Album which simultaneously launched Virgin Records, the career of Mike Oldfield, and the commercial success of New Age music. Released in 1973, Tubular Bells received the Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition in 1974 and spent months at number one on the UK charts. In the States, the album was launched into the Top Ten due to its haunting effect in the motion picture The Exorcist.

Tubular Bells is essentially one 49-minute conceptual piece, fusing many different genres into a breathtaking and accessible whole. Oldfield's main talent here, in addition to playing almost 30 different instruments himself and mixing the tracks together seamlessly, was combining the exciting experimental aspects of bands such as Can, the Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, and early Kraftwerk with excellent songwriting and a tightly focused conceptual vision. From jazz to classical to rock, Oldfield utilizes all his musical knowledge to achieve a distinctive sound which even he has not been able to truly, successfully reproduce (although there certainly have been enough attempts).

Though certainly a triumphant work, the piece is not without flaws. The second side is slightly overshadowed by the magnificent first side... and what's the deal with the Piltdown Man? In addition, Vivian Stanshall's persistent announcements of the instruments Oldfield's playing at the end of the first side are quite obtrusive, especially at first listen, although it it may have been necessary in order to lead up to the glorious final exclamation of "Tubular Bells!"

In order to buy this album, I had to wander into the deserted "New Age/Country/Jazz" section of a local Tower Records. They keep a glass partition between this section and the well-selling rock/pop stuff... I guess it's to prevent contamination by the so-called "lame" music. Although I received glares of disgust from people twice my age with Kid Rock CDs in their hands, I assure you rock fans that there is no shame in owning this record. More than 16 million people worldwide already own it, and the overall sound of the record is actually "harder" than much of what is considered out-and-out rock and roll, complete with electric guitars, rock drumming, and some pretty sweet chords. In any case, you can see by the softlinks that this album is held in high regard."

List of Instruments from the liner notes

Mike Oldfield plays:

Grand Piano
Farfisa Organ
Bass Guitar
Electric Guitar
Speed Guitar
Taped motor drive amplifier organ chord
Mandolin-like guitar
Fuzz Guitars
Assorted Percussion
Acoustic Guitar
Honky Tonk
Lowrey Organ
Tubular Bells
Master of Ceremonies: Viv Stanshall
Flutes: John Field
String Basses: Lindsay Cooper
Nasal Chorus: Nasal Choir
Girlie Chorus: Mundy Ellis, Sally Oldfield

Mike Oldfield plays:

Electric Guitars
Farfisa Organ
Bass Guitar
Acoustic Guitar
Speed Elec. Guitars
Lowrey Organ
Concert Tympani
Guitars sounding like Bagpipes
Piltdown Man
Hammond Organ
Spanish Guitar
Moribund Chorus
Girlie Chorus: Sally Oldfield, Mundy Ellis
Bootleg Chorus: Manor Choir conducted by Mike Oldfield
Drums: Steve Broughton

"Tubular Bells" was the first album released by a man called Mike Oldfield. It is a fifty minute piece of music divided up into two parts. The tubular bells referred to in the title appeared at the end of the first part. Most of the rest of the piece is made up of synthesizers, organs, pianos and about twenty different types of guitar. I particularly enjoy the finale to Part 1, where Viv Stanshall introduces all of the instruments used.

That was 1973. After about twenty years, Oldfield released Tubular Bells 2. This sold as many copies as the original, and then some. But the funny thing about it is: it's virtually the same tune, tweaked and modernised just enough to make it sound different. Tubular Bells 2 was also divided into two parts, each with seven tracks with titles such as Red Dawn, Maya Gold and The Great Plain. It includes the voice of Alan Rickman.

Tubular Bells 3 is completely different. Made just six years after Tubular Bells 2, Tubular Bells 3 is also split into two parts. To me, it seems to tell a story, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Tubular Bells 3 has the elements that 1 and 2 had, but mixed up. For example, a section is repeated later rather than earlier in the piece, and the tubular bells are struck at the end of the disc rather than the middle.

Tubular Bells 2003 was released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Tubular Bells. It is the exact same piece, but modernized and including the voice of John Cleese instead of Viv Stanshall. Great stuff, but it really can't compare with the original in some respects.

The only other Tubular Bells to be released before 2005 is The Orchestral Tubular Bells. It was interesting to hear how certain sections were performed, like the bit with the caveman and the voice at the end of Part 1. It is a very quiet CD in comparison to the others. Good for orchestra lovers.

In 1999, Mike Oldfield released a similar CD to Tubular Bells called The Millennium Bell. It is in a single part and according to the jacket notes, it is a trip through the past 2000 years. Near the end a single tubular bell sound is heard, probably to signify the end of the first two millenia A.D. It is a great piece of music for New Years' parties.

Oldfield has released other CDs, my favourites being Five Miles Out and Tres Lunas. My suggestion is: listen to all the Oldfield CDs you get in chronological order - a full list found on - that way, you get a feel for how much times have changed.

Tubular bells are a musical intrument in the percussion section of the orchestra. The bells are a set of brass tubes of various lengths that are hung vertically from a metal or wooden frame. They are also known as orchestral bells or orchestral chimes, The bells are tuned to the chromatic scale, beginning with C above middle C and have a range of one and a half octaves. The percussionist plays the bells by striking them directly near the top with one or two leather or wooden hammers. There is also a damper bar that is operated either manually or by a foot petal to stop the ringing.

Tubular bells were originally introduced as a cheaper alternative to cast bronze bells, and large tubular bells were first used in church bell towers. Later, smaller tubes were made to be played from an organ manual or by a percussionist. As an orchestral instrument, tubular bells provide the percussionist with greater rhythmic control than do other bells. They also produce a clearer tone because the higher harmonic overtones are reduced. The frequency ratios of the three lowest vibration modes of a tubular bell (chime) are 2:3:4, but the other overtones are more complex, giving the bells their characteristically rich sound.



A favorite of mine to teach the idea of "Theme and variations". Often, people have a hard time with this concept, since the theme and the variations often don't sound anything like each other after, say, the fourth or fifth iteration. With this piece, I keep people guessing which piece of music is the theme, like an extended musical riddle, because the theme comes last. Every so often I'll drop a hint.
"It's a British Folk Song."
"You know it already, it's not classical."
"It sounds like someone walking in the snow, here, but it's a dance."
"No, it's not rock."

My favorite response came from an old Navy man after The Reveal: "I really should have known that!"

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