In defence of Mike Oldfield.
In a parallel universe, back in 1977 Mike Oldfield topped himself midway through the recording of his fourth album Incantations. Chronically depressed, painfully shy, he couldn’t take the adulation and the attention that his three hit albums had brought him. He’d hidden away in remote cottages, shut himself in studios and generally kept the world at bay for nearly five years. Now he was under some pressure from his label Virgin to take his music on the road. It was therapy or suicide and Mike chose to lock himself in the garage, turned on the engine and inhale that sweet sweet carbon monoxide.
Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just went Syd Barrett/Roky Erickson mental.
Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just disappeared and was never heard from again.
Or maybe it wasn’t so tragic: he just suddenly quit music altogether and opened a chip shop.
Whatever happened, today all you pissy little hipsters with your bumfluff beards and skinny jeans and Morrissey haircuts and chunky specs just love him. The original vinyl copies of Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge that you paid way too much for nestle in your collection next to your original Jamaican copy of Big Youth’s Screaming Target and the Harmonia bootlegs and some unreleased Wooden Shjips 12 inches that you wank off over on a regular basis. The original Roger Dean Virgin label gives it a warmer sound, doesn’t it?
And you, bald over 40s bloke, would alternate the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures t shirt with a Tubular Bells one to show that you were still down with the avant garde kids.
And fucking Mojo would have Oldfield gazing soulfully from every fourth cover and the smug bastard Guardian would constantly run these 50 great lost album features about the greatest albums that were never made where Incantations would regularly pip Smile to the number one slot.
But when Schrödinger opened the box, the cat was still alive…
The music changed too, though in subtle ways. After 1978’s epic double Incantations, Mike abandoned the uncompromising album-length suites for a while. He toured. He had hit singles. He reworked the theme from Blue Peter. In some ways, in the 1980s he shadowed the trajectories of contemporaries like Yes and Genesis, moving from ‘head’ music to the heart of the mainstream.
In the post-punk musical marketplace, Mike was far from fashionable. He sold millions of records, certainly, but this was despite Virgin records rather than because of them. Can a man be more cursed than having his music filed under ‘new age’?
And while Yes and Genesis have been ‘rehabilitated’ – surely you’re prepared to admit that The Yes Album and Nursery Crymes have their merits? – Mike Oldfield is loved by no-one except his millions of fans. As one hater told me: there’s always a nagging suspicion that Tubular Bells is something that Jeremy Clarkson would like. You’d certainly prefer Dennis Nielsen as a fan. Which, of course, he was.
For me, the first four albums are staggering pieces of music, works that nearly 40 years on, I can still hear in new ways, still find new things in. I wore the grooves out on my first copy of Tubular Bells. I played it almost every night in 1973, power cuts permitting, and later used to ‘trip’ to it on Saturday afternoons. There are light and dark passages in Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn are both bleak and sad, a message from a man who was slowly going mad. The disturbing multiple overdubbed guitars on Hergest Ridge – like 10,000,000 bees swarming in a cathedral – and the maddening ever building crescendo on Ommadawn are still as potent now.
Oldfield’s music has more in common with Can, Faust and Guru Guru than with the homeopathic tinklings you hear in crystals’n’candles shoppes.
It’s not minimalist music, though it was a jumping-off point for me to discover Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Tubular Bells also pointed me in the direction of Soft Machine and the wilder edge of krautrock. It got me used to long-form pieces, ultimately softening me up for everything from John Coltrane to the Western classical canon.
More importantly, it whetted my appetite for music the like of which I had never heard before. Everything else that I was into at that time – Bowie, Roxy, Sabbath – all had some anchoring in the familiar. Oldfield’s music for good or ill encouraged me to seek out the shock of the new.
After Incantations I lost interest, though recently I’ve rediscovered just how good that album was. His best music in the 80s was filmic – his score for Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields is particularly good – though again, fine as some of it was, the best was at the start.
Perhaps it’s unfair to prefer the works of suffering artists. Would Van Gough be a painter of minor interest had fluoxetine been prescribed? Would Dostoyevsky’s novels be somehow shallower and less interesting if he’d undergone Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?
It’s the gift of the artist to transform pain and suffering into something of worth and beauty.
Mike Oldfield created worlds and to enter them is to visit a landscape that’s as dreadful and unsettling as it is placid and pastoral. You feel the panic as well as – occasionally – the peace.