Born: May 15, 1953 in Reading, Berkshire, England
Styles: Prog-Rock/Art Rock, Progressive Electronic
Instruments: Keyboards, Percussion, Guitar, Bass
Composer Mike Oldfield rose to fame on the success of Tubular Bells, an eerie, album-length conceptual piece employed to stunning effect in the film The Exorcist. Born May 15, 1953 in Reading, England, Oldfield began his professional career at the age of 14, forming a folk duo with his sister Sally; a year later, the siblings issued their debut LP, Sallyangie. By the age of 16, he was playing bass with Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers' group the Whole World alongside experimental classical arranger David Bedford and avant-jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill; within months, Oldfield was tapped to become the band's lead guitarist prior to recording the 1971 LP Shooting at the Moon.
Tubular Bells, originally dubbed Opus 1, grew out of studio time gifted by Richard Branson, who at the time was running a mail-order record retail service. After its completion, Oldfield shopped the record to a series of labels, only to meet with rejection; frustrated, Branson decided to found his own label, and in 1973 Tubular Bells became the inaugural release of Virgin Records. An atmospheric, intricate composition which fused rock and folk motifs with the structures of minimalist composition, the 49-minute instumental piece (performed on close to 30 different instruments, virtually all of them played by Oldfield himself) spent months in the Number One spot on the U.K. charts, and eventually sold over 16 million copies globally. In addition to almost singlehandedly establishing Virgin as one of the most important labels in the record industry, Tubular Bells also created a market for what would later be dubbed New Age music, and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition in 1974.
The follow-up, 1974's Hergest Ridge (named after Oldfield's retreat in a remote area of Herefordshire) also proved phenomenally successful, and dislodged Tubular Bells at the top of the British chart. With 1975's Ommadawn, he explored ambient textures and world music; however, the emergence of punk left Oldfield baffled, and he retreated from sight for three years following the LP's release. He resurfaced with 1978's Incantations, which featured the single "Guilty," a nod to the disco movement; Platinum, issued a year later, kept its eye on the clubs, and featured a dance version of the Philip Glass composition "North Star." With 1980's QE 2, Oldfield moved completely away from his epic-length pieces and travelled into pop territory, a shift typified by the album's cover of ABBA's "Arrival." He continued in a pop vein for much of the 1980s, as albums like 1983's Crises, 1984's Discovery and 1987's Islands encroached further and further upon mainstream accessibility. In 1992, Oldfield teamed with producer Trevor Horn for Tubular Bells II, which returned him to the top of the U.K. charts. The Sound of Distant Earth appeared two years later, followed by a third Tubular Bells update in 1998.
- Jason Ankeny (All Music Guide)