Thursday, November 28, 2013

Forty Years Of Horror: Tubular Bells

It is arguably the most recognisable introduction to a rock music album ever created. Yet it wasn't really a rock album, while the introduction never ended. It was beautiful in its minimalist simplicity, yet the musical structure of seven-eight and nine-eight time was anything but simple. It was musical structure born out of the "progressive" era of rock music with a minimalism that was reminiscent of Terry Riley and Philip Glass. It was symphonic but not pompous, yet it was classical in its recurring theme and in its developments towards crescendo. It was repetitious and its introduction wove itself into your consciousness and would not let go. On 25 May 1973 it was released. It was "Tubular Bells".

Seven months later, on Boxing Day, a post-Christmas tradition was being maintained. This tradition was one of the film, the movie. The family would settle down to watch a classic and, as tradition came to have it, it would typically be "The Great Escape". Alternatively, the family might escape the confines of the turkey-stuffed, Christmas-light-lit living-room and head to the cinema. 1973 was a good year for films: "Live And Let Die", "The Way We Were", "American Graffiti". In Britain, the cinemas had yet to offer what was to be the second highest-grossing film that was released in 1973; it was not to be seen in British cinemas until the next year. In America, however, Boxing Day cinema-goers could have seen a film that was as far removed from Christmas as it was possible to get. The film was "The Exorcist".

If "Tubular Bells" broke new ground in the world of rock music, then "The Exorcist" ripped up the ground of the horror-movie genre and littered it with bodies defiled by the Devil. It wasn't perhaps entirely new as "Rosemary's Baby", some five years before, had taken a devil theme too, but "The Exorcist" it was which led to "The Omen", "The Sentinel" and "Carrie", and never before had audiences apparently been provoked into vomiting and being emotionally disturbed by a film.

These two iconic statements of entertainment in 1973 had a connection of course. The minimalist beauty of "Tubular Bells" lay in what it did not reveal. It hid the unstated. Its repetitiousness could conjure up whatever images the listener wished. It might never have been intended for these unstated images to be malevolent, haunting or horrific, but that it is what they were to become. Only a few months after its release, the unmistakable symmetry of "Tubular Bells" found its way onto the soundtrack for "The Exorcist". It became the unofficial theme tune for the film.

The story of how "Tubular Bells" came to be recorded has been told many times, and it is a story which raises ifs and buts. If Richard Branson had not heard Mike Oldfield's original tape, Oldfield might never have become the name he was to become. If it hadn't been for "Tubular Bells", would Virgin Records have been started or would it have been the success that it was to be? If it hadn't been for this success, then would The Sex Pistols have ever become as popular as they were to become? If it hadn't been for "Tubular Bells", would there have ever been Virgin Atlantic and all the other Virgin brands and would Richard Branson still be plain Richard and not Sir Richard? And if it hadn't been for "The Exorcist", might "Tubular Bells" have achieved the global sales which it did, especially sales in the US? 

Ultimately, might Mike Oldfield have ever been able to afford a luxury finca in Mallorca and so follow in the affluent footsteps of his Virgin mentor? He didn't tarry that long on the island, only some four years before finding that the Bahamas held a greater attraction, but it was long enough to discover that Mallorca was "an incredibly inspiring place to work"; this work included a remix of "Tubular Bells".

So, for a brief time, the two connected entertainment events of 1973 brought one of its protagonists to Mallorca. And in 2013, he returned if only via the miracle of technology and contributed, thanks to Skype, to the celebration for Kevin Ayers in Deià in August; Oldfield had been the bassist with Ayers' The Whole World band prior to recording "Tubular Bells". The forty years have witnessed unimagined changes, not just in communications technology. Were "Tubular Bells" to be made today, its recording would be totally different. Oldfield's multi-instrumental ability would not be required to anything like the same extent. "The Exorcist" would be an exercise in computer-generated imagery.

They were both extraordinary achievements of their time. But they were products of that time. Technology would dictate that they would now be different. Yet for all the technology, Oldfield and his period in Mallorca serves as a reminder of what stays constant. He found the island inspiring in the twenty-first century. In 1973, and in years leading up to it, Mallorca was inspiring and had been inspiring all manner of artists, a couple of whom in their different fields - art and literature - died this year on the island they had adopted, the American painter Ellis Jacobson and the Australian author Mark McShane. And in a cemetery in Deià, Kevin Ayers, who had lived in the village for some years, was also remembered. A dark place to be remembered maybe but not a dark place as that in "The Exorcist" and one that was brightened by the legacy of 1973. "Introducing ... Tubular Bells."

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