Tubular Bells, The Charles Hazlewood All Stars, St George's Bristol | New music reviews, news & interviews
Tubular Bells, The Charles Hazlewood All Stars, St George's Bristol
A classic of the 1970s provides an ear-opening lesson in Minimalism
Tubular Bells, the first half of which is being currently revived as a live piece in the UK, sold between 15 and 17 million units worldwide. Quite apart from the work’s innocence being co-opted and made spooky in William Friedkin's The Exorcist, there was something about Mike Oldfield’s first stab at quasi-symphonic rock which seduced the music-consuming public.
Borrowing the repeated motifs of Minimalism – most specifically Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air – and similarly cyclical tropes that made Ravel’s Bolero and Grieg’s Peer Gynt so audience-grabbing, Tubular Bells wallowed in cliché but also broke new ground: this was one of the first examples of a musician recording most of the tracks himself – guitars, keyboards and percussion – but the mostly instrumental piece’s scale, spread over two sides of an LP, was also innovative, in pop or rock at least.
I am not sure whether to feel pride or shame but I played a part in the piece’s success. I had met Richard Branson – who signed Oldfield to his new Virgin label after hearing his demos – in 1967, when we were both involved in student journalism. He contacted me again in 1973 as he was about to launch his first release – Tubular Bells (pictured right). I was by then working on Second House, a fairly wild Saturday-night arts programme on BBC Two. The show was distinguished by a shambolic and knife-edge sense of experiment: performance artist Stuart Brisley lying in a bath of offal would be followed by a performance of David Bedford’s piece “With 100 Kazoos”, a cacophonous audience participation effort and the Mike Westbrook Band paired with Henry Woolf doing brilliant political satire.
I heard the Mike Oldfield piece and imagined a live version in the studio. Second House’s execs agreed, and Mike Oldfield brought along Mick Taylor of The Stones, Steve Hillage, Fred Frith, Mike Ratledge, David Bedford, Pierre Moerlein and other musicians associated with the label and the early 1970s avant-garde. Director Tony Staveacre, noted for his imaginative multi-camera studio work, visualised the piece beautifully, responding sensitively to the beguiling fluidity of the repeated motifs and the piece’s hallmark moments of drama.
The live version was presented soon afterwards at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, to which Charles Hazlewood and his All Stars will return with the iconic piece on 6 December. Hazlewood regularly works with Will Gregory of Goldfrapp and Adrian Utley of Portishead, the duo who wrote a stunning new soundtrack for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. A few months ago, they put together two concerts celebrating the music of Terry Riley. It was Adrian Utley, looking for another similar collaborative project, who came across the BBC Two version of Tubular Bells and suggested it to Hazlewood. “When I had finished rolling around the floor laughing,” the conductor says, “I thought, why not? It does rumble on as one of the distinct parts of the UK’s musical DNA.”
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