Tubular Bells, la obra maestra de Mike Oldfield, cumple 50 años

Mike Oldfield in the recording studio, c1973 © Charlie Gillett/Redferns
Mike Oldfield in the recording studio, c1973 © Charlie Gillett/Redferns

El quincuagésimo cumpleaños de la mítica obra de Mike Oldfield ha sido recordado en numerosos artículos y comentarios que podemos encontrar con una simple busqueda en Internet. Aunque los hay en español, me quedo con el escrito por Michael Hann en Financial Times. Lo transcribo íntegro ya que es de pago:

«Perhaps one should pity the artist forever fixed in the public mind by their opening statement. Orson Welles spent a lifetime trying to live up to Citizen Kane. Meat Loaf discovered that people were only really interested in him when he slapped the words “Bat Out of Hell” on the covers of his albums. And a shy young man from Reading, his mental health damaged by teenage LSD ingestion, spent decades living up to a mostly instrumental album he released on a little independent record label a few days after he turned 20.

Mike Oldfield probably didn’t anticipate his future when Tubular Bells was released 50 years ago on May 25 1973. After all, who would think a largely beatless 49-minute album, consisting of two tracks (Part One and Part Two), would end up altering the shape of the British music business (and, indirectly, dozens of other things, including space travel) and shape a new style of music — chillout — which has itself become ubiquitous?

The former happened because Tubular Bells — an instant smash — was the making of Richard Branson, who managed Oldfield, let him use his Manor Studio in Oxfordshire and put out the album as the first release on his nascent Virgin label. And from the fortunes that arrived flowed all the Bransonian ventures that followed. No Tubular Bells, no Virgin Galactic. The latter can be heard in all those contemporary classical artists — the likes of Ólafur Arnalds — who make glassy, electronic-inflected instrumental music (such as his Near Light). (And while Tubular Bells doesn’t fall precisely within the remit of this column, it’s a self-contained piece of music whose opening section in particular is essentially an instrumental song.)

From its release, Tubular Bells was pumped up and preened and polished. BBC DJ John Peel played it in full on his Radio 1 show, proclaiming it “remarkable”, then described it in The Listener magazine as “a new recording of such strength and beauty that to me it represents the first break-through into history that any musician has made”.

In Rolling Stone, writer and future BBC Radio 2 mainstay Paul Gambaccini gushed: “Trying to convey what Tubular Bells bears musical resemblance to is fruitless. I remembered music by Sam Cooke, JS Bach and Dick Rosmini when I first heard the album, but the associations are as personal as yours will be.” (Gambaccini was one of many writers to comment on the “thousands” of overdubs said to have been required for Oldfield to play all the instruments himself. “It was really only 70 or 80 — somewhere along the way the figure became exaggerated,” the record’s engineer, Tom Newman, admitted a couple of years later.)

For all that, though, it remained a record for the “heads” — the kind of people who listened to Peel’s late-night radio show — until film director William Friedkin realised that Oldfield’s opening theme — a simple keyboard pattern that repeated and mutated, to conjure up the constant subtle movement of the sea — sounded like music to summon the devil. Once placed in Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist, Tubular Bells exploded. Its presence in the film is brief — it’s not the opening theme; it plays for less than a minute during a scene in which Ellen Burstyn is walking through the streets of Georgetown — but it is powerful and suggestive, and Tubular Bells ceased to be the remarkable solo project of a young prodigy but the music from that film where the girl’s head rotates 360 degrees.

Inevitably, someone smelled money. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Branson. Virgin’s US distributors, Atlantic, cobbled together a shocking three-minute edit of the opening of Tubular Bells and put it out as a single without Oldfield’s consent in 1974. It reached the US top 10, and the album went to number three (Oldfield never came anywhere repeating this success in the US). Oldfield did the edit for the UK single himself (released later the same year under the title Mike Oldfield’s Single (Theme from Tubular Bells”), which confoundingly contained none of The Exorcist section.

Of course, there aren’t exactly covers of Tubular Bells (save by Oldfield himself, who re-recorded the whole album in 2003, having already offered the world Tubular Bells II and Tubular Bells III; he also released a remixed version in 2009 after the rights reverted to him), but its presence in pop culture is constant — that opening theme has been a staple sample for rappers and R&B stars for years now. The list is too long to print, but includes Janet Jackson (Velvet Rope), Nas and Prodigy (Self Conscience), Three 6 Mafia (Threesixafix), Freddie Gibbs (Forever and a Day), Ice T (Gotta Lotta Love) and dozens more. Mike Oldfield’s little melody about the sea doesn’t belong to him any more; it defines him.»

Music credits: Oldfield Music/Mercury; Erased Tapes; Black Doll/UMG; Sony Music Entertainment; ESGN/EMPIRE; Virgin/Rhyme Syndicate

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