What does it sound like?:
I’ve found myself casually dropping the Tubular bomb into various different conversations on these boards recently. So the 1973 LP is obviously on my mind.
But I’d thought I’d be obtuse and review the orchestral version that came out a couple of years later, in 1975. Even extreme Tube-heads might not have taken the time to check this out, so let me be your guide.
Enter Mike Oldfield.
Oldfield is the kind of musical child genius who makes the young Kate Bush look like a slacker. A prodigious guitarist and enthusiastic multi-instrumentalist, he built up the Tubular Bells composition as a kind of musical therapy in his insular teenage years. The huge, unexpected success of the LP (two long-form instrumentals, each a side long) scared the then twenty year-old half to death and sent him into hiding in the countryside.
(Connoisseurs like me also have a special place in our hearts for his two follow-up LPs, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. Never again would he scale such beautiful, pastoral heights).
Enter David Bedford.
Bedford (sadly, recently deceased), in his thirties when Tubular Bells came out, was a music teacher and a composer of modernist bent (playfully avant garde, but not off-puttingly so). He knew Mike from playing with Kevin Ayers, and they maintained a close and musically productive friendship for years afterwards.
I gather Mike wasn’t initially too happy with David’s offer to rewrite Tubular Bells for a full orchestra. (He was probably just sick of the whole thing by that point, plus he would have had the pernicious Richard Branson pestering him for an equally lucrative follow up). But eventually, Mike relented, and The Orchestral Tubular Bells was the result.
(It goes without saying that rock music had classical pretensions in the early seventies. Seems everyone and Keith Emerson’s mother wanted this kind of kudos. So a ‘classical’ Tubular Bells wasn’t a particularly unusual idea).
I can dispense swiftly with Side One of The Orchestral Tubular Bells. It’s dire. Have you ever heard people talking about the difference between rock timing and classical timing and wondered what the hell they were on about? Then listen to this, compare it to the original and see how annoyingly ‘behind the beat’ it sounds. The entire first ten minutes of the original were driven by that insistent piano riff, hypnotic in its intensity – in the orchestral remake, the violins gamely struggle to keep up the pace, but rhythmically it’s a soggy mess. It sounds frankly sloppy, and it doesn’t improve through Side One at all. You’d be forgiven for giving up at this point.
But then you flip to Side Two. Side Two is rather wonderful. I’ll talk you through it.
It starts with that familiar lilting, chiming guitar pattern. Here that’s translated to violin, and the rhythm slightly changed to create more of a floaty, dancing feel. The cascading string melodies over the top hammer home the folk-y feel. This, you realise, is English pastoral personified, as comforting as a glass of cold beer in a country pub.
The next eight minutes or so are just as soothing. You realise just how astonishing and fresh these melodies are. This whole section is probably my favourite in the original Tubular Bells, perhaps my favourite in the whole of Oldfield’s career. In particular, my Zen moment of choice is that bit where the choir comes in. And I’m pleased to report it’s just as stunning here, in fact it benefits from having the kind of swooping wash of strings that would make Ravel proud. (Shame Branson’s budget didn’t stretch to a choir, though. It would have elevated it even further).
The middle section benefits massively from replacing such novelties as bagpipe guitars and caveman grunts with a great cacophony of horns and kettle drums. It’s stirring in the extreme, and reminiscent of immense marches like Mars from Holst’s Planets Suite. Bedford finds the melody line in those cavemen grunts, and switches it from a novelty tune to a great lurching theme.
The best way to describe this music is cinematic. It’s quite something.
The last few minutes, the quiet bit, emphasise that this is actually the same melody as the ‘bagpipe guitars’ bit. Achingly beautiful, actually. (And if you’ve never looked it up, have a listen to Mike Oldfield’s Single from 1974 – it’s that same tune AGAIN, re-worked and sounding like a rather lovely out-take from Bert Jansch’s Avocet).
The only thing that ALMOST spoils the closing minutes are Mike’s guitar overdub. This seems like a half-baked, one-take afterthought. His heart was definitely not in it at this point, which is clear from his lazy recycling of little riffs you’ve heard him play (better) elsewhere. (If you want the real deal with how good Mike’s guitar can sound against a David Bedford orchestral backdrop, try the phenomenal First Excursion).
What does it all *mean*?
It’s a very seventies idea and a very seventies record. David Bedford was brave to take this one, and the result is 50% of a great record.
Goes well with…
I think Side Two is a soundtrack waiting for the right film. I hear it being used ever so slightly ironically in some art-house, European effort.
Might suit people who like…
Anyone who is a Tubular Bells fan just has to give this a chance. It’s a curio, a little time capsule from 1975. Also worth a go if you like any of the following: Holst, Dvorak, John Williams, Ravel, Ennio Morricone. And little bits are reminiscent of Philip Glass and John Adams.