Mike Oldfield was only 17 when he conceived Tubular Bells – a near-indescribable one-track monolith of ambient sound and neo-classical ambition.
Recording it at 19, he then played nearly all 20 instruments, using over 2,000 overdubs. The (fantastically inebriated) Bonzo Dog frontman Viv Stanshall introduced each instrument as it entered the main theme of the album.
Launching Richard Branson’s Virgin label in June 1973 it topped the UK charts and, in edited form, developed an eerie edge when it was used to open the movie The Exorcist (1973).
Inevitably, Tubular Bells was a hard act to follow, and Oldfield’s second creation, Hergest Ridge, was released in 1974 to an expectant world and a British music press ever-ready to shoot down yesterday’s heroes.
The new album (named after the remote part of Herefordshire which Oldfield had retreated to near the Welsh border) was, in reality, a more mature avant-garde offspring – more serene and sedentary.
The critics sneered, but the album sold by the crate-load, dislodging its predecessor from the top of the UK album charts, where it had resided for over a year.
In 1975, Oldfield negotiated the difficult ‘third-opus syndrome’ with Ommadawn, which transcended its two predecessors on every level. The album marked a departure both in working methods and creative styles and stands as perhaps the fruition of Oldfield’s abstract ambition.
In 1985 there was some return to form with the film score for The Killing Fields, but in general, Oldfield seemed altogether too distracted and swamped by new Fairlight technology, which rendered albums like Islands (1987) and Earthmoving (1989) airbrushed and sterile.
Tubular Bells II appeared in 1992, in good time for the following year’s 20th-anniversary concerts.
Oldfield had been quiet for a while and there was a genuine sense of occasion, as what appeared to be the original Bells – only perhaps played backwards – was premiered with live television transmission from the Edinburgh festival.
Sold-out runs at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York followed.
It wasn’t a great work, but an eloquent celebration of earlier grooves, and, with ambient music in fashion, an Orb remix of the track Sentinel provided this perennial outsider with fresh credibility.
Tubular Bells was reissued in 1998, and again in 2003 (as a box set).