THE MAKING OF TUBULAR BELLS
Q – August, 2001
Take one troubled teenage prodigy and lock him in a country pile. Stir in a youthful Richard Branson, a dash of hippy whimsy, copious amounts of booze and what do you have? The lucrative instrumental epic that launched an entire record company.
Mike Oldfield: Some of Tubular Bells goes back to my school days. I had problems at home, and music became more real to me than reality. I used to make up acoustic guitar instrumentals, when I was 13, in my bedroom. When I was 16, I joined Kevin Ayers’ band (The Whole World), and when that ended in 1971, Kevin gave me his tape recorder, an early Bang & Olufsen machine. By soldering wires together and blocking off one tape head with cigarette packets, I was able to multi-track. The first demo I recorded turned out to be the opening theme for Tubular Bells, played on a Farfisa organ. I went to the Manor studio a few months later, in September, as bass guitarist in the Arthur Lewis Band. It was being converted by these guys, Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth, who had convinced Richard Branson to build a studio in this old country house.
Simon Heyworth: I was 19 years old, looking for a way into the recording industry, and Branson was beginning to build his empire with The Student magazine and his mail order company, Caroline Records.
Tom Newman: When I first met Richard, he was sitting in bed with his girlfriend. He was always in bed. For the first six weeks I never saw him standing up. I sat and talked to him for half an hour about building a studio and maybe starting a record label. I was looking at Country Life magazine one day while waiting to see Richard. I spotted his house in Oxfordshire in its own grounds. It just looked beautiful and it was 30,000 quid.
SH: Richard bought the Manor, so we moved in and set to work. We were close to completing it when Mike arrived. One morning I heard some music, popped my head round the library door, and there was Mike, sun streaming in the window, cross-legged on the floor, overdubbing guitar parts. I was transfixed by how beautiful it sounded.
TN: Michael had half a dozen unconnected pieces. One had a vacuum cleaner creating background drone.
MO: I was in a very insecure frame of mind. I had problems with my family… I was probably having a nervous breakdown.
TN: He became known as “the snivelling wretch”. It was because he was very shy and scared and looked as if he was almost crying. The only time he became sociable was after a couple of pints of Guinness.
MO: I had taken my demos to loads of record companies, but they all looked at me as if I was mad. They said that, because there were no vocals, no words, no drums or anything, it wasn’t marketable, but Tom and Simon liked them, and took them to Richard Branson.
TN: Richard couldn’t see Tubular Bells at first. It would not have happened but for Simon Draper. Richard really had absolutely no idea about music.
MO: Simon Draper rang me about a year later and invited me to dinner on Richard’s bage in Little Venice. They said ‘You have a week, and we’ll see wahat you do’. I made a list of all the instruments I’d need. I had seen a set of tubular bells once in Abbey Road studios, so I thought I may as well have some.
SH: We’d got into something nobody had ever attempted – one person playing all the instruments. We had no idea how to record it. There were no drop-ins or digital editing in those days – it had to be done with razor blades. And Mike used all kinds of bizarre instruments, but some of the biggest problems came from his Telecaster.
TN: The pick-ups were farty and noisy, and he had this awful home-made electronics box full of horrid transistors, covered in faders and knobs which he called a ‘Glorfindel’. This was a piece of plywood filled with junx that he could plug his guitar into and sometimes a sound would come out. Sometimes the sound was good, but most of the time it was terrible. It was like tuning a radio set.
SH: We consumed an awful lot of Guinness every evening in the local pub, then we’d stagger back and try to make music into the night, which always resulted in disasters like erasing half the day’s work by accident.
MO: When the tubular bells finally come in, they sound distorted. That’s because I really wanted a huge cathedral bell, but all we had was these little bells. So instead of using the small mallet provided, I hit the bell with a proper metal hammer to make it sound bigger. I hit it so hard that it cracked. There was so muhch gain on the microphone that it came out distorted.
SH: Richard wasn’t involved in the music as such, but he would come down to the Manor from time to time.
TN: He would start food fights. He would come down and be the gay young squire doing his thing.
MO: He once smashed the glass in the loo, took a bottle of fake blood, splashed it all over his face and then staggered out screaming “Help! I’m dying!” He kept this up, with us in a panic, until we’d called for an ambulance, then he showed us the bottle of fake blood.
SH: We had pretty much completed Part One by the end of the week, and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were coming in next, but they arrived early so they were around. Mike was a bit of a fan, so he asked their singer, Vivian Stanshall, to introduce the instruments on the final part of Tubular Bells.
TN: He got it wrong every fucking time.
MO: Viv was standing next to me, reeling about because he was so drunk. I had to write down the words and point at the appropriate word just before he was to say it. We finished Viv’s bit about midnight, then we got out a jeroboam of champagne and spent until eight in the morning doing the mix of Part One to send off to Simon Draper. Luckily, he loved it. I felt so at home in the Manor that I just stayed on, recording Part Two in down time with Tom, over a period of four or five months. I remember Richard saying “You’d better behave yourself, or you’ll be out on your arse”.
SH: Richard was getting impatient, continually demanding that we should deliver the finished album, so we filled up a Transit van with loads of unravelled two-inch tape. We drove to London, dumped the lot in Richard’s office and said “There’s your album”. Of course, it wasn’t the real master tape. When Richard eventually heard the completed version he wasn’t convinced. The caveman sequence on side two, for example, was purely instrumental, but Richard wanted vocals on it. I think he wanted something to release as a single.
MO: I was quite rebellious, so I said, “You want lyrics? I’ll give you lyrics!”. I drank half a bottle of Jameson whisky and ordered the engineer to take me to the studio and I screamed my brains out for ten minutes.
SH: Side two ended on rather a gloomy note, so to cheer it up, we had this idea of doing the Sailor’s Hornpipe as a procession around the Manor. I miked up all the rooms, so we could wander from room to room playing, and it would all be recorded.
TN: Stanshall led us, giving a commentary, followed by Michael playing the mandolin. I was on acoustic guitar and somebody else played penny whistle. Viv was completely pissed and his commentary went on and on.
SH: That version was considered too outrageous, so we recorded a much more traditional one, which is what ended up on the album.
MO: The title was the last thing we decided. I didn’t know what to call it. Richard wanted to call it Breakfast In Bed, because he had a photo of a boiled egg with blood dripping out, which he thought would look good as a cover. I hated it, but when I said Tubular Bells, he said he still preferred Breakfast In Bed. I almost had to beg.
TN: Getting Richard Branson to release the album was like dragging stuff uphill through treacle…
SH: It was releasted as a last resort. Their attitude was, “Well, if nobody else wants it, we’ve got this mail order catalogue, why don’t we put it out through that?” Then, all of a sudden, it became, “Well, we might as well launch the Virgin label with it”.
TN: Tubular Bells made Virgin. But even if it hadn’t happened in this way, Richard Branson would have made it in some other way.