As Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells reaches its 50th Anniversary, it’s time to take a fresh look at this pop classic. It’s a work that can only be described as a musical phenomenon. Released in 1973, this ground-breaking instrumental album sold 16 million copies and catapulted Oldfield into major stardom. The album became famous as the soundtrack of William Friedkin‘s 1974 hit horror film, The Exorcist. Its theme tune is instantly recognisable (and much imitated).
There are myriad reasons why Tubular Bells is ‘iconic’; most of these have been expounded upon by music journalists over the years. But few have attempted to explain why this music made such a huge impression on the record-buying public. To do so would be to dig into the cultural context of its extraordinary success with audiences: what was it about Tubular Bells that captured the zeitgeist? Why did such an iconoclastic work – essentially the first album-length rock-pop-classical instrumental (“Where are the drums? Where are the vocals?”) – strike a chord with listeners in the way that Tubular Bells did in the 1970s? What is the nature of the extraordinary fascination that Oldfield’s debut seems to have exerted on so many listeners? Was there something in the music that connected with the public on a deeper level than just a musical one?
It’s fair to say that there are a number of Tubular Bells obsessives (in the same way that there have been more than a few detractors of Mike ‘Oldfart’). Tubular Bells certainly fired my imagination as a kid. I first heard it at the age of six – circa 1974 – when my musician brother brought it home while it was still number one in the UK album charts. I listened to it repeatedly. Part of the fascination for a young listener of the time came from knowing that this was the music from The Exorcist, a film that any kid back then would tell you is “the scariest movie ever made!” But the music itself hypnotised me in the same way it did seemingly to everyone who heard it.
In a BBC documentary on Tubular Bells made in 2013, the film director Danny Boyle talks about how he and his friends would bunk off school at lunchtime to get their ‘fix’ of Tubular Bells. The same thing happened to me and my friends, and I became an Oldfield fan throughout my childhood because of the same addiction. As a teenager, I was seriously into Oldfield’s work – through Hergest Ridge (1974) and Ommadawn (1975) to Incantations (1978). His music helped me through a difficult, often painful adolescence. I would argue that it did the same for an entire nation. It captured the national mood.
Oldfield once described himself as a ‘sonic mood translator’ because of the way he is able to transfer the essence of a feeling or an emotion and express it in music. Perhaps a key to the popularity of Tubular Bells is that Oldfield exorcised his own painful emotions in the music of Tubular Bells; listeners could recognise those emotions in themselves. More than this, though, is how the music seemed to speak to the social and political trauma of the early 1970s, particularly in Great Britain; it captured a sense of those turbulent times and provided a much-needed catharsis for the public. The music itself speaks to emotional disturbance and a yearning for deliverance from trauma; a desire to reach a state of grace.
To understand the phenomenon of Tubular Bells, we need to understand the connection that Oldfield has to the listener – or, more to the point, the 16 million listeners who have bought Tubular Bells over the years. It’s not just the music that connects – it’s what Oldfield brings of himself to the music that the listener relates to on a largely unconscious level. The job of the songwriter has always been to express the thoughts and feelings of the listener in a way that the listeners might not be able to do themselves. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull neatly summed it up in his song “Minstrel in the Gallery”, when he talks about the travelling player looking down at the audience from the stage and seeing ‘his face in everyone’ before him (1975). There is some psychic link between the musician and the audience that goes beyond words. Emotions and moods are expressed and communicated.
Oldfield claims to do more than that when he calls himself a ‘sonic mood translator.’ He is able to pick up on “vibrations” or “moods” and convey them in sounds. As he writes in his 2008 autobiography, Changeling:
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 an emotion, express it in music. Musical sounds are pleasurable things, like sunlight or the smell of warm bread. 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.
Oldfield seems to have experienced emotions very keenly, and this informed his music from the start. He is what parapsychologists might term a ‘sensitive’ – a person who seems to have a psychic antenna for picking up on moods. When did he first become aware of this? Oldfield claims that it started in early childhood when he experienced moments of extra-sensory perception. His father was a doctor and Oldfield would accompany him on house visits. On one occasion, when his father was in with a patient, Oldfield had been left on his own in the car and suddenly had a strange feeling. Time seemed to slow down and everything around him seemed to be aware of it: the birds, the trees, the grass, the air, the sunlight, the wind. When his father came out of the house and told Oldfield that the patient had died, Oldfield already knew.
Sensitive people tend to be vulnerable because of their sensitivity. Oldfield was no different, and being, in his words, ‘super-sensitive’ made him more vulnerable than most. David Cronenberg’s 1981 sci-fi film Scanners essayed what it would be like to have a society of ‘sensitives’, those with heightened powers of extra-sensory perception. One of the unfortunate by-products would be a group of people with very poor social skills: their super-sensitivity would make them awkward and uncomfortable in the company of others. This certainly has been the case with Oldfield, who, shortly after recording Tubular Bells, disappeared rather than do publicity tours with the album or have to square up to music journalists and fans. He took himself off to the Welsh borders, where he lived as a virtual recluse.
A few years back, I did a sort of pilgrimage to Kington in Herefordshire, where Oldfield had bought a house in 1973 and lived in splendid isolation. It was here that he would record Ommadawn in his home studio set up in the living room of his house. The house is still known as The Beacon. What was clear to me, as I tried to get a sense of Oldfield’s state of mind at this time of his life by visiting the places that became home to him, was that he was retreating from a world that was too frightening for him.
As well as looking around The Beacon, I travelled to the nearby Penrhos Court hotel, where Oldfield would spend his evenings playing guitar to assembled diners for free wine, accompanied by the penny whistle and recorder by Les Penning. It struck me that music would be Oldfield’s main form of communication with the people around him and that playing and not talking would be soothing to him. From there, I drove to Hergest Ridge – the peninsular connecting the English and Welsh border – where Oldfield would wile away his time flying model gliders that he built himself – another self-soothing activity that connected Oldfield to his father and a sense of comfort.
The trip was not very comforting to me, though, as the wheels of my car went over the ledge, and I remained stranded on Hergest Ridge (pronounced Hargest by the locals) until a friendly farmer towed my car back from the precipice. But my trip to Kington gave me a sense of Oldfield’s state of mind. Here was a man who was fearful and desperately trying to find peace in the tranquillity of seclusion, in music, and in the beauty of nature. Oldfield was trying to ward off his personal demons by connecting with the sublime.
In his 2002 biography Mike Oldfield: A Man and His Music, Seán Moraghan speculates that Oldfield may have suffered from bipolar disease and that Werner Erhard’s EST training (EST) he received in the late ’70s triggered a manic aspect of his personality, accounting for the total change of persona at the time – a volte-face from introvert to extrovert. This may be case; however, Oldfield’s symptoms around the time of Tubular Bells and before then in his teenage years suggest that he suffered from a form of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), symptomized by periods of acute anxiety combined with panic attacks. Oldfield’s GAD appears to have come about due to insecurity within the family.
Oldfield was the youngest of three children (his brother and sister, Sally and Terry, are distinguished musicians in their own right). That can be tricky, as the youngest tend to feel that their place in the family is precarious. More to the point, though, is his relationship with his mother, who suffered terrible depression when Oldfield was still at school and from which she would never recover. She died shortly after Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells. Oldfield may have inherited his mother’s genes in this respect, or his anxiety may have been triggered in response to the trauma of his mother’s illness. Either way, as an adolescent, Oldfield retreated into music, spending all of his time in his bedroom learning to play the guitar. Music was his escape from this difficult family situation and came to form his identity.
One of the by-products of his family life difficulties was that Oldfield developed extraordinary independence. From his early teenage years, he received little or no parenting, and his older siblings were into their own thing (Sally Oldfield was singing in folk clubs), so he was on his own. Oldfield learned at a young age to rely on himself, and he became precocious. As a guitarist, he knew he had a gift and sought recognition for it. This was one of the things that would drive him to create Tubular Bells. He knew he had something to say in music and wanted people to listen. He had a need to try to connect with people – through music – which was the only way he knew how.
A bad acid trip in his late teens only compounded his anxiety and made it acute. Oldfield’s LSD experience tipped the already vulnerable, sensitive, and troubled young artist over the edge. The acute anxiety that Oldfield experienced, no doubt, found its way into passages of Tubular Bells – the particularly oppressive feeling of being trapped in your own nightmare and struggling for release. Tubular Bells hinges on the sense of recovery from trauma – its final triumphant blast of the bells themselves signals an end to ‘horrible feelings’ and a return to ‘beautiful feelings’: an increased ability to glimpse the sublime. It is not hard to see, then, how even listeners who have never suffered these forms of anxiety respond to the optimism of the music – its promise of an end to turmoil and a return to happier times. This links the individual with society and the feeling – prevalent in the early 1970s – that bad times would eventually lead to a return to good times. Hopefully.
Oldfield recorded a demo of Tubular Bells in 1971. After the demise of the band Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, in which Oldfield played guitar, Oldfield decided to do his own thing and record a piece of classical music in which he played each instrument. That the demo coincides with such a turbulent period in Oldfield’s life suggests that Tubular Bells was itself a form of exorcism. What makes the demo particularly intriguing is that it wasn’t made at The Manor – the legendary Richard Branson-owned Virgin Records studio where Oldfield would eventually record Tubular Bells (and Hergest Ridge) – but on a simple two-track tape recorder (that Oldfield rigged up to multitrack) in a rented house in South Tottenham, London. Oldfield recorded his demo for Tubular Bells just off Seven Sisters Road.
What’s interesting is that Oldfield clearly insulated himself from the local colour, the vibrancy of Seven Sisters, with its ethnic diversity, its record shops pumping out Reggae and World Music, and its street markets and street food. Instead, Oldfield was inside his own head, working through his trauma. Later, however, he would allow these influences into his work. From Ommadawn onwards, we get the bouzouki and the pan pipes, the Celtic harp and the marimbas.
But in 1971 – as riots flared in Ulster, as 1.5 million workers staged strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill, and the IRA bombed the Post Office Tower in London – Oldfield set down the 14/8 bar introduction riff in A minor that would become the theme to Tubular Bells: the instantly recognisable repetitive riff that seemed to translate into music the profound disquiet that Oldfield was feeling and that the whole country was to share. Stress, as Oldfield would later write, is a kind of mental disease. Oldfield did not understand what was happening inside him and therefore did not know how to deal with it. There were only two things he could look to for solace: alcohol and music. As he writes in Changeling:
When I was in the worst of it, I used to feel like I was in a living hell; sometimes I felt possessed by some kind of devil. At the time, I didn’t relate it to my extra-sensory feelings, or to whether there was something inside me genetically that predisposed me to have such strong perceptions. All I knew was that I felt I rather be physically tortured than have to suffer the mental anguish I was feeling. Tubular Bells gave me a way out.
So, like many sensitive artists, Oldfield has what he calls an ‘atmosphere antenna’, an ability to feel the atmosphere of places: perhaps it was from this that he was able to tune into the psychic mood of the British people during the time he was writing Tubular Bells. Britain in the early ’70s can certainly be remembered as a grey and bleak place: a country blighted by high inflation, industrial action, power cuts, and the three-day working week. The turbulent emotions of Tubular Bells mirror deeper cultural anxieties of the times. The working classes in Britain had enjoyed a period of consumer credit towards the end of that decade, bringing an increase in the standard of living for many British families; however, by 1973, this caused high rates of inflation and rising prices.
When the Heath government sought to cap public sector pay, the unions flexed their muscles: the National Union of Miners, in particular, staged a number of national strikes which (coinciding with the OPEC Oil Crisis) effectively brought the country to its knees, leading to Heath’s ruling a ‘Three Day Week’ to reduce commercial electricity consumption. Heath took on the unions, calling a general election and lost, and this brought with it deep consternation amongst establishment types, like Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse, as they surveyed what they perceived to be the ‘unruly classes’ running riot. It is an era of British history which people remember as being traumatic. Public sector strikes meant that garbage was often left uncollected for weeks at a time, accumulating in the streets, causing problems with rats and other vermin. Hospital workers and even mortuary staff went on strike; cadavers went uncollected, and bodies unburied.
This national trauma was compounded by the OPEC Oil Crisis of 1973, when the Arab nations placed an embargo on oil that created fuel shortages across Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. It seemed for a while as though the whole of the Western world might collapse due to a lack of fuel, an apocalypse in the making. Concomitant to the social unrest of the ’70s was the public’s fascination with the sublime, which Tubular Bells (partly via The Exorcist) also keyed into. In America and the UK during that decade, there was a surge of interest in mysticism, the paranormal, and the unexplained; an obsession with the occult, witchcraft, paganism, ESP, mind control, and religious cultism that provided a mystical quasi-religious experience in an age of material discontent. The scholar Joseph Laycock described this phenomenon as ‘folk piety’, evidence that modernity has not assuaged the need for the spiritual in public life. Tubular Bells and The Exorcist arguably keyed into this yearning in the public.
But how was all this translated into the music? The structure of Tubular Bells itself seems to follow that of possession, exorcism, and deliverance (in his autobiography Oldfield repeatedly speaks of his attempts to ‘exorcise’ his demons through music and eventually through the psychological process of the aforementioned EST training). Walk through Seven Sisters today and you will still find churches that offer deliverance ministries to cleanse people of demons and evil spirits. The famous repetitive 15/8 riff that opens Tubular Bells speaks of dislocation but hints at spirituality. What drives the music is the juxtaposition of dark, heavy, oppressive passages lifted by glimpses of the sublime and good humour; a sense of trying to overcome a depressive state, failing, trying again, falling into mental and emotional disorder, and finally, through ritual reaching transcendence, a sense of calmness and grace. The structure of the composition mirrors Oldfield’s attempts to overcome his own acute emotional trauma, and that mood is translated into music.
In 1973, Tubular Bells became a salve for listeners traumatised by the times in which they lived. But what of Oldfield’s subsequent work? The critical consensus seems to be that his music became increasingly impersonal after Erhard’s EST ‘cured’ him of his depressive illness. However, it is important to offer a more nuanced discussion of his later work to understand better what makes Oldfield – and Tubular Bells – unique. That lies outside the scope of this article, but it’s something that fans of his music might want to consider in the future if Tubular Bells continues to stand the test of time.
Moraghan, Sean. Mike Oldfield: A Man and His Music. Britannia Press Publishing. 1993.
O’Casey, Matt. Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story. BBC. 2013.
Oldfield, Mike. Changeling: The Autobiography. Virgin Books. 2008.