As an 18-year-old college sophomore at a small midwestern college, I had to search far and wide to find the kind of eclectic British progressive music that I craved. I had been early amongst my peers in appreciating bands like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. My brother and I had an informal competition to find the best new music, and then we would enjoy introducing each other to our new discovery. But I was not prepared for what I came across while working for my college FM radio station in 1973.
The album cover displayed an ocean shore with a bow-tie twisted silver tube and the simple words “Mike Oldfield-Tubular Bells.” I had read about this 20 year-old musical prodigy who had created 40 minutes of instrumentals, and that he had played the 20+ instruments himself. Today’s technology would have made this practice fairly common with an average laptop and commonly available software. Released as the initial effort of young entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, Tubular Bells made Oldfield famous and wealthy, but also put great pressure on the young musician to produce a successful follow-up. It’s millions of copies sold worldwide produced the seed money that launched Branson’s massively successful business empire capped by his recent sale of his Virgin America Airlines to Alaska Air for $4 billion.
For US listeners, Oldfield was plucked out of obscurity when director William Friedkin used the opening piano solo notes as the “Theme from The Exorcist” which earned the composer a Grammy award in 1975. Oldfield’s subsequent works remained popular in Europe, but never really caught on in the USA. His third album, Ommadawn was categorized by some as “world music” due to an extended section at the end of part one being dominated by a mesmerizing pace of ensemble African drumming. Oldfield’s melody-centered long-form instrumentals were considered passe’ when punk rock came on the scene in the 1980s. Sales were disappointing and even Branson began to lose faith in his prize stallion. With the exception of the popular hit “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983, the 80s became increasingly more about hit music videos. The MTV Generation’s short attention span was a daunting audience for the long form rock musicians of the 60s and 70s. The 1990’s brought two sequels, Tubular Bells II and III, but they appealed mainly to older fans who had embraced his original opus and newer fans didn’t seem inclined to devote the time to “listen” to music like the previous generation.
This past Friday, Oldfield released his 26th album, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle. This new work, Return to Ommadawn, owes it’s musical heritage to many of his works of the 70s and 80s. But Oldfield is now creating his music with a maturity of a man who has developed an exquisite sense of proper balance. His newest effort displays the confidence and experience of an accomplished musician who knows how to get the music exactly as he imagines it with today’s digital recording and mixing technologies.
The modern serious composer has a daunting challenge. How does the his work get heard in a world of pop, hip-hop, and dance music? Oldfield’s offerings go straight to the heart, not just the feet and hips. His creations hearken from a time when people listened to the soft shades and voices that combine like fine food with delicate spices and sauces. There is no “hit song” or “Love theme from <worthless teen movie>.” The more one puts the album through it’s paces, the more the listener marvels that one individual has so many shiny polished gems to share. Return to Ommadawn is rich with the varying aural atmospheres that graced his past compositions but with the maturity of four decades has come a leaner, pacing.
I remember discovering new artists and musical works by listening to late night FM stations. In high school, I would set my stereo system on a timer and fall asleep as the midnight radio personality would play both sides of the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, Tommy by The Who, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or Nursery Cryme by Genesis. I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a record store and paying three times the face value to a young employee for a pre-released promotional copy off their turntable. Is there an opportunity for new music to be introduced in a society with the focus and constant distraction of the social media world of today? Is there any hope that an artist like Oldfield can get a fair hearing? I believe this is very important to the improvement of modern culture.
The popular music scene has always been dominated by “fast-food” music and today’s “rip and share” piracy has made it very hard for any but the most widely distributed artists to find an audience, let alone make a living. Oldfield ceased public performances after his sole symphonic composition, Music of the Spheres, was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 2008. Living in the Bahamas, it seemed his live performance days were over until he received an email that film director Danny Boyle wanted to talk to him. Boyle was going to produce the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. Their ensuing conversations resulted in Oldfield performing a medley of his pieces in a tribute to the British National Health system. Oldfield enjoyed playing a medley from parts of Tubular Bells I and III and the public response was gratifying. Inspired by the experience to try recording again, he penned a series of songs and enlisted The Struts singer Luke Spiller to provide the vocals. Man on the Rocks was received with modest, but encouraging European success. Return to Ommadawn is a return to his long form roots and before it was released he was already well along in working on Tubular Bells IV.
It’s time for a new generation of young music lovers to discover the joy of heart-expanding music that inspires and uplifts. In the effort to replace the darkness and cynicism of our doubts about the direction of our species, we must first endeavor to purge the mind of hatred and dark passions. Inspiring music lifts man’s thoughts out of an animalistic nature to something more selfless and limitless. Music can be used to expand our attempts to bring a more civilized aura of kindness to this universe. It can effect our thinking in a way that allows each listener to find his own path with the inspiration that an accomplished and creative musician can produce. Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn is exhibit A.
If you are reading this post and are curious about this work, please go purchase it. We waste so much money in silly ways without a thought. File-sharing discourages creativity and impoverishes the artists who push the boundaries of modern music. For the cost of a couple of large Starbucks lattes we can help them keep the flow of innovation going!