Reading born Mike Oldfield entered the world on the 15th of May 1953. Mike embarked upon his professional music career at the tender age of 15 with his sister, Sally, in the popular but now largely forgotten folk group Sallyangie
. Mike soon moved away from his sister's shadow, but deciding to band together with his brother Terry to found the slightly more rock-inspired folk band The Barefeet
. This didn't last long and in 1969 Mike decided to break away from the family and joined the Whole World
band as a guitarist. The Whole World saw some success but split in 1971, leaving young Mike without a band. Undaunted Mike threw himself into recording a masterpiece. Rather than record the traditional collection of 3 minute single-style tracks Mike aimed for a grander composition, a sort of Mozart piece for the 20th century. Mike displayed his undeniable talent for music by playing an orchestra worth of instruments personally, and by 1972 had managed to compile a demo of Tubular Bells
, which he then sent to every major record company. They all rejected it saying it would never sell.
That is when Mike met a slightly offbeat guy who ran a few discount record shops. His name was Richard Branson and his shops were called Virgin records. Branson loved the piece straight away and decided to branch out into making records as well as just selling them. In 1973 Tubular Bells entered the charts, and stayed there, for 264 weeks . It was only knocked off number 1 by Mike's next album Hergest Ridge, an album that brings to mind the feeling of the 19th century Romantics. Tubular Bells knocked Hergest Ridge back into second some time later after being released (in slightly altered form) as the soundtrack of the Exorcist. Those who first came across the music via the flim can get quite jumpy at the sound of the opening notes. The next album Ommadawn (Gaelic for idiot) combined the Celtic feel with a touch of grand rock to produce some breath-taking effects, sort of Enya meets Queen. This too proved a hit and is still popular with many who might not otherwise count themselves as Mike Oldfield 'fans'.
After Ommadawn Mike changed tack, his subsequent albums had two very different sides. Side A was made up of a mixture of vocal led songs, ranging from a relaxed Celtic-style, through catchy pop right up to quite heavy guitar rock. Side B however maintained Mike's long composition style, allowing him to show anyone who could be bothered to listen that the genre had a lot more life in it beyond Tubular Bells. The long compositions (notably Taurus II and the breath taking Platinum) from this period experimented with a mixture of guitar, vocals and some electronic effects to produce sounds that just had not been heard before. During this period Mike tried his hand once more at composing a film score, this time for the tragic film "The Killing Fields". Mike's grand sweeping style proved perfect for his source material, realy bringing across the emotional impact of the events portayed. Meanwhile Mike was experiencing major fame in the singles chart with mega hits such as "Five Miles Out", "Shadow on the Wall", "Family Man", "Moonlight Shadow" as well as a coloaboration with Jon Anderson, lead sinnger of the experimental group Yes which produced the haunting "In High Places" for the Crises album
In 1987 Mike took a well earned two year break, returning in 1989 to release a non instrumental album called "Earth Moving", closely followed in 1990 by and all instrumental album entitled "Amarok", a rather bizarre but amusing piece which carries a health warning on the label stating that it may be hazardous to the health of "cloth eared nincompoops". The 60 minute piece culminates in an side-splitting parody of Margaret Thatcher.
In 1991 Mike released "Heaven's Open" a dark and powerful album in the two-sides format. This contained the disturbing "No Dream" and the catchy, but poignant Reggae piece "Make Make". The Side B instrumental was possibly Mike's most experimental work, reminding me of OMDs Dazzle Ships, it contains odd sounds such as birds, distant conversations and what appears to be a game of Street Fighter and manages to blend them into a quite catchy bit of music. Very clever, but not everybody's cup of tea.
On the 4th of September 1992, in Edinburgh castle Mike premiered Tubular Bells II. This was largely a reworking of Tubular Bells I, to add Mike's improved skills and modern instruments/recording technology. Anyone who is not a cloth eared nincompoop can not help but be impressed by the difference. I can't talk objectively about a piece like this it's just bloody brilliant...sorry.
In 1994 Mike released his next album, a purely instrumental work inspired by, and sharing the title of Arthur C. Clarke's excellent novel The Songs of Distant Earth. This album is widely acclaimed by fans to be his greatest work, combining seamlessly Caribbean (I think) folk songs, European Opera, Guitar and Electronic music into a piece that just takes your breath away.
In 1996 Mike returned to the Celtic style of Ommadawn with the all instrumental Voyager containing pieces written by himself, alongside renditions of traditional Celtic Scottish, Irish and Spanish folk songs.
Voyager was followed, after a period soaking up the atmosphere in Ibiza, by a return to the Tubular Bells theme. This however was not a reworking of Tubular Bells I, this was a continuation of the theme. Tubular Bells Part III. Premiered live 6 years to the day after it's predecessor, but this time at Horse Guard's Parade, London, this was the first concert ever held at this prestigious venue, and I was there. The work contained a single pop style song similar to Moonlight Shadow. It is called Man In The Rain and I can tell you it was bucketing down at that open air concert! Irony, don't you love it? Tubular Bells III (TBIII) contains something for everyone, ranging from classical piano, operatic, heavy guitar rock, flamenco and dance. All these styles are merged in the final climax at the end. Five stars.
Guitars, his follow up to TBIII is a unique experiment. The only instruments used on the entire album are guitars. Mike manages to blend the various forms of guitar into a relaxing, laid back album which has got to be his most technically impressive work to date.
The Millennium Bell was written for the biggest concert in history, the Berlin Millennium Celebrations. The album released after this concert contains music representing key points in world history starting with a hymn style to piece to mark the obvious reason for the letters AD. The album then works through various styles, notably a version of Amazing Grace (representing black slaves in America), Lake Constance a lovely orchestral piece inspired by the Romantic poets, a look at the prohibition era gangsters and a piece about Anne Frank. This album also ends with a merging of the various styles into an overwhelming opus.
After a foray into electronica with Light & Shade Mike did an about-face and surged headlong into orchestral music with Music of the Spheres. Instantly hitting number 1 in the Classic FM charts this was a stunning composition. This was Mike Oldfield's attempt to express his awe at the majesty of the universe through the medium of music - and I have to say he did a darn good job. Starting small with some delicate notes from the string section the piece slowly builds to a stunning crescendo that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention. While it is hard to see how Mike can top this latest work he has truly proved himself to be a great and versatile composer and artist.