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.

Total Eclipse of Art

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. It combined traditional Jim Steinman anthemic passion with the best of eighties excess, and managed to be sad and moving at the same time.
Then it became a staple of the end-of-year SFSoc weekend at university, with a mash-up video of classic Dr Who scenes (tragically still not available on YouTube, as far as I can tell), so it also became associated with the bitter-sweet end of term feeling that you were saying goodbye to your friends, even if you were going to see them again in September.
And now I like it even more. Cue the Literal Video Version.

My life measured against the Commitments

I first saw The Commitments when it came out in 1991, and I enjoyed it. At the time I lived in Basingstoke, but someone has to and we shall speak no more of that.

I next saw it last night and enjoyed it even more. What’s changed in my life, apart from an extra 18 years maturity? Well, somewhere along the line I’ve picked up a nodding acquaintance with a lot more music. I’m not sure how, from someone who still listens to Classic FM more than any other radio station (with Radio 4 a close second), but it’s happened. Part of it certainly comes down to former colleagues and associates forming The Limitations in the 1990s. That was eye and ear opening, and I owe them the thrill of recognition that I finally got at the intros to all the old soul classics.

The rest of it is just being alive, I suppose, and keeping an ear to the ground, and developing as Me. When I moved here I knew that if I could possibly afford it, I wanted to live on my own because I had never quite managed that before. I wanted to find out what I was like, without outside interference, and develop any areas that needed developing. It meant going short on stuff for a few years but it was worth it. I just hadn’t realised how worth it it was.

On to the film and, okay, the plot of The Commitments could be written on the back of an envelope: band starts up, personal differences emerge, band collapses on the brink of greatness. But (as I endlessly explain to our resident Media student, but he insists on ignoring my wisdom), it’s not what it’s about that matters in a film but how it’s about it. One of the joys of The Commitments is its sheer Irishness.

I’m sure I didn’t recognise Procul Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale back in 1991, so I completely missed the joke of it being belted out on a church organ during practice by the band’s keyboard player, together with the in-depth discussions (and the movie’s punchline) as to what the lyrics actually mean. And I certainly didn’t get the irony of playing 24 hours from Tulsa at a wedding reception. (“I hate to do this to you / But I love somebody new …”)

The keyboard player mentions in the confessional that where he used to sing hymns to himself, now he just hums “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Marvin Gaye. The priest’s voice corrects him through the grill: “Percy Sledge”. Our heroes play their first gig as part of the vicar’s anti-drugs campaign, under a banner saying “Heroine kills” (sic) with the second e mostly blanked out. At another gig an accidental collision of mike stand and bass guitar makes the bass player the earth for the entire electrical system.

The band plays soul because “the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin”. And they are good. The cast were chosen for their musical ability before their acting (though neither is bad). And after two hours we get their last and best gig, where you just want to get up there and dance with them as they pound out “Try a little tenderness” and “Take me to the river” and “In the midnight hour”. As the last note plays they are glowing. They know they work as a band. They have achieved something marvellous. Then they go off stage and effortlessly self-destruct.

There is no deep message to the film, but there is poetry, as is pointed out by one of the most engaging characters, Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who may or may not have played with Wilson Pickett and Little Richard and Elvis and all the greats, but who effortlessly works his way through the backing singers. Sure, they could have got famous and made lots of money … but where would be the artistry in that?

At one point the manager, Jimmy, is waiting for the lift in a tower block and finds himself standing next to a boy and a horse.

“You’re not taking him up in there?”

“I have to,” the boy replies. “The stairs’d kill him …”

And that’s all Jimmy, and us, need to know.