Mike Oldfield can easily be defined as my favourite modern musician of all times. I mean: he was my favourite when I was a teen, so no one can beat him. I grew up with him, re-discovering two decades later as a teen his Seventies masterpieces. I cried with his music. I survived with his music. And I still follow him today (not so constantly, I must admit). Though I rarely listen to his records nowadays, because they belong to a totally different emotional era of mine, I happened to play back Taurus II some time ago and I did find myself in tears once again…
Probably not today’s young listeners’ first choice, Oldfield is ridiculously famous and known, so I won’t write any “info” about him (there’s Wikipedia for this) but I will try to fix some random ideas that are stickin’ into my mind.
He’s written groundbreaking, gamechanging and sometimes really challenging and daring (Amarok) instrumentals suites, blending rock (including progressive), folk and even ethnic elements (mostly celtic and scottish, but also african flavor sometimes) with some suggestions coming from contemporary “high profile” musicians. And he has written pop songs. While the first are mostly modern classic, the majority of the latter are simply forgettable: they did fit fine with the times they were released, but at the end of the day they sound just dated and void of any real interesting content. Did I say it was the Eighties? Yep, that explains many things (more or less like saying that moving to Ibiza in late Ninenties brought forward an interest in dance, chill out music). But I said “the majority”; and since what matters is quality, not quantity, it’s due to say that a little bunch of songs (mainly Moonlight Shadow and To France) are instead so beautiful and so ridiculously praised that non only deserve, again, the status of classic but make the talking about them a little embarrassing.
That guy of Tubular Bells
If we have to talk about distinctive marks, there are no doubts: no matter how little comforting it may be, if you’re a musician, when people loves you mostly for the good stuff you’ve done when you were young, this is mainly Oldfield case (at least, if we’re talking about real fans, not occasional pop listeners). Historically (and aesthetically) speaking, he’s “that guy who made Tubular Bells and other long instrumental records in the Seventies”. We’re talking about four (4) records, spanning from ’73 to ’78. Four out of more than two dozens of releases. Everything after those four, beautiful or terrible it may be, doesn’t change this fundamental statement and Oldfield’s place in music history.
He’s not alone in this. It’s more or less the fate of every modern, “popular” musician (meaning guy-that-makes-records), in contrast to what happened with the classics: where the latter got better with time (like wine), the first, mostly, get worse (like orange juice); maybe they improve in technique, but their proposal is less strong and meaningful. And while the last works of some Beethoven or Mozart are recognized to be superior to the first, for popular musicians, most of the times, the last record almost totally sucks.
There are many reasons for this, of course.
One is training: classically trained musicians learn how to build and develop a craft; self made musicians (which is the case of most popular musicians of the past decades) don’t; maybe they just “got it” once, but they can’t grasp it, or reproduce it.
Other reason: they change (like we all do). Maybe they lose the fire of their twenties, maybe they just change from crafting challenging music to just making music; maybe they just get rich; maybe (like, incredible to hear, David Bowie did) they just believe they’re finished and try to make commercial records to earn as much money as possible before the collapse.
The most heavy reasons, though, are market pressures: first, you don’t have a break (a lasting one I mean) if you don’t do something significant for that times; BUT audience is a bitch, and market tastes change with generations. You’re a god in the 80’s, you’re boring ten years later; but still, your job is to make and sell records, so you adapt.
Mike’s four seasons
Back to Oldfield. Everything I said applies here (I’m only guessing about the change, because of course I don’t know him in person – alas). He started in the Seventies, the most creative innovative, forward-looking and open-minded decade in all discographic music history, which spun (as well) from the social and aesthetic changes brought forward by late Sixties social movements and found in European countries the place to grow. And which was, retrospectively, just a dream of freedom before the reflux and reaction of the Eighties brought everything back in place. Not that progressive, kosmische, psychedelic or electronic (pre-newage) had ever been so far from the niche; it has never been music for the masses. But still… still, those were the years in which you COULD actually do that kind of music and find someone small and little like Virgin or EMI willing to publish it, because there was a significant amount of people out there waiting for it to came out. Our Mike did even better than this, as Tubular Bells was, in 1973, the first release from Virgin Records and sold since the beginning an absurd number of copies. Nevertheless, all this had to end: a very few bands (like Camel, or Marillion, for example) went on doing progressive-like music in the Eighties (but generally they were small acts or not even born, or gone solo, in the Seventies). Most of the “important” 70’s musicians had to change skin or to exit the scene the next decade; and the same applies to 80’s gods when the grunge and indie american movements stirred the new generation tastes again.
So, even our Mike had to change. His fights against Richard Branson and Virgin (who are reported to be the main responsible of his abandoning the long structures for more simple ones, since Platinum in 1979) are well known; Mike will even come to compose and record an entire cheap and fast album (Heaven’s Open) just to get rid of contractual obligations an do (literally) say f*ck off to RB. But it would be unfair to accuse only external forces to be the reason of the transition to the pop field; if a musician is reportedly able to realize three albums in a row just to “displease” his record company (two of them being damn good too), that’s enough uncompromizing attitude for me. Sure, jumping from Incantations to Platinum is a definitive downfall; but still, it’s reasonable that even Mike needed a change, considering the incredibly growth of complexity in his works… seriously, how could he overcome the multilayered, repetitive almost mantric structures of Incantations? (Maybe, at the end, he managed to do it… but only with the new digital recording techniques more than ten years later. And again, with Amarok).
Then another decade passed, and he changed again: the interest in seventies music was growing back in the audience (in reaction to the too artificial-sounding 80’ music) and he started to produce kind of modern sequels of the old ones (Tubular Bells II is self explaining; the previous Amarok is for many Ommadawn II – with some hints of Hergest Ridge in it) before embracing the times and heavily sticking to electronic music (which, curiously enough, was the avant-garde in the Seventies but then, after the electronic decade by excellence, the Eighties, had been heavily popularized) with the concept Songs of Distant Earth, inspired by Clarke’s novel, which is also his last great record to date (but yet not universally appreciated). This phase is a kind of ideal prosecution of the Seventies arc.
After that, he seemed to embark into a sort of cold and planned creative invention method, full of thematic or celebrative projects, including an out-of-maximum-time celtic album, an only-guitar made album, some celebrative projects with the name “bell” in the title (one of them for the millennium eve), until the “00” years, which are mostly comprised of a pair of well crafted but cold hearted chill-out/dance oriented records (he’s reportedly declared at the time to have done the best he could for old fans and that it was time to make music for a new audience – and this records set foot in the realm of games and virtual reality too) and a new age sounding remake of Tubular Bells.
In 2007, he produced an orchestral album (thing that seems to be extremely trendy between the old guys, today); probably just an episode than a new change in direction.
Compromise and waves
So, apparently, there are at least three Oldfields on the shelves out there (not any more… let’s say on your favorite digital shop): the free/misanthrope musician of the Seventies (gone back less angry and raw in the Nineties), the pop/rock musician of the Eighties and the electronic mass musician of recent times. Which one you like the most it’s a matter of personal taste and I won’t argue about it. But, as we were saying, the old suites are the ones that make the difference and define Oldfield as musician in history. Taken, some songs gained huge success but he never exploited it to establish himself as a popstar, basically because he wasn’t so keen of public appearances and MTV-like acts; and apart from this, there’s something extremely reductive in identifying an instrumental musician (which is the primary field of Oldfield) with a three minute song, no matter how beautiful.
And we’re still back to those four. Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn, Incantations. So beautiful and special; so powerful and pure (even in their flaws). With all their plain, simple and total lack of compromise. Full-side suites, totally instrumental; with rock in them (most of the times they they are comprised of individual moments mixed down together, each one with a more or less distinctive song structure in it) but also progressive structures. And the sound blend is unique: traditional instruments and percussions, a lot of different guitars and stringed instruments, female vocal choirs, Hammond organs and electronic keyboards. Together with Popol Vuh’s record, they are the foundations of new age and world music; but still, this sonic blend is at the service of a strong kind of music, sometimes aggressive, sometimes epic and solemn, sometimes pastoral and sombre… nothing to compare with the fake and constant makes-you-feel-good vibe of most newage music. There’s variety in this works, there’s dramatic tension, there’s evolution and contrast. Qualities that belong most frequently to a “classical” work than to a rock output. And the sound is at once “seventies” and out of time, making them age very well. Even in his “trick-of-the-tail” re-emergence in the Nineties you can find (most of) this distinctive tracts; but let’s be honest here: Amarok and Tubular Bells II are for sure good albums (especially the first) but he couldn’t have made them at that times if he had to start from scratch instead of having a solid career and name at his back.
With the Eighties, though, compromise came. And for good. The standard “formula” itself here is a compromise: a side made of instrumental music, in suite form (but more rock oriented than the Seventies ones), another side full of singles or shorter pieces. When it’s not abandoned at all, since three albums even miss a long instrumental, and one of them (Earth Moving) is just a weak song collection. And don’t tell me that this formula is typical of the preceding progressive movement: back then, it was less a compromise then an expressive choice, the long side being after all just “a song longer than the other”; but here, the long side sounds rather like “more than this, I can’t do or they won’t print it (or buy it)”. Anyway, the better balance is reached with Crises (1983): here the title-track, the suite, is a dramatic, mood-changing, powerful and beautiful rock suite, with a great presence of electronic sound (that celebrates the anniversary of Tubular Bells by being built upon some kind of variations of a main theme crafted after the original one); while the other side is an anthology of singles with a short instrumental, one better and more original than the other and each one among Oldfield’s best songwriting efforts (Moonlight Shadow, is here. Foreign Affair too). Both sides work standalone; and the common sound unifies them. Plus, the long track is Side 1; and that matters. A lot. So, as Mike itself says in the sleeve notes, “It’s a case of making everybody happy”; too bad that Crises is an exception to the rule. The preceding albums are indeed clear and non cohesive tentatives to find a new way; though pleasant and with peaks of interest, no-one of them is excellent but at least the void-pop element is not present. While in the following ones the songs are too frequently uninspired or stuck with the “Oldfield trademark” started with Discovery and the instrumentals generally weaker and not totally convincing; and often the production style makes them sound rather stiff, today (although they were quite fit for the times). Of course, To France is just a gem, Discovery and Islands quite pleasant songs too, and The Lake a good (maybe too rush) instrumental tune… but, even adding No Dream, minor song but one of my favorite’s, that’s just it.
The same reason that made the Eighties albums generally weak, makes the (first) Nineties ones better: times are changing again, and Oldfield is passing through a personal and professional transition too: changing label. So maybe he feels free to be himself again. For a handful of years, just the time to take away some stones from his shoes, it works: Virgin wanted a “Tubular Bells II”, he had always refused, or released “Ommadawn II” (aka Amarok) instead; and now, passing to Warner, the first thing he does is Tubular Bells II for real. But whatever the reasons that led him to compose and realize this albums, we just have to be thankful. Taken TBII for a good (just a little dull in sound) record, the real points of interest in this short phase are Amarok and Songs of Distant Earth (second title for Warner). The first one, mostly acoustic and entirely live recorded (without the electronics or programming of the previous albums), is the extreme consequence of what “uncompromizing” can mean: a one hour long piece, made of short snippets that develop or reprise a bunch of main themes, each one too short to be cut as a single, and with a great difference in dynamics. Again, it is believed that this structure was just another challenge to Branson more than a creative independent goal (as in the case of the subsequent Heaven’s Open, which is most similar to 80’s outputs than to Amarok itself): nevertheless, the result is, after an initial disorientation, one of his best, powerful and sometimes moving works ever. Songs of Distant Earth, as said before, jumps in the field of electronic music; lacks of the dramatic variety of many beloved Oldfield works mainly because of a repetitive use of similar rhythmic patterns; but still is to be commended for being a step totally unexpected into an unfamiliar territory, without compromising the creative quality.
After that record, only a few things are worth to mention (mainly the magnificent orchestral piece Mont Saint Michel in the celtic album Voyager), as Oldfield seemed to live a second transition era like the one between the Seventies and the Eighties, until he landed into the chill out harbour. But as long as these last electronic albums, especially Tr3s Lunas, undoubtedly posses a strong stylistic coherence and showcase sometimes a pleasant tune, they’re too far from being interesting, mainly due to the shortness of the tracks that doesn’t allow (or not even request) further development. And the last effort, the orchestral Music From The Spheres, though more welcome than the previous ones, is much more an object of curiosity than a real must listen and doesn’t allow any clear guess about future directions in Oldfield’s works. Which probably won’t come out so fast, since his actual business seems to be to remaster and remix the old albums and publish them in deluxe and fan-oriented box-sets (yum). Incantations came out this summer and it’s not clear to me if the following catalogue will be remastered and boxed as well.
So what did Oldfield do in this last arc? Had did compromise again with the market and the trends? Or he didn’t compromise with the same image of himself fandom kept asking over and over? To me, is frankly difficult to say. I don’t recognize my old favorite in many of this recent outputs: sometimes he seems to emerge, an than he immediately disappears under the waters for good…
And last but not least
I haven’t been totally honest about the 80’s stuff. But there’s a reason.
If you noticed, I started this chain of thoughts mentioning the song Taurus II. That was not by chance.
Remember what I did say about the pre-Crisis albums? That they are basically transitional and lack coherence? Well, there is one, but huge, exception: the magnificent Five Miles Out. This came out in ’82, one year before Crises, and apparently shares the same formula: long side + shorts’ side. Though there is a titanic BUT: in the shorts’ side, you will find just one regular “single”: Family Man (pretty famous because of a cover made some years later). The remaining is very unconventional structured songwriting (Five Miles Out), or instrumental (Mount Teide, a piece that manages to give a pastoral vibe despite a prominent use of percussions), or a blending of both (Orabidoo). The sound and the composition are, once again, a blend of rock, ethnic and folk music, plus a heavier presence of electronics and sound processing and some surprising classical references (passages written like classical fugues). But the great return here is the suite formula: the entire album shares reworked versions of the same themes (the main theme of Taurus II – first track – is the same of Five Miles Out – last track; and the first shares some passages with Orabidoo too), placed here and there, creating a frame inside of which all the remaining tunes are positioned. So, even if side 2 has actually silence between the tracks, it sounds more like a series of coherent pieces than a collection of independent ones, making Five Miles Out the only Eighties album to sound like a whole, massive, concept. It’s also the album in which the progressive element is more evident, being this anything but a quality. And let’s just add that Taurus II, alone, is the best long instrumental of the decade.
I love this record, and I wanted to cut a special place for it, here at the end. Maybe undervalued, Five Miles Out is probably Oldfield’s best work after the classic quadrilogy (perhaps even better than Hergest Ridge) and worth to be celebrated and praised together with them, Amarok and The Songs of Distant Earth.