Popular entertainers who purchase flashy cars have been a common occurrence as long as automobiles have been available to celebrities with disposable income. Mike Oldfield is an exception to the rule. During one of his infrequent interviews with Melody Maker, writer Steve Lake was interrupted by an appointment with a car salesman. After test driving a Ferrari, Oldfield told the harried salesman eager to close the deal, “Well, I don’t want a fast car so much as a quiet one. That one seems very noisy.”
The introverted Oldfield has always been an anomaly to the outlandish side of pop music superstardom. He was born on May 15, 1953, in Reading, England. He began playing the guitar as a youth, forming a folk duo called Sallyangie with his older sister Sally. Following the commercial failure of their album Children of the Sun he formed a short-lived band called Barefeet.
In 1970, Mike Oldfield joined former Soft Machine vocalist Kevin Ayers’ band The Whole Wide World as lead guitarist. Mike would eventually collaborate extensively with Whole Wide World pianist and arranger David Bedford. During his tenure with the Whole Wide World, Oldfield had conceived a peculiar piece of music he called “Tubular Bells.” Kevin lent his tape recorder for Mike to record demos.
Upon the dissolution of The Whole Wide World, Mike Oldfield finished his demos at The Manor, a sixteenth-century house that entrepreneur Richard Branson was converting into a recording studio in the Oxford countryside. After every record company in England turned down Tubular Bells, Branson scraped together the capital to release it on his fledgling company Virgin Records. With the help of a few musicians and a vocal choir, and narration by Bonzo Dog Band frontman Viv Stanshall, Oldfield overdubbed himself playing 28 instruments.
Mike Oldfield promoted the album with a single concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. His backing musicians included Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Mike Ratledge from the Soft Machine, David Bedford, and Kevin Ayers. The audience was enthusiastic, and the album sold moderately well. When part of Tubular Bells was used in the film The Exorcist, it turned into a blockbuster hit, topping the British charts and peaking at number three in the United States.
For the Record…
Born Michael Gordon Oldfield on May 15, 1953, in Reading, England.
Began playing guitar as a teenager, c. 1960s; played in duo Sallyangie with sister Sally Oldfield; joined Kevin Ayers & The Whole Wide World, 1970; left band, 1973. Released first solo album Tubular Bells on Virgin, 1973; released solo albums and made guest appearances on albums by Robert Wyatt, Tom Newman, David Bedford, Lol Coxhill, and Kevin Ayers, 1970s-1990s.
Awards: Gold album, 1974, for Tubular Bells; Grammy Award for best pop instrumental album, 1974, for Tubular Bells.
Address: Record company —Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., New York, NY 10019.
Hergest Ridge, the follow-up to Tubular Bells, was somewhat similar in concept but differed in feeling to its famous predecessor. Where Bells reflected the urban environment in which it was created, Ridge reflected the influence of Oldfield’s peaceful new country manor. Oldfield’s response in a Melody Maker interview to critics who took his romanticism to task was, “Silly boys… The problem of the world today is that there’s not enough romance.”
Ommadawn, released in 1975, featured Paddy Moloney from the Chieftains on uillean pipes, as well as African percussionists. The same year, in addition to playing on Robert Wyatt’s highly acclaimed Rock Bottom and albums by David Bedford and Virgin house engineer Tom Newman, Oldfield had a British Christmastime hit with “In Dulce Jublio.” He finished the seventies with an orchestral adaptation of Tubular Bells and the albums Incantations and Exposed, a live set recorded during an expensive tour that featured over fifty musicians.
Throughout the eighties, Mike Oldfield’s albums relied less and less on extended instrumental compositions and more on shorter pop songs. His records continued to sell in great quantities in Britain. Although he hadn’t had a major American hit since Tubular Bells, his song “Family Man” from 1982’s Five Miles Out was a top ten hit for the popular duo Hall and Oates. Inspired by a treacherous airplane ride over the Pyrenees Mountains, the album prompted Oldfield’s first tour of the United States.
Licensed pilot Oldfield told Billboard: “We flew into a thunderstorm in an unpressurized plane. We couldn’t come down and land because of the mountains…. The wings started icing up, and ice on the propellers was coming off in big chunks, smashing against the windowscreen … It was about an hour but it felt like five years. It actually got to the stage of praying. At least it was an inspiration for an album.”
In 1984 Oldfield scored Roland Joffe’s film “The Killing Fields,” the tragic story of a naturalized American journalist trapped in Cambodia during the early 1970s. The following year, Paul Hardcastle’s hit record “19,” with lyrics concerning the draft age during the Vietnam War, featured samples from Tubular Bells.
Oldfield’s 1987 album Islands featured vocal cameos by two progressive rock veterans, Kevin Ayers and former Family vocalist Roger Chapman. During the late eighties, Oldfield’s records weren’t selling in quantities they once had, a fact he tacitly acknowledged to Billboard: “Perhaps [Islands] is an attempt to be a little more commercial than in the past, but that’s all right.”
With the release of Tubular Bells II in 1992, Oldfield reconnected with the record-buying public. Soon after its live debut at the Edinburgh Festival in September, the album entered the British charts at number one. Rob Dickins, Warner Music U.K. chairman, countered the notion that Oldfield’s releasing a sequel to his most famous work was an exploitative move. “Fifteen years ago, [the idea of] Tubular Bells II probably had nothing to do with entertainment philosophy. But whether you take the artistic side or the success side, a sequel doesn’t necessarily mean a cash-in. ‘Godfather 2’ was a better film than The Godfather’ for instance.”
Oldfield followed the success of the second installment of Songs of Distant Earth, the first music album to contain computer programs. His 1996 album, Voyager, marks a return to his Celtic roots. It features Mike’s reworking of seven Scottish, Irish, and Spanish folk songs, as well as several Celtic-inspired originals. Since the early 70s, the introverted Mike Oldfield has quietly carved his own niche in popular music. Along the way he has been at the forefront of utilizing new technology available for musicians and has been rewarded with an appreciative fan base on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tubular Bells, Virgin, 1973.
Hergest Ridge, Virgin, 1974.
Orchestral Tubular Bells, Virgin, 1975.
Boxed, Virgin, 1976.
Incantations, Virgin, 1978.
Exposed, Virgin, 1979.
Platinum, Virgin, 1979.
QE2, Virgin, 1980.
Five Miles Out, Virgin, 1982.
Crises, Virgin, 1983.
Discovery, Virgin, 1984.
The Killing Fields Original Film Soundtrack, Virgin, 1984.
Islands, Virgin, 1987.
Earth Moving, Virgin, 1989.
Amarok, Virgin, 1990.
Heaven’s Open, Virgin, 1991.
Tubular Bells II, Reprise, 1992.
Elements, The Best of Mike Oldfield, 1993.
Songs of Distant Earth, Reprise, 1995.
Voyager, Reprise, 1996.
With Kevin Ayers and The Whole Wide World
Shooting at the Moon, Harvest, 1970, reissued, Beat Goes On, 1991.
Whatevershebringswesing, Harvest, 1971, reissued, Beat Goes On, 1991.
With David Bedford
Nurses Songs with Elephants, Dandelion, 1972, reissued, Voiceprint, 1993.
Star’s End, Virgin, 1975.
Song of the White Horse, Voiceprint, 1994.
Variations on a Rhythm of Mike Oldfield, Voiceprint, 1995.
With Tom Newman
Fine Old Tom, Virgin, 1975, reissued Voiceprint, 1995.
Live at The Argonaut, Voiceprint, 1995.
Ozymandias, Voiceprint, 1996.
(With Sallyangie), Children of the Sun, Transatlantic, 1968, reissued Line, 1989.
(With Lol Coxhill), Ear of the Beholder, Dandelion, 1971.
(With Kevin Ayers and the Soporifics), June 1, 1974, Island, 1974.
(With Robert Wyatt), Rock Bottom, Virgin, 1975.
(With Kevin Ayers), Kevin Ayers BBC in Concert (recorded 1972), Windsong, 1993.
Frame, Pete, The Complete Rock Family Trees, Omnibus Press, 1993.
Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, Faber and Faber, 1990.
Joynson, Vernon, The Tapestry of Delights: The Complete Guide to British Music of the Beat, R & B, Psychedelic, and Progressive Eras 1963-1976, Borderline Productions, 1994.
Murrells, Joseph, Million Selling Records from the 1900’s to the 1980’s, Arco Publishing, 1984.
Palmer, Tony, All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music, Grossman Publishers, 1976.
Schaffner, Nicholas, The British Invasion, McGraw-Hill, 1983.
Billboard, April 24, 1982; February 13, 1988; August 22, 1992; September 26, 1992.
Down Beat, June 5, 1975.
Melody Maker, March 16, 1974; August 24, 1974; October 30, 1976.
Rolling Stone, November 8, 1973; December 20, 1973.
Variety, November 24, 1982.
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