Wanting to build upon his established mail order record business, Richard Branson went into retail. The first Virgin store opened above a shoe shop at “the cheaper end of Oxford Street”1 in 1971. By Christmas the following year, Branson and his team had “fourteen record shops: several in London and one in every big city”1 in the UK. But retail, whether mail order or bricks and mortar, offers limited opportunities so Mr B cast around for suitable premises for an out-of-town recording facility. A combination of bank loans and family support secured the purchase of The Manor just north of Oxford (the city, not the London street) and a further acquisition in the nascent empire was in place. But the canny entrepreneur did not stop there.
“If Virgin set up a record label, we could offer artists somewhere to record (for which we could charge them); we could publish and release their records (from which we could make a profit), and we had a large and growing chain of shops where we could promote and sell their records (and make the retail profit margin).” [1. p. 113-114]
Clearly it’s all about the music.
Colleague Simon Draper took on the job of setting up and running Virgin Music, but who to sign first? You no doubt know the answer: a young guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who had been beavering away at his own recording during downtime at The Manor studio, one Mike Oldfield.
Tom Newman, musician and accomplished engineer, was a key part of the recording studio set-up.
“I wanted some place to record. I got on well with Richard… I told him what he should get into. He sold records; now he could make them too. When we first set Manor up and started recording bands… it was a very shoestring affair… It was a risk… and it would have failed if we hadn’t found Mike Oldfield when we did.” [2, p. 135]
And what had they, in fact, found? A young, introverted musician with mental health issues and a CV that included folk performances with his sister Sally, a stint with Kevin Ayres The Whole World, and lots of session work at The Manor. Oldfield and Newman worked long (and often late) on the composer’s opus, both aspects made possible by Oldfield being resident in the seventeenth century house. Eventually the tapes – famously worn translucently thin by endless overdubs – were delivered to the fledgling Virgin and in May 1973, Tubular Bells was one of the four initial releases by the new label. (Since you asked, the others were Gong’s Flying Teapot, The Faust Tapes, and Manor Live, an undistinguished jam album). Branson and Virgin needed a result; outgoings were way ahead of incomings at this point in time.
So how did the albums fair? The Gong LP performed creditably for an album brimming with whimsical hippie oddness. Due to the unprecedented marketing ploy of selling and LP for the price of a single, The Faust Tapes did extraordinarily well, selling 100,000 copies in the first month. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? The live one sank without a trace. And Tubular Bells? Well, it soared: reaching #1 in the UK and Australia, and Top 10 in the US (its inclusion in that horrid film no doubt providing dubious assistance).
There is no doubt the enthusiasm of influential DJ John Peel helped the cause. He was an early convert to the album, playing it in its entirety on his show and writing a glowing print review to boot. Even its use in the afore-mentioned film added to the Bells bandwagon.
Oldfield’s first album has been rejigged, remixed, re-released and repeated literally dozens of times (Allmusic lists 32 releases from 1990 to the present!). It was one of the sales highpoints for progressive music and is without doubt the foundation on which Richard Branson’s Virgin empire was built, a fact acknowledged by the multi-millionaire naming one of his airline’s planes Tubular Belle.
I bought my first copy of Tubular Bells in early 1974. Probably an Australian pressing and, as I recall, second-hand. Later I acquired a UK pressing and disposed of the first copy. The album was one of the first CDs I purchased in the mid-80s and I sprang for the 25th anniversary CD re-issue in 1998 (relinquishing the original CD). When I was on an Oldfield jag a decade or so ago I sought out the four LP set Mike Oldfield Boxed (the first three albums plus a bonus disc of Collaborations, more here). Finally, and to my enduring amazement, I forked out quite a wad of cash for the lavish 2009 box set a few years back. What is odd is that the four copies of Tubular Bells I currently own are all different. The version in Boxed is probably my favourite as it has the wonderful Vivian Stanshall drunken hornpipe at the end of side two, this shambolic and hilarious version having been vetoed by the record company at the time.
The subtly changing of the sound of the album across the years is a strange phenomenon. Oldfield has done the same thing with Hergest Ridge and insists he is improving his works, but it still seems wrong. Imagine you are standing in front of a painting in a gallery, admiring the shapes and colours and immersing yourself in the artist’s work. Then up trots a chap in a paint-spattered shirt who, having excused himself politely, whips an almost identical canvas out and replaces the one you were enjoying. ‘This one’s closer to my vision’ he cheerfully informs you as he strides away with the original. Someone described Oldfield’s revisions as ‘post-modern’ but I’d probably say ‘perverse and obsessive’.
Tubular Bells remains an important and enjoyable work but I have to say that I much prefer Oldfield’s second album, Hergest Ridge. It often gets over looked musically or summarised by its immediate success: ‘a #1 album’. But I find it a more satisfying work that rewards repeated listens more than its over-played predecessor.
This is a work of less exuberance and more subtle exploration of the landscape. There is space and air and at times a meditative reflection that never devolves into ambient tedium. Folk influences are further forward both melodically and textually though the arsenal of instruments is not substantially different from the first album. A clear plus is the absence of the ghastly Piltdown Man whose bellowing is not missed at all. Here, themes emerge and are explored at a pace that is leisurely or even “languorous”3. Yet all is not pastoral somnolence. A new voice or instrument (often Oldfield’s stinging guitar) will intrude, intervene or disrupt the peace. And thank goodness. It’s those dissonances that keep our attention and charge the atmosphere. An example is the storm that unleashes (especially in the 2010 re-mix) at the 9’30” mark of Side Two.
Not surprisingly, there are many versions of Hergest Ridge (try Discogs if you’re brave enough). Of the four I own (original vinyl, original CD, Boxed set vinyl, 2010 CD re-issue) I think I again favour the 1976 version in Boxed. For those intrigued by the thought behind the re-mixes, here is the composer’s justification:
“The main intention was to cut down on what I thought had been unnecessary trimmings and in some cases, like the snare drum, erase them entirely… I only added things like the trumpet and snare drum because I was worried that people might think it was too repetitive. But there is nothing wrong with repetition if you regard what’s being repeated as worth repeating. On Side Two, I’ve given the voices more prominence and taken away a few of the guitar parts I added for the wrong reasons. Now it’s the experiment in texture I always wanted it to be.” [Notes included with Mike Oldfield Boxed]
Hergest Ridge was successful but certainly not everyone’s pint of homebrew. Author Paul Stump sneers at the “self-conscious ethnicity of the album” with his customary snide wit, lumping the LP together with “coffee-table Celtic slummery, lentils, kidney beans, children named Saffron and Casper… floral prints and tie-dying”2. Well, I like at least half of those things and could find no evidence for the so-called self-conscious ethnicity.
If you never went beyond TB and have an urge to try instrumental music that is layered, engaging and suffused with the timeless earthy appeal of English folk, pick up a copy of Hergest Ridge. There are plenty to choose from.
Branson, Richard (2002, Revised Ed.) Losing My Virginity. Random House, Aus. (1)
Stump, Paul (2010, Revised Ed.) The Music’s All That Matters. Harbour, Essex, UK. (2)
Hegarty, Paul and Halliwell, Martin (2011) Beyond And Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s. Continuum, NY. (3)
Mike Oldfield Hergest Ridge [Virgin, released either 28th or 31st August 1974]
Happy 40th Birthday, Hergest Ridge!