A celebration of the album Tubular Bells, to mark fifty years since it’s release.
Tubular Bells was probably the second album I ever listened to*, or at least the second album that sunk into my consciousness enough to leave a mark. My siblings weren’t avid record collectors, but went to enough gigs and bought enough albums to have an impact on me. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Budgie, The Stranglers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and – the aforementioned Tubular Bells. Just a few of the albums liying around the house to plant that seed of musical interest that would grow to make me the obsessed music geek I am now.
A seventeen year old Mike Oldfield started recording the album in 1971, with it eventually being released in 1973. Pretty much all the instruments were played by Oldfield himself, no mean feat given there are hundreds of them. Ish. There were 274 overdubs involved, a technique in its infancy back in 1973
It took a year to trouble the charts, but stayed in the top ten of the UK Albums Chart for a whole year, during which time it reached number one for one week. It peaked at number three on the US Billboard 200, and reached the top position in Canada and Australia. The album has sold over 2.7 million copies in the UK and an estimated 15 million worldwide.
It was released on a nascent Virgin Records and is often credited with ‘making’ Richard Branson the tycoon he is now. So not all good.
The success was a massive strain on Oldfield, particularly the pressure for a Tubular Bells Two, resulting in depression and reclusiveness that saw him shy away from the public for quite a while. Wikipedia tells me that he has released twenty five albums over the years, including Tubular Bells II and Tubular Bells III, But Tubular Bells will always be what he is famous for.
As we climb the steps into St David’s Hall, I’m approached by a homeless person looking for some change. I hand over some coins and he tells me Tubular Bells are one of his favourite bands. There isn’t a band called Tubular Bells, obviously, but he reinforces a point. It was such an epic standalone album, it is one of the few albums that is actually more famous than the artist that made it.
This year, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its release, the album is being toured around venues throughout the UK. Sans Oldfield.
Although his Oldfieldness is not gracing us with his presence, the shows have his seal of approval, so we can be confident that it ain’t going to be a bunch of chancers on stage. They are a mixture of classically trained musicians, session players and all round seasoned professionals. The website for the tour indicates the involvement of Brian Blessed, although I’m not sure how he fits in. I have visions of him popping up halfway through Tubular Bells to shout – “GRAND PIANO!”, at the top of his voice.
So I’m back in St David’s Hall for the fourth time in thirty years. It is a magnificent venue, but I’ve never been keen on sitting down at gigs. There are some gigs that are best witnessed sitting down though, such as the recent Nick Mason tour and The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (the other artists I have seen there in recent years). Tubular Bells has ‘sit down gig’ written all over it, so I don’t hesitate to grab tickets.
The thing is with St David’s Hall is that it was built with this sort of thing in mind. Acoustics were front and centre of its design. I stated in my review of Nick Mason that there is no seat in the house that has a bad view.
Time to review that I’m afraid. I have booked seats close to the front and on the extreme left (story of my life). As we take our seats, it is clear that this was a mistake. The PA obscures half the stage and we can’t even tell if there are any tubular bells actually on stage. They definitely have drums though, because when the band hit the stage, the drums drown out everything. I soon come to the conclusion that the PA is directing its sound towards the centre of the auditorium, and we are on the edge – whilst the drums can make quite a racket without a PA. This puts a bit of a damper on the evening to be honest, but I’m not going to dwell on it any longer because you can’t blame Mike Oldfield, tonight’s musicians or Brian Blessed for this.
Although this is the fiftieth anniversary of Tubular Bells, and it is an album length tune, you would be struggling to fill a whole gig with just the one album. So we get two sets. The first half features ‘The Gem’, ‘Summit Day’, and ‘Moonlight Shadow’. Despite the PA issues (sorry, I said I wasn’t going to mention it didn’t I) it is clear that talent is oozing out of this band. There’s no banter between the songs or introductions, they are here to do one job only, play, and they do it immaculately. At the end of the set the crowd are on their feet to show their appreciation.
During the intermission we get ushers wandering around selling tubs of ice-cream and drinks. You don’t get that in the Tramshed!
Then for the moment we have all been waiting for. Tubular Bells, Part One. It is immaculate and reinforces why this album has stood the test of time. The only disappointment is that Brian Blessed does not run out of the wings to shout “TWO SLIGHTLY DISTORTED GUITARS”.
With Tubular Bells Part One over, anything else will be an anti-climax, this is obviously why most people bought their tickets. But there is a Part Two on the flip side, which often gets overlooked. But whilst it is not as recognisable as Side One, it is still a bit of a masterpiece. As anti-climaxes go, it’s a good un.
There is a pause for a standing ovation, and we decide to beat the crowd by making a sharp exit. It’s not the end though and they soon strike up a rendition of ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’, which prompts the crowd to clap along. At this point, we are halfway up the auditorium towards the exit. My theory is confirmed, it was our seat, because the sound up the back is glorious.
We glide down the escalator and out into the Cardiff night. The Irish are in town ready for Six Nations egg chasing the next day. Normal service has been resumed, but our batteries are recharged and souls are soothed. Ready for tomorrows trip to Mid Wales.
Younger readers or people living in caves might not know what the hell I am talking about. Tubular Bells was recorded by one musician using several dozen instruments. Impossible for him to perform on his own live, So here is Mike with a bunch of mates performing it live on the BBC in 1973 (Thanks to Steve Jones for reminding us about this)
*The first album to make a mark on my consciousness by the way – Peter and The Wolf.