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Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells - Album Of The Week Club review

Tubular Bells' iconic status grows as the years pass, its importance underlined when Mike Oldfield performed it at the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

Tubular Bells, Part One
Tubular Bells, Part Two

Mike Oldfield's 1973 debut album, Tubular Bells, the first released on Virgin Records, remains one of the most iconic in rock’s canon. 

Played largely just by himself, it contained two 20-minute-plus pieces of music, and was influenced more by Sibelius and John Cage than Black Sabbath and John Cale (whose actual tubular bells he had borrowed for the recording). 

Its melding of folk, classical and rock single-handedly invented several new genres of music, and it became a global phenomenon when its opening theme was used in William Friedkin’s movie The Exorcist

Tubular Bells made Oldfield a reluctant superstar, a role he has now played for over 40 years.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

The initial success of Virgin Records' mail order business led to the opening of the very first Virgin retail outlet on London’s Oxford Street. The store reflected the times: beanbags, joss sticks and headphones meant a customer could sprawl out and, like, be.

Plans were made to acquire a recording studio in Oxfordshire, The Manor, and set up the label. But what indeed would be its premiere release? An instrumental suite, Opus One by the 19-year-old Mike Oldfield, who had been Kevin Ayers’ bass player, was brought to Branson and Nik Powell’s attention by producer Tom Newman.

Oldfield was given downtime at The Manor, and Opus One’s fate was sealed when Oldfield spied the tubular bells, which had been hired for John Cale’s Academy In Peril, being removed. An idea was hatched. Tubular Bells – as the album, of course, became – was one of four releases that came out on May 25, 1973, all testament to the label’s adventurous A&R policy. 

The others were The Faust Tapes, which sold for 49p and introduced Krautrock into the homes of 100,000 people within its first month; Gong’s The Flying Teapot, which built on the success of Camembert Electrique; and the Manor Live, a jam album by ‘Camelo Pardarlis’ with characters such as Lol Coxhill, Elkie Brooks and Boz Burrell. 

Other albums released in May 1973

  • There Goes Rhymin' Simon - Paul Simon
  • Space Ritual - Hawkwind
  • Wishbone Four - Wishbone Ash
  • Bachman–Turner Overdrive - Bachman–Turner Overdrive
  • Yessongs - Yes
  • Flying Teapot - Gong
  • Living in the Material World - George Harrison
  • Bananamour - Kevin Ayers
  • Country Casanova - Commander Cody
  • Honey in the Rock - Charlie Daniels
  • Razamanaz - Nazareth
  • Rigor Mortis Sets In - John Entwistle
  • You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw - Spooky Tooth

What they said...

"Those who prefer more immediacy in their music will become swiftly impatient with the repetitive nature of the movements, the subtlety of the build-ups lost on them. The 'caveman' vocal section may be a bit too surreal and off-putting for some. Those who favour long, progressive works may find the album primitive if they are unfamiliar with the record and/or Mike Oldfield in general, which would really be a curious thing if one considers themselves a fan of progressive music." (Sputnuk Music

"Tubular Bells has moments of gentle beauty, big slices of widdly prog, some strangely exciting moments where Oldfield just decides to rock out, parts which defy explanation (The entire Piltdown Man section still baffles me, as does ending the album with The Sailor’s Hornpipe), and it still has time to be one of the key releases in the evolution of electronic and ambient music. As instrumental orchestral rock music goes, there’s little than can compare to it." (Backseat Mafia)

"The most interesting and overwhelming aspect of this album is the fact that so many sounds are conjured up yet none go unnoticed, allowing the listener a gradual submergence into each unique portion of the music. Tubular Bells is a divine excursion into the realm of new age music." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Philip Qvist: Thanks to The Exorcist, the opening moments still give me goosebumps.

This is an amazing record, even more so when you consider the fact that Mike Oldfield played virtually every instrument on that album, whilst having to contend with the technology available at the time.

The first side is a masterpiece, the second side dips slightly - especially the cavemen section. But what a debut album.

Although Tubular Bells is not on my list of favourite albums, I still consider it to be a work of art - and a great one at it. 8.5/10

Melanie Kyle: This is one fabulous record! I, of course, bought it because it was used in The Exorcist. What the 12-year-old me discovered was an amazingly textured instrument album. Still one of my favourites

Chris Nirvana: The Exorcist might have launched Oldfield's career; because of that, however, the entire album was overshadowed by its first four minutes. The record would have certainly not been as famous as it is, but it would possibly have been recognised as the stunning work it is, and for its contribution to the evolution of music.

Keith Barry: Side 1 is a minimalist work of genius. Side 2 is a bit of a dip but still very enjoyable. The alternative Sailors Hornpipe with a drunk Viv Stanshall commentating while walking around the manor is hilarious

Fred Varcoe: By any measure, it was an astonishing album. Its uniqueness makes it timeless. Comparisons to any other album are just futile.

Bill Griffin: I have tried this album out repeatedly over the years and, for the most part, it just doesn't do it for me. The section where he introduces the instruments is just plain stupid. It's a grand effort and quite daring for a first record, both by the artist and the record company. I'll give it that much. It's not unlistenable, indeed I quite like the opening bit that was used as The Exorcist main theme, but just don't enjoy most of the rest.

Duncan Godfrey: This now sounds of it's time but nevertheless still streets ahead of contemporary chill out drivel. Worth digesting for the musicianship alone.

Hylton Blignaut: I find his "signature" shrill guitar tone as annoying as a visit to the dentist. Other than that, it's a splendid album.

Hai Kixmiller: Boring! I couldn't even put this on as background noise. There's no rhyme or reason to the construction of the songs, no information to conjure any sort of imagery for the first two songs. The only song that might be construed as music is Mike Oldfield's Single, and it's about as exciting as a stomach cramp. Terrible record!

Chris Smith: Did loads of homework to this album. Great as background but to get the most out of it you really need to listen. Being mellow might help as well. A groundbreaker

Mike Knoop: Finally an album for those who found Atom Heart Mother too accessible. It's fine as an aural palate cleanser, but rock it does not.

Jonathan Novajosky: Never heard of the album or Oldfield before this. I loved the atmospheric sound in the opener, but then it lost me a little. The end when Oldfield is "commanding" the instruments and slowly building up the melody is really impressive. I can't say I loved the album too much besides that.

Steve Bartlett: Our music teacher at school played us the Vivian Stanshall instrument introduction piece which led to me buying the album about a year after it had came out. If memory serves me I played side one to death, side two not so much and another album I have not listened to in many years. I have played it several times over the last couple of days and it has been a joy to revisit so thank you for getting it back on my musical radar.

Shane Reho: To put it simply, this is one great piece of music. To think it came almost entirely from someone who was rather young and just starting out on his own is even more amazing. Hardly any of the 45 minutes of this album are wasted, with Oldfield using his wide range of talent to create a rather beautiful piece, making it something that's real good to mellow out to. 

However, I wouldn't call it perfect, as the grunting sequence probably would've been better left instrumental, and the ending may have been a little more interesting if Sailor's Hornpipe had been left off, leaving us with an ending like Brian Eno would do a couple years later with Spirits Drifting from Another Green World (on a side note: why not do an Eno album here sometime? That would be fun). Either way we win though, this album is a gem. 9/10.

Carl Black: So this is the amazing, ground breaking album from Mike Oldfield. The one that Richard Branson made a small part of his large fortune on. Straight off the bat, I was underwhelmed. Technically, its a masterpiece, sonically it's rubbish. This is the type of album that would get played at airports. Not really songs, more a collection of undeveloped ideas that could have sprouted a clutch of albums. 

It was like listening to a "making of". Here is a plethora of riffs in there rawest state. Much like the Metallica documentaries. Fascinating to look back on, but makes little sense before the fact, other than those involved. When Mike Oldfield started making this record only he and God understood it, now only God understands.

Uli Hassinger: This is the most fascinating instrumental album ever. I havn't listen to it for a long time, so thanks for bringing it back to my mind. Even though it consists only out of two songs, each more than 20 minutes long, it never gets boring. The songs are build like an opera, an opus. 

The diversity of the songs, the varied themes and changes in tempo keep them alive. The large amount of instruments used is fascinating, too. Listening to it is like diving into a cosy comfortable dream. Great, pioneering album. Together with Ommadawn, the best work of Oldfield.

Roland Bearne: I actually wombled this from a house giveaway a few months ago, I put it on (perfect nick) and about half way through side 1 my darling Mrs said, "this is really annoying". Knowing upon which side my bread is buttered, I took it off. So with great anticipation and headphones akimbo I launched into some serious listening this last week. 

Wow, this album really does go from the sublime to the ridiculous doesn't it? From that absolutely iconic "main theme" we head off into a technicolour wilderness of sounds! From some truly rambling guitar noodling, via a rather delightful nod to Britten's A Child's Guide to the Orchestra and some rather sublime orchestration, we also visit hornpipes (bloomin' Blue Peter innit!), in Pt II we discover that Oldfield invented death grunts (Who knew ?) and the delightful Single which I would rather went on longer as much as I rather hoped bits of Pt1 might stop!

Then, lay out the red carpet, sound the crumhorns and issue twiglets to all hands, we have the inebriate genius of Viv Stanshell! I mean, what the heck? But for me, worth the price of entry all on it's own. A true eccentric, we will never see/hear his like again. Whilst I found this whole smorgasbord of sonic sweetmeats thoroughly interesting and at times enchanting, overall it didn't (or hasn't yet) resonated with me emotionally. 

I'm guessing Mike Oldfield hawked it around quite a bit before Richard Branson took a chance? If I was a music executive I'd be torn between feeling this might be A&R suicide or maybe, just maybe? I'll re-visit it, but can't score it massively for as that bard chap once wrote, for me it's "full of sound, fury and signifying nothing". Having said that, if Tubular Bells wasn't in the world someone would have had to create it!

Final Score: 8.14 ⁄10 (391 votes cast, with a total score of 3184)

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