MAC Global’s 2024 season is off to a fine start as the concert promoter brought Robin A. Smith and seven of his fellow musicians to the UAE to faithfully reproduce ‘as live’ one of the 1970’s seminal albums and best-selling instrumental album of all time; Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
“He’s a delicate creative force, a reluctant hero. He doesn’t like to be right in the main line. He just exudes creativity” says Robin A. Smith, Mike Oldfield’s long-time collaborator. “Mike’s a good guy, really special. He’s not like any other artist; it’s been a privilege to work with him.”
If anyone knows what makes Mike Oldfield tick, it’s Robin A. Smith. They have worked together for 30+ years. Smith is a composer, orchestral arranger, conductor and performer in his own right and is also a 2022 Grammy Award nominee. Initially a fan, Smith played the piano part in the very first live orchestral version arranged by David Bedford and then, years later, was asked to work with Oldfield on 1992’s studio album ‘Tubular Bells II’, 1998’s ‘Tubular Bells III’, as well as live performances at prestigious venues such as Edinburgh Castle, Horse Guards Parade and the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
To this day, Smith is still impressed by ‘Tubular Bells’. “If you look at it as a composition, it’s as timeless as Bach, Beethoven or Mozart”, he enthuses. It’s just amazing that he had this ability to see the whole work which, as a 17-year old, is extraordinary.”
In 1971, Oldfield was still a teenager when he started composing the music for ‘Tubular Bells’. He was working as a session musician at Richard Branson’s The Manor residential recording studio and used the downtime to play around with all the instruments. “It was the nucleus of just being in this place, having all these instruments sitting around, that sparked a splurge of musical creativity” explains Smith.
Oldfield recorded and played almost all of the instruments on the album; from guitars and percussion to a Farfisa organ and a glockenspiel. His use of overdubbing and multitrack recording techniques was revolutionary for the time. He utilised reel-to-reel tape machines to layer sounds, creating a rich, complex musical soundscape. And the unconventional two-part structure (side A and side B on the original vinyl) resembles more of a classical symphony than anything in the ‘rock idiom’.
For all the idolisation, the iconic album is somewhat difficult to categorise into one specific genre. “Tubular Bells takes you on a journey through progressive rock and electronica, blues, folk, jazz, and classical, evoking melodic beauty and drama” says Smith. He also calls the album “archetypal British folk”, claims it invented “chill music” and that it sat comfortably alongside contemporaries such as Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, and other purveyors of the “prog rock” movement or even the minimalist serialism of American composers, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
One thing is certain, ‘Tubular Bells’ was groundbreaking and went on to become one of the biggest-selling instrumental albums of all time.
Oldfield’s finished debut studio album was released on 25 May 1973 through Richard Branson’s new venture – Virgin Records. “Let’s be honest, Richard Branson didn’t know the first thing about the music industry; he was just very enthusiastic” says Smith.
Famed DJ of the time, John Peel, played the album in its entirety on his radio programme and once he’d given it his thumbs up, the album started to sell well and became an “underground hit” in the UK. However, it wasn’t until the eerie, haunting, atmospheric opening intro was selected by director, William Friedkin, for the soundtrack of his 1973 horror movie, ‘The Exorcist’, that worldwide acclaim and stratospheric sales occurred.
‘The Exorcist’, a horror film about a girl possessed by an evil spirit, was a huge box-office success. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and went on to earn a reputation as one of the scariest films in history.
For what is considered the movie’s theme tune, ‘Tubular Bells’ is not played during or leading up to the more obvious horror moments of demonic levitating, green bile vomiting or head spinning. “The theme influenced many other film composers for years and years” explains Smith, “if you see Halloween or any of those films, it’s basically the same piece of music running over the top”.
The fact that Robin A. Smith is back on the road touring ‘Tubular Bells’ demonstrates the enduring appeal of Oldfield’s masterpiece. Following the concert at Dubai Opera on 12 January 2024, Smith and his troubadours have an extensive tour of Europe, taking in Germany, France, Spain and Scandinavia, then Australia and finishing up in the UK.
The 2024 on-stage reimagined live version of ‘Tubular Bells’ is a nod to the promotional campaign of the album’s release in the 1970’s.
On 30 November 1973, Oldfield and seven musicians were invited into a studio at BBC Television Centre to record Tubular Bells Part One ‘as live’ for the BBC arts programme ‘2nd House’. They sat in a semi-circle, played live, and were accompanied by on-screen visuals of tubular steel sculptures and sequences from William Pye’s film ‘Reflections’.
Smith reflects on maintaining Oldfield’s legacy and of the 50th anniversary live performance; “it’s much more cinematic; it’s much bigger but it’s exactly the same album. We eight musicians sit there and perform it all the way through as if it’s a classical piece so the audience comes on the journey with us”.
“Tubular Bells never seems to age. The show is a celebration of, and tribute to Mike – who in my view is one of England’s greatest composers in the last century. It’s a real privilege to be performing this extraordinary work. I love having the chance to bring it to new audiences as well as those who, like me, are still captivated by it whenever they hear it”.
Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells | Dubai Opera | 12 January 2024