Saturday, March 07, 2009

I'd Buy (Almost) Anything By...Mike Oldfield

"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.


crazysexycool2010 said...

Finally some reasonable words on Mike Oldfield's career. I find it most disturbing that records like Sound of Distant Earth gets credit for being a "return to form". Even though Islands and Earth Moving are poor takes on chart pop they are at least acceptable in the sense that they least they don't ridicule and parody albums like Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge, which is exactly what Songs of Distant Earth does.
BTW Incancations is up there with the first three in my world.

Adam Thornton said...

"Songs of Distant Earth" a return to form?!? Maybe in the sense of it being a long-form single composition, but otherwise it was just a bland bunch of sequencing with world music and astronaut samples thrown in. Whenever I try to pay attention to it (to discover a ridiculing or parodying of his early work, for instance) I just can't tell one bit from the next.

Strangely, "Incantations" eluded me until just last year, long after I'd bought and digested all his other albums. I do like it but it doesn't quite grab me, and I'm not a fan of the Hiawatha stuff. Still certainly good, though, and perhaps better than "Hergest Ridge."

Anonymous said...

How weirdly coincidental! I just ripped "Songs of Distant Earth" to my mp3 player a couple of weeks ago (it had been sitting, wrapped, for some time.

On a commute to work one day, I began listening to the tracks. Now, the only thing I knew about Mike Oldfield was "Tubular Bells". I liked only a portion of what I heard on "Songs of Distant Earth".

Much of it was as Muffy said, sounds blended in with the music. It reminded me of Sting's "Russians," which is an interesting song but has, in some places, too many non-song sounds and noises.

Thanks for the tips on his other albums!

cjb said...

So what you are saying is you would not buy everything by Mike Oldfield.

M.O. was a big part of my teen years and I more or less agree with everything you say. You could mention what an awesome lyricist Oldfield is. "Innocent" off Earth Moving is a treasure from start to finish, especially the "cow jump over the moon now" bit and "you are omnipotent when you're innocent". The CD Heavens Open, on which M.O. himself takes all the lead vox features the classic "Make Make" where Oldfield declares "we're on the make make / we only take take / we're on the make make / We ac-cu-mu-late"

What eventually broke my spirit with M.O. is how he runs out of ideas at some point on his albums - usually the beginning or mid-point of side 2 - and just doodles away with one of his least interesting compositional ideas until it's time for the finale. Especially the keyboard freakout that dominates much of Hergest Ridge's second side.

Adam Thornton said...

Gary, please please please rip from a different album!

Adam Thornton said...


"So what you are saying is you would not buy everything by Mike Oldfield."

That IS the title of the post. :)

I personally am not a fan of Oldfield's lyrics, except in rare cases. I really don't think he's a good writer of pop songs, either musically or lyrically...I don't think he has it in him to write simply about love!

As for the Ommadawn freakout, I like it a lot! It does start to drag a BIT and could have been chopped a minute or two, but I still enjoy it. I listened to it again this morning in light of your comment.

And PS, I believe that freakout is mostly guitars, actually, though the lead sound near the end is definitely an accordian or synth.

Adam Thornton said...

Just for interest's sake, here's what the fine-tooth-comb analysts at Tubular Net have to say about that section of "Ommadawn."

"The opening four minutes of part one had a very static quality, with the musical material centred around a tonic drone. The second half of this A section directly imitates this in its sense of limited progression and resembles a mantra in its endless repeating scales. The modality of the music eradicates any sense of an implied cadence and this in turn accentuates the drifting quality of the music. The use of a mass of overdubbed guitars in this section gives the remarkable sound quality of an electronic instrument such as the Mellotron. Upon closer attention it becomes clear that the one homogenous sound is in fact many layers of small guitar cells playing rapidly which is aurally striking."

cjb said...

Ommadawn side 2 is not bad as Oldfield side twos go. It's Hergest Ridge that tires me out.

Re: the title of your post, that is what I get for taking that speedreading course.

Adam Thornton said...

I'm with you on Hergest much as I love it, it DOES qualify as a somewhat desperate Side Two!