Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tubular Mike

One of my regular readers (yes, I do have some ... no, really, I do!) pointed out that I haven't posted anything new to this blog in quite a while.  What can I say but "guilty as charged"?

Okay, so maybe it's time for me to come out of my blogger's exile again, but I need a topic.  What to write about?  It may surprise you, Dear Reader, to learn that I am sometimes my own biggest inspiration.  What I mean is that, when I'm short on topic ideas, I often peruse my own past posts (not to mention practice my alliteration).  Reviewing my own writing somehow tends to stoke the flames of my creativity.  Besides, I must confess that I like re-reading my own work. I'm one of my own biggest fans (cue heckler: "You're your only fan!")

Browsing through my previous work in search of inspiration, I noted that I often tend to write about the things that matter to me; my favorite things, you might say, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the like. So then, quickly reviewing my profile, which provides a handy list of my "likes"...

Computers: Done it.
Airplanes: Check.
Sci fi: Check.
Computer gaming: Check and double-check.
Comic book heroes: Check-a-roonie.
Toys: Check.
DVD and/or blu-ray movies: Check mate

Ah!  Here we are.  Mike Oldfield.  Okay, I've mentioned him, but I think he merits his very own post.

For those who aren't familiar with Mike Oldfield (which is to say most of the North American continent), he's an English composer and musician; primarily an instrumentalist although he has been known to do vocals as well.  Those who do know him probably know him best for his seminal work, Tubular Bells; a complex instrumental work that was released in 1973 and a small snippet of which was used in the soundtrack of the 1973 film, The ExorcistTubular Bells was not written specifically for that film.  It was simply used because, presumably, the director, William Friedkin, felt that it lent an appropriate ambiance.

Tubular Bells is split into two parts, simply entitled Part 1, which runs for 25 minutes and 34 seconds, and Part 2, which runs for 23 minutes and 18 seconds.  Each of the two parts took up an entire side of an LP vinyl record.  Oldfield played all the instruments himself, which involved a lot of over-dubbing.  In fact, at one point, the tape apparently broke from the wear, which probably explains the "Piltdown Man" section of that album.

So here's the deal:  A young, unknown musician wants to record an instrumental work that runs over 49 minutes in an era when most radio stations won't play anything longer than 3 to 4 minutes in length, and he wants to play all the instruments himself.  What chance would most people give that idea of succeeding?  Indeed, Oldfield did cut a demo tape which was rejected by almost every studio he presented it to, until it came to the attention of Richard Branson who was looking for new and interesting material for his fledgling recording studio, Virgin Records.  In fact, Virgin Records itself was actually launched along with and because of Tubular Bells.

What I like best about Oldfield is that he is hard to pin down in terms of style or genre.  He constantly experiments with new ideas.  One never quite knows what to expect from him next.

There are those who would disagree.  I know there are many who would categorize him as a new-age, avant-garde, largely electronic instrumentalist. Such people tend to labor under the false misapprehension that all of Oldfield`s work sounds like Tubular Bells.

It does not.  Not all of it, anyway.

Granted, he has done his share of long, complex recordings, but he has also ventured into the mainstream.  His second-best-known work, next to Tubular Bells, is probably either Moonlight Shadow or Family Man, both of which are light, pop songs featuring vocalist Maggie Reilly and both of which got substantial air play on mainstream radio stations everywhere.  In fact, some reading this may be scratching their heads at this moment thinking "Family Man?  Wasn't that Hall and Oates?"  Hall and Oates did indeed cover that song (and, perversely, their version may be more often recognized than Oldfield's original version).

Aside from pop, Oldfield has also done traditional, celtic and even orchestral music.  Tubular Bells was not the only one of his works used in a movie soundtrack.  In fact, the entire musical soundtrack for the 1984 Roland film The Killing Fields was written and performed by Mike Oldfield.  Unlike Tubular Bells, that work was specifically intended to be used as the soundtrack for the film.

The orchestral and Killing Fields links above also refute another popular misconception about Oldfield.  Many believe he's strictly electronic.  Although he does use electronics (synthesizers, vocoders, electric guitars) he also uses a great variety of acoustic instruments and sometimes wrings unusual sounds out of items which aren't normally considered to be "instruments" at all, such as shoes and, in one case, a toothbrush.  The list of instruments used in recording Tubular Bells includes acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, farfisa, hammond B3 and Lowrey organs, flageolet, fuzz guitars, glockenspiel, "honky tonk" piano, mandolin, piano, percussion, "taped motor drive amplifier organ chord", timpani, vocals, plus tubular bells.

From time to time, Oldfield exhibits a quirky sense of humor.  It's first apparent in some fine print that appeared on the sleeve of the original Tubular Bells album, which read "In Glorious Stereophonic Sound – Can also be played on mono-equipment at a pinch. This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with. If you are in possession of such equipment please hand it into the nearest police station".  Often the humor seeps into the music itself, such as a flippant little number called The Rite of Man which appeared on the "B" side of the Moonlight Shadow single, or Don Alfonso, which appeared on one of Oldfield's compilation releases entitled Elements.

In his latter years, Oldfield has increasingly favored revisiting his earlier works over releasing new material.  His last new and original work was his Man On The Rocks album, released in 2014.  That was three years ago.  Apparently Oldfield has taken to making new albums about as often as I post to this blog.  Other than that, his more recent albums have been mostly re-masters and/or re-mixes of his earlier work, still enjoyable for his die-hard fans like myself, but perhaps somewhat disappointing to those looking for new material from this talented musician.

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