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The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games was an endearingly batty showcase of many great things about the UK. But it prompted one repeated question across the internet which irritated me: “Why did they use The Exorcist music during the section on the NHS?”

If it annoys Mike Oldfield that his most famous work has been reduced to such a footnote, he doesn’t show it. The Exorcist theme is certainly a gateway drug to his music, and if album sales are anything to go by there is an appetite for it, particularly Tubular Bells.

The Olympic ceremony featured a lot of music that was personal to its artistic director, Danny Boyle. It can be no coincidence that Mike Oldfield himself – still thought of as a reclusive performer, despite any number of tours – was front-and-centre.

Danny Boyle would be about the right age to have experienced Tubular Bells when it was first released. I can well imagine an eighteen-year-old Boyle sitting there in a darkened bedroom with a set of headphones on, the vinyl hissing away in the background, squinting at the Tubular Bells album cover, painting pictures with his mind.

Tubular Bells lives on; it endures. It has a habit of popping back into the charts, snaring the curious, every generation. Despite a sometimes volatile relationship with his old record label’s first star, Sir Richard Branson is very quick to point out that record’s catalytic effect on Virgin Records, and the subsequent Virgin empire.

It annoys me that the album’s famous piano intro is tied in with a popular public perception of evil incarnate through association with The Exorcist. To me, Tubular Bells is sublime, heavenly, ethereal – not the stuff of devilry.

Many who would write it off as just another indulgent prog rock platter from the early 1970s may be surprised to know it had John Peel as its champion when it was first released. Branson is also quick to point out that Tubular Bells would not have sold so well had the much-missed Radio One DJ not played the entire thing, back-to-back, on his show.

It beggars belief that Oldfield was just nineteen years old when he made that record. The studio equipment and overdubbing techniques used for the album seem to have come out of the pages of a steampunk novel, a million miles away from autotune and any number of modern audio horrors. He laid down great chunks of it in a frenzy of activity, playing all the instruments himself.

As Oldfield said in a recent interview, the album was handmade; a labour of love. It shows.

Another thing I found out about Tubular Bells was that its immense success wasn’t an altogether positive thing for its creator. A sufferer of panic attacks and anxiety disorders, Oldfield retreated to the country homes he could now afford, both in the UK and abroad, unwilling to take part in tours and public appearances, completely wrapped up in music and almost allergic to public attention.

This chimed with me. Tubular Bells is the kind of album that’s made to be listened to alone, with headphones, in a darkened room. Certainly that’s how I discovered it, picking through my older brother’s neglected vinyl albums left behind in the spare room at our house, long after he left.

Strange summer evenings with the slow-sinking sun. The journey into the unknown, the hiss of dead space after the needle first hits the vinyl. The weird, new-agey sleeve, with its crashing waves.

Bones burned on a beach.

Oldfield once pointed out that you can’t dance to Tubular Bells. If you start tapping your feet to the piano intro, you’ll soon be out of time “unless one leg is shorter than the other”. Aside from the sublime Viv Stanshall and the less sublime “caveman” section on side two, there are few vocals and little percussion other than the instrument in the title. Certainly no verses or choruses to be found here. Even today, this is an odd release for the pop charts.

It’s a soundscape, the accompaniment to a million nights spent sitting on the couch, glass of wine in hand, with nothing to do but decorate time with sound. Though never soporific, Tubular Bells makes it easy to dream. This is why I often have it on when I’m writing.

Making Tubular Bells wasn’t much of a collective process, it seems. Its young creator was a one-man band, a person of singular drive and vision.

Writing, too, is a solo occupation, introverted by nature. It’s on the same hymn sheet as Tubular Bells, and in the locked-in syndrome of the writer we can glimpse something of the drive, the dedication and perhaps the loneliness of Mike Oldfield.

I’m glad Tubular Bells is back in the charts. I’m glad that the people who bought it the first time around will have the opportunity to listen to it again, maybe with a glass of wine in their hand, some night when they have nothing to do but pass the time.

And I’m glad that some young person, somewhere, will have it on their iPod or MP3. Hopefully they’ll allow themselves to be transported the way I was, into the untouchable realm the music came from.


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