TUBULAR RIDGE

I

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.

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.

Tubular Bells 2009

 

II

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’.

Mike's old field

Mike’s old field

 

III

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]

 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.

 

SOURCES

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!

Hergest Ridge 

 

24 comments

  1. I’m not sure why I have no recollection of Hergest Ridge but will listen with interest, which you’ve sparked. I see it on YouTube calling now’

    Thanks.

    PS:-
    I thought earlier this week that an article around re-released versions could make for good copy.
    I was musing on that topic because I really like the alternate take of ‘Carolyn’ on Hank Mobleys’ ‘No room for squares’ CD more than the good but bright version originally released on vinyl in ’63. Adding a sax counterpoint to Lee Morgan’s trumpet gives the tune a wonderful yearning quality.

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    1. Yes, more engaging than Tubular Bells.
      (To be fair, TB probably suffers from ‘Hot August Night’ syndrome).

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      1. That’s a fair call. Too much exposure is rarely advantageous for music. Mind you, I prefer HR to TB anyway. Ommadawn is excellent too.

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  2. An album I never got into, even when they used one track on an advert for milk! But hand it to Branson for taking on the Sex Pistols!

    ( my brother had a paper plate autographed by Johnny Rotten when he saw them during their very first UK tour. He threw it away the same night because he got upset after the band spat on the crowd! )

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    1. Very sensible too. If they spat on the punters, just imagine what germs would have inhabited that paper plate.

      (I’d still recommend a listen to either Hergest Ridge or Ommadawn despite being underwhelmed by TB.)

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      1. When this album/s was released I was heavy into Hendrix , Stones and Johnny Winter and had recently discovered Return to Forever. It seemed a bit lame by comparison.
        The elder sister of a mate and the other guitarist in our garage band had this record and she was moggy over it. I heard it now and then when I went round to his place.
        I’ll check out Hergest Ridge on Youtube.

        btw. You know of, course, that Punk Rock bands gobbing on the audience was considered de rigeur?
        It went with the safety pins in the nose, bin bag shirts and spiky hairdoos!
        lol…

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  3. You may not be terribly surprised to hear Tubular Bells makes an appearance among the 1001 (alas,no Hergest Ridge) – that seems to be a pattern where the more ‘significant’ album makes it in over the arguably ‘superior’ album.
    I remember reading Oldfield enjoyed a sudden surge in sales following his London Olympics performance!

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    1. What was groundbreaking was not particularly the music, but that it made such an impression on the Charts! There was abundant progressive music made in the early 70s UK, but little of it translated into ‘success’ in terms of sales and fame. Mike Oldfield achieved this, but by all reports did not find the experience particularly satisfying!

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  4. TB was a favorite of the Moody Blues Guy, if you remember him, so I know it well. Beautiful masterpiece – too bad it got associated with that horrid film, as you correctly noted. Never heard HR; will YouTube it pronto. Great article!

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    1. Thanks Marie. I’d be interested in how you find Hergest Ridge (or Ommadawn, the one after) as I enjoy them much more (musically speaking). Mind you, I have no Moody Guy Blues attached.

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  5. Funnily enough never heard Hergest Ridge, although I have been there lots of times.

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    1. Did you meet Mike?

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      1. No, he wanted to of course, but I sent word to him that it didn’t always pay to meet your heroes and I didn’t want to disappoint him in any way.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Original Post: August 2014 […]

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  7. It’s fun revisiting posts I read months ago, now reading with a bit more context.
    I stand by my previous comment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice one Geoff.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Nice post, I’ve been a huge fan of Hergest Ridge since it came out, and it some ways like it better than Tubular because it seems more of an integrated piece and I love the pastoral flavor and the absence of distracting elements like the hornpipe and the Piltdown Man from TB. (Don’t even get me started on the Piltdown Mummy from Tubular Bells 2). Would love to get the 1974 original on CD but seems hard to find.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rick. Absolutely with you on ‘Hergest Ridge’; my favourite too.
      That box set is worth grabbing if you ever encounter it.

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  9. So somehow I got to reading this and now I want to own Boxed although I already have all three of the albums already. You are a terrible man.
    If it is still only $19 when i get back from the UK I will undoubtedly buy it an it will be your fault entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bwah-ha-ha-ha. (At least, I think that’s how you write an evil laugh).

      But that is a good price (if it’s in good knick) and the ‘bonus’ disc is pretty good. Good hunting!

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  10. ‘Bells’ and ‘Ridge’ got a lot of play at CB’s place. Liked them both. Just watched updated version of the Exorcist. Lots to like about that flick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool. William Friedkin has appeared in these pages, though not for The Exorcist. You’ll get there around November 2014!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I seen that coming up. For some reason I’ve never seen ‘Sorcerer’. I’m actively looking into changing that. I was going to ask your opinion when I got to it. ‘Connection’ is one of my faves.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, it looks interesting. You see, I’ve seen but not heard Sorcerer. When Tangerine Dream performed the score live in front of the cinema screen, they had the film sound turned off. So I’d quite like to view the film too!

          Liked by 1 person

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