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Music / Tubular Bells

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"Plus... Tubular... Bells!" [DONNNNNNNGGG!]

The hugely successful debut album by Mike Oldfield and the debut release by the then-nascent, then-indie Virgin Records. The album is known for its only track, split across two movements (one per side), which was soon used as the recognizable theme to the film The Exorcist. The album is also well-known for its unexpectedly gigantic financial success, topping the charts in the UK, the US, Australia, and Canada, and being certified noncuple-platinum in the UK, triple-platinum in Australia, double-platinum in Canada, and gold in the United States, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. This success provided the foundation for what became Sir Richard Branson's Virgin empire, which today covers far too many industries to keep track of; previously, Branson had been the owner of a single, though quite successful, mail-order record vendor.

Although Oldfield was to later become known as a New Age artist, he has stated that Tubular Bells is too dynamic to fall into such a category, though some elements are similar. It has, by contrast, been featured on rock album lists, and is usually classified as a Progressive Rock album, along with most of the rest of his output (Earth Moving aside).

Tubular Bells was released in 1973, and its success spawned the recording of The Orchestral Tubular Bells in 1974, but it was not until much later that Oldfield returned to his first album in force, releasing Tubular Bells II in 1992, Tubular Bells III in 1998, The Millennium Bell in 1999, Tubular Bells 2003 (a front-to-back re-recording of the original) in, well, 2003, and Tubular Beats in 2013. Oldfield made plans to put together Tubular Bells IV shortly after the release of Return to Ommadawn in 2017, but scrapped the idea the following year, retiring shortly afterwards. A demo of what would have been the fourth installment's intro was included on the 50th anniversary edition of the first Tubular Bells in 2023, thus bookending Oldfield's career. Said demo acted as the sole release of new material under Oldfield's contract with the revived EMI.

Oldfield plays nearly all the instruments featured on the first album himself through overdubbing— the only exceptions were flute (Jon Field), string bass (Lindsay Cooper) and drums (Simon Broughton). At the time, overdubbing wasn't so widespread as it is now, and was a notable feature of the album in 1973. The sequels continue this practice, although some instruments are played by others. According to engineer Simon Heyworth, the "Piltdown Man" section (titled "Caveman" in the 2003 version) resulted from Virgin Records owner Richard Branson pressuring Oldfield to add vocals to at least one section to make it more marketable as a single. Oldfield stormed out of the meeting saying "You want lyrics? I'll give you lyrics!", proceeded to get smashed on half a bottle of whiskey and "screamed his brains out" for ten minutes in the studio.

Speaking of singles, the album was actually supported by two: in the US, the "Introduction" section from Part One, backed with the "Finale" section, was put out to bank on the popularity that the former gained from The Exorcist; both tracks were simply titled "Tubular Bells", with "Introduction" being distinguished by a parenthetical note about its film spot. Since the single was released without Oldfield's permission, he put together a different release for the British and European markets aptly titled "Mike Oldfield's Single", a re-recording of the "Bagpipes Guitar" segment of Part Two backed with a Cover Version of "Froggy Went a-Courting".

1973 Tracklist:

Side One

  1. "Tubular Bells, Part One" (25:30)note 

Side Two

  1. "Tubular Bells, Part Two" (23:20)

2003 Tracklist:

Part One
  1. "Introduction" (5:52)
  2. "Fast Guitars" (1:04)
  3. "Basses" (0:46)
  4. "Latin" (2:18)
  5. "A Minor Tune" (1:21)
  6. "Blues" (2:40)
  7. "Thrash" (0:44)
  8. "Jazz" (0:48)
  9. "Ghost Bells" (0:30)
  10. "Russian" (0:44)
  11. "Finale" (8:32)note 

Part Two

  1. "Harmonics" (5:12)
  2. "Peace" (3:30)
  3. "Bagpipe Guitars" (3:08)
  4. "Caveman" (4:33)
  5. "Ambient Guitars" (5:10)
  6. "The Sailor's Hornpipe" (1:46)note 

Tubular Tropes:

  • Boléro Effect: The finale of Part One (aptly titled "Finale" in the 2003 version), like the original Boléro, adds a different instrument each loop until everything is playing beneath the majestic entry of the titular instrument.
  • Book Ends: The original version of the album was Oldfield's debut release. His final release, meanwhile, was a demo of the scrapped Tubular Bells IV on the 50th anniversary edition of the original Tubular Bells.
  • The Cameo: John Cleese, acting as master of ceremonies on Tubular Bells 2003 in place of the deceased Vivian Stanshall.
  • Cover Version: The album closes out with an arrangement of "The Sailor's Hornpipe", a traditional English folk melody. "Mike Oldfield's Single" also contains a cover of the Scottish folk song "Froggy Went a-Courting" as a B-side.
  • Credits Gag: Tubular Bells has a caption reading "This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with. If you are in possession of such equipment please hand it into the nearest police station." This is a parody of labels advising listeners that stereo LPs may be played on mono equipment given suitable cartridges are used. The gag is preserved on Tubular Bells 2003, where it reads "This stereo record still cannot be played on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with." Meanwhile, the 2023 edition, meant to close the book on Oldfield's career following the announcement of his retirement, states on the back that the album "can also be played on mono equipment at a pinch."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Simon Heyworth commented that the cover of "The Sailor's Hornpipe" was added to the end of Part Two because it otherwise ended on a gloomy note.
  • Epic Rocking: Probably one of the most extreme examples of the LP era; the original 1972 album consists of just two tracks, each one taking up the entirety of one side of the record and altogether making up a single, unified piece. Oldfield would continue this practice through 1978's Incantationsnote , before eventually reviving it with the release of Return to Ommadawn in 2017. The 2003 version, meanwhile, separates Part 1 and Part 2 into multiple tracks, each based on a specific movement in the piece. Of those, "Finale" clocks in at 8:32, while "Introduction" just barely falls short of the six-minute mark.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The "Bootleg Chorus" (Mike Oldfield and producers Simon Heyworth and Tom Newman) credited on "Part Two" is so named because their chant sounds like "Boot! Leg! Boot! Leg!". They are also credited as the "Manor Choir", named after the Manor studio where the album was recorded.
    • A similar case exists with the "Girlie Chorus" credited in the liner notes, simply being choral parts by Mundy Ellis and Sally Oldfield.
    • "Mike Oldfield's Single" is a single by Mike Oldfield; what else is there to say?
    • Tubular Bells 2003 as well.
  • Fake Loud: In Tubular Bells, the peak volume is intentionally held down until the titular bells are heard, leaving the impression that their sound is louder. Oldfield also mentioned that he wasn't able to get the "cathedral bell" sound he wanted, so he ended up hammering the tubular bells with a claw hammer rather than the usual mallet (hard enough to crack them, inspiring the cover.) He also recorded them with excessive microphone gain, resulting in a distorted sound.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Tubular Bells cools down near the end with the sound of a distant tolling bell, setting the piece up for its climax.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Tubular Bells 2003 is rerecorded with all the recording, mastering, and editing equipment that didn't exist in 1973. Most bits are more or less the same, but there are some significant differences (for a start, "Master of Ceremonies" Vivian Stanshall had died in 1995, so the entries of the instruments in the finale of "Part One" were announced by John Cleese).
  • Gratuitous Panning: For the finale of "Part One", the instruments as announced by Vivian Stanshall make their entrances on the far left, but then gradually move across - sometimes all the way to the far right, sometimes only part of the way across, so that by the time the tubular bells make their entrance, the instruments that preceded it (in order: grand piano, reed and pipe organ, glockenspiel, bass guitar, double speed guitar, two "slightly distorted" guitars, mandolin, Spanish guitar and acoustic guitar)note  are all in different places on the soundstage.
  • Idiosyncratic Cover Art: Every sequel and re-release (as well as Tubular Beats) features the iconic bent tubular bell logo on a different background, and sometimes in a different color. The logo has since become one for Mike Oldfield himself, and as such is typically featured on various compilations, press releases, and other tidbits.
  • Improv: That epic acoustic bit right before "The Sailor's Hornpipe" on the original? Mike wrote the bassline and the basic direction he wanted it to go in, and bam. "Piltdown Man" was a drunken Mike growling and screaming nonsense into a mic attached to a tape machine recording at intentionally too high a speed, resulting in a gruff, growling caveman voice when played normally.
  • Instrumentals: The album consists almost entirely of these, barring the "Finale" section on "Part One" and the "Caveman" section on "Part Two".
  • Longest Song Goes First: While the album is generally treated as a single, expansive track, it had to be split into two segments due to the constraints of vinyl; the first of these segments is just barely longer than the second by 2:10. The 2003 version, meanwhile, averts this, splitting the suite into even more segments, the first of which is outpaced by the 8:32 "Finale".
  • Long List: The liner notes' list of instruments Oldfield played on the album.
    Part One: Mike Oldfield plays: Grand Piano, Glockenspiel, Farfisa Organ, Bass Guitar, Electric Guitar, Speed Guitar, Taped motor drive amplifier organ chord, Mandolin-like Guitar, Fuzz Guitars, Assorted Percussion, Acoustic Guitar, Flageolet, Honky Tonk Piano, Lowrey Organ, Tubular Bells
    Part Two: Mike Oldfield plays: Electric Guitars, Farfisa Organ, Bass Guitar, Acoustic Guitars, Piano, Speed Elec. Guitars, Lowrey Organ, Concert Tympani, Guitars sounding like Bagpipes, Piltdown Man, Hammond Organ, Spanish Guitar, Moribund Chorus, Mandolinnote 
  • Metal Scream: The "Piltdown Man" section, starting at 11:55 of Part Two, features a very harsh Type 2; if the instrumentation were a bit more distorted or hadn't been performed in a major key, this might be thought of today as proto-Death Metal. (This segment features riffs that would actually work very well in a metal context, although they'd be more typical of Folk Metal than of Thrash or death metal.)
  • Mood Whiplash: Owing to the seamless nature of this album's arrangements, a number of transitions come as quite abrupt due to their shifts in mood. For just one example, the final three movements of Side Two are the bizarre "Piltdown Man" movement, which features Mike screaming over some distorted major key riffs; followed by the sombre minor-key "ambient guitar" movement; and lastly, "The Sailor's Hornpipe" movement, which features the folk tune of the same name given an incredibly cheery arrangement. Transitions between these movements come with little, if any, advance notice, contributing further to the mood whiplash.
  • Musical Theme Naming: Tubular bells are a real-life instrument, producing a sound similar to church bells, but looking more like a rotated marimba.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: Today most people will associate this music with the soundtrack of the film The Exorcist, to the point where Book of Love's Cover Version of the introduction section includes impressions of Reagan's dialogue from the film.
  • Progressive Instrumentation: The "Finale" section of Part One is built around this, consisting of a single melody being repeated by multiple instruments that gradually make their way into the song, layering on top of one another to complete the song.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The first album ended with "The Sailor's Hornpipe", a traditional hornpipe melody that's been around for centuries.
  • The Show Must Go Wrong: According to Mike himself, he made several mistakes while recording, but had to leave them in. Then again, considering part one was recorded in just a week, he didn't have a choice.
  • Teen Genius: Oldfield was 19 when he recorded the album, though it wasn't released until shortly after he turned 20.
  • Title Drop: At the end of the finale on "Part One", the Narrator shouts "and... TUBULAR BELLS!"
  • Uncommon Time: From the first:
    • The opening riff is in 15/8 (7/8, then 8/8).
    • The "Thrash" section just before the nasal choir switches between 7/4 and 4/4.
    • The album in general seems to come across as this due to its heavy use of polyrhythms, which each instrument playing in a considerably different time signature than the rest. Combined with the specific choice of instrumentation, this makes the whole album sound both jarring and mesmerizing at the same time.