A recent BBC programme on the era of the album (that brief period between the end of the Sixties, and the rise of the CD in the early Eighties, when a big round chunk of vinyl that played at thirty-three and a third rpm was where it was at, man) inspired me to buy three albums from that era (on CD, ironically – don’t have a turntable any more).
The three albums were Dark Side of the Moon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Tubular Bells. I had owned scratchy cassette copies (remember that Home Taping is Killing Music campaign?) of the first two; I don’t think I’d had a copy of Tubular Bells. I remembered – or thought I remembered – it, though that may have been as much from repeated viewings of the Exorcist, which used the opening theme in its soundtrack, as hearing the album itself.
By the time I was a student, in the first half of the Eighties, Mike Oldfield’s masterwork was kind of out of fashion; unless you wanted to be labelled a hippy, you renounced the concept album and all its ministers as the old religion, which punk had swept away with a presbyterian vigour, and no little thrashing of guitars.
Still, and all, the BBC programme retold the story of Oldfield, the tortured genius who carried around a world-changing album in his head while struggling to make any impression on a single record company before chancing upon Richard Branson and recording the whole thing himself at Manor Recording Studios. Like, the whole thing. Himself. Or pretty much all of it.
To any musician, this is a deeply romantic tale. Firstly, just having the talent to play all the instruments yourself – legend has it that Oldfield learnt bass guitar on the way to (successfully) audition for Kevin Ayres and the Whole World as, er, a bass guitar player. Secondly, frankly (and here I honourably exclude my current musical collaborators Kelly Brooks, Mark Allan and Kenny Mackay) the idea of getting to do exactly whatever the hell you want without having to negotiate with the lead guitarist/bass player/keyboardist/drummer/tubular bellist on what bit they get to play.
Here, though, was part of the problem. I was carried away by the romance of the album’s story. When I listened to it again, there were bits that, to be honest, I wasn’t so keen on. There was the posh bloke introducing the instruments, in a way that sounded a bit Pythonesque, and dated, to me now. Then there was the proto-death-metal Piltdown Man sequence, with Oldfield growling randomly (apparently done to annoy Richard Branson, so not all bad).
However, I was intrigued by the concept of two guys on guitars trying to recreate the entire album live. Would it work? Would the majesty of the original music hit home to me? Alternatively, would it be a comedy show?
Ten minutes in and the signs weren’t promising. I wasn’t being transported. You may know the feeling: the guy in the seat behind you is breathing too hard, the guy in the seat in front has a head big enough to create its own system of orbital moons, you haven’t sorted out tomorrow’s shopping list, you’re anxious your 14-year old daughter is bored by all this old stuff. You may even have, as I do, an inner muso.
The two musicians – Aidan Roberts and Daniel Holdsworth – could certainly play. A music-shopful of guitars, keyboards, looper and effects pedals, and, of course, the bells, created a jungle of instruments they swung around on expertly, recreating the original sound of the album. But. The inner muso in me had surfaced, and was conducting an inner running commentary (Ooh look, it’s a Gibson J-200! Did he just play that keyboard bit, or is that still looping? How much is the sound guy doing for them?).
Then, gradually, that changed, and I stopped bothering about the how, and started feeling the wow. I think it changed for good towards the end of the first half, when Roberts put on the Vivian Stanshall voice from the record to introduce each instrument as either he or Holdsworth picked it up to play the ongoing theme. As they’d said in the programme, they deliberately avoided any comic mugging, but their sheer virtuosity with piano, keyboard, acoustic and electric guitars, glockenspiel, mandolin, and, of course, those damn bells, coupled with the physical theatre of them switching between them all in time to hit the musical cues, made a smile spread across the entire audience.
What was evident as the second half progressed, was how much these guys really loved the music. And in their hands, the music, which can perhaps sound a little sterile on a CD, (maybe because it’s a CD) came alive, breathed, took wings, and showed its true colours. Inevitably there were one or two – not bum, but less than perfectly struck – notes, but that just added to the feeling that here was Tubular Bells red in tooth and claw, a great organic beast of a piece of music, and sounding possibly as close as it could to how it sounded inside Mike Oldfield’s head the very first time. Even the growly bit was great.
Go to see this show. Even if you’re not fussed for Tubular Bells, or have never heard it. In fact, especially if you’ve never heard it. My 14-year-old loved it.
Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells ‘For Two,’ 8 – 26 August, Cowbarn, Udderbelly, 17.45