Tubular Bells is a record album, written and mostly performed by Mike Oldfield (and later orchestrated by David Bedford for The Orchestral Tubular Bells version). The late Vivian Stanshall provided the voice of the "Master of Ceremonies" who reads off the list of instruments at the end of the first movement.
After Oldfield approached (and was rejected by) many other established record labels, Virgin Records released Oldfield's debut album Tubular Bells as its first album. So the story goes, after the original record became a success with Virgin, the A&R manager responsible for having reviewed Oldfield at EMI in London was subsequently fired
Mike Oldfield played most of the instruments on the album (see below), recording them one at a time and layering the recordings to create the finished work. Many of his subsequent albums feature this technique. Though fairly common in the music industry now, at the time of the production of Tubular Bells not many musicians made use of it, preferring multi-musician "session" recordings.
Tubular Bells is the album most identified with Oldfield and the reverse may be true as well as he has frequently returned to it in later works. The opening passage of the title track on the album Crises is clearly derived from the opening of Tubular Bells. The opening is also quoted directly in the song "Five Miles Out" from the album of the same name and the song also features his "trademark" instrument, "Piltdown Man" (referring to his singing like a caveman, first heard on Tubular Bells).
The coda at the end of Part Two, the "Sailor's Hornpipe", was originally created as a much longer production, with Vivian Stanshall providing comic narration as an obviously-inebriated tour guide showing the listener around the Manor House where the album was recorded. It was cut from the final version for being too strange to be put on an unknown artist's first album, though it can be heard "in all its magnificent foolishness" (from the liner notes) on the Mike Oldfield Boxed set
The opening theme, which was eventually chosen for The Exorcist, gained the record considerable publicity and is how most people have probably first heard the work. It was also used in the 1979 movie, The Space Movie, in several episodes of the Dutch Bassie en Adriaan children's series, in the 2002 movie The Master of Disguise, an episode ("Ghosts") of the BBC series My Family and in a television advertisement for Volkswagen in 2003. The opening theme has been sampled by many other artists such as Janet Jackson on her song "The Velvet Rope". The opening theme has also gained cultural significance as a 'haunting theme'; this is due to the association with the Exorcist
Acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, Farfisa, Hammond, and Lowrey organs; flageolet, fuzz guitars, glockenspiel, "honky tonk" piano (piano with detuned strings), mandolin, piano, "Piltdown Man", percussion, Spanish guitar, "double speed guitar", "taped motor drive amplifier organ chord", timpani, violin, vocals and of course, tubular bells.
Steve Broughton — percussion
Lindsay L. Cooper — string basses
Mundy Ellis — vocals
Jon Field — flutes
Sally Oldfield — vocals
Vivian Stanshall — Master of Ceremonies
Manor Choir (Simon Heyworth, Tom Newman, Mike Oldfield)
Normally, records have a small statement printed along the bottom to the effect that it is in stereo but may be played on mono record players (a holdover from the days before stereo). It normally reads:
This stereo record can be played on mono reproducers provided either a compatible or stereo cartridge wired for mono is fitted. Recent equipment may already be fitted with a suitable cartridge. If in doubt consult your dealer.
However, Tubular Bells pokes fun at this by having the following text printed on the bottom of the reverse of the LP.
This stereo record cannot be played on old tin boxes no matter what they are fitted with. If you are in possession of such equipment please hand it into the nearest police station.
"Tubular Bells" — part one — 25:36
"Tubular Bells" — part two — 23:20
Progression of part one
Part one opens with a soft minor key piano line in 15/8 eventually played verbatim by organ and glockenspiel. This riff is made up of two bars; the first bar is in 7/8, the second bar is in 8/8.
These are later joined by a different line in bass guitar. An occasional punchy organ chord, first heard at about 1:02 in, accents this piece, harmonized by variations of the anchor line and a later incorporated 3/4 chord sequence, both in piano. At around 3:00, a gentle flute line appears, which segues into a section of 4/4-7/8-7/8-4/4, and at 3:40 an electric guitar line, the latter entirely in 4/4.
After the electric guitar line ends, a softer, fast guitar line ("speed guitar," as listed in the liner notes) takes over, only to be interrupted by an acoustic guitar line overlaying the original piano phrase in major key. A gentle glockenspiel/piano piece takes over, but is later replaced with a fast piano section, occasionally accented with organ chords.
The mood of the first 6 minutes is soon replaced by edgy electric guitar and, afterward, a sinister organ chord, with various changes in pitch and duration. But, once again, a more refined, carefree section ensues, dominated by acoustic guitar and piano, eventually returning to the soft riff first heard just past four minutes into the piece.
A 3/4 variation of the original theme comes next, followed by eerie bass and organ playing, segueing into a bluesy shuffle on electric guitar. Once again, when it looks like the piece will be serene (when the nasal choir intervenes), another edgy guitar line ensues, with Oldfield incorporating both 4/4 and 7/8.
After that, a more folky acoustic line plays (with background tambourine), but is suddenly cut off by the tolling of bells. A weary acoustic guitar line follows, breaking into the eight-and-a-half minute "Finale" section, commencing with a double bass line in 5/4, polyrhythmically played with a 4/4 acoustic line. After the bass and guitar unite into the 4/4 line, the acoustic guitar tacets and is eventually replaced by soft pipe organ notes (usually lasting four or eight full beats) while the bass line plays.
After the 10-bar bass phrase is repeated several times, Stanshall introduces many of the instruments appearing in part one up to then, beginning with the keyboards, followed by glockenspiel and all guitars before the tubular bells are announced, the ensemble becoming more dynamic and full as more instruments are said. Finally, after the tubular bells enter, a wordless feminine chorus starts to sing. Farther down, the Finale ensemble fades out to an acoustic guitar solo, which takes up the remainder of part one.
Progression of part two
Part two begins where part one left off; a soft, simple piece, this time, beginning with bass guitar and working up with other guitars and keyboards. The opening time signature is 6/8, but a later line plays a similar melody in 3/4 on various instruments, beginning with guitar. The opening section builds for five minutes before the second section starts, another 3/4 section at half tempo on acoustic guitar, with accompaniment on organ, mandolin and female chorus.
At around 8:48, the piece becomes edgy and surreal again, as the "bagpipe guitars" enter the piece (electric guitars with added effects to give it the bagpipe-esque sound), playing a 12/8 piece of sorts. About 11 minutes in, the intensity of the section builds as the guitar pitches increase and a heavy piano "roll" plays, climaxed by a sudden ascending glissando on the piano.
What comes next is one of the more unusual parts of the entire album. Tympani rolls and drum kit commence this part, highlighted by unintelligible "lyrical" screams by Oldfield (who, according to rumours, was then intoxicated), in rebellion to how Richard Branson wanted him to include at least one part with lyrics to release as a single (at the time, Oldfield was not interested in adding lyrics to his music). This is listed in the liner notes as the "Piltdown Man". Oldfield's yelling is countered by various phrases on piano, guitars, and the "Moribund chorus," with this piece abruptly ending on one loud shout exactly 16:29 in.
As expected, another quiet section ensues, a 12/8 piece mostly dominated by guitars and organ. This section gives an excellent insight into the psychedelic, spacey side of Oldfield (a similar sound to that of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour), which would also be present in his third album, Ommadawn. After about five minutes, an optimistic organ line plays, segueing into a climatic arrangement of "Sailor's Hornpipe".
"Sailor's Hornpipe" begins with just one guitar playing at a moderately slow tempo, but quickly mutates into a gradually accented piece with multiple instruments (including an unlisted violin), ending with two loud, accented notes. In live performances, Oldfield would reach incredible tempos and "Sailor's Hornpipe" alone became a staple of his concerts.