You might have heard Mike Oldfield playing during the Olympic opening
and wondered, "What! Why the heck would Danny Boyle
want the Exorcist theme
playing at the start of such a grand event!" Oldfield's kept a low profile for years, so you may not remember him as the man who literally launched Virgin Records
, one of only three artists to ever knock his #1 record
off the charts with another #1 record
(the other two being Bob Dylan and the Beatles). But those teenage successes were merely the start of an astonishing career, one full of pop music
and prog rock
and New Age
, film scores
and classical orchestrations
— not to mention a spot at the start of Kanye West's recent album
. His magnum opus, Amarok
, is an hour of astonishing sounds and shifting genres which must be heard to be believed. Too overwhelming? Well, there're
a plethora of places you might start listening to Mike Oldfield, depending largely on what you're in the mood to hear.
I - EARLY PROGRESSIVE COMPOSITIONS
The classic Tubular Bells
) was also Oldfield's first album, recorded when he was a teenager and released just after his twentieth birthday. It's sometimes labeled progressive rock, but it's more patchwork than that, a mixture of Oldfield's youthful folk origins
(check the neckbeard!) and his classical interests. Nearly every instrument was played by Oldfield himself. Its haunting, melancholy opening gives way to a playful, silly piece of music, including caveman grunting
and a famous sequence wherein Viv Stanshall
reads the names of all instruments involved in a dry British voice. (Of interest to Monty Python fans will be the 2003 rerecording, in which Stanshall was replaced with John Cleese
' unexpected success, Oldfield recorded Hergest Ridge
), named after the English countryside where he retreated to work on his music. Hergest Ridge
is a calmer piece of music, with the exception of the "storm movement" in part two, created by multitracking 90 electric guitars into a loud, crackling wave of sound. (Skip to 9:28 on this 2010 remastering
. It's glorious to behold.)
Fans of his early work sometimes cite Ommadawn
) as his masterpiece. Celtic-influenced, dark, and uncertain, the song is a reflection of the frustration and pain Oldfield felt after his early success. The climactic guitar solo at the end of the first half was meant to be, in Oldfield's own words, "the sound of me exploding from my mother's vagina." An excellent analysis of Ommadawn, both historically and musically.
These three form Oldfield's early progressive trilogy. A fourth, Incantations
(2 3 4
), is sometimes counted, but it's more a minimalist-influenced classical work, featuring strings, choir, and flute. After that, Oldfield shifted to songwriting and pop, though many of his pop albums would feature a lengthier progressive piece on one side.
II - POP PHASE
Oldfield's pop work spanned somewhere between five and seven albums, which aren't interesting enough to get into at length, so to make this output parseable let's split this all into three general categories:
First, you have his pop hits
. Most notably, Moonlight Shadow
, which made its way onto Dance Dance Revolution
, and To France
. We'll round out this selection with In High Places
, featuring vocals by Yes's Jon Anderson, because that's the one Kanye sampled.
Next comes the pop that was utterly, gloriously 80s cheese. Songs like Poison Arrows
, Saved by a Bell
, and Holy
, combine Oldfield's knack for honest, simple composition with cornball lyrics and overdosed synths, and are therefore basically wonderful. That is all.
Finally you have the progressive pieces which were included on each of these albums. Songs like Crises
, The Wind Chimes
, and Taurus II
continued the style Oldfield had developed on his earliest albums. The Lake
is a particular favorite of mine.
III - AMAROK
Oldfield's relationship with Virgin Records deteriorated through this period, and toward the end of his contract, they insisted that he write a new instrumental composition, titled Tubular Bells II
, so they could have one last Oldfield hit on their hands. Instead they got Amarok
, a "fuck you" album through and through. (At one point, "FUCK OFF RB" is spelled in Morse code, "RB" referring to Virgin's founder Richard Branson.)
Amarok was deliberately made to be so shifting and chaotic that Virgin wouldn't be able to cull a 3-minute single from any part of the mix. At one point early on, an EXTREMELY loud blast of music plays, supposedly Oldfield's revenge on a Virgin executive who was fond of headphones. If you're looking for a way to make sense of the piece on your first listen, the entire piece is broken down here
– there are several themes which repeat through out the various segments of music, which include major flamenco, celtic, and african influences, among others.
Oldfield never played it live – he claimed he could never find enough guitarists to properly recreate the sound. It was played live for the first time in April 2012
, by a piano-and-bass duo, which is kind of wonderful.
IV - POST-AMAROK
His first release after leaving Virgin was, in fact, a Tubular Bells II
. The piece follows the same pattern as the first Tubular Bells
, including an instrument reading
by Alan Rickman (!!) and yet another spot of caveman grunting
. He later released a third Tubular Bells
which was less loyal to the original structure and more rooted in electronic music (link is to the over-the-top and awesome finale).
The Songs of Distant Earth
, based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel of the same name, is a beautiful and powerful foray into space music, quite different from the rest of Oldfield's oeuvre.
I have less familiarity with later albums like the Celtic-themed The Voyager
(though this particular song is a traditional one also found in the video game Braid
) or the guitars-only album, erm, Guitars
, though his end-of-the-millennium concept album The Millennium Bell
is a pretty wonderful piece of kitsch. It tries to encapsulate two thousand years of musical history. It fails, but, hey!, it's still pretty fun.
In the mid-2000s, Oldfield tried his hand at designing and developing video games. His virtual reality project MusicVR
was intended to create non-violent games driven by music and imagery. Sadly, I've never been able to play either of the two games he created, Tres Lunas
, but I'm desperately curious as to what they're like. Free downloads for Windows are available here
His most recent work is the orchestral Music of the Spheres, parts of the premiere of which are available on YouTube.
I'm not familiar with Mike Oldfield's every last album and song, and there are extensive gaps in this cover, but nonetheless, hopefully this sparks interest for some of you in one of my all-time favorite composers after he made that surprise appearance at the London opening. Enjoy!