An Exorcism for Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells": Prog Review #17

An Exorcism for Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells": Prog Review #17

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Tubular Bells (1973) was the first and most famous album by an artist who is so much more than Tubular Bells.

My #1 Spotify Discovery

Spotify has been an incredible boon to a music lover like myself who is always curious to try something new, and who also likes to dive deep when he discovers something he likes. I've explored few artists as persistently as I have Mike Oldfield, whom I discovered long ago on when I was first learning what prog is all about. But with so many albums to choose from, getting in to him was impossible when I was paying $12-20 for new albums.

In the last 4 years or so, I've added several Oldfield albums to my regular Spotify rotation. I'm especially into Light + Shade (2005), which often reminds me of music from Donkey Kong Country 2. And the ethereally atmospheric creation-themed epic, The Songs of Distant Earth (1994), is never far from my mind.

Oldfield's work is diverse, exciting, powerful, and rewarding. Some of his albums are essential listening for anyone who loves instrumental music in general, and prog specifically. I apply none of these comments to Tubular Bells, however. I've listened to Tubular Bells a lot, and yet it feels largely unknown to me.

An album 80% exorcised from my memory

Many people are perhaps familiar with the opening 4 minutes or so, a section best known as the theme from The Exorcist (1973). I imagine that many people find that theme terrifying, or at least creepy, because of the association. But I discovered Tubular Bells in a completely unrelated way, and I've never seen The Exorcist at all. So that twinkly piano with harsh synth accents is simply music.

Now, even without The Exorcist connection, the intro is the most memorable and exciting part of the album. In fact, the only other section that I can ever hear in my memory is the conclusion to side one. This movement has songwriter Vivian Stanshall, of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, name a series of instruments that join in the recording to play variations on a main theme one at a time. The conceit was inspired by Stanshall's own song, "The Intro and the Outro," a comedic recording comprising 3 minutes of Stanshall introducing the "members" of his jazz band, many of whom were fictional, dead, or not musicians.

Oldfield and Stanshall play around with this concept on the final 6 minutes of "Tubular Bells Pt. 1," with the list of instruments being simply uncommon ones for rock music, or else multiple versions of the same instrument. For example, the titular tubular bells get an emphatic welcome for their very brief and singular appearance on the album. (Apparently, to get the right sound, Oldfield used a claw hammer, and wound up cracking the bells.) Before that, we're introduced to bass guitar, double-speed guitar, two slightly distorted guitars, Spanish guitar, and acoustic guitar. It's a lot of fun, and unrecognizable as part of the same composition as the theme from The Exorcist.

That obvious lack of thematic consistency plagues this album-length song. It's awesome to hear attempts of this kind, but they are by nature flawed; any recording this long has to include multiple movements that vary style and structure. This means that what you get isn't a single song, but a medley of songs, perhaps with some subtle connections.

Where Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (1972) is lively, playful, and almost cohesive, Tubular Bells is a series of musical vignettes that never come together as a unified whole. There are moments of fun and beauty, but in between is a lot of unimposing musical wallpaper. The guitar work is alternately jazzy and classical in sound, and never stands out. But for the beginning and end of side one, the music makes for pleasant atmosphere and little else, though there’s also some disruptive moments, like when Oldfield grunts heavily on side two.

Why Tubular Bells?

I think a list of great prog has to include Mike Oldfield. He's made an impact with his contribution through his instrumental rock, album-length songs, movie soundtracks, new age influence, and classical crossovers (check out 2008's Music of the Spheres). The trouble is that Oldfield is best known for one thing: the theme from The Exorcist. It overshadows everything else, and it's the one piece of music that creates a connection for the uninitiated.

Tubular Bells is ambitious, irreverent, experimental, varied, and complex. Classic prog values. But Oldfield has delivered far more on that promise in the last 45 years, and there is too much to choose from as his greatest work. So why not go with what's most familiar? Tubular Bells was the first album by a prolific and hugely gifted songwriter whose multifaceted aesthetic potential had yet to be seen. But he has to be on a list of top 50 prog albums, so what else are you going to pick?

If you're curious and love The Exorcist theme, this is a great place to start. But there's far more to this artist, and I find Tubular Bells uninteresting, forgettable, even sophomoric. It's still great in its way, but there's so much more from Mike Oldfield on offer.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. King Crimson - Red

  5. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  9. Rush - Moving Pictures

  10. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  11. Pink Floyd - Animals

  12. Yes - Fragile

  13. Rush - Hemispheres

  14. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  15. Can - Future Days

  16. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  17. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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