ROCK / Ringing the changes - but not many: Mark Wareham on the pomp and circumstances of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II at Edinburgh Castle

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The Independent Culture
The bells, the bells . . . For 20 years they had lain silent. You might have thought, having been responsible for shifting 16 million albums in the Seventies, the tubular bell would have played a greater role in the subsequent history of rock. But not a ding. All these years on and Mike Oldfield, sole ambassador of the long-neglected tubular bell, has taken it upon himself to sound its pleasing peal once more.

Naturally, there were those of us in the 8,000-strong audience who had come to laugh. But Oldfield, master of perception, had sensed this and was prepared. For the support act, he had booked a pyjama-clad Canadian singer/songwriter of such intense dreariness (imagine a duller Suzanne Vega) and with such deeply earnest lyrics that the crowd lost its grip and guffawed loudly through long sections of her folkie songs. The Edinburgh sense of humour was clearly lost on the performer, whose only response was to ask, 'Why are you laughing?' Instead of slipping off anonymously, she made the mistake of telling us her name (Jane Siberry, though it came across as Jane Simpering). For Oldfield, however, it was a brilliant ploy. By the time Simpering had cleared the stage, the crowd was baying for the bells.

Against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, there was a tangible sense of occasion. The ageing crowd consisted mostly of Murrayfield Barbours and headscarves whose children were probably hippies in 1973. It was quite conceivable that they had not been to a rock concert since the Seventies, so the atmosphere of anticipation was understandable.

Oldfield and his band of 17 took the stage and immediately the familiar layered wash of piano and guitar from the original recording filled the air. Only it wasn't quite the original. Here and there, a keyboard player would stray off into uncharted waters, or Oldfield himself would venture into a new guitar sequence, but inevitably all departures led back to that same insistent riff. It was as if Oldfield had been frozen in time. Twenty years on, the marketing men had given him a shave, a shiny blue shirt and some spanking white shoes, cut a couple of inches from his hair and then woken him up and asked him to reproduce as much as he could remember of the original Tubular Bells. It soon became clear that he had remembered just about all of it.

For those playing spot-the-difference, the updates were remarkable. As another sleepy guitar break floated away, one of the heavenly chorus of female backing singers let out a spacy operatic wail borrowed from the Star Trek theme. John Gordon Sinclair introduced the instruments ('Two slightly sampled electric guitars'), camping up some Germanic caveman grunting before grabbing his jacket and sprinting off stage in (mock) embarrassment. And then the climax, some 25 pipers and drummers from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, marching on stage as if they were still in the Military Tattoo. For one Scot in the crowd it was all too much. 'I feel fair insulted,' he groaned.

For Oldfield, the night was always going to end in triumph. The ovation was standing, some 100 million TV viewers had seen him strike the bells and the CD was already on its way to the top of the charts. It's all too easy to say that Oldfield has a lot to answer for, what with giving the world its first concept album, becoming the inspiration for thousands of New Agers, and now giving rock music its first sequel. But we should also be grateful. How easy it would have been to rush-release Tubular Bells II just a couple of years after the original. By now, on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, we could very well have been dancing to Tubular Bells VIII.