Why does 'Tubular Bells' continue to tour even though Mike Oldfield has retired?

Tom Peeters

The Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells concert comes in the wake of the 50th anniversary edition of Tubular Bells and its composer retiring. For those in the know: without Mike Oldfield.

At the time, Mike Oldfield played almost all the instruments of the symphonic classic himself, including the tubular bells. But for the current tour, Robin Smith is taking the lead. He conducts a live band in which he himself plays keyboards, but he was not around in 1973. He did later collaborate on Tubular Bells II and Tubular Bells III though. As one of Oldfield’s most loyal lieutenants, he was also involved in the performance at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was there that he first spoke to the composer about a new live version with adapted arrangements. That show premièred at London’s Royal Festival Hall in August 2021, and despite initial criticism – the publicity campaign in the UK did not mention that Oldfield would not be there – it is now crossing the Channel too.

But why watch and listen when the master is enjoying retirement at home? There is not just artistic pioneering, there is the status of an icon too. In May 1973, Tubular Bells was Richard Branson’s first release on his brand-new label Virgin Records. With 16 million copies sold, it turned into a retirement plan for both men. That did not stop them from continuing to score. Oldfield, now 70, was 20 when the album was released and would go on to top more charts. Branson, then 22, had yet to start building planes and spaceships. He would later name both a Boeing and an Airbus “Tubular Belle”, as the ultimate tribute to Oldfield’s composition, of which we all know at least the opening section. From the soundtrack of the horror film The Exorcist, or perhaps from the Dutch children’s series Bassie & Adriaan. It is hard to think of a wider span.

Not only ingenuity but also luck and gut feeling were involved in the launch. Branson took a commercial risk by releasing Oldfield’s instrumental, which he initially wanted to call “Breakfast in Bed”, in a music market dominated by three-minute singles. But he sensed that more and more music lovers were beginning to fall for blends between classical and pop. Dreaming away (and smoking cannabis) to repetitive, symphonic sounds was trendy.

BBC DJ John Peel immediately came on board, he played the entire composition in his radio show. That same year, The Exorcist, which used the blood-curdling opening theme as its leitmotif without even asking, became a blockbuster. Grammy wins and eternal fame followed. “The wonderful thing about Tubular Bells is that it never seems to age,” says Smith. “It takes you on a journey through progressive rock and electronica, blues, folk, jazz, and classical and along the way evokes such melodic beauty and drama.” The concert also offers fans updates and the eighties hits “To France” and “Moonlight Shadow”, but it is the original, saved for the end, that continues to charm.

“Listening again to the musical outpourings of an angst-ridden teenager, it is hard to believe that was actually me, 50 years ago,” Oldfield said at the anniversary.“The music doesn’t sound that angst-ridden, but only I know the years of work and stress that produced Tubular Bells. This was all live, first take performances with no second chances or studio trickery as we have become so used to today. Little did I think when I was making Tubular Bells that anyone would ever hear it.”

Mike Oldfield’s tubular bells will resound at the Koninklijk Circus/Cirque Royal on 16 February,

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