MOJO Time Machine: Tubular Bells Launches Virgin Records

On 25 May, 1973 Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bell’s becomes Virgin Records’ first release


by Fred Dellar |

25 May, 1973

“We are about to launch our own independent label,” wrote Richard Branson, informing the vinyl outlets of Britain of the birth of Virgin Records. “If by chance, you’re having difficulties… get in touch with us direct, by phone or letter, and tell us your problems.”

Branson had his own problems to stay on top of. As well as Virgin Mail Order and record shops, he was running The Manor residential studio outside Oxford. In late ’71, obsessive, introverted musical talent Oldfield entered the picture. Born in 1953 in Reading, Oldfield had a troubled background, and talked of remembering the trauma of his own birth. Having joined Kevin Ayers’ Whole Wide World on bass at 16, he was playing with Jamaican singer Arthur Louis when he played a demo to Manor engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. Branson and his second cousin Simon Draper, Virgin’s A&R and marketing director, were duly advised to lend an ear.

“I said screw it, let’s start a record company and put it out ourselves.” 

richard Branson

“It was a beautiful haunting tape,” said Branson, who would pitch it to six labels over the next 12 months. “(Eventually) I said screw it, let’s start a record company and put it out ourselves.”

Oldfield had multitracked the demo at home in Tottenham on a modified Bang & Olufsen tape deck borrowed from Ayers, employing organ, guitar, bass and, for its drone-like noise, a vacuum cleaner. A classical and rock fan whose mind was blown by seeing Keith Tippett’s prog big band Centipede, Oldfield told the BBC, “Tubular Bells, it was the result of my whole life up until the age of 18, 19.”

Viv Stanshall Was Drunk Wearing A Cowboy Hat...

Branson offered him studio time, finance, management services and a contract. Beginning work in November ‘72, Oldfield began bringing his demo to fully-realised life, playing nearly everything himself and putting his Telecaster through the home-made plywood effects box he called the ‘Glorfindel.’ The tubular bells, he explained, were being removed from the studio when he decided to use them. Also passing was Vivian Stanshall, there to record the Bonzos’ farewell Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly. Declared ‘Master of Ceremonies,’ he would list each instrument used for the finale of the opening 25-minute track. “Viv was standing next to me wearing a cowboy hat, reeling about because he was so drunk,” Oldfield recalled to Q. “I had to write down the words and point at the appropriate word just before he was to say it.”

Oldfield returned in February ’74 to complete side two. The shifting nature of the album’s two side-long tracks required much overdubbing and tape splicing – estimated by Newman at 70 to 80, rather than the thousands reported in the press. Branson wanted to call it Breakfast In Bed: appalled, Oldfield suggested Tubular Bells, after Stanshall’s cheery enunciation of the same. Another crucial element was the cover art’s twisted, chromium-plated bell, designed and photographed in hyperreal style by Trevor Key. Response to the unusual and mesmeric album was rapturous: Observer/ Spectator critic Tony Palmer wrote that it owed much to “Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Michel Legrand, and The Last Night Of The Proms,” while John Peel played all of side one on his May 29 show.

Virgin released other LPs the same day: Flying Teapot by Australian-French cosmic-proggers Gong, the star-packed Manor Jam by Steve York’s Camelo Pardalis and Faust’s schizoid, Dadaesque The Faust Tapes. All sold for a reasonable £2.19, apart from the Faust LP, which cost a mere 48p (Draper later admitted Virgin lost 2p on every copy sold). The biggest response was for Tubular Bells, which was performed live at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on June 25, with a stage-wary Oldfield joined by Stanshall, Steve Hillage, Mick Taylor and members of Henry Cow.

After entering the top 40 albums charts in July 1973, Tubular Bells reached number one in October ‘74, eventually clocking up more than five years in the top 75. In December 1973, Tubular Bells Part One was used as the theme to satanic mega-hit The Exorcist: in March ’74 the album hit US number three, while an edit of song helpfully highlighted as ‘The Original Theme To ‘The Exorcist’ reached number 7. Yet Oldfield refused to tour or be interviewed, and retired to rural Hertfordshire to plan 1974’s Hergest Ridge.

Virgin Records would go onto huge success, with signings including Tangerine Dream, the Sex Pistols, Janet Jackson and Peter Gabriel before Branson sold up in 1992. There would, however, be financial issues between the men who established it, and Oldfield admits that 48 minutes into his 1990 LP Amarok a morse code sequence spells out ‘Fuck Off RB’. But their friendship, like Tubular Bells, endures. Over the years, Oldfield’s made three sequels, re-recorded it, remixed it with dance beats and played it at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. “People ask, ‘why did you write Tubular Bells?’” he mused in 2014. ‘And I don’t know why - I didn’t do it for a reason.”

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