It can be bizarre to see how some musicians are so famous in certain parts of the world and under certain genres, yet virtually unheard of by most people outside of those demographics. A marvelous example of this mystery is Mike Oldfield. While Mike Oldfield enjoys a relatively small fan base in The United States, he is and has been a major superstar throughout Europe and Great Britain for decades. If one travels to London and asks a local what their favorite Mike Oldfield song or instrumental piece might be (an enormous percentage of his work is all instrumental), they might think on it for a moment and then respond. But in the USA, it’d be unlikely to receive much more than a blank stare and then the question of who he is.
But, Mike Oldfield certainly has his fan base here in the United States. Your humble author has claimed Mike Oldfield to be his all-time favorite musician since the mid-eighties. It appears that Mike Oldfield enjoys a fan base here in the New World through those who have been introduced to his music by those who discovered him the same way. After all, it isn’t as if anyone hears much of Mike Oldfield on the radio. The only way one might catch him on the radio is occasionally on Sirius/XM. He doesn’t have anything on the top-40 stations, the Classic Rock stations, or any other terrestrial station this fan is aware of in these here parts.
So, one might wonder; how and why is this seemingly obscure musician so famous and what’s the big deal, anyway?
Mike Oldfield first appeared on the scene in 1973 with his Grammy winning album entitled Tubular Bells. This was virtually entirely an instrumental work and because of that, a difficult project for the young artist to get off the ground. But get it off the ground he did, and when the album was released, it was almost within the same week, so the story goes, as the artist’s twentieth birthday. There is an element of this work that most people know well, even if they don’t know the genuine origin. Many consider the piano opening of Tubular Bells to be the theme of the movie, The Exorcist. What people don’t realize is that this haunting piece is but a momentary opening to a piece of music that was extraordinary enough to win a Grammy.
The fascinating thing of Tubular Bells and then other Mike Oldfield works to follow is that the work is virtually all instrumental, with Oldfield himself playing virtually all the instruments. The work is then combined into a remarkable work mainly consisting of two parts, which was common in those days because of the limitations of the vinyl records. It is nonstop through one side, and then the same on the other. Tubular Bells may be known by numerous American fans who were musically aware during the early and mid-seventies because it was enormously popular during the time. But it is quite odd that the more than two dozen releases by Mike Oldfield after Tubular Bells are virtually unheard of by the common people of America.
Several of Mike Oldfield’s releases followed the similar format of his first work, with them being mainly instrumental, and when vocals were included, they were less for lyrics than utilized as an instrument. This was the case until the late seventies and Mike Oldfield then often had an album side devoted to the instrumental work with a few radio-friendly songs on the other side. This work did bring Mike Oldfield’s work to the forefront of the American Music scene for a short time, back when the band Hall & Oates did a cover of a Mike Oldfield song that they saw to a hit. The song was Family Man. It was a hit single for a time, with just about every American hearing and liking it thinking that it was the creation of Hall & Oates. But it wasn’t, and the original singer was a lady named Maggie Reilly.
Mike Oldfield worked with this sort of format through most of the eighties, creating radio-friendly songs and intriguing instrumental pieces that are unique to his style. With Tubular Bells, the term ‘Symphonic Rock’ was coined much because of Oldfield, what with Tubular Bells being very much a rock-style sort of music, with heavy electric guitar and loud crescendos combined with decrescendos of easier, subtler, acoustic sounds. The nineties, however, saw Mike Oldfield return to his roots.
Most of what he released throughout the nineties and beyond has been instrumental. Not entirely, but mostly. He also revisited the Tubular Bells scene by creating two sequels to the original. Tubular Bells II was almost identical in format to the first, yet sounded so unique and original, all at once. This was a really smart and fun work on his part, and it was unique how he created something so like the first yet so different, all in one package. The Tubular Bells III, which came out in the late nineties, was quite different, however. There were numerous similar themes, but the work was very different from the two predecessors. Yet, it was a marvelous work and there’s no doubt that Oldfield fans have been pleased. Then, in 2003, Mike Oldfield completely recreated the original work, but thirty years later. Entitled Tubular Bells 2003, it was a recreation of the original work almost note-for-note, but done because the new technology of today allowed for the sound Oldfield wanted back then but could not achieve because of the analog limitations.
A clever aspect of the TB theme is that there was a Master of Ceremonies on the works, except for III. The famous eccentric of the seventies, Vivian Stanshall, was the first MC. Alan Rickman’s unmistakable voice was heard as MC on II, and for 2003, it was the voice of John Cleese standing in for the passed Stanshall. Instead of an MC in III, there was a quick story told by a little girl, telling of the man with a bag of secrets who journeyed up a mountainside and disappeared. No one ever heard from him again, except for the sound of tubular bells. It fit so well and was mysterious, too.
Over time, Mike Oldfield has done some remarkable concept work, with Voyager being of a Celtic theme. Guitars was a release done entirely with guitars (while being an amazing instrumentalist, Oldfield considers himself primarily a guitarist). The Songs of Distant Earth was a mesmerizing creation done after being inspired by a book of the same name, written by Arthur C. Clarke. Mike Oldfield is understood to be a SF fan and a Trekkie, too. But one of the latest works of Mike Oldfield demonstrates the power, talent and ability of him as a musician and composer. He created a classical work entitled Music of the Spheres.
It isn’t the intent of this written work to outline the timeline and discography of Mike Oldfield. It would be redundant to do so with Oldfield fans and almost meaningless to those who have never heard of him. But part of the intent is to introduce to the readers who are lovers of fine music and new sounds the name of Mike Oldfield, and should you be one brave enough to get away from the playlist offered by your local radio stations, you would be glad you discovered this incredible artist’s work. Your humble author enjoys a wide range of tastes, from classical music to Ozzy to today’s hits and yesterday’s, too. My favorite band has long been Pink Floyd, and my favorite vocalist has long been Robert Plant. But Mike Oldfield has been my favorite musician since I first discovered Tubular Bells (introduced to me by a friend) in 1985.
Mike Oldfield was born in Reading, Berkshire, England on May 15th, 1953. For those of you blessed enough to know of Mike Oldfield’s music, be sure to play your favorites on that day, and take the time to introduce his incredible music to those who have not experienced his music. Back in 2007, he released an autobiography entitled Changeling.
It would be great to see some comments and thoughts from those who are Mike Oldfield fans.