I rather like the “On Track” series. They are books which unpretentiously do what they say on the tin: “every album, every song”. So they act as a reference guide to an artist you want to explore, or just a nice little readable celebration of an artist you are a fan of already.
With this latest entry on Mike Oldfield, author and musician Ryan Yard has filled a neat gap in the market. There hasn’t really been a decent book of this type on Oldfield, which is surprising given his rabid fan base. (Richard Newman’s “Making of Tubular Bells” is authoritative, but is restricted to that one ubiquitous album).
“On Track: Mike Oldfield” is scholarly and diligent, which suits the insular nature of much of Oldfield’s music. You could perhaps read this side by side with Oldfield’s autobiography – where that book lacks musical detail and analysis, this fills the gaps nicely.
There is a good deal of academic dissection and musical nitty gritty (the author knows his cadences from his leitmotifs, and has the glossary to prove it) which might be off-putting to the casual fan, but how else do you write about music that is mainly instrumental? “Organ countermelodies offer some light release before the guttural roars return and the bold piano chords offer harmonic stability”, he says, and “The tolling of bells adds colour building towards a gorgeous major 9th chord”. Fussy and pretentious? Possibly. But the discerning Oldfield afficionado will lap this up.
Oldfield himself is the very embodiment of an odd fish. His supernatural guitar skills and highly strung nature made him the perfect vessel for his sublime ’70s output. At his best (roughly speaking, his first three or four albums), he made music for the lonely dreamer with his head in the clouds, the teenage boy in his bedroom with a good pair of headphones. As he gained confidence and maturity (cropping his hair in ’78 was quite literally the cut-off point), he polished himself into a muso guitar lord, but lost the murky analogue warmth and iconoclastic drive that made those ’70s albums glow. “On Track: Mike Oldfield” is possibly a bit too forgiving of his later mis-steps (the dance remixes, the synthscapes and the endless remakes of Tubular bloody Bells), but it’s understandable that a book of this type needs to be written by someone who appreciates every facet of Oldfield’s long career.
There is no stone left unturned, and even all the quirky odds and ends are gathered up in a helpful end section. So don’t panic, you get an analysis of the novelty single Don Alfonso as well as a guide to his mercifully short-lived winsome folk duo in the ’60s, The Sallyangie.
All in all, for the right type of fan who wants a definitive reference guide they can dip into, this is essential reading.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Any of the other “On Track” books, or music books with a methodical approach like Ian Macdonald’s “Revolution in the Head” or Paul Williams’ “Bob Dylan, Performing Artist”.
One thing you’ve learned
My favourite melody on side one of Hergest Ridge is actually a cor anglais, not an oboe. Who knew?