Tubular Bells is the most famous album released by British musician and composer Mike Oldfield. As his debut album, released by Virgin Records on 25th May 1973, it consists of two long pieces of instrumental music played on a variety of instruments, including the tubular bells.
The amazing thing about the album was that Oldfield played every single instrument on both tracks – and he was only 19 at the time it was recorded! Despite having only two tracks, each lasting for longer than 20 minutes, the album became a global success.
It reached number one in the pop charts in the UK, Canada and Australia and number three in the United States’ Billboard 200 chart. It was the third best-selling album of the 1970s in the UK.
Who is Mike Oldfield?
Back in 1973, Reading-born Oldfield (the son of a GP and a nurse) was a self-taught guitarist, who had already played many live gigs around local folk clubs in his early teens. He had a passion for composing music and had written several 15-minute instrumental pieces, saying they went through “all sorts of moods.”
He also played in a beat group and cited the Shadows’ lead singer, Hank Marvin, as an influence on his musical style. He formed two more bands in the late 1960s – folk group Sallyangie with his sister Sally, and rock band Barefoot with his brother Terry.
Moving to London where he shared a flat with vocalist Kevin Ayers (a well-known figure on the ’60s psychedelic scene), he joined another band called The Whole World. It was during this period that Oldfield began writing more instrumental compositions, recording early sections of Tubular Bells as demos.
Thanks to meeting Richard Branson (who was in the process of launching Virgin Records) Oldfield completed and released Tubular Bells in 1973, after being given recording time at Branson’s Manor Studio in Oxfordshire.
What are tubular bells?
Oldfield had been teaching himself to play many other instruments, as well as the guitar, since the age of 17. While his band, The Whole World, was recording the album, Shooting at the Moon, the teenager was fascinated by the array of percussion instruments available at Abbey Road Studios.
These included harpsichords, pianos, a Mellotron keyboard and many orchestral percussion instruments, such as tubular bells. He used to go into the studios early and spend hours learning how to play them all, experimenting with different sounds. This is where his love of unusual instruments began.
Tubular bells are a percussion instrument, also known as chimes, with a sound that resembles church bells. They are manufactured by using a metal tube that is tuned by altering its length. Several metal tubes of different sizes make up a set of tubular bells, each with a different note value.
The metal tubes have different diameters, ranging from 30mm to 38mm. Coupled with the different lengths, the tubular bells can produce a standard range of notes from C4 to F5, although many professional instruments can reach G5 by manufacturing them to different custom sizes.
Recording Tubular Bells
A massive amount of work went into recording the album, Tubular Bells. Oldfield recorded Opus One in just one week at Manor Studio, as Branson had given him free studio time on the strength of having heard his instrumental demo tape.
The artist asked Branson to hire many different instruments, including tubular bells, and he played them all himself, laying down each track separately. He also used various guitars, including a Fender Telecaster formerly owned by Marc Bolan, a mandolin and a piano played honkytonk style, in tribute to his grandmother who was a pub pianist in the 1930s.
Once part one of the album was recorded in the allotted time, Oldfield was permitted to stay in the studio to write and record part two – including the only drums and vocals on the album. He said later that he hadn’t intended using any vocals, but had done so at Branson’s request.
Tubular Bells was released to great critical acclaim in May 1973 and was a classic of the progressive rock genre. It sold more than 15 million copies across the world, including more than 2.6 million in the UK. Its contribution to popular music was recognised when Oldfield was asked to play excerpts live at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London.
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