Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Bells

A couple of nights ago, I took my own suggestion about listening to Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, and put it on for the first time in a long while.

I bought Tubular Bells a few months after it came out in 1974, and played it over and over, especially that fall, along with Sing It Again, Rod, an early compilation of Rod Stewart's greatest hits. I played them on the stereo in my room, I played them on Mom and Dad's big console stereo downstairs, I played them until the labels nearly wore off. Tubular Bells hasn't lost its ability to transport me back to that season--if I close my eyes, I can see myself in the room we called the sunporch, where the console stereo was, or in my own bedroom, putting the album on as the afternoon sun faded into evening and whatever AM radio wave I'd been listening to faded into static.

The first eight or nine minutes of the album will be familiar to anyone who knows the single edit used as the theme in The Exorcist. From there, Oldfield spends the next several minutes re-imagining the theme in a couple of different ways. Part one ends with the most compelling part of the album--a musical roll call with an announcer introducing different instruments, which respond by playing the same theme over an ominous backing track that pulses with urgency. More instruments enter and the music subtly builds, until the final announcement: "Plus . . . tubular bells!" Unlike the other instruments, which weaved unobtrusively into the mix from either the left or right speaker, the bells blast in at full volume squarely in the middle. Thirty-one years of listening to this record and that moment still induces goosebumps. But soon the bells fade into the distance, and part one ends quietly. (In vinyl days, this was the point at which you had to get up and turn the record over. But on CD, part two begins only a second or two after part one ends--and it seems too quick.) Part two is not nearly as distinctive as part one, but it does feature an odd growling and barking segment credited to Piltdown Man, the prehistoric human who turned out to be a hoax. Eventually he returns to his cave, and part two winds down as if it's going to end quietly, too--at least until the rollicking Sailor's Hornpipe unexpectedly kicks in. It ends the album on a weirdly incongruous note--weirdly incongruous, yes, but it doesn't keep Tubular Bells from being of the more unusual listening experiences you can have.

Oldfield recorded several other albums and singles, a few of which were hits in England, but Tubular Bells, album and single, remains his only American success. He recorded a sequel to it in the 80s; I have it on cassette somewhere, and should probably go and find it now. And because part of the pleasure of vinyl albums is tactile, I might also get out my old copy of the original Tubular Bells, just to hold it in my hands again, like I would do on on autumn afternoons, so many years ago.


At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Mike Oldfield co-wrote and (I think) performed the original version of "Family Man," later a Top 10 hit for Daryl Hall and John Oates. -- Dave P.

At 11:30 AM, Anonymous curmudgeonfish said...

That "Tubular Bells" narration (ie, the calling out of the instruments) was done by the late Vivian Stanshall of the legendary Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Viv is probably best know in the USA for singing to a stripper with the Bonzos in The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour."


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