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Music / Mike Oldfield

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One slightly distorted guitarist.
"I'm just so grateful and astonished that I'm still respected and listened to."

Michael Gordon Oldfield (born 15 May 1953) is an eclectic English musician who has, in the span of a career going into its fifth decade, explored various musical genres. Mostly known for his 1973 debut album Tubular Bells, his Signature Style is the use of overdubbing in studio recordings, which allows him to play most or all of the instruments on a given piece – a practice that was much less widespread when he began using it. He's done several radio-friendly pop singles, but his better-known works are long instrumentals, occasionally clocking in at a hour of continuous music.

In 2023, Oldfield announced his retirement from music. The decision came after a failed attempt at putting together a fourth installment in the Tubular Bells series, which was impeded by a bout of writer's block and never made it past an eight-minute demo for the introduction section. The demo would eventually surface on a reissue of the first Tubular Bells later that year, closing the book on a career that spanned five decades.


Studio albums:

  • Tubular Bells (1973)
    • The Orchestral Tubular Bells (1975)
  • Hergest Ridge (1974)
    • The Orchestral Hergest Ridge (1976) (will never be released for many reasons) note 
  • Ommadawn (1975)
  • Incantations (1978)
  • Exposed (1979) (His only live album)
  • Platinum (1979)
  • QE2 (1980)
  • Five Miles Out (1982)
  • Crises (1983)
  • Discovery (1984)
  • The Killing Fields (1984)
  • Islands (1987)
  • Earth Moving (1989)
  • Amarok (1990)
  • Heaven's Open (1991)
  • Tubular Bells II (1992)
  • The Songs of Distant Earth (1994)
  • Voyager (1996)
  • Tubular Bells III (1998)
  • Guitars (1999)
  • The Millennium Bell (1999)
  • Tr3s Lunas (2002)
  • Tubular Bells 2003 (2003)
  • Light + Shade (2005)
  • Music of the Spheres (2008)
  • Tubular Beats (2013) (Remix Album)
  • Man on the Rocks (2014)
  • Return to Ommadawn (2017)

Non-album singles:

  • "Mike Oldfield's Single" (1974)note 
  • "Don Alfonso" (1975)
  • "In Dulci Jubilo" (1975)
  • "Portsmouth" (1976)
  • "William Tell Overture" (1977)
  • "Cuckoo Song" (1977)
  • "Guilty" (1979)note 
  • "Blue Peter" (1979)
  • "Mistake" (1982)note 
  • "Crime of Passion" (1984)
  • "Pictures in the Dark" (1985)
  • "Shine" (1986)

Tubular Tropes:

  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • The original release of Hergest Ridge depicts a fisheye photo of a dog sitting on the eponymous hill, with a toy plane sitting next to it. The 2010 reissue, meanwhile, depicts an overhead shot of a glider flying above the hill.
    • The original release of Incantations depicts Oldfield on a beach. When the album was reissued in 2011, it featured a new photo depicting only the rock formation featured in the background of the original cover.
    • The UK release of Islands depicts... an island, with stylized handprints overlaid on the surrounding ocean. The US release replaces this with a surrealist illustration of two monochrome "sky" and "sea" cubes atop a white background.
    • The UK release of The Songs of Distant Earth depicts a manta ray flying in front of the Earth. The US release, meanwhile, depicts a man in a salt flat holding a glowing orb among a pile and ring of other orbs, with three manta ray-like creatures flying in the sky overhead.
  • Band of Relatives: Both types.
    • Type 1: Occasionally recorded with his sister Sally (vocals) and brother Terry (winds) on solo albums, and his son Luke (guitar) played with him at the Olympics (see below).
    • Type 2: Mike and Sally were a folk duo, The Sallyangie, years before Tubular Bells and released one album as said duo.
  • Boxed Set: Oldfield released the aptly-named Boxed in 1976, collecting his first three albums plus the exclusive compilation Collaborations. Each disc in the LP release is remixed for the SQ Quadraphonic system, a variant of Quadraphonic sound compatible with both stereo and four-channel surround sound; cassette and CD versions only feature the stereo mixes, and ones on the latter format Re-Cut the set by splitting the tracks on Collaborations across the studio albums as bonus tracks. Hergest Ridge would particularly stand out for the fact that it was extensively remixed to amend issues Oldfield had with the rushed original mix; the stereo version of the 1976 mix would supplant the 1974 one in reissues until the 2010 deluxe edition, which included both the '74 mix and another new stereo mix.
  • Concept Album:
    • Incantations is based on Oldfield's experiences with Exegesis, a UK-oriented modification of the controversial self-help program Erhard Seminars Training. Accordingly, the album revolves around themes of spiritual enlightenment, with Oldfield openly stating that he wanted the music to "exert a benign magical influence on anybody who heard it."
    • The Songs of Distant Earth, which is based on the novel of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke.
    • The Millennium Bell: Covers the years from the birth of Christ up until the end of the 2nd millennium AD, using a variety of styles and inspirations.
  • Cover Version: QE2 contains a cover of Abba's "Arrival." Like the original, it's basically an instrumental with worldless vocals.
  • Distinct Double Album: Platinum, Five Miles Out, Crises, and Islands all feature a side-long suite in the vein of Oldfield's first four albums, while each album's second side consists of radio-friendly pop rock songs. Heaven's Open pulls a similar stunt, but places the side-long suite on side two rather than side one (as did the original North American release of Crises). In an interview for Crises, he claimed he divided his albums like this "to keep everyone happy."
  • Epic Rocking: As noted above, his songs have been known to reach an hour in length or more. Incantations consists mainly of a single song divided over four record sides, which reaches almost seventy-five minutes. His best-known work, Tubular Bells, is a forty-nine-minute-long song divided over two record sides. There's also the case of Amarok, which spans for exactly one uninterrupted hour on CD.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: Amarok uses, among many other things, shoes, a glass of water, teeth being brushed, and the "contents of an aeromodeler's toolbox."
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The line "4 AM in the morning", from "Moonlight Shadow".
  • Glory Days: Oldfield released his greatest hit within his debut album. While he has released several other respectable hits, none have really matched it in terms of critical success or musical influence.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Any of his worldlier pieces will contain this. Most notably, Ommadawn takes its title from its Irish Gaelic lyrics, which are essentially nonsense made up by singer Clodagh Simonds, loosely translating to "singing idiot".
  • Hidden Track: "On Horseback" from Ommadawn. It was banded separately from the rest of "Part Two" on vinyl and indexed as its own track 3 on some CD copies, but was only referred to as "the horse song" in the liner notes. It appeared by name when it was made the b-side of the "In Dulce Jubilo" single in 1975, and when it was officially recognized by name on the 2010 remaster of Ommadawn.
  • I Am the Band: He played most of the instruments on many of his earlier albums, and then went back to this method for both Amarok, and later Return to Ommadawn.
  • Instrumentals: Many of his albums and other side-long suites are either instrumental or contain brief vocals or chants (relative to the total length of the piece):
    • His first four albums were all instrumental, save for a few minutes of Ommadawn in Part 1 and its epilogue, "On Horseback"; Incantations in Parts 2 and 4; and though not sung, the introduction of the instruments by Viv Stanshall in Tubular Bells Part 1. Then there's Platinum's title track, QE2, 90% of "Taurus II", and more.
    • Oldfield's albums in the 1980s generally featured vocals by various guest singers, with Earth Moving containing no instrumentals.
  • Leitmotif: In addition to the aforementioned re-recordings, the Tubular Bells intro was recycled in some of his later works, such as "Taurus 2", which itself has riffs recycled in other songs of Five Miles Out.
  • Live Album: Exposed, the only one in his official discography. It is notable because Oldfield had refused to tour behind his first three albums as a way to avoid fame, but did so as promotion for Incantations after undergoing the controversial Exegesis therapy that left Oldfield feeling much more assertive and focused.
  • Longest Song Goes First:
    • Hergest Ridge opens with the 21:29 Part One, which outpaces the 18:45 Part Two.
    • Ommadawn opens with the 19:23 Part One, which beats out the 17:17 Part Two.
    • QE2 opens with the 10:16 "Taurus I"; no other song on the album surpasses eight minutes.
    • Both Five Miles Out and Crises open with side-length suites, "Taurus II" and the Title Track, respectively; on the initial US release of Crises, this is altered to have the title track close out the album instead.
    • The UK release of Islands opens with the nearly 22-minute "The Wind Chimes". In the US release, the song is split into a two-and-a-half-minute first part and a 19-minute second part, avoiding this trope; incidentally, part one ends up being the shortest song on the US version.
    • Return to Ommadawn begins with the 21:10 Part One, which barely outpaces Part Two by just 14 seconds.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Moonlight Shadow" and "Crime of Passion".
  • Mythology Gag: The vocal parts on Light + Shade are entirely performed with Vocaloid software (before it became known for its massive Japanese fan-following), specifically using the "Miriam" soundfont. Said soundfont was based on the voice of Miriam Stockley, who previously sang vocals on a live performance of "Moonlight Shadow" documented on the 2000 Concert Film The Art in Heaven Concert.
  • New Sound Album: There's a pretty good chance one Oldfield album is quite different than the one right before it, particularly in his first four albums, which were all side-long suites with remarkable diversity to them:
    • Tubular Bells is a symphonic rock piece with numerous ideas changing quickly.
    • Hergest Ridge is, in contrast, much more pastoral and laid-back.
    • Ommadawn added synthesizers and folk percussion to his arrangements, leaning more on an "Oriental" sound.
    • Incantations used full string and brass ensembles and was generally a slower-paced work, most influenced by the minimalism movement and texts designed on entrancing the listener. This album definitely falls squarely into the New Age category.
    • Later albums featured full-on experiments in different styles, such as the electronic Light + Shade and the orchestral Music of the Spheres, his first project focused entirely on the orchestra. And that's not even going into the pop rock that dominated his late 80s albums, particularly Earth Moving, an album that fans of Joe Cocker would appreciate.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: While Oldfield is known to vary his sound a lot between albums, he still tends to leave them with a progressive rock base. Earth Moving, meanwhile, is a full-on pop rock album with zero traces of prog; it's also a huge fan-unfavorite as a result.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Wrote the soundtrack to The Killing Fields. Notable in that Oldfield was mainly releasing pop rock songs at this point in his career.
  • Progressive Instrumentation: "In Dulce Jubilo" opens with a guitar, then a recorder melody backed by guitar and piano, with additional instruments being introduced each time the melody repeats.
  • Rearrange the Song: Oldfield's 1979 single "Guilty" (released as a non-album single in the UK and included on Airborn in the US) is a disco version of the leitmotif for Incantations.
  • Re-Cut: The original US release of Platinum, retitled Airborn, replaced "Woodhenge" with the non-album single "Guilty". The initial release of this edition also included a bonus disc featuring a live version of "Tubular Bells (Part 1)" and a remix of "Incantations" that mixed together both an alternate studio recording and a live recording.
  • Repurposed Pop Song: "In Dulci Jubilo" was originally a folk carol before Mike turned it into an instrumental showcase. Repurposed a second time when he used it in the 2012 Olympics segment honoring England's National Health Service, featuring Mary Poppins and Voldemort of all characters.
  • Revisiting the Roots: Return to Ommadawn was made as a conscious re-exploration of the style of Oldfield's first three albums, particularly Ommadawn, to which it is a sequel. Like those albums, Return to Ommadawn almost exclusively uses acoustic instruments, features a sound closely inspired by Celtic folk music, and consists of a lengthy instrumental suite split across two sides of vinyl. According to Oldfield, the decision to take this approach was inspired by two factors: a conversation with Jean-Michel Jarre where the latter revealed that he considered a collaboration with Oldfield, but chose not to seek him out after deciding that his style was too acoustic, and a fan poll on social media where voters requested that Oldfield go back to the style of his early work.
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • 1991's Heaven's Open is the only album where Oldfield performs all the vocal parts on his own. He reportedly took singing lessons before recording it, and was pleasantly surprised by his own voice, as he used to think of himself as a bad singer.
    • Before that, "On Horseback" from Ommadawn in 1975 was sung/spoken by him; later the title tracks of Five Miles Out (albeit mostly through a vocoder) and Crises.
  • Take That!:
    • "Punkadiddle" was intended to be one towards Punk Rock, which Virgin Records had been promoting instead of Oldfield and other progressive rock artists. He and his band would perform the song live shirtless.
    • Amarok is one huge one directed to Richard Branson, whose relationship to Mike became very icy by the late '80s.
      • Branson demanded Oldfield write a Tubular Bells sequel and Oldfield gave him about the farthest thing from it possible (ironically, Branson still tried to market it as a Tubular Bells sequel).
      • Tubular bells were played on the album, but Mike called them "long, thin metallic hanging tubes."
      • The real Tubular Bells II wasn't written and released until directly after Oldfield's split from Virgin Records.
      • For 60 minutes of music, it was divided into 48 sections and was arranged so that it was almost impossible to market any parts of it on the radio.
      • The back cover features a faux health and safety warning stating that "This record could be hazardous to the health of cloth-eared nincompoops. If you suffer from this condition, consult your Doctor immediately."
      • One section of the suite contains "FUCK OFF RB" in Morse Code.
      • The Margaret Thatcher impersonator talking about "fresh beginnings" and how "nothing much is happening at the moment" could be considered a light jab at her administration, depending upon your politics and how you read it.
    • The oft-forgotten Heaven's Open (the only album Mike sang all the lead vocals for) also has quite a few at Branson:
      • It's the only album to be credited to "Michael Oldfield", which has a similar cadence to "Richard Branson".
      • The first song, "Make Make" has the lines "We're on the make make / Don't mind, it's fake fake / We're on the make make / We're making heartbreak" and "Don't you know we're not Virgin?"
      • The third song, "Mr. Shame", asks the titular character to "embrace love", most likely referring to Branson.
      • "Gimme Back" has Mike asking for various body parts back.
      • The last song, "Music from the Balcony" ends with someone laughing and saying "Now fuck off!" It's also about a one-third scale spiritual sequel to Amarok—try finding an excerpt of this one to put on radio.
  • Teen Genius: Oldfield was 19 when he recorded Tubular Bells. The album was released 10 days after his 20th birthday.
  • Uncommon Time: But of course, he's a Progressive Rock musician. The famous opening of Tubular Bells is generally notated as 3 bars of 7/8 followed by 1 bar of 9/8 — a 30 beat phrase, just 2 beats shy of 8 bars of Common Time (4/4.)
  • Vocal Tag Team: Pick any album or tour from the '80s. Sometimes Mike was on the team, sometimes he wasn't.
  • We Used to Be Friends: As noted in Take That! above, Mike's friendship with Richard Branson had gone downhill quite a bit by the late '80s. Now, they've apparently patched things up, if this video is any indication.