And Introducing Acoustic Guitar: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at 50

Looking back on a prog rock classic that’s more than creepy

Tubular Bells ad in Rolling Stone (Image: eBay)

The innocent 12-year-old girl Regan peeing on the carpet. Cursing like an angry demon from Hell. Vomiting all over Father Karras. Ghoulishly spinning her head in a 360-degree circle. Masturbating with a crucifix.

Listening to the opening bars of “Tubular Bells – Pt. I” it all comes rushing back with horrific familiarity.

To this day, The Exorcist remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. My older sister and I watched it in a theater when it was first released, and made sure to turn on every light in the house when we got home. The creepiness factor was off the charts. It was the kind of movie that burrowed under your skin and stayed there.

The Exorcist film poster (Image: Idmb)

Those opening bars were the perfect mood setter for The Exorcist – and genuinely life-changing for British musician Mike Oldfield, who was 17 when he began writing Tubular Bells, 19 when he recorded it, and 20 when, seven months after its release, it was chosen for The Exorcist.

But neither “Tubular Bells – Pt. I” nor “Tubular Bells – Pt. II,” the two tracks that comprise the album released May 25, 1973, is fundamentally creepy. In various places the music here is optimistic, playful, mystical, somber, energetic, mesmerizing – as good prog rock does, it travels a musically interesting path through a wide range of emotions and territory.

A bit more than 20 minutes into the 26-minute-long Part 1, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band makes one-by-one introductions of the instruments being played: 

“Grand piano … reed and pipe … glockenspiel … bass guitar .. double-speed guitar .. two slightly distorted guitars … mandolin … Spanish guitar and introducing acoustic guitar … plus — tubular bells.”

Each instrument joins the sonic theme as it’s introduced, and it’s been said that the way Stanshall pronounced “tubular bells” is what inspired Oldfield to use it for the album’s title.

Oldfield played not only all those instruments on the album, but also Farfisa organ, Hammond organ, Lowrey organ, honky tonk piano, and assorted percussion.

Tubular Bells carries the catalog number V2001 — it was the first of four albums released simultaneously by British independent record label Virgin Records, which was founded just a year earlier. The other three were Flying Teapot by Gong, Manor Live by Steve York’s Camelo Pardalis, and The Faust Tapes by Faust – none of which went on to sell, as Oldfield told The Guardian in 2014, about 17 million copies.

The massive success of Tubular Bells put Virgin Records on the map and helped set Richard Branson on his path to billionairedom, but it also put Oldfield on the map with the kind of success that few musicians enjoy. Tubular Bells became something of a franchise: Oldfield released Tubular Bells II in 1992, Tubular Bells III in 1998, The Millennium Bell in 1999, The Best of Tubular Bells in 2001, The Complete Tubular Bells in 2003, and Tubular Bells 2003 in 2003.

In 2012, Oldfield performed a portion of Tubular Bells as part of the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games. That performance is part of the newly released 50th anniversary edition (the album’s ninth reissue) of Tubular Bells.

Cultural iconography aside, Tubular Bells is an album of its time that hold up quite well half a century later, even if the “caveman” section of “Tubular Bells – Pt. II” with its guttural vocals feels a little over the top in a Spinal Tap “Stonehenge” kind of way.

Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells, Virgin Records 1973

But hey, if prog rock isn’t going over the top here or there, it’s probably not worth the listen. And 1973, the year Tubular Bells was released, was arguably the peak of the prog rock movement: Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire, and Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans were all released that year. Not to mention a little album called Dark Side of the Moon. So Oldfield was surely in the right place at the right time.

Make no mistake, though: While Oldfield may be identified with Tubular Bells the way Jimmy Buffett is identified with Margaritaville, his first album was hardly his only success. Hergest Ridge (1974), Ommadawn (1975), Five Miles Out (1982), Crises (1983), Music of the Spheres (2008) and Return to Ommadawn (2017) were all top 10 albums in the United Kingdom.

And yes, while Tubular Bells may be identified with The Exorcist the way “Eye of the Tiger” is identified with Rocky III, that creepiness is only about three minutes of a nearly 50-minute composition that has stood the test of time.

Go back and give it a listen. I bet it’ll bring a lot more to mind than pea soup and that really long set of steps in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.



Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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