Mike Oldfield was only 20 years old when Tubular Bells came out on May 25, 1973, the album that he composed and performed practically solo and that gave him fame that is still alive 50 years later. The album is a benchmark for experimental music to come and one of the cornerstones of progressive rock along with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, released two months earlier.
Like all classics, Tubular Bells has a documented intrastory that begins on a country estate in Oxfordshire where a 23-year-old named Richard Branson had set up his first recording studio. A young Mike Oldfield entered there at the age of 19, who impressed his peers with a project that lived up to their adolescent ambition: a symphony originally titled Opus one where he himself would play the more than 20 instruments that had to be played in his performance. And, like all classics, fortune played its part: when Oldfield entered the studio he ran into John Cale, one of the founders of The Velvet Underground, who was disassembling his equipment after recording. The young musician noticed an instrument carried by the room's previous occupant, some tubular bells that Oldfield had ordered to include in his extensive collection of sounds, not knowing how crucial they would turn out to be.
"In the late sixties everyone wanted to make progressive music," explains Mike Oldfield about the origins of the record in a recent interview in Prog magazine. “On the posters I sometimes coincided with groups like Pink Floyd, Free and even Black Sabbath. It's not that I absorbed influences, it was all there in front of me”. All those sounds were turned into a theme of almost 50 minutes divided into two parts to fit it on vinyl. The first of them was recorded in just a week of musical epiphany, while the second required a few months, a process defined as "cathartic" by its creator. “It was the only time I felt sane and vaguely happy. I imagine that it describes in a few words the anguish of adolescence”, explains Oldfield, who as a young man had to deal with the mental problems of an alcoholic mother, an addiction that the young and lonely composer inherited, to which he added the consumption of LSD, who left him suffering from panic attacks as an inheritance.
None of this, however, can take away from his pride in Tubular Bells, “how one idea flows into another, and the varied ideas that are everywhere. It has a great intro, great riffs and lovely melodies”, she explains, not forgetting the voice of Viv Stanshall and the good idea of introducing the tubular bells. "Everything seemed to fall into place, as if the wheel of fortune had turned in my favor this time."
The record was an immediate hit in the UK, where it entered the top 10 best-seller list to stay for five years. The international success had to wait a few more months, until the premiere of The Exorcist, a legendary horror film for which its director, William Friedkin, chose the opening of Tubular bells as the soundtrack. And although Oldfield did not like the idea at first, he awarded it a Grammy in 1975 for best instrumental composition, in addition to turning the song into a worldwide bestseller that has sold 18 million copies. A success shared with Virgin, Richard Branson's production company that released Oldfield's album for the first time without knowing at the time that it was laying the cornerstone of a small empire.
The British label was commissioned to publish the following works by the young artist, including Hergest Ridge , from 1974, which also reached number 1, or Moonlight shadow , a melody published ten years later, romantic, magical and hummable in equal measure. The second part of Tubular bells came years later, in 1992, while the third appeared in 1998. A saga that this year is followed by the reissue of the original album with new mastering.
Also coinciding with the anniversary, Tubular Bells: 50th Anniversary Tour is released in theaters, a documentary about the preparation of the concert held in 2021 at the Royal Festival Hall in London under the direction of Robert Smith. Some splendor at the level of a record that "does not tell a story, there is no concept of anything," Oldfield says, leaving for each one the ethereal meaning of a music that for decades served as the soundtrack of modernity.