Deathless proto-ambient dinosaur that punk could not kill returns for 21st-century remake
Millions of right-thinking people despise Mike Oldfield’s epochal debut, often without even hearing it. Looming over the ’70s like a prog-folk-hippie-guitar colossus, Tubular Bells may have presented punks with a Saddam-sized target for their disdain, but it also outsold every instrumental rock album in history, helped pioneer the beat-free ambient genre and established Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. A grimly impressive pop culture landmark, all told.
Re-recorded and remastered for this 30th birthday remake, Oldfield’s cinematic suite of multi-tracked guitars and ambitious instrumentation now radiates a perky, fulsome studio glow. John Cleese replaces the late Viv Stanshall for the headmasterly roll call of “Finale”, but otherwise every cod-Celtic chord cluster and virtuosic glissando has been replicated in digi-pristine surround sound. And despite moments which conjure up the traumatic image of a million Jeremy Clarksons hammering out wankblaster air guitar solos, the truth is many of these 17 tracks are highly listenable uber-muzak in a timeless, gently progressive vein.
Of course, the qualities which aroused animosity first time around have not been erased by technology?indeed, its smug air of technique over passion has merely been amplified, alongside its brittle veneer of Olde English whimsy and cold methodical journey through some kind of “Teach Yourself Guitar” catalogue: “Blues”, “Thrash”, “Latin”, “Jazz” etc.
But the passing years and whims of fashion have contextualised Oldfield’s opus more kindly. The spectral trance-scape of “Introduction”, (later featured in The Exorcist) almost sounds like mid-period New Order now. The flamenco flurries and pastoral asides stake a claim as ear-kissing ancestors of Balearic chill-out, while the starbursts of lustrous, Italianate mandolin are sublime, for all their Cornetto-advert corniness.
Face it, punk rock lost the argument. After a nuclear war, only cockroaches and Tubular Bells will survive. Resistance is useless.