Whether British billionaire Richard Branson is truly visionary or merely daft is open to question, I suppose, but it says something for his "visionary" aspect that the first issue on his Virgin Records label, way back in 1973, was Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, a 49-minute one-man show in which Oldfield's incredible musical virtuosity is given a prodigious workout. Tubular Bells proved to be staggeringly popular, and Oldfield has since delivered two updated versions which arguably drew more attention than did his more contemporary efforts.
Then again, there's got to be something more to Tubular Bells than mere incredible musical virtuosity, otherwise Oldfield by now surely would have disappeared into the void with other merely technically-brilliant types like Yngwie J. Malmsteen. (In the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II, you get the Yngwie Malmsteen Award for running off at least a thousand notes in succession.) Francis W. Porretto, long an admirer of Tubular Bells, suggests what that "something more" might be:
If you have the opportunity, listen to it closely, with full attention. I'd be surprised if you were to come away without the sense that a great, overarching theme had been expressed in its melodies and harmonies. My only quarrel is with its title; it should have been a Mass.
With this idea in mind, informed by one piece of biographical detail Mike Oldfield was at least nominally raised as a Roman Catholic I ventured forth to find the liturgy proclaimed by the Bells.
It's right there in the very beginning, that two-bar keyboard line alternating between 7/8 and 8/8, a procession punctuated with antiphons on organ, flute and guitar. About six minutes in, the celebrant (speed guitar) launches into the opening prayers; keyboards and guitars and flute are then launched into phrases that only seem discordant: this is an act of penitence, if you will, and the tightly-organized guitar passage thereafter, with carefully-timed repeats, is therefore the "Kyrie eleison." It's followed by a collect, a prayer that seems, and indeed could be, improvised on the spot. The celebrant declaims; the participants respond, sort of nasally. At about 14:15, there is a Scripture reading via guitar, punctuated with references to the themes from the procession, followed by a psalm on solo acoustic guitar. Seventeen minutes in, there begins a repeated bass-plus-guitar figure, a creed if you will, which escalates with each new line, each new instrument, finally ending in the simple prayers of the faithful.
If you're playing the LP version, you're now on Side Two, where the process of purification begins, culminating with guitars contrived to sound like bagpipes, playing a Sanctus over tympani rolls. What Oldfield describes as "Piltdown Man," a simple-to-simplistic melody punctuated with guttural caveman noises, could be the Rite of Peace, members of the congregation addressing one another for the first time in the proceedings; the theme continues with a guitar-riff-based Agnus Dei and finally ends in the solemnity of the Eucharist, backed by a slow, even humble, organ theme: "Lord, I am not worthy." Still, there is guitar and keyboard wizardry going on, as the congregation takes communion, each of them unique unto the Lord, each bar slightly different from the one preceding. And finally, to the strains of the Sailor's Hornpipe, we return to the real world: "Ite, missa est."
This rendering is, of course, highly subjective, and should not be taken as a literal description of what was going through Mike Oldfield's mind back in 1972 at The Manor; if anything, I suspect he'd be tempted to dismiss all this as the ranting of a lunatic. Still, you can't tell me that Tubular Bells was just a lark, a pop tune writ large. Oldfield himself once noted that the sound of bells is ambiguous, denoting not only happy events, but somber ones such as death. Whatever Oldfield's spiritual foundation, Tubular Bells has to be somewhere near its very center.
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Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill