Thursday, August 26, 2004

Records that mean the most to me: Pt. 3 : "Tubular Bells" Mike Oldfield (Virgin Album, 1973)
Ok, I know it's not really all that cool, but that's missing the point. These tunes that define me can never seem just to be a hipsters bible, or a distillation of musical excellence. They are, simply, the records that occupied my time, kept my company or my counsel throughout my life. I've always believed that the tunes choose you as opposed to the other way round; this was definitely the case with "Tubular Bells".
I grew up in Wiltshire, my parents were, at the time of this episode, a nurse and an officer in the Royal Air Force, I was at a primary school in a tiny village near Salisbury Plain. I suppose I was what you might call a "Latchkey Kid". After school, my sister would visit friends in the village whilst I would walk home, sit on the sofa and watch TV. In the corner of the living room sat my Dad's stereo: at that time, he was the only person I knew who had all this stuff, there was a pair of reel-to-reel tape recorders, a tuner, a cassette deck (in 1974-5 this was positively revolutionary) an enormous amplifier and a gorgeous old Dual record player. All this stuff sat proudly on a set of non-more-70's Ladderax shelves. I didn't ever really use the stereo, I didn't have any records of my own. "Tubular Bells" was the record that changed all of that.
At this point, and despite my protestations above, I'd like to point out that my first real vinyl purchases are actually infused with punk-era zeitgeist: first single "In the City", first album: "The Clash". But "Tubular Bells" was probably the first record I owned, a Christmas gift from my grandfather in (I think) 1975.The reason I actually requested it as a Christmas present is worthy of discussion itself: I was just fascinated by the sleeve. At that time, I was a passive user of record shops: I was normally being dragged around them by my Dad, who had a major vinyl addiction. He would trawl the racks looking for trad jazz, Dylan, Miles Davis or Simon and Garfunkel, while I would patiently kill the time until he'd finished searching (and sometimes it was hours) by absentmindedly flicking through the racks myself. This process was subconsciously filling me with information; I was starting to recognise certain sleeves: Wishbone Ash, Free, Sandy Denny...And all those compilations! Top of the Pops, Hits in Super Stereo Sound, Party time with Mrs Mills. Most of the time, I could at least make what I believed to be an educated guess as to the contents of these records: This was the era of progressive rock with all it's pomp and bluster: some of this pomp naturally spilled over from the vinyl to the cardboard that surrounded it; gatefold laminated sleeves were everywhere. Most seemed to have been designed by the bloke who'd done the artwork on the Yes albums. If I looked at a copy of a Fairport Convention album..Well it just sort of looked like a folk record. The sleeve advertised the sound of it's contents. But this wasn't always the case.
I was aware of Virgin records: I'd actually got the poster of the logo on my wall- a slightly risque thing which involved a naked woman with two bodies sitting on a hill which was encircled by what looked like a giant lizard. The script was in this luscious cherry red and swirled and bulged like over-ripe fruit, almost dragging the poster off the wall. It was rather salacious to be totally honest: I'm not even sure why my parent actually allowed me to have it. So I knew what to expect from a sleeve from Virgin : mysticism I supposed, maybe some stuff about dragons and naked girls. Hippies and CND badges, folk music, perhaps even pot. Hippies did that didn't they? I was so clued in.
So, anyway,I stood there in a record shop, sometime back in 1974 or 1975 and looked at this album, "Tubular Bells". It just had a picture of the sea on it. But it seemed weird, not really....Real. But the thing that befuddled me most was the big Tubular bell in the middle. It was sort of.......Well, it just looked odd. It was bent into a shape which looked more like a metal puzzle, the sort that fell out of your cracker at Christmas. It seemed to be floating in space, not really connected to the seascape which surrounded it ( I actually found out years later that this was down to the image having been created by cutting out the Tubular bell, gluing it to the photo of the sea and then taking a photo of that to make the final image...Virgin started with a fairly small art department). I tried to imagine what it sounded like, but nothing happened. My curiosity began to grow, over the next year or so, the album began it's journey to iconic status, it topped the charts for what seemed an eternity and was pretty much everywhere you looked. But I'd still never heard it. So, I asked for the album as a Christmas present.
Finally listening to it for the first time, that Christmas day morning (my Dad played it for me as I sat under the tree) my initial reaction was to cackle with laughter: it sounded like an army of weirdos had all got together for a laugh...Nice little piano riffs would suddenly and inexplicably morph into great walls of clanging guitars which suddenly cut to what sounded like Doctor Who landing his Tardis in the corner of the room. I had no idea how to grasp this record I now owned, it seemed to large, too impersonal, too impenetrable. It was only after about six months that I finally started to get it. As I said, I was a latchkey kid and now, when I got back from school to an empty house, I had something to do: I could play my record. So I did. Again and again and again. "Tubular Bells" became like a surrogate friend, a companion through seemingly endless wet autumn evenings. As the light faded and the clouds gathered over the hills I looked out at, the album kept me company. Now I understood its ebb and flow, the way the piece built up and then fell back, as if it were drawing breath. I learned to whistle and hum its many melodies, air-guitar to those huge chopping riffs..Even the ending became an education in itself. After all, who else among my school friends could tell the difference between an acoustic an electric and a Spanish guitar? The real importance of the record to me was that it shaped the way I evaluated music: change and invention became what I looked for: stasis was no longer an option. The myriad of styles in "Tubular Bells" meant I was never ever going to be just a hippie, or a punk or a pop fan or a Folk-rocker with a finger in my ear. I wanted to be everything. "Tubular Bells" is, for me, the sound of limitless possibility, of striving to be different, of the search for individuality. It was my first real music lesson.
And it's got tunes.
What more could you want?

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