Mike Oldfield (born Michael Gordon Oldfield, 15 May 1953, Reading, Berkshire, England) is largely known for Tubular Bells, his groundbreaking album from 1973, the success of which also bankrolled Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Records, for which Tubular Bells was the inaugural release. However, his musical career has spread over more than 40 years encompassing a range of styles, with varying amounts of success. According to the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock, his style is labeled as Oldfield Progressive.
Before Oldfield started his solo career, he formed a band with his sister Sally Oldfield in 1967 called The Sallyangie and at the start of the 70s played bass and guitar with Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, alongside Ayers, David Bedford and saxophonist Lol Coxhill. At this time Kevin Ayers lent Oldfield a multitrack tape recorder, and it was on this that Oldfield began to put together what would become Tubular Bells, although Branson at one point suggested "Breakfast In Bed" as a title.
Tubular Bells is considered to be the first rock album to incorporate elements of classical composition, particularly the use of repetition with subtle variations in the minimalist style as pioneered by composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and LaMonte Young, although these influences were filtered through rock sensibilities. Oldfield also claimed to have been inspired by Kevin Ayers' observation that "there was nothing wrong with repetition so long as it was something worth repeating".
Early on in his search for a label, Oldfield encountered Branson who was in the early stages of setting up Virgin Records on top of his existing chain of record shops, but after many rejections over the following year, Oldfield returned to Branson, who agreed to release it as Virgin's inaugural release and allowed Oldfield to finish the album at his Manor recording studio. Oldfield was signed to a ten album contract that would have repercussions on his later career. The album's success took hold when John Peel played the entirety on his radio program on BBC radio, and an excerpt was licensed for use on the film The Exorcist, giving it some exposure in the US market.
Mike Oldfield's next few albums continued in the vein of Tubular Bells. Hergest Ridge was a more textured, pastoral work, though still with contrasting sections. It actually hit No 1 in the UK album charts in 1974 before its predecessor, which took over the slot, however in the long run it wasn't received nearly as well as Tubular Bells. An orchestral version of Tubular Bells was orchestrated by David Bedford and released.
Ommadawn was released in 1975, and is considered by many of his fans to be Oldfield's best album. It took on Celtic and African music influences, ably assisted by The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney and the exiled South African drumming ensemble Jabula.
After releasing this album, Oldfield had all three studio albums remixed for quadraphonic, with Hergest Ridge in particular being significantly altered to sound less "cluttered" this mix ended up as the default CD release on Oldfield's imprimatur. These mixes were released as Boxed, along with another LP entitled Collaborations which contained songs and compositions that Oldfield had recorded with David Bedford, Leslie Penning on recorder, and Chris Cutler on percussion. The selections included Portsmouth and In Dulci Jubilo.
After "Ommadawn", Mike Oldfield took a break from recording and underwent Exegesis therapy sessions. Prior to this stage Oldfield had been quite reclusive (to the exasperation of his record company), having only performed Tubular Bells before a live audience once, though he also performed the first half for television on the BBC's "Second House" program. After the controversial therapy, his personality seemed to have dramatically changed and he was more confident, almost to the point of arrogance.
In 1978, he recorded his most ambitious album to that point, Incantations, which bears strong minimalist influences, and featured Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span on vocals, as well as the return of the Jabula drummers and a full string section. He followed this up with his first live tour of Europe, complete with a 50 piece band. The tour itself lost money, however the album documenting the tour, Exposed, was successful enough to recoup those losses.
By this point his particular "style" was increasingly at odds with the fashions of the day, indeed he bristled at the idea of Branson signing The Sex Pistols to the label. Nevertheless, he changed his approach to begin to write more pop songs to placate Virgin's marketing department, as well as writing material that was more suitable for a "small" band. After the "Exposed" tour he continued to tour extensively, refining his act and pared his band back to a six-piece by the time of the QE2 tour. Around this time he also renegotiated his contract to obtain a better royalty rate, however it also extended his obligation from ten to thirteen albums.
1979 saw the release of Platinum (repackaged with a different tracklisting as Airborne in some markets), the first album he'd recorded in the US, and contained arrangements of Philip Glass's North Star, amongst his usual side-length instrumental, and George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, sung by Wendy Roberts. Early pressings of the album contained a song called Sally which was removed at the request of Richard Branson on later editions and replaced with Into Wonderland sung by Wendy Roberts. On many editions of the album on CD the song is still marked as "Sally".
QE2, named after the ship rather than the Queen, was released in 1980 and featured contributions on drums from Phil Collins, and also the first appearance of Maggie Reilly on his albums. It was also the first album where there were no side-length instrumentals, the longest being Taurus I which was ten minutes long. Included amongst the nine tracks were covers of ABBA's Arrival and The Shadows' Wonderful Land.
1982's Five Miles Out again featured a side-length instrumental in "Taurus II", and also two compositions with his touring band, Family Man which was sung by Maggie Reilly and later covered by Hall & Oates, and the thirteen minute Orabidoo. Carl Palmer performed drums on Mount Teidi. Both Reilly and Oldfield sung on the title track, whose the subject matter was inspired by Oldfield's interest in flying, as he'd become a qualified pilot by this point.
Like many other musicians of the time, Oldfield was also making increasing use of the Fairlight CMI synthesiser, which had extensive sequencing and sampling capabilities for the time, and it would feature extensively on his next few albums. Crises featured vocals from Yes's Jon Anderson, Roger Chapman and, once again, Maggie Reilly on Moonlight Shadow, which became Mike Oldfield's most successful single, peaking at #4 on the UK chart. The titular side-length instrumental incorporated the opening theme of Tubular Bells to mark the tenth anniversary of Oldfield's debut. The same year, Oldfield also released Crime Of Passion as a standalone single with Barry Palmer on vocals.
Discovery was largely a "pop" album, released in 1984, featuring Maggie Reilly and Barry Palmer as the main vocalists, with Oldfield sharing the production role with the drummer Simon Phillips. Notable tracks included To France and Tricks Of The Light. There was also a 13-minute instrumental called The Lake.
Also in 1984, Roland Joffé commissioned Mike Oldfield to compose the soundtrack The Killing Fields soundtrack. Oldfield employed a combination of classical orchestration, (arranged by David Bedford) including the Vienna Boys Choir, plus other sections incorporating East Asian instrumentation, Fairlight and guitar. The result was considered to be quite fitting for the mood of the film based around Pol Pot's Cambodian revolution, however this was the only soundtrack that Oldfield would compose. (The portion of Tubular Bells used for The Exorcist was licensed without his knowledge.)
After this point, Mike Oldfield increasingly concentrated on computer video production, though he released the music videos for "Pictures In The Dark", featuring himself, partner Anita Hegerland and then-boy soprano Aled Jones, and "Shine" featuring Jon Anderson. In 1987 He released the The Wind Chimes video album, also released in album form as Islands. The entirely of The Wind Chimes was later re-released on the Elements DVD in 2004. (The video for "Magic Touch" was co-produced by Alex Proyas, who produced many music videos before moving into feature-length films.)
Aside from experimenting with computer graphics, Oldfield was also engaged in a campaign for "real" music. After having claimed that computers were ruining music, he wrote the bulk of Earthmoving on computer, with the song "Innocent" reportedly being written in a couple of hours one afternoon. The album consisted of ten songs, and was then seen as the nadir of his career, although highlights included Maggie Reilly's re-appearance on "Blue Night" and the coda to "Far Country", which saw Mike Oldfield trade guitar solos with Adrian Belew (of King Crimson fame), who also contributed vocals to "Holy".
Amarok was released in 1990, and is regarded by many fans as being amongst his best work, though it had little commercial success due to Virgin virtually not bothering to market it all, leaving Oldfield himself to do so. The album was conceived as a sequel to Ommadawn and as a kind of rehearsal for his planned Tubular Bells II. It was fully instrumental, using much of the same personnel as Ommadawn including Paddy Moloney and Julian Bahula, leader of the Jabula drum ensemble. The album displayed formidable musicianship, whimsical humour, and contrary anti-commercialism in equal parts. The latter manifested itself in the decision to present it as one hour-long track on CD, but comprised of musical segments that lasted two or three minutes at most before the motif give way to something else completely only to return with a vengeance later. In spite of the jump-cut nature of the album, it remained idiosyncratically Oldfield.
Heaven's Open saw out Mike Oldfield's contractual obligation to Virgin in 1991, and he chose to credit it to "Michael Oldfield", and do the lead vocals himself. Although somewhat lacklustre, it still represented a step up from Earthmoving. "Make Make" represented a thinly-veiled bitter farewell to the record company, and "Music From The Balcony", the side-long instrumental, exhibited some more of the contrariness of Amarok. The last sound on the album, barely audible, was of Oldfield yelling "fuck off!".
By this point Mike Oldfield signed a new contract with Warner Music, and his first release for them was the much anticipated Tubular Bells II, produced by Trevor Horn. The album generally followed the structure of the original, though the tunes were what could be described as "anagrams" of the corresponding themes from the original. It sounded a lot clearer than the original, and the second half seemed to have been fleshed out more, but some fans felt that Horn had "sanitised" the sound too much. The Orb were also commissioned to remix "Sentinel", the lead single, and brought an ambient dub style to bear - if anything, it was more "minimalist" than the original - in a manner that perplexed some fans but delighted others.
Oldfield followed this up in 1994 with Songs of Distant Earth, a concept album based on Arthur C Clarke's novel of the same name, with the plot being about the Magellan, an interstellar colony ship that had fled Earth as the sun went nova. The Magellan made a stopover on Thalassa, a planet colonised on a previous diaspora, and amongst other things, a romance develops between one of the Magellan's passengers and a Thalassan. Songs of Distant Earth was also one of the first CDs to incorporate a enhanced multimedia component, though this was only compatible with Macintosh computers.
1996's Voyager saw Oldfield revisit his mother's Irish roots, partly bidden by Warner to cash in on the Riverdance and Braveheart phenomena, with performances of various Celtic standards such as "Women Of Ireland" and "She Moves Through The Fair" as well as a number of originals. It was dismissed by some Celtic music aficionados as being overproduced, wishy-washy and unauthentic, it is stylistically consistent with Oldfield's later work and contains the epic instrumental Mont St Michel, orchestrated by Robin Smith who was his musical director for his '90s live tours.
1998 saw another iteration of the Tubular Bells franchise, this time inspired by Mike Oldfield's move to Ibiza to a house that he'd designed himself. Unlike II, Tubular Bells III didn't strictly follow the structure of the original, though again themes from it were given a twist. The most radical of these departures was a re-imagining of the ubiquitous piano motif along the lines of the dance music prevalent in the nightclubs of Ibiza, but he also included sections inspired by flamenco and ambient. "Man In The Rain", virtually a rewrite of "Moonlight Shadow", served as an interlude for the two instrumental halves of the album, and the conclusion was strongly reminiscent of part one of Ommadawn, sampling the African drums from that album, and of course finishing with the inevitable bells. After the release of the album he sold his house to Noel Gallagher and left the island, disillusioned.
1999 saw the release of two albums, Guitars, which was made up completely of sounds made by guitars, and The Millennium Bell, written in part for Mike Oldfield's performance at Berlin's millennium celebrations. The latter album was conceived as a musical journey through the history of the world over the previous thousand years. Tres Lunas was released in 2002 almost as an afterthought, with his creative energies largely concentrated on creating a virtual reality game. "Sirius" and the title track are notable tracks. "Thou Art In Heaven", originally composed for the Berlin event, was also re-arranged and included in this album.
Tubular Bells 2003 was, this time, a re-recording of the original, with the arrangements largely kept intact except to correct what Oldfield perceived to be imperfections with the original, as well as to add string arrangements in places that the original recording circumstances prevented. Oldfield drew criticism for his insistence that the recording be copy-protected, a stance which may or may not have affected sales - in either case it was the least successful of his Tubular Bells albums.
Oldfield moved to a new record company for him, Universal Music Group, and
Light And Shade was released in 2005 through its Mercury label, and contained two discs, representing light and shade. Criticism was somewhat mixed, comparing it with Tres Lunas in quality, and indeed recycles motifs from that album in parts. The general style continues the dance-beat chilled feeling started in TB3, though his distinctive guitar stylings are quite prominent on certain tracks. A key element on this album is the use of "Vocaloid" software, replacing and adding to human voices, harking back to his use of the Vocoder in the early 1980s. Yet another first was the inclusion of "U-Mix", a program which allows some manipulation of 4 tracks. The UK release features two extra tracks, "Près de Toi" (on Light) and "Lakme (Fruity Loops)" (on Shade).
In late 2006 Oldfield returned to live performance after an 7 year absence to headline Nokia Night of the Proms in Germany. 3 tracks from his performance on the event can be heard on the Night of the Proms Vol 13 CD (Germany): Tubular Bells, Ommadawn and Shadow on the Wall (feat John Miles on vocals). In 2007 he played on the Spanish version of Night of the Proms in Valencia and Madrid, playing the very same tunes from the Nokia Night of the Proms and featured Rosa Cedrón (formely of Luar na Lubre) as the female voice for Moonlight Shadow and To France (in Germany, Miriam Stockley did the job).
His autobiography, Changeling: The Autobiography of Mike Oldfield, was published on 10 May 2007 on Virgin Books. The first two years of royalties were donated to the mental health charity SANE.
His latest album, Music of the Spheres, was released in April 2008. It was his first work written for a classical orchestra, and he was assisted with the orchestration by Karl Jenkins, best known for his Adiemus albums. Lang Lang played piano and Hayley Westenra sang on "On My Heart". Many of the themes were reminiscent of both his own previous work, particularly Tubular Bells and Incantations, as well as composers such as Glass, Sibelius and Satie. The album was well received, reaching #9 in the UK Albums charts, making it well his first album to reach the Top 10 since Tubular Bells III.
After the rights to his Virgin recordings reverted to him in 2008, Oldfield then licensed them on to Universal Music, who have announced that they will be re-releasing his back catalogue under the Mercury imprint, starting with Tubular Bells in June 2009, which has been remixed by Oldfield for this release.
This will be available in a number of different configurations such as a mass-market 2CD set with the second featuring yet another compilation of his work up to the Crises album, and a limited edition deluxe version which will be personally signed and includes 3 CDs of the 2009 and original mixes plus demos, a DVD including 5.1 surround mixes plus the Second House TV performance, a vinyl LP of the original mix, plus collectible memorabilia. Rumours that a small piece of the original bells would be included in each of these box sets were unfounded.
Reissues of subsequent albums are also forthcoming, with reports saying the first wave will cover the first decade of his solo career.
A number of compilations have been released through the years:
- The Complete Mike Oldfield 1985, 2 discs. Completists may find it worthwhile for the live section, which contains good renditions of "Sheba", "Mirage", "Platinum" and "Mount Teidi".
- Elements, 1992, a single disc compilation by Virgin released after the success of Tubular Bells II by Warner. Elements 1973-1991, a four disc box set, was also released at the same time.
- XXV 1997, a single disc compilation by Warner, licensing tracks over his whole period of work but concentrating on his Warner years. Includes an early mix of "Secrets" from Tubular Bells III, released the following year.
- The Best of Tubular Bells, 2001, a single disc compilation by Virgin sequencing selections from all five "Bell" releases - Tubular Bells 1-3, The Orchestral Tubular Bells, and The Millenium Bell.
- Platinum Collection, 2006, a 3 disc compilation from Virgin/EMI. A good primer on the breadth and depth of Oldfield's work over three decades, it is notable in that it includes some tracks such as "Don Alfonso" and "Pictures in the Dark" previously unavailable on CD, as well as 12" mixes and extended versions of other tracks such as "Moonlight Shadow" that were previously hard to find.
There are also a number of DVDs available.
- Tubular Bells II/III, performed live at their respective launches in 1992 and 1998.
- The Millennium Concert from Berlin 1999/2000. Much of The Millenium Bell is performed, as is about the first 7-8 minutes of Tubular Bells, "Moonlight Shadow", "Portsmouth" and a couple of other songs.
- Elements; Includes a performance of the first half of Tubular Bells, performed by Mike Oldfield, Fred Frith, Mick Taylor and others, from 1975 from the BBC's Second House program, as well as all of his Virgin-era music videos plus Space Movie and the The Wind Chimes video album.
- Exposed - released in late 2005, presumably covers one of his concerts from his 1979 tour.
- Live At Montreux 1981 - released in 2006, filmed at the Montreux Festival during the QE2 tour, with a 6-piece band including Maggie Reilly.
Artists that Mike Oldfield has arguably had an influence on include The Orb, Orbital, Sigur Ros, Enigma and Deep Forest. Read more on Last.fm
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