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Intervista per BBC Radio 2

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Intervista per BBC Radio 2

Durante un’intervista di Ian Callghan, produttore della serie “Seven More Days That Rocked The World” della BBC Radio 2, Mike svela il suo progetto di rieditare “Tubular Bells” nel 2003, per il 30° Anniversario, usando la tecnologia di oggi, sostituendo l’organo con un’intera orchestra come lui l’aveva pensato inizialmente e modificando alcune altre sezioni.
L’intervista è stata diffusa il 26 aprile su BBC Radio 2.
Curiosità: durante l’intervista Mike viene paragonato a Mussolini(!)

Tubular Bells

Written and Presented by Stuart Maconie
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 26 April 2001
Transcribed by Stephen Byrne

(Music: Tubular Bells Part One – Viv Stanshall section)

STUART MACONIE: Hello, I’m Stuart Maconie, and this is Seven More Days That Rocked The World.
Virgin. It evokes not just Britain’s most famous sweater, but the 3rd most recognised brand name in the UK, and one of the first global brand names of the 21st century. Total global revenue in 1999 exceeded $5bn, employing over 25,000 people in 200 companies worldwide.

Introducing Virgin West Coast Mainline and Virgin Cross-Country, two slightly distorted railway networks. Virgin Express, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cola, Virgin Balloons, Virgin Airships, Virgin Bridal, Virgin Pensions and introducing Virgin mortgages. Virgin Books, Virgin Cars, Virgin Cosmetics, Virgin Energy, Virgin Healthcare, Virgin Mobiles, Virgin Holidays, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Limobikes, Virgin Net, Virgin Wines, the Virgin People’s Lottery (nearly) and… oh yes, Virgin Records.

All of it down to an unhappy teenager, and the music he made in his bedroom with a borrowed tape recorder and a judiciously-placed piece of cardboard.

ROBERT SANDALL: I think it’s fair to say that without Tubular Bells, Virgin would not be the company it is today, and the Virgin Empire would not be the empire it is today, because it was the making of Richard Branson’s first million, it proved to be the first major cash engine, really, that Virgin and Branson had come up with, because the retail chain – although it was very popular and quite high profile – was not a huge money earner.

STUART: Michael Gordon Oldfield was born in Reading, Berkshire on May 15h, 1953. As a child, young Micheal would gaze longingly at the instrument above the fireplace that his father, Raymond, had acquired while serving in the Royal Air Force in Egypt, during World War II. It was an instrument of mystery and wonder to the young Oldfield, taken down every Christmas Eve by his dad for his annual performance of Danny Boy. Soon, though, Mike had persuaded his dad to pass on his rudimentary repertoire of chords, and to buy him his own guitar, at the age of 7, where he soon learned to emulate his infant heroes, Bert Weedon and Hank Marvin of The Shadows.

(Music: Wonderful Land by The Shadows)

MIKE OLDFIELD: There was always one hanging on the wall, it was my father’s guitar, I sort of looked at, I suppose, since I was a baby, and my first real guitar of my own was my absolute treasured possession, and still I love guitars. My favourite one is a salmon-pink Stratocaster, it’s the same sort used by Hank Marvin in the Shadows – it was because I used to really look up to him, and want to play like him, and got the guitar of that era now.

STUART: By the age of ten, Mike was spending more and more time in his bedroom, composing instrumental pieces on acoustic guitar. This was much more than a hobby to him, it was a passion, and a refuge from an increasingly harrowing family situation. His mother had suffered from alcoholism and manic depression since he was just five years old, and was now spending increasing amounts of time in institutions. Mike turned for solace to the guitar.

MIKE: I just like the feel of it, and the touch of it, and the shape of it. It was lovely, and fitted me really well, and I did nothing else for… between the ages of 8 and 11, just playing guitar every spare moment I had.

(Music: A Midsummer Night’s Happening by Sallyangie)

MIKE: I was only happy when I was playing guitar, when I was making music, I was very inward, withdrawn, I used to get very nervous, and later on that turned into panic attacks. Terribly insecure, but I didn’t want to go to the doctor and swallow tranquilisers, so I played music instead to calm me down.

(Music: Children Of The Sun by Sallyangie)

STUART: When Mike was 13, the Oldfields relocated to Romford, later the home of furry dice, white socks and jazz funk, but then, like most of the UK, in the grip of a folk boom. In 1967 he left school and formed a duo, Sallyangie, with his sister Sally, who’d made previously unsuccessful attempts at a solo career via her friendship with Marianne Faithfull. Sallyangie signed to the Transatlantic label, and released an album, Children Of The Sun, in 1968.

Mike’s original approach to his craft was evident even at this tender age. Listen to this track, Milk Bottle:

(Music: Milk Bottle by Sallyange)

Sounds like a milk bottle being dragged across strings? Got it in one. Think how scary this would sound during the vomiting scene of The Exorcist. On the dissolution of Sallyangie Mike formed a short-lived group Barefeet, which led to a job as bass player with former Soft Machine singer Kevin Ayers and his new band, The Whole World. The band situation though, wasn’t exactly what Mike wanted to be doing, but it did shape Mike’s future career sigificantly.

MIKE: I learnt about multi-tracking in the studio, which we did on a couple of albums. We worked at Abbey Road, and I remember hearing that Paul McCartney was recording in the big studio there, and he was playing everything himself, and I thought, “Oh, it’d be wonderful if I could have a studio and I could play everything myself”, so that became my big mission in life, just to get to use a multi-track recording studio.

STUART: Mike also became good friends with the Whole World’s keyboardist David Bedford, who encouraged the teenager in the unusual new composition he was working on in private – something Mike was able to do with a bit of gear he’d had his eye on.

MIKE: Eventually, Kevin Ayers lent me his tape recorder, and I managed to sort of rewire it so that I could multi-track with it, covering up the erase head so that it didn’t rub off what was on there before, and it reduced the volume by about half, and it went all muffly and fluffy, but I managed to make really… fairly presentable demos.

STUART: Tubular Bells had existed as a concept in Oldfield’s fertile musical imagination for some time. Almost like a musical sponge, Mike Oldfield had absorbed the elements he was intrigued with, from Classical, Folk, Rock, Pop and Progressive music, and was now looking for an outlet for this new sound that was oozing from him, and with the help of this borrowed tape machine, this vision was slowly taking shape.

MIKE: It wasn’t written overnight, Tubular Bells, it was the result of my whole life up until the age of 18, 19. I used to make up my own little instrumentals, when I was 12-13 on acoustic guitar, through having learnt the style of these masters of it, like Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, also listening to Classical Guitar, you know, Julian Bream, John Williams, and Flamenco Guitar, Paco Pena, these people. I was always listening to symphonies, piano concertos, and I thought if I could make my own kind of symphony using instruments that I could play… I didn’t like the 70s bell-bottom stuff and I couldn’t stand the sound of a drum kit, having been on the road for three years, standing next to one, it was like, ufff… just the sound of a snare used to grate in my brain, so I decided not to use any drums.

STUART: Sans drums, Mike’s demo contained much of what eventually became the first side of the record, together with a number of isolated fragments, some of which formed the basis for Side Two. It was a very primitive start to a multi-billion pound global conglomerate. The seeds of the Virgin empire existed before Tubular Bells as a mail-order record outlet, specialising in leftfield progressice rock, run by one Richard Branson, ex-public schoolboy from Stowe School. Short-sighted and dyslexic, he’d failed to make much of a mark there, but as an adolescent, his entrepreneurial skills became evident. His first real success was in 1960, with the magazine Student, financed with money borrowed from his mum. After issue 1, his old headmaster at Stowe said, “Congratulations, Branson, I predict you will go to prison or become a millionaire”.

A keen music fan, he next entered the record industry, selling discount albums mail order. They found a disused London property, cleaned it up, installed shelves, and chose the name Virgin, because they were all Virgins at business. But they were a success, and Branson decided to branch out, buying a semi-derelict manor house in Shipton-on-Sherwell – 20 miles from Oxford – to refit as a studio. It became known as The Manor. In September 71, Oldfield was invited to the studio – still under construction – to do some session bass work, as Tubular Bells co-producer Simon Heyworth remembers:

SIMON HEYWORTH: We were building the studio in the Manor House, which Richard purchased as his sort of country pad, but we convinced him it would be better off as a recording studio. And during that period, this band came out to visit us, called the Arthur Lewis Band and Mike Oldfield was one of the guitarists in the band. One morning, there was Mike sitting on the floor with a customised Beocord tape recorder and he was playing guitar and overdubbing onto this machine, this piece of music, and I was absolutely amazed. The music itself was just stunning. Later that day I said to Tom, “We should transfer this to 4-track half-inch” – which was the professional size tape – “because this is nonsense, messing around with this silly little tape recorder!”.

STUART: There was an immediate buzz about this rough demo. Engineer Tom Newman brought it to the attention of Branson who was enthusiastic, but in no position to be releasing his own records. They gave Mike the addresses of record companies he might try, and left him to it.

MIKE: They listened to ten seconds, and then took the tape off the machine, and showed me the door. They thought I was pretty crazy, in fact one of the big American labels said, “Send him back to the studio and tell him to put some lyrics on it and then we’ll listen to it”. Well, I’m thinking “Oh God! I’ve got to put lyrics on it, how boring!”.

STUART: A year later, Virgin called Mike Oldfield. He was still trying, having been shown the door by every label he’d gone to.

MIKE: I was even thinking of going to live in Russia, because I’d heard you could be employed by the state to be a musician there, and somebody might give me a recording studio. Anything, anything to get in a studio. I think I was actually sitting in front of the telephone with the telephone directory, looking for the Russian Embassy.

RICHARD BRANSON: He’d written this tape which we all loved, but we didn’t have the resources to release it. We sent him off to the other record companies, and they all turned him down.

SIMON: I think Tom sent me in there eventually, just to say “look, we should be seriously doing this ourselves. If no-one’s interested, we should just put it out”. And since we had the record shops, and since there was a whole, very much a sort of gung-ho approach to the industry and we were all very young and so on. It was, well, “why not, you know?”.

RICHARD: I rang him up and said “look, we’ve made a bit of money. Let’s make this our first release on our new record label”. And it was an enormous success, and it enabled us to get the record company up and going.

ROBERT: Richard Branson deserves a lot of credit for sponsoring the recordings of the album – no-one else was putting him in a recording studio to make it – I don’t think that he deserves anything but praise for that. I think there was an element of luck in it, but it’s also… he was definitely the right man in the right place, but I think they were definitely made for each other. And in a sense they both made each other.

STUART: Robert Sandall, Director of Communications at Virgin Records.

So Oldfield returned to the Manor in September 72, to begin an intense week in the studio, recording the music nobody wanted.

MIKE: The time we worked at Abbey Road, the whole studio was full of instruments, they were just lying around. And I used to go in early before the session began, and just tinker around with all these wonderful instruments. There was a set of Tubular Bells in Abbey Road at the time, so when I finally got to go to the Manor, I asked for them to hire a whole load of instruments for me, and I thought I may as well have some Tubular Bells, they might come in handy.

SIMON: And we started to record it, and the thing is, how do we start? So we started with the basic instrumentation, and one by one… That was our biggest worry, how we were going to deal with this thing, overdubbing so many instruments at a time. But [in] actual fact, it worked out really well.

MIKE: We did stretch the technology, really to its limits then. Those 16 tracks for the whole album, were full. It’s quite true that there were more than 1000 overdubs on Tubular Bells. By the way, I destroyed the set of Tubular Bells with a hammer when I hit it, I didn’t hit it with a normal hammer, I did it with a big sledgehammer, and I think I destroyed them. I’ve been looking for them ever since, I can’t find them, I think they probably got thrown away.

STUART: Whilst the schedule was demanding, and Oldfield, Newman and Heyworth were all learning on the job, the Manor was a gloriously convivial environment. “The whole thing felt like some sort of great big family,” said Oldfield later, and tellingly, in view of his disturbed childhood. The Manor was alive with friends, dogs, cooks, girlfriends and booze. There was wrestling on the lawn, croquet, and much drinking at local pubs. After one such session with the legendary Vivian Stanshall, who acted as MC on the famous Side One tour-de-force, a drunken version of the Sailor’s Hornpipe was recorded in the small hours, with Stanshall as inebriate Judith Chalmers, extolling the archtectural glories of the Manor. It was considered too bizarre for a difficult-enough album by a complete unknown, and now it’s perhaps best recommend to conoissuers of English eccentricity.

(Music: The Sailor’s Hornpipe – Boxed version)

On the finished version, the Sailor’s Hornpipe was replaced by a more traditional instrumental version. And although he was given remarkable artistic freedom, other concessions to the marketplace were made.

SIMON: Well, there was obviously pressure to put vocals on, and I think probably there was a sort of reaction to that, to have a song, so along came The Caveman Song. It’s a great tune, even if it is grunting and all the rest of it.

MIKE: I used to write songs, and once upon a time that section had lyrics to it, but I’ve never been much of a lyricist, so I had this wonderful backing track so what am I going to do with it? I’m not going to put lyrics, you know (snores). So one night I just demolished half a bottle of Irish Whisky, and said “give me a microphone”, and that’s what happened (laughs).

(Music: The Caveman Song)

STUART: Tubular Bells was finally completed, and on May 25th 1973, Tubular Bells became the first release on Virgin Records. For a record deemed unmarketable, the critical response was extraordinary. “A vast work, almost classical in its structure,” said Melody Maker; “Owes much to Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Michel LeGrand, and The Last Night Of The Proms”, wrote Tony Palmer; John Peel said that it was “a record which quite genuinely covers new and uncharted territory, with music that combines logic with surprise, sunshine with rain”. Into the Britain of the Three-Day Week and Ted Heath, it came like music from another planet. The Rubettes it wasn’t.

ROBERT: Tubular Bells did sound, I think, a lot more accessible, interesting and slightly less naff than some of the prog rock that was going round at the time. You see, ELP are a very good example, this is where Tubular Bells really scored, because ELP doffed their cap in a very obvious way to Classical Music simply by rocking up Bach or whatever, whereas Mike Oldfield didn’t do that, he wove together rock themes, folk themes, and made something which was very obviously not just another pop record.

STUART: The album entered the UK charts in July, and rose quickly to number 1. Soon that story was repeated all over Europe. But in America it might have remained a coterie, cult college enthusiasm but for a maverick film director and the story of a little girl that had the world asking through splayed fingers and crouched behind cinema seats, “What the devil’s got into her then?”.

The score for The Exorcist was as bedevilled as the young girl Regan. First, Bernard Hermann, the composer behind many Hitchock movies and Citizen Kane, was approached. There are many stories as to why he wasn’t used, my favourite is that when Friedkin asked for a movie score better than Citizen Kane’s, Hermann tartly replied, “Well, you should have made a better movie than Citizen Kane”.

So Plan B was put into effect, and Friedkin approached respected composer Lalo Schifrin. Movie buff Mark Kermode takes up the story.

MARK KERMODE: The story then, as legend has it, is that they get a phone call from Lalo Shifrin who was in the studio downstairs. As per Friedkin, having told Lalo Schifrin that he wanted subtle, and small and all the rest of it, there is Lalo Schifrin with a huge orchestra, going for it great guns with big swabs of noise and sound and jazz and Friedkin is so incensed that he rips the tape off the tape recorder, storms out into the parking lot, hurls the master tape across the street, and shouts, “get this [censored] out of my movie!”. Whatever, he hated it.

STUART: Now in desperate need of some haunting music for his haunting film, something possessed Friedkin – call it fate, destiny, pure chance – to wander into his film company’s music library.

MARK: Friedkin’s version of the story is that he was in the record department of the movie company – of Warners, and they just had a whole bunch of white labels and albums, and what he would do is he would pull something off the rack, he’d put it on, he’d play two seconds of it, horrible and he’d take it off, it wasn’t any good. And completely by accident, one of the records that happened to be in there was Tubular Bells. Now, as you know, if you’ve got the Tubular Bells album, when you start Tubular Bells, it starts (hums the opening of Tubular Bells) and it’s just this tiny, little nursery-rhymey little thing.

(Music: Tubular Bells Part One)

That very early beginning bit of it, Friedkin heard and said “That’s it, that’s it!”. Later on, it turned out that Mike Oldfield apparently didn’t like The Exorcist and really wasn’t thrilled by the fact that his piece of music had become so indelibly intertwined with it. As Friedkin himself has subsequently said, sorry, it’s like Romeo And Juliet, those two things are tied together. It just gelled, it was completely correct, and the two things were wedded for all eternity and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

STUART: We can exclusively reveal, however, that reports of Mike Oldfield’s hostility to The Exorcist have been greatly exaggerated.

MIKE: I was living in a little cottage in the Welsh countryside. I never even saw The Exorcist until about 15 years later. I laughed my head off, I just thought it was so funny. I didn’t think it was scary at all. And it’s also now become such a cliche, in every horror movie, there’s a tinkly piano. Every day I hear a tinkly piano, a Tubular Bells derivative.

STUART: The Exorcist may have helped Tubular Bells along, but even before Linda Blair croaked “Your mother cooks socks in hell” in a voice that cried out for an early night and a dose of buttercup syrup, Tubular Bells was a phenomenon, racking up multi-million sales around the world. For once, it’s no cliche to say that the rest is history. But not just musical history. The legacy of Tubular Bells has been less to do with bands and songs than with balloons and boardrooms, airlines, megastores and disrupted railway timetables. For Tubular Bells was the cornerstone of the Virgin Empire. It made Oldfield rich, but more sigificantly, it made the 23-year-old Richard Branson a millionaire, and by the end of the decade, the Virgin brand was imprinted in the British consciousness. For Oldfield though, the story was less straightforward. Never by his own admission the most robust of personalities, and remember he’d just turned 20 and was perhaps the most talked-about pop musician in the world. He decamped to rural Herefordshire to play with gliders and take long walks, composing music on a much-loved hill, Hergest Ridge, that gave its name to the follow-up to Tubular Bells.

(Music: Hergest Ridge Part Two)

It’s a sorely underrated piece of music; the critics were swift and savage. The kindest response being that Hergest Ridge was merely “Son Of Tubular Bells”.

MIKE: I didn’t really want to make another album. I could have easily gone for 3 or 4 years, 5 years, maybe 10, I don’t know. I didn’t really have it in me, because it was such a catharsis getting all that out, so I was sort of pushed into doing another one. If they’d’ve just left me alone – I was very very unstable in my psychology – and not pushed me into trying to follow it up. It was horrible.

STUART: Tubular Bells, which soon spawned Orchestral, Live and Quadrophonic versions, cast a long shadow over Oldfield’s erratic career in the next two decades. It was perhaps inevitable then, that he should return to it in the 90s, with Tubular Bells II, which immediately became his biggest hit in years. Tubular Bells III and The Millennium Bell have continued the successful brand. And for all the sneers and inverted musical snobbery, Tubular Bells remains an extraordinary piece of music – daring, original, ambitious. Bands like the Sex Pistols – another Virgin success story – may have expressed their desire to destroy Oldfield and all his works, the fact remains that Tubular Bells is as much a work of teenage rebellion and musical revolt as anything Rotten and Vicious ever concocted.

(Music: Tubular Bells Part One, final Bells section)

ROBERT: Tubular Bells, because there has never been a record like it since, and there wasn’t really a record like it before, I think has a unique kind of place in history, particularly of 70s music, and like a lot of records that really are so perfectly of their time, strangely enough, it’s the fact that they are so perfectly of their time that makes them timeless, it’s a strange paradox. It’s now 28 years later and it’s still a completely unique piece of music.

MIKE: It wasn’t what I wanted. It was done in an incredible rush, to get that amount of overdubs done in one week. I knew that I had to finish it, otherwise I’d be kicked out and I wouldn’t get another chance, probably anywhere. If things go according to plan, I’m planning to re-record it properly in 2003, which’ll be exactly 30 years since the first one came out, and I’ll do it as absolutely faultlessly as I possibly can. All the parts where I was playing this organ, I’ll have a real string orchestra, which is what I wanted at the time.

But on the other hand, its totality – that’s what makes it wonderful. If you take any individual little bit, you can pick holes to your heart’s content. If you look at it’s entirety, it’s such a lovely big thing, it’s like a big old beautiful liner like the Queen Mary – look at the whole thing, it’s magnificent! You look at one little room, and it’s got dirty laundry everywhere, and toothpaste stains… Look at the whole thing, it’s fantastic.

STUART: Tubular Bells as it was intended, coming soon in 2003 – remember where you heard it first!

Like Mussolini, you can say what you like about Mike Oldfield, but at least he made the trains run on time. Well, reasonably on time anyway… well, actually, currently running 30-40 minutes late due to speed restrictions and failure of lineside equipment in the Milton Keynes area. Passengers for Bristol Temple Meads are advised to change at Northampton, where there will be a connecting bus service. So, do you feel responsible, Mike?

MIKE: (laughs) I can’t believe that, and I was very sceptical about the airline, but travelling on Virgin Airlines is great. I don’t know how they’ve messed up the trains so badly, but then I never travel by train. I think… no comment! (laughs)

STUART: Seven More Days That Rocked The World is a Smooth Operations production. Next week, another teen titan’s pet project rocks the world: Berry Gordy invents Motown.