Ever since the days of the Sallyangie and the fruitful pastures of The Kevin Ayers Whole World Band, Mike had been constructing, in his head, a piece of music of a size and scale that even he did not know what was to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. It was towards the end of the Whole World that whilst living in North London, Mike borrowed a tape recorder and organ from Kevin Ayers andbegan to construct the basis for what was then called Opus One. Finally, with this demo in hand he toured the various record companies, including Harvest, CBS and WEA, looking for a deal to help him record. All liked what they heard but felt it was too much of a risk to invest money in an as yet unknown artist and un-determined form of music. The only record company to show any interest was Mercury records from America who would only record if vocals were added. At this point Mike gave up all hope and was relegated to working as reserve guitars on the West End musical “Hair”, and played a couple of gigs with Alex Harvey.
Fortunately, though, Mike’s luck was about to change. On a visit to a newly built 16 track studio in The Manor, Oxfordshire with is latest band, he played the demo to the resident studio engineer Tom Newman. He was so impressed by what he heard that he brough it to the attention of the then up and coming head of Virgin Mail Order, a certain Richard Branson. At this point Virgin themselves were in dire fanancial straits but Branson decided to take the risk of becoming Mike’s manager and provide the initial sum of money so that recording could begin. Formal recording began in September 1972 with Mike utilising the recording facilities of the Manor when nobody else had booked them. This, as he was now a permanent resident of the Manor, proved ideal to his needs. Oldfield and his mentor Newman would spend hours in the studio well into the early hours of the morning, only taking breaks to take part in drunken frenzies. One such of these occasions spawned the idea of recording The Sailors Hornpipe during one of their early morning staggers around the Manor. With microphones strategically placed and with a drunken Vivian Stanshall commenting, they toured the Manor inspecting items of interest while Oldfield and Newman followed. Unfortunately, the end result was thought too surreal to be included on Tubular Bells, so it was replaced by a standard version at the end of side two. Luckily though, the original was later to re-appear at the end of side two on the re-mixed Boxed reissue in 1976.
On 25th May, 1973, Virgin Records launched their label by releasing Tubular Bells (V2001) on an unsuspecting world and were greeted by unprecendented acclaim. One interesting fact to arise from this release was the use of V2001 as the catalogue number to Virgin’s first record. This was explained by the fact that Mike’s favourite film of the time happened to be Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece “2001, A Space Oddysey”. Mike’s liking for space and flying was to resurface at various points throughout his career. More of interest was the response of the press to this new form of music. Many compared it to the classical output of Sibelius or Debussy. Melody Makers Geoff Brown commented:
“An enjoyable, evocative album which bodes well for the future of both the country’s newest label, and of Mike Oldfield”.
Steve Peacock of Sounds stated that he was
“knocked sideways when I first heard it” and added that “I ended up convinced that it really is a remarkable album – and that isn’t an adjective I’m using lightly”.
A certain John Peel wrote in The Listener that
“Without borrowing anything from establisged classics or descending into the discords, squeals and burps of the determinedly avant-garde, Mike Oldfield has produced music which combines logic with surprise, sunshine with rain”.
At this point Virgin decided to organise a live performance of Bells at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to promote the LP. The only problem facing Mike was assembling musicians of sufficient calibre to perform the piece to a standard as set by the LP. One such quality artist who was recording at the Manor around the time as Mike was Steve Winwood. He had listened to the complete track and offered to play although due to pre-arranged commitments he had to eventually pull out.
Mike then got together a large and capable, if not totally famous cast,which included Henry Cow, a group which Mike was to engineer a couple of tracks on their albums Legend and Unrest at the Manor; Mick Taylor, then of the Rolling Stones; Steve Hillage, Robert Wyatt and long time friend David Bedford. All that remained for Mike to do was teach the individual artists their parts before finally assembling them for rehearsals. At this point Mike was heard to comment: “There’s no doubt about whether they could do it, the only question was whether we’d be able to create any atmosphere.” Mike and Mick Taylor in discussion during the rehearsals for the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert. ©New Musical Express, June 30th 1973
On the 25th June the assembled masses gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to witness Tubular Bells first “live” rendition. Mike’s preconceived ideas about the project not working were totally unfounded, as, with the final note still ringing around the hall, the audience rose, in, as one witness was to comment:
“One of those rare spontaneous bursts of appreciation.”
At a later date Mike was to comment that he was unhappy at the way the performance went adding,
“I stood on the stage at the end of the concert and looked at the audience, and they looked at me. And do you know what they did? They actually applauded. I was amazed. I hated that concert”.
These feelings of insecurity especially with what he had produced were again highlighted when he commented;
“I’ll tell you something. I always though that once I had made my own album, held the cover in my hands and read my name, I’d think it was wonderful. But, you know, it’s not like this at all.” L-R: Steve Hillage, Mike, Fred Frith, Ted Speight and Mick Taylor performing Tubular Bells at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, June 25th.
Despite these misgivings, from that moment onwards the rest was history. The album went straight to the top of the charts in the UK and throughout Europe, and stayed there for an unprecedented period. This was despite the fact that, apart from from the QE hall rendition, the only other live set was to be the first part, on BBC TV’s Second House programme.
After all the exposure that ensued, Mike retired to Kington, a remote part of Herefordshire on the Welsh borders, apparently unable to put up with the pressure his success had brought. He spent the time pursuing his favourite hobby, walkinh on Hergest Ridge and flying model gliders, whilst gathering his thoughts and ideas for his next musical offering. Meanwhile the record company, and most importantly of all, the world, waited with baited breath for the follow up.