Arts: Sound as a bell: Twenty years ago, 'Tubular Bells' rang out for the first time. Now, after years of punk and plastic pop, the world wants musicianship again. And Mike Oldfield knew it all along

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SO HERE we are, in leafy Bucks, in the studio, near the swimming pool, which is giving off the wealthy aura only a still, empty and fiercely clean swimming pool can. On the pool-side are a series of electronic exercise machines. Outside, a white Mercedes with personalised number plate is on the gravel. Inside, there is a new pounds 20,000 digital mixing console sitting on top of its cardboard box, a Seventies-style black leather suite, and a carpet whose deep green is a vivid reminder of temps perdu. Here, too, in regulation, rock-star-of-a-certain-age blue double- breaster, white T-shirt and sneakers, is Mike Oldfield.

Mike Oldfield. You know Mike Oldfield. The Tubular Bells man. Early Seventies, when rock got heavy about musicianship. Tubular Bells was the rock instrumental they used in The Exorcist: classical model, insinuating themes, infant synthesiser cleverness, Frank Zappa with easy access, gave Richard Branson's Virgin its flying start, sold 16 million. Then came punk and no one wanted serious rock instrumentals any more. Then came Kylie and Jason, and nobody wanted old rock musicians any more; it was bad taste to hang around and embarrass us, like Jagger and poor old Macca did, with their falling faces, their scythe-sensitive oldness, their uneasy albums.

But, hey, this is now. ELP and Yes are back on the road again, Clapton is God again, Bowie might be coming again; even the Kinks have got a new one out, for Clapton's sake. And Oldfield has released Tubular Bells II, which went straight to Number One and has to date sold over three million copies worldwide. TB II has already spawned two hit singles; another one is released tomorrow, to coincide with four nights at the Albert Hall, following the Edinburgh premiere and the Carnegie Hall sell-out. 'I went on Top of the Pops,' says Oldfield, sitting in one of the black leather armchairs and rolling one of his own, 'and the guy introducing it says, 'Music is back'; and I thought, 'Thank you, that's nice'.'

TB II is a clever nod to TB I. The touch is lighter, less portentous. The bit everyone remembers - Viv Stanshall introducing the instruments - is repeated, with Alan Rickman this time (Stanshall was booked but proved reluctant to leave his bath). It suffers only from being Tubular Bells II and not Tubular Bells I.

Not everyone is ecstatic. Steve Sutherland, editor of New Musical Express, for example: 'Tubular Bells was an astonishing record . . . I don't think anybody would say that Tubular Bells II was a milestone of anything but republishing.'

Oldfield doesn't seem too worried. This is a man who has a rock-star's regulation false bookcase but leaves the door open. The last rock journalist he claims to remember was also from the NME, 'this spikey-haired guy covered in tattoos who was telling me how wonderful punk was and how great it was anybody could suddenly play music. I said, 'They don't play it very well', and he said, 'It doesn't matter]' . . . I don't read the music papers, I'm not sure many people do nowadays . . .

'All I know is that I went through a terrible period in the Seventies when I was the whipping boy for everything which was thought to be pretentious about rock music at the time. I didn't see how it was pretentious - I was just working, doing what I love to do. I had to keep my head down . . . anybody who was thought to be a musician was mercilessly attacked . . .'

He doesn't seem too worried. But he was, before he discovered psychotherapy. Before he discovered psychotherapy, Oldfield was renowned as the nerdish, knob-twiddling recluse whose worst nightmare was living like a rock-star should. He made Tubular Bells at the age of 20. Before that was a middle- class childhood dominated by unhappy parents, and a youth dominated by his guitar.

He put the demo disc of Tubular Bells together using a little two-track tape recorder, snipping the wires off the erase head and over-dubbing again and again. He famously hawked it round the record companies until, a year after first hearing it, Branson's baby Virgin bit. He made the first side, playing all 20 instruments himself, in a week at Virgin's country studio, and the second side in six months of spare time there.

With the hype rolling and Branson clamouring for concerts, Oldfield fled to a mountain in Wales and wrote the New Age Hergest Ridge. The closest he got to the bright lights after that was the Cotswolds: 'I used to suffer from panic attacks. I couldn't go anywhere without feeling that I was going to have a panic attack. The worst thing was neon lights and things like supermarkets and I was drinking too much and I had to always have a bottle of tranquillisers. It was a total nightmare.'

He ended up at a course organised by Exegesis, the much- publicised self-confrontation group with firm views about any attempt to escape self-confrontation, like, for example, going to the lavatory. 'I was pushed and pushed to confront this fear,' says Oldfield, 'and what happened was that I turned into a baby, a new-born infant, so obviously I hadn't liked my birth very much - being cut off from my mother, picked up and whacked. My first experience of life had been panic. After that, when I felt a panic attack coming I just thought, 'Whoah, he's remembering being born again', and it just seemed hilarious.'

Whatever, it worked. The new, suddenly confident Oldfield was a changed man: 'I went round doing things like posing naked for music magazines and getting drunk with Daily Mirror journalists. I just went totally berserk.' And his fear of flying? 'I couldn't go on an aeroplane before, but after that I learned to fly and got my own plane.'

He also embarked on a lengthy course of psychotherapy, which has left him calmer, more controlled and convinced that his problems were down to his relationship - or lack of one - with his parents, and particularly his mother, who, he says, suffered from mental illness and drink and drug dependency: 'It was one thing conquering my panic, another sorting out my inability to have relationships with people. The panic thing was done really fast, like having an operation; psychotherapy takes longer. I realised I'd never been able to have a real relationship because I was scared I would lose it because I'd lost my relationship with my mother.'

The therapy came too late to save a marriage which lasted three months, and two other relationships which produced five children: 'I left those relationships because I thought it was worse to stay, I was scared of it developing into a repeat of my own family again, so I left really in order to protect the children, and it seems to have worked, they seem to be happy.'

Now he has a new girlfriend, who is helping him with the project that has grown out of this, Tonic, a charity that aims to make psychotherapy more widely available. After his own desolate experience - parents 'shouting at each other and falling over and fighting and hitting each other' - Oldfield believes that social misbehaviour stems from unhappy family relationships, and this is his attempt to help. 'I read that the happiest people in the world are the people who are actively making the world, to their way of thinking, a better place, and once you start doing that it does give you a great feeling.'

If this makes him sound like a cross between Cliff Richard and Michael Jackson, do not entirely despair. In profile he is handsome, almost beautiful; full-face is more him, more in keeping with the laughs and the wry bits delivered in a quiet rock-star slur. He is not, he will tell you, a great mixer with the rock set: 'When I meet other rock-stars, I don't really know what to say to them. I met Sting on the way back from New York the other day, and he couldn't speak - he'd had to cancel all his concerts - and all I could think to say was 'Have you tried Oraldene?' When I met Mike Rutherford I asked him if he had a good pension scheme.'

And then there was the tent: 'It was the height of the Kylie Minogue thing. I haven't got anything against her, but against the way that music was being sold. It just occurred to me that nobody knew there was not one single musician playing, that it was all a computer going 'tikka tikka tikka tikka' imitating musicians. So I thought, if this is the future of music, I'm going to live in a tent.' And that's what he did. Except that the tent was in the garden, he went indoors to shower, and he told the Daily Mail about it.

There remains, too, a certain resentment about what Branson and Virgin did to his career: 'When punk came along Virgin didn't really support me at all. I felt this was a shoddy way to treat somebody who had made them such a lot of money. Gradually, the old people left and Richard got involved with his airline, so there was nobody around whom I felt I could relate to. I was this awkward person who kept giving them long instrumentals and they didn't know what to do with them.'

His feelings about Branson are controlled, but he is obviously still hurt: 'I realise I saw him as a kind of father-figure: he's got this huge smile, those huge teeth, and I thought, 'He really likes me'. Then it dawned on me over a period of years that perhaps he didn't actually like me and perhaps I was just a tool to be used to finance his company. I was very disappointed that my music was so precious to me but it wasn't precious to him and that it could be discarded in favour of the Sex Pistols just in the blink of the eye . . . That took quite a while to sink in and then I tried to get out of my contract, but by then I'd left it too late . . .'

Branson, for his part, agrees that there is 'some truth' in Oldfield's complaints about neglect; he also agrees that Oldfield is, and was, naive to think that Virgin was about art and friendship rather than money. Branson sounds a bit hurt, too, and is anxious to point out that Oldfield still flies Virgin. As for the contract complaints, he argues that Oldfield renegotiated his royalty rate twice, using 'some of the best music business lawyers around', and that Oldfield had been free to leave, but had chosen to do more albums for more money.

Now he has left. Tubular Bells II is his first album for a new label, WEA. Branson, he says, sent him a note congratulating him when it got to Number One.

Oldfield readily agrees with the psycho-cliche that miserable childhoods produce great artists, but he resists the reverse: that happy people produce inferior work, that Tubular Bells, written at a miserable time, is his greatest achievement. For him, it's a shoddy, rushed piece with 'some good ideas in it. But it's got a feeling of impending doom, which probably explains why they used it in The Exorcist. Tubular Bells II has got this sort of inner strength and confidence, it knows where it's going.'

He describes his music as rock instrumental music in a kind of symphonic format, but loathes any link with 'Classic Rock': 'My music is rock music, but using the kind of tricks classical composers use.' He will have 15 rock musicians on stage at the Albert Hall helping him recreate Tubular Bells II, not counting the pipe band, compere and other assorted extras. There will be four keyboard players, three guitarists - Oldfield himself plays six different guitars - two percussionists, and a grand piano. No impromptu riffing for Oldfield: his musicians can read music, the synthesisers and guitar-boxes are fed from a central computer, and the conductor will have a digital tempo track clicking in his ear. Eat your heart out, Tommy Beecham.

Oldfield will be 40 in May. He has just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills and plans to spend the summer there before doing some big open-air, son et lumiere concerts in Los Angeles and Europe in the autumn. He knows he is still mocked and knocked here, and gives the familiar lament about Americans respecting success and the British envying it. He knows a lot of people wanted Tubular Bells II to be 'the total turkey of the year', and is mocking in turn about its success: going to Number One, he says, with a laddish grin, was 'nice'.

There's a big party after tomorrow's concert, but Oldfield says he will save his celebrating for the last night. Old rockers need more balance.

Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (071-589 8212), tomorrow to Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)