Mike Oldfield & me

I hope I meet Mike Oldfield one day. His music was the background sound to most of my writing in the late 80s and early 90s. It would be only polite to say thank you. But as there’s little sign of him dropping in any day now, reading his autobiography Changeling seemed like the next best thing.

General legend has it that at the age of 19 Mike Oldfield sold the idea of Tubular Bells to Richard Branson’s new music company Virgin, and it went on to make a fortune for all concerned. No Tubular Bells, no Virgin Music, no Virgin Atlantic, no Virgin Galactic. Interesting thought. And that’s mostly true, but even so it’s not as if Oldfield just whipped it out of nowhere. He had been playing in clubs and bars since about the age of 12, getting more and more session playing experience under his belt, and Tubular Bells had been bubbling inside him for years. (Curiously, the bells themselves were a last minute addition when he finally came to make the album – they were still in the studio from the previous recording session and he thought he could probably use them.) He was able to record it almost from memory, with self-taught mixing and editing skills and with tapes he’d recorded even earlier in his teens.

And then he had to do a follow-up, a process he likens at one point to getting toothpaste out of a tube. He’d had his say! He’d recorded his music! What else was he going to do?

The problems of my life have very little overlap with young Oldfield’s, who for one reason and another was a functioning alcoholic even before Tubular Bells, and did a tad too much LSD and needed some severely aggressive therapy in his mid-twenties to sort himself out. (The screams and howls in TB’s “Piltdown Man” bit aren’t faked.) But I’m eye to eye with him here. Y’see, it’s dawning on me that my first three novels – not including The Xenocide Mission, because that was an unexpected sequel – were the three novels I really had inside me, struggling to get out. Simplistically, they were the Space Opera One, the Time Travel One and the Alternate History One. Then I had to write something else. Um.

Anyone who has been foolish enough to ask how my writing has been going recently will know that I’ve been rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … if Hergest Ridge was toothpaste out of a tube for Oldfield, this is like pulling teeth for me. With a pair of tweezers. The first draft itself took some wrenching, but I got a story out and I like it. My publisher didn’t, and to be fair I can see what he means. But it’s the story! What do you mean, rewrite it?

As the world knows, Oldfield managed. Historical forces were against him – it wasn’t his fault that Tubular Bells came out just as punk was coming in. After the rapturous reception of his debut work, he just couldn’t understand why all his subsequent stuff was getting panned, even if it did keep selling. Finally he was able to keep going by redefining his entire approach and outlook, employing other musicians, riffing off their ideas and targeting his music at the market, at the same time as keeping it deliberately Oldfieldian. The first fruits of this new approach were his albums Platinum and then my favourite, QE2. He was back on track.

I enjoyed reading the book, even with its occasionally slightly clunky style which persuades me he really did write it himself rather than filter it through a ghost writer. Favourite anecdote: Oldfield’s sister Sally, six years older than him, was best friends at university with a girl called Marianne Faithfull … What with one thing leading to another, young Michael aged 13 or 14 found himself playing guitar in a recording studio with his big sister and her friend and her friend’s famous boyfriend in the producer’s box. Thus, shortly after, he was able to tell a teacher at his school who was predicting a life of miserable unemployment unless he got a haircut and some decent O-levels under his belt: “I’ve just been in a recording studio with Mick Jagger and I’m going to be a musician.”

Nice one.

Richard Branson emerges mostly with credit. He wasn’t the one who spotted the potential of Tubular Bells but he was the one who drove the money-making process. Oldfield gradually came to understand that his motive remained (understandably) making a healthy profit for Virgin, which is how within a few years Virgin had moved from being the company that debuted with Tubular Bells to the company signing up all the nascent punk bands. Oldfield understands but is still a little nonplussed. Tubular Bells’ money-making potential for Virgin was helped considerably by the contract Branson foisted on its young, naive composer, giving him the lowest royalty rate possible, binding him to another 9 albums with Virgin and giving Virgin the rights to Tubular Bells for the next 35 years. Oldfield finally got it back in 2008.

There’s a parallel universe where Moonlight Shadow still has the lyrics Hazel O’Connor wrote for it, rather than the ones Oldfield dragged out of himself with the help of a rhyming dictionary, a bottle of wine and an all-night writing session. It would make interesting listening. The success of that song gave Richard Branson ammunition to encourage Oldfield to write more and more songs, and less and less instrumental stuff: the logical conclusion was his album Earth Moving, which is all songs, and barring a couple of tracks really is the most forgettable item in his output. Oldfield hit back with the mighty Amarok – nothing that could remotely be made into a single, every instrument under the sun, Zulu choir and Maggie Thatcher (impersonated, in the last couple of minutes) all thrown together into a glorious hour-long mix. And when he finally broke free from Virgin, the result was Tubular Bells II which was and is a work of genius.

He didn’t always enjoy the process of re-identifying himself as a musician, with its loss of control and whiff of compromise, but it’s what makes him a pro rather than a talented amateur. And face it, when even the work you don’t particularly enjoy leads you to live outside the UK for a year for tax reasons, there are compensations.

I’m sure I can learn from this with my own approach to writing. Now I just need to work out how … I probably won’t get the tax problem and I doubt my wealth will be indirectly funding innovative ventures into space. But you take what you can get.

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