Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
Sometimes on this journey I listen to an album and have to ask myself how it is that a consensus was reached that placed it among the top recordings of a given year. The most obvious example to date is everything recorded by Jethro Tull. We can now add “Tubular Bells” to that list.
Now, that does not mean this isn’t a worthy album. (Unlike, for example, Jethro Tull’s records.) But here is a partial list of 1973 records that I won’t be writing about (at this time, anyway) because, at least in part, “Tubular Bells” grabbed a slot in the top 20:
- Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy
- Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle AND Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.
- Sly and the Family Stone – Fresh
- ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (what a great record this is – so much better than the stuff that came later when they were making hit singles)
- Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
- Tom Waits – Closing Time (which made me regret not starting to listen to him much, much sooner)
- Paul Simon – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
- Donny Hathaway – Extension of a Man
- Jackson Browne – For Everyman
- The Rolling Stones – Goats Head Soup
So, yeah, it was a pretty good year.
I don’t listen to a lot of instrumental recordings: if a rock band puts more than one such track on an album, I’m enormously disappointed by the waste of good real estate. Contradicting this, I greatly prefer instrumental jazz to its vocal counterpart. I’m a complicated guy.
Part of the reason for this is that you can’t sing along with an instrumental track. (My wife says I actually do this all the time, but I don’t think such gibberish really counts.) My voice is no great treat, but I am a good imitator, so, vocal limitations aside, my “Nights on Broadway” sounds like a Bee Gees song, my “Alison” sounds like an Elvis Costello song, and so on. I don’t need to put my own stamp on a song when I sing along – I am slavish in trying to replicate what the masters already did. I’m a parrot, not a songbird.
A big part of the problem is that I lack the musical vocabulary to articulate what I think about a record like this. (Are there other records like this? God, I hope not.) I can usually put pop music into context, connect it to other things in the culture, call back to how it felt when a song came on over the radio as my friends and I drove around a quiet city at 3:00 a.m. (I’m looking at you, “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys.) But when a record consists of two long tracks almost 25 minutes in duration each and NO SINGING, I am lost – it is that foreign to the music I love. So, I can listen to something like “Tubular Bells”, (sort of) appreciate it, and still be left with nothing to say about it other than to comment on my inability to say anything about it. (If this gets any more meta, it will be a Charlie Kaufman film.)
In the end, it was kind of fun to listen to, for no reason other than I never listen to stuff like this. It’s definitely an interesting record, with seemingly countless instruments used (the honky tonk piano with a humming choir around the 14-minute mark of side one is my favourite section), and there are echoes of so many styles and artists. That opening bit is definitely creepy, and this is from someone who has never seen – nor desired to see – “The Exorcist“. I suspect it’s a record that would reward repeated listens. I also suspect that I don’t care enough to bother – there’s already too much great music that I love that needs to be replayed, and an even bigger volume waiting to be discovered.