After 50 years… the Tubular Bells keep ringing

The Exorcist (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) – Tubular Bells

Funny how things turn out. The mighty Virgin brand sprung from a shy yet precocious teenager playing around with guitars and pretty much any other instrument he could lay his hands on.

It was a project that no one, even that teenager, could have believed would take off. Fortunately one of those who saw the flash of inspiration was a youngish, renegade record store boss.

It’s 50 years ago this week that Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield rang out – and the business empire of Richard Branson headed for the stratosphere.

The largely instrumental work has become an iconic album of the 70s, selling 2.7 million copies in the UK and 18 million worldwide, making it one of the 50 best-selling UK albums. Figures show that it spent 287 weeks in the UK charts.

The anniversary has set many bells ringing.

While Oldfield is shunning almost all public contact, he has overseen an expanded release of the album.

Along with the original work, there is the adapted piece he wrote for and performed at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, perhaps his last major appearance, along with a 2018 intro for a never-arrived Tubular Bells 4 which Virgin Records says “may well be the last piece ever to be recorded by Oldfield”.

Long living a reclusive life, he moved to the Bahamas in 2009 – and has now retired.

From his Caribbean bolthole (rather low-key, apparently, rather than a millionaire’s paradise) he issued the statement: “Listening again to the musical outpourings of an angst-ridden teenager, it is hard to believe that was actually me, 50 years ago.

The music doesn’t sound that angst-ridden, but only I know the years of work and stress that produced Tubular Bells.

“This was all live, first take performances with no second chances or studio trickery as we have become so used to today.

“Little did I think when I was making Tubular Bells that anyone would ever hear it, let alone be celebrating it five decades later! Thank you to everyone who has listened over the years.”

Last Monday also saw the 70th birthday of the man who led a mixed-up life but let the music do the talking. His childhood was problematic – his mother suffered drink, drug and mental health problems – yet he managed to learn the guitar.

By the time he was 15, he was touring with elder sister Sally as folk duo The Sallyangie, recording 1968 album Children Of The Sun.

They split but he found a job playing in an arty progressive band Kevin Ayers And The Whole World – his guitar solo on the long, languid title track of their Whatevershebringswesing album is a mesmerising taste of what was to come.

A month after his 17th birthday they were playing a free Hyde Park concert, supporting Pink Floyd who premiered their soon-to-be No1 album Atom Heart Mother.

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By 1971 Mike was a session musician, playing with reggae singer Arthur Louis who was recording at a new Oxfordshire studio, The Manor.

It had been set up by Richard Branson following the success of his Virgin Records store, above a shoe shop in London’s Oxford Street.

Oldfield’s early tapes of his work – then called Opus One – were passed to Branson who gave him a week’s recording time.

Impressed by the results Branson tried to interest major labels in the album.

“I knew when I heard the demo that the world needed to hear it too – but received rejection after rejection,” Branson has said on his Virgin blog. “So, we decided to launch our own record label to put out this album. It was a huge risk because it was so different to anything else that had come before it and there was no other music like it at the time.”

It was an entire album created almost entirely by one man playing 20 instruments and who had only turned 20 a few days before its release.

It had a hypnotic, near-new-age sound yet wasn’t without its humour.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall as master of ceremonies introduces the instruments, culminating in a booming “Tubular bells!”

Then there’s the caveman sequence which showcases Oldfield growling and screaming, his response to Branson’s request for some vocals so there might be a hit single.

The record was a success, but six months later an unlikely event in an already unlikely tale transformed it into a legend.

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, took its gently undulating opening theme to replace the movie’s original score which he wasn’t happy with – so granting the record transatlantic glory.

In 16 months from early 1974, it was only out of the charts for four weeks. It eventually reached No 1 – only for Oldfield to knock himself off the top spot with his follow-up Hergest Ridge, making him the only living artist other than the Beatles to manage that feat.

Oldfield’s mixture of bravado and insecurity returned shortly after his opus was released.

Not keen on playing the star on stage, he had agreed to a Branson-organised London show, featuring Steve Winwood and the Stones’ Mick Taylor, but tried to back out at the last minute.

Branson promised to give him his Bentley if he went on – Branson lost his car but his future was assured in a way that maybe Oldfield’s wasn’t.

More hit albums followed as well as hit singles – the lilting Moonlight Shadow and his version of the Blue Peter theme, which opened the iconic children’s TV show for a decade from 1979.

But he could never escape the sound of the bells: there was Tubular Bells II in 1992, Tubular Bells III (1998), The Millennium Bell (1999) and Tubular Bells 2003, a digital re-recording of the original on its 30th anniversary.

In the late 70s he became involved with the cult-like Exegesis group and has undergone treatment for drink problems. His first marriage, in 1978, to a relative of the group’s leader, lasted only three months.

Three more marriages followed along with seven children. Oldfield moved to Ibiza in the 1990s, then back to England before finally settling in the Bahamas in 2009.

For Branson, the record took him to incredible heights – one of the billionaire’s Virgin Atlantic jumbo jets was named Tubular Belle in tribute.

  • The Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary Edition, out on Friday, features the original album remastered plus nine other pieces, including the unheard Tubular Bells 4 recorded five years ago.
  • The Tubular Bells 50th Anniversary Celebration, blending guitars and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – plus Brian Blessed’s histrionics – features excerpts from Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, plus Moonlight Shadow.
  • The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is offering Sunday Express readers £15 tickets to see Video Games in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, June 6, 7.30pm. It features music from The Last of Us, Fortnite, World of Warcraft and many more. To book visit and enter the code EXPRESSRPO at checkout

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