Back in 1975 Mike Oldfield should have been on top of the world. But behind the scenes he was suffering.
Mike’s debut album ‘Tubular Bells’ was an acclaimed multimillion seller out of left field, and its successor, ‘Hergest Ridge’, sold prodigiously too, despite a critical backlash which Mike took hard.
More eclectic than ever — featuring the African drums of Jabula, Chieftains piper Paddy Moloney and so much more — his third album ‘Ommadawn’ was recorded in Mike’s new home studio on the Welsh borders in the teeth of technical difficulties, the personal stress of industry demands and unwanted fame, and then the sudden death of his mother Maureen.
Deeply reflective yet also joyful, ‘Ommadawn’ was yet another massive hit album, completing what has become the trinity of pieces of music closest to their creator’s heart — and that of his fans too.
Four decades later, Mike found life’s troubles recurring. In 2012 he was thrilled to be asked to reorchestrate some of his best-loved compositions for the soundtrack of the London Olympics opening ceremony as devised by Danny Boyle. Visually and musically, the event was a massive global success, and a personal success for Mike as well.
“The Olympics ceremony was such a high, giving me such a sense of validation that the music I made back in the ‘70s was good, that there was only one way to go. Down.
“The last four years have been bad for me: a long legal battle; my son Dougal died [aged 33 of natural causes]; my father died.’
But out of tragedy and struggle, once more beautiful music is born — ‘Return To Ommadawn’.
“Looking on social media, the first three albums 40 years later are everybody’s favourite, and Ommadawn more than Tubular Bells even. I think it’s because it’s a genuine piece of music rather than production: hands, fingers, fingernails. It didn’t have a goal; it was not trying to achieve anything nor please anybody. It was spontaneous music making, full of life.
“The original Ommadawn was such a success that I was put under pressure to keep making records, and I found myself making music that wasn’t really me. It was a bit forced. I sort of lost my way. Doing Return To Ommadawn is like a return to my true self.
“It’s a long time since I’ve done an acoustic, stringed instrument-based album. I could still play all those instruments, and I thought, why not make another album like that, something along the lines of Ommadawn? So I floated the idea and even the title on the internet fan sites and the demand was overwhelming. That helped cement it in my mind as a thing I’d like to do.
“The first thing I did was rebuild the original instruments I played on Ommadawn, starting with the bodhrán which I learned to play back in the ‘70s, and then the mandolin. Then I got a wonderful handbuilt guitar which features heavily, then a flamenco guitar. While Ommadawn had a recorder, I can’t play it, so instead had penny whistles in different keys. I played a Gibson SG electric guitar on the original album, and got a new one, but after trying loads of plug-ins could only get almost that same sound again by playing through a Boogie acoustic amplifier. And I played the acoustic bass guitar and a ukulele, which I love, and the African drums myself, and a Celtic harp. I find it very easy to play these things — not properly, of course, but enough.
“As for keyboards, living out in the Bahamas I couldn’t get a real Mellotron, a massive thing, nor a Solina string synthesizer, nor the organs, a Vox Continental and Farfisa Professional. Luckily people have recreated virtual reality versions of all these things as plug-ins, even the Clavioline, the main instrument on Telstar by The Tornados, one of the first singles I ever bought. And I had to have a real glockenspiel.
“I’m put off by an electronic click track so to set the tempo I got an old-fashioned wind-up metronome which I recorded on a microphone. Some sections I didn’t want a click track at all so played them free so they speed up and slow down. There’s no sequencing at all on it. At the same time, only in the last three or four years has the process of recording onto a hard drive rather than tape or disk actually got up to scratch, reliable and sounding good. In my studio I have a big, 4K high-definition screen, which means I can get an entire big piece of work onto the screen in one go — the whole big picture rather than lots of little bits.
“When making an album you use every tool available. I thought there should be a few little things of the original album in there so took some vocal bits of the original Ommadawn, cut them in pieces, sound effects treated them, reversed them and edited them back together, and gradually over an afternoon a new melody appeared with a strange otherworldly sound.
“Even the artwork fell into place beautifully when, after a Game Of Thrones binge-watching marathon, I suggested to the record company doing something epic in the snow. They made a lovely cover. The album is being released on vinyl with a proper sleeve which you take out and play with ceremony, like a restored vintage Rolls Royce coming out of the garage with its walnut dashboard and smelling of oil. From the metronome on, it’s a handmade experience.
“That kind of music is me, rather than much of what came afterwards when I tried to fit in with the music going on around me. I don’t take myself so seriously as I used to, and recording it was a very easy, enjoyable experience.
“But I’m very fortunate that I can release the emotions into the music. It’s not some guy strumming away on guitar with his legs dangling, happy as Larry with life. This music is emotionally supercharged. Life’s circumstances can give your music emotional depth and power, as it did back in the ‘70s. And now a similar thing has happened, like fuel for the creative fire. But whoever heard of someone happy and content creating something really good? It doesn’t work. You have to suffer for your work. I’m very fortunate I have some way of expressing it rather than bottling it up.”
Born in Reading the son of a family doctor and nurse, and younger brother of Terry and Sally, young Mike immersed himself in music. Coinciding with moving to Harold Wood in Essex, by the age of 13 he was also moving out of a Shadows phase and precociously following in the fingertips of the great generation of British guitarists, his sister getting Mike into folk, “a fashionable thing then. I used to sing in those days and joined a couple of different duos in Reading; we used to do Irish rebel songs, and everyone would join in on the chorus — it was great.” Though beset by stage fright — “In my solo guitar spot at the folk clubs, my knee was shaking, trembling so badly the guitar was jiggling up and down, and I had no patter” — he had decided on a career in music, networking via his sister’s old Reading friend Marianne Faithfull to meet her boyfriend Mick Jagger: “Charming beyond belief. A lovely, lovely man.”
Leaving school at 15, Mike cut an album with his sister, then passed through a rock band, Barefoot, with brother Terry before finding his path when in March 1970, Mike joined Soft Machine legend Kevin Ayers’ new band, the Whole World, on bass (a new instrument to him). Introduced by a fellow band-member to American serialist Terry Riley’s Rainbow In Curved Air album, Mike began working on musical ideas of his own.
Further inspired by the music of Bach, Sibelius and the jazz-rock orchestra Centipede, Mike began to record his ideas on a jerry-rigged two-track tape recorder using his own homemade musical notation system.
Fate smiled when he found himself at Shipton Manor near Oxford which was being converted into a residential recording studio by friends of its owner, the youthful Virgin record shop and mail order founder, Richard Branson; they heard his music and so Mike became the first artist to make an album for the Virgin Records label. That album, released in 1973 to critical acclaim and cult sales before becoming a commercial — selling 17 million copies to date — blockbuster thanks in part to its use on the soundtrack of the movie The Exorcist, was ‘Tubular Bells’.
With ‘Hergest Ridge’ and ‘Ommadawn’ following within two years, Mike had created an enduring trinity of classic albums that overlapped rock and classical and, before the terms were even coined, new age and world music.
These albums remain the musical statements Mike feels are truest to him, and he has revisited ‘Tubular Bells’ two times as sequels and a rerecording.
He has also enjoyed a prolific recording career away from long-form pieces of music as soundtrack composer for the classic 1984 film ‘The Killing Fields’ and creator of such beloved hit singles as the Christmas classic ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’, plus several hit albums of songs including ‘Man On The Rocks’. In 2008 Mike released his first classical album, the hugely successful ‘Music Of The Spheres’, and he has also created music for virtual reality-based computer games.
MIKE OLDFIELD ‘RETURN TO OMMADAWN’
WILL BE RELEASED ON 20th JANUARY 2017 ON VIRGIN EMI