlessly (especially "Ommadawn," with a bit less emphasis on "Hergest Ridge").
In highschool I discovered that Oldfield had released a lot of OTHER albums as well, and I was surprised by his subsequent pop direction.
Urban myth has it that a very young Oldfield signed a terrible record contract with Virgin Records, requiring him to release twenty albums in twenty years. This may not be strictly true -- I'm too lazy to look it up right now -- but there is no doubt that Virgin controlled and directed Oldfield's career in a counterproductive way that he really hated.
They allowed him to release his "single song" concept albums for a few years, but when they began to decline in popularity they insisted on a pop song compromise: one traditional "long" composition on the first side, and five or six top 40 singles on the other.
Mike Oldfield cannot write a typical pop song, and any "exceptional" singles he produced during this period owe more to instrumentation and the performance of Maggie Reilly than his own songwriting ability. One of the best was 1984's "To France." This is a shamelessly lip-synced performance but it's actually more interesting than the real video clip. You can imagine that Oldfield is simultaneously saying "I HATE THIS!" and "I HATE VIRGIN" in his angry little head.
It's true, Oldfield DID hate Virgin, and he also grew into a real son of a bitch. Perhaps thanks to the primal therapy he underwent in the early '80s, Oldfield changed from a shy hippie into a sarcastic, bitter pop icon seemingly overnight. Accompanying this change was an increasing embrace of keyboards and sequencers (an Atari ST!) as opposed to virtuoso performance, making his music sound generic and dated.
After "Tubular Bells III" -- his "house music" album -- I stopped my knee-jerk buying of Oldfield's records. This was partly because I got annoyed by him recycling old themes and successes, but also because subsequent albums looked REALLY wanky and unpromising.
But even so, his LIVE productions continue to thrill me like nothing else, because no matter how uninspired the studio versions are it is still amazing to see two dozen brilliant performers reinterpreting (and often improving on) his songs.
Here's an example from the premiere of "Tubular Bells III" in 1999. It's the concluding two tracks off the album ("Secrets/Far Above the Clouds") and demonstrates his multiple-orgasm style of composing. As an added bonus, the brilliant "tribal drumming" section near the end (which was not part of the original song) is a nod to the iconic drumming segment I described last month in regards to "Ommadawn."
Oldfield's albums are a mixed bag and I can't vouch for the later ones, but if you want to hear his "classic" sound you need to get "Tubular Bells" (the ORIGINAL version, not the sequels or the remakes or the remasters or the orchestral one), "Hergest Ridge," and "Ommadawn." If you can find it you also need "Amarok," a sixty-minute "back to roots" song that Oldfield released as an unsubtle f*ck you to Virgin.
If you want some Oldfield pop, I recommend "Five Miles Out" and "Discovery."
Albums to avoid: the piss-poor stabs at chart success ("Heavens Open," "Islands," and "Earth Moving") and you should also stay away from "Songs of Distant Earth," which is Oldfield at his plinky-keyboard, new age worst.
For fans only: "Boxed," a boxed 4-album (vinyl) set full of quadraphonic mixes and rarities, including the infamous original ending to "Tubular Bells": Viv Stanshall lurching drunkenly around Oldfield's house, improvising a slurred monologue, with "The Sailor's Hornpipe" played in the background. Wow.