Mike Oldfield - Musician Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mike Oldfield - Musician

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Mike Oldfield was born in Reading on 15 May, 1953, where he also went to school and where he played in local folk clubs as a teenager. Mike was 15 when he and sister Sally started the folk duo The Sallyangie - releasing two singles and an album Children of the Sun. Almost immediately after, Mike formed the folk group Barefeet with his brother Terry. It was during this time that the first embryonic ideas for 'Tubular Bells' started to come together - a piece which later became the 'Piltdown Man' section.

In 1969, Mike joined Kevin Ayers and The Whole World as guitarist. The band also featured David Bedford, who Mike was often to work with in the following years. The Whole World split in 1971. Mike was thinking about Tubular Bells in 1970, whilst still with The Whole World and a rough demo was ready by 1972, after many antisocial hours at the Abbey Road studios. Mike was so pleased with the result that he sent copies to all the major record companies, all of which rejected it as un-commercial - until he came upon Richard Branson, who ran a chain of budget price record stores. Richard was impressed, but didn't have the resources to fund its release. A year later, he decided to launch the record label and rang Mike, expecting him to have sold Tubular Bells to another record company. Instead, Mike was second reserve guitarist in the musical Hair and thoroughly depressed. Richard immediately drew up a contract with Mike. It was Tom Newman who suggested to Richard that they build a recording studio, for which they borrowed £25,000 and bought The Manor near Oxford. The studio was built in a converted squash court. Mike moved into the Manor for the next year, learning how to engineer and produce, whilst making Tubular Bells.

The first official release of Virgin Records, V2001: Tubular Bells appeared in June, 1973. The album was then performed live at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a multitude of famous musicians on 28 June. Although no category could be found for this new type of music, the critics and public were hugely enthusiastic. Sales proved this - over 16 million copies sold worldwide to date, making Tubular Bells Virgin's most successful album. Tubular Bells was a front runner in the UK charts for several months, toppled only in 1974 by its successor, Hergest Ridge, which proved that Mike Oldfield was no mere flash in the pan. A more serene piece of music, with gently shifting moods, Hergest Ridge also suggested, affinity with the composers of the contemporary avant garde, such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Ommadawn1, unleashed in 1975, showed Mike combining the best elements of both its predecessors to create an album hailed as a masterpiece. Although this time Mike allowed other musicians to assist in the composition and arrangement. After the release of Ommadawn, Mike retired to his home to evade the constant pressures of the hard sell music business. 1978 saw a dramatic change in Mike's public persona. He surprised the music press by changing his image and starting to talk with the media. The change was due to Mike's participation in the radical and controversial 'Exegesis' or EST2 programme. As a result of the EST, Mike organised his first tour in 1979, along with an entourage of almost 100! Despite all the concerts selling out, the tour ended with heavy debt.

The 1980s

Platinum, which presented a new concept for Oldfield with one long piece on side one and four songs on the B-side, put the debt behind him. What also stands out is Mike's covers of Philip Glass' 'North Star' and Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm', featuring Wendy Roberts. A tour naturally followed - this time with only an 11-piece band! In the following year, QE2 was released, which again broke new ground for Oldfield - no long instrumental piece filling a whole side. The longest piece 'Taurus 1' was a mere ten minutes. Once again, two cover versions are apparent - Abba's 'Arrival' and The Shadows' 'Wonderful Land'. A few months later, in March 1981, Mike set off on another European tour, with a further reduced offering of five musicians.

Five Miles Out came out in spring. This work again included longer pieces 'Taurus 2' filling side one and 'Orabidoo', a thirteen minute track, taking half of the second side. To complement these longer pieces were the three tracks 'Five Miles Out', 'Mount Teide' and 'Family Man'. The album was inspired by a near tragic flight on his preceding tour, where a small aircraft piloted by Mike hit a terrible storm. Many fans claim this is the best production in the period following Incantations.

Crises was a more commercial work, although the short instrumental 'Taurus 3' earns Mike his due, whilst 'Moonlight Shadow' and 'Shadow on the Wall' were hit singles all over the world. The following tour, featuring just over ten European destinations, culminated in the widely acclaimed Tenth Anniversary concert at Wembley Arena in the UK.

Mike then moved to Villars in the Swiss Alps to record Discovery. The result was seven songs, which hardly made the most of his talent, although the instrumental 'The Lake' hinted that Mike was still capable of greater things. At the same time as working on Discovery, Mike was completing the film score for David Puttnam's The Killing Fields, which appeared in December, 1984. The musical style, helped by old friend David Bedford, bordered on the avant garde, mysterious yet thrilling.

Only two singles appeared in the following two years - 'Pictures in the Dark/Legends and Shine' and 'The Path', both with the same format - side one, a vocal track aimed at the charts and an instrumental track on the back to prove 'I can still do it!'. During this time, Mike was perfecting his technique in a £2 million video lab, which he had installed in order to control his own video productions. The highlight of this experiment came in 1987 with the release of Islands. This came out in September, 1987 and introduced a new singer, the Norwegian Anita Hegerland. 'The Wind Chimes' featured the excellent video, lasting its entire length - probably the world's first video for a long instrumental track. Mike made use of four co-producers on Islands - Simon Philips, Alan Shacklock, Michael Cretu and Geoffrey Downes - as well as five singers - Kevin Ayers, Anita Hegerland, Bonnie Tyler, Jim Price and Max Bacon.

A two-year break followed before the 1989 album Earth Moving, which heralded new ground in that there was no instrumental track. Mike used six vocalists on ten songs to produce a commercial album of chart songs with the motto 'back to roots'.

The 1990s

Amarok was released in 1990, an album conceived as Ommadawn 2, again, like the original, featuring Paddy Maloney on Ueillean pipes and Tom Newman as co-producer. The title of the album, another nonsense word like 'Ommadawn', has its roots from the Gaelic words for 'morning' and 'happy'. The album is a complete return to an instrumental album, the piece on CD being a continuous 60-minute opus. Mike continued his reputation as the world's top multi-instrumentalist by playing in the region of 60 instruments including more obscure instruments from the sphere of everyday life, such as shoes, Hoover, spoon, fingernails and a toy dog! Sales were poor, with the music media and critics undecided between top and flop. The hard core of Oldfield fans did, however, sing out unanimously that Amarok was incredible!

Heaven's Open, the last album required to complete his Virgin contract, found its way into record stores in 1991. Conflict between Virgin boss Richard Branson and Mike had grown in recent years (although Richard reputedly let Mike win at squash for the sake of restoring peace!). Mike's anger with Virgin was apparent on the track 'Make Make', where Mike criticised Virgin's commercialism. Mike rarely sang, believing that he couldn't, but took six months of singing lessons in 1990 with Helena Shenel (who had also taught George Michael, Peter Gabriel and Paul Young), refining a voice which really does prove itself worthy of praise on Heaven's Open.

An announcement was made at about that time that a successor to Tubular Bells would follow in 1992, recorded and produced with Tom Newman as co-producer. This successor, Tubular Bells II was recorded during a six-month stay in Los Angeles, where Mike had temporarily set up home. Mike changed his label to WEA and changed his manager at the same time, from Richard Branson to Clive Banks, who was then manager to Simple Minds and ex-Managing Director of Island Records. The album was premiered at Edinburgh Castle on 4 September, 1992. The combination of the marvelous backdrop, the excitement at seeing Mike live for the first time in eight years, the brilliance of Tubular Bells II and the rousing finale featuring a huge fireworks display make this concert one of the most memorable of Mike's career. Tubular Bells II was a great commercial success for Mike and WEA, and has now sold well over two million copies around the World.

Two years later, Mike's The Songs of Distant Earth broke the mould for a musical release - it was the first commercial album to feature computer CD-ROM material on it. The files, which can be viewed on a Mac, feature a short interactive journey and a game to amuse the viewer. The album was loosely based on the book of the same name by Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer. Arthur was so impressed by Mike's interpretation that he wrote sleeve notes for the CD. The sales of the album were disappointing considering its appeal to a wide audience. The video for 'Let There Be Light' was most impressive, and the producers of the video went on to win an award for the ground-breaking technique used to create it.

In 1996, Mike's Voyager was released at a time when Mike was setting up a new home in Ibiza, building himself a fantastic new home in a plateau carved from a cliff face. Voyager is a collection of ten instrumental songs, three written by Mike himself, all with Celtic roots. The seven cover versions are Scottish, Irish and Spanish folk songs reworked into Mike's unmistakable style.

Mike celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Tubular Bells by releasing Tubular Bells III. The album reflects his two year stay in a home he built in the side of a cliff in Ibiza. The highs and lows of island life are what inspired the album to include dance, flamenco, heavy rock and pop music, all in the space of 45 minutes! Premiered live six years to the day after its predecessor, but this time at Horse Guard's Parade, London, this was the first concert ever held at this prestigious venue.

Guitars is an album purely of guitar music, without any computers which was released in 1999 . Mike took his new composition on worldwide tour. The Millennium Bell is a celebration of the last 2000 years of music, and was released on 29 November. A huge scale light show accompanied the premiere concert of the album in Berlin on New Year's Eve 1999.

Current Project

Mike then hopes to continue working on a second audio visual CD-ROM project, far grander in scale than The Songs of Distant Earth. This project is planned to feature a world with 12 interactive levels. This won't detract from the music - still Mike's main motivation. When asked where in the World Mike feels most at home, he answered 'in the studio, and that can be anywhere'. So Mike looks set to continue his musical mastery for many years to come.


  • Tubular Bells - 1973
  • Hergest Ridge - 1974
  • The Orchestral Tubular Bells - 1975
  • Ommadawn - 1975
  • Boxed - 1976
  • 1978 Incantations - 1978
  • Exposed - 1979
  • Platinum - 1979
  • QE2 - 1980
  • Five Miles Out - 1982
  • Crises - 1983
  • Discovery - 1984
  • The Killing Fields - 1984
  • The Complete Mike Oldfield - 1985
  • Islands - 1987
  • Earth Moving - 1989
  • Amarok - 1990
  • Tubular Bells II - 1992
  • Elements - The Best of Mike Oldfield - 1993
  • Songs of Distant Earth - 1994
  • Voyager - 1996
  • Tubular Bells III - 1998
  • Guitars - 1999
  • The Millennium Bell - 1999/2000
1A nonsense word, although similar to the Gaelic for 'idiot'.2A project with a number of different artists from around the world holding concerts in protest of child labour.

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