Understated Classics #10: Tubular Bells II by Mike Oldfield
I admit that it was the artwork that got interested in Tubular Bells II. Trevor Key’s wonderful icon of the twisted tubular bell is even more mysterious rendered in yellow and blue. It aroused my curiosity when I saw it one day in Woolworth’s in Leigh Park back in 1992. The huge display must have been part of WEA’s massive publicity drive for an album that represented huge potential for sales even though Mike Oldfield’s stock had then been dwindling for a long time. At that point Oldfield had not made a good album since his soundtrack to the movie The Killing Fields in 1985, the end of a hot streak (perhaps 1980’s QE2 aside) that had lasted since the original Tubular Bells back in 1973.
Some fans cite Amorok in 1990 as a sign that his abilities were still intact. Indeed it was intended as “Ommadawn II” but for me, thinking of it as wilfully noodly, inconsistent and inpenetrable are not signs of “cloth ears” (as the artwork would have you believe) but the sign of a bored maestro in decline. However, it was certainly a spark of life - perhaps one that proved that a rejuvenation was possible.
As a result Tubular Bells II was a game changer for Oldfield and it shows throughout. It might seem at the outset like a dull exercise in cash grabbing but it was in fact a chance to rejuvenate and revisit one of the best rock albums of the 1970s, a decade with its fair share of gems. The best decision was to draft in Trevor Horn in production: there are ideas bubbling under the surface that are not present in any of Mike Oldfield’s previous albums and not even in the original.
So why do I believe the sequel is the understated classic and not the original? The first reason is that there is already a critical consensus that the first Tubular Bells is a classic album and so there is nothing understated about its status, whereas its sequel is unfairly tarnished with being a money grabbing exercise as I have already said. The second reason is that it was the first Tubular Bells album I encountered and so for me at least, it becomes the classic over and above the original. The third reason is that it is a perfect example of how to give an album well produced sheen.
The sequel follows its parent closely for most of the running time though there are various flourishes that extend the running time by about ten minutes compared to the original. Some of this extra running time comes at the start with the famous windchime-like figure supplanted by a solo piano intro, an important feature for setting the two albums apart. The piano sound is strong, clear and strident in a way that the original never was (even on the many remasters that have appeared since). The false step that results from not using the main theme immediately does take away that feeling of being out in the elements - when you put on the original album you instantly feel as though you have been taken outside to some windy hillside. The effect on the sequel is more spacey, one of stars coming out, which given that the opening section/track is named after an Arthur C. Clarke short story, it is quite appropriate.
Whilst Tubular Bells II is split into individual tracks, it’s probably best to focus on the two halves as part one and part two as per the original. Back then, part one (or side one if you like) had been developed for much longer while the second half was much more ramshackle, having been completed as the album was recorded. As a result the original Tubular Bells was uneven. Tubular Bells II does a lot to redress this imbalance. The second half is now as polished as the first. It is also given a new intro which winds into the more familiar theme but with a much more insistent pulse. This is particularly good when you listen to the album in one sitting as provides connective tissue between the acoustic outro of part one and the panpipes of part two.
Nevertheless the second half inherits the flaws of the original. Altered State attempts to update of the original’s infamous “Piltdown Man” section. It’s a brave stab at revising something that was originally raw and improvised. It is interesting and kooky but draws so much attention to itself that falls flat. Meanwhile, the decision to update the section of the original that featured “guitars that sound like bagpipes” with real bagpipes has limited replay value. Especially when guitars-that-sounds-like-bagpipes are used anyway: the moment when a coruscating riff from the same enters the fray is the only moment where overproduction smears and rather than polishes.
However, one of the best bits of Tubular Bells II is Maya Gold, the next to last section of side two that has a succession of shimmering guitar riffs that overlap and overtake one another in slow waves, like a reflection of the moon in the ripples of a lake. Best of all is a bass guitar line that gives me the shivers every time that I hear it, one of the best bass guitar sounds ever committed to tape. There is a moment of silence as the track ends before Moonshine lurches to life as the hooch-laced bluegrass inbred cousin of the original’s Sailor’s Hornpipe, it’s a strange bit of fun that ends what is largely a serious record (perhaps even more so than the original) and much like the Hornpipe it works even though it shouldn’t.
(There is apparently a jungle version of Moonshine with some extremely dodgy toasting on it, I urge you to check it out on YouTube but in all conscience cannot embed it here! There’s also a slightly less atrocious version that sounds like the middle ground between The Grid’s Swamp Thing and Rednex’s Cotton Eye Joe - this is why researching these posts is such fun!)
I’ll close with embeds of the video for the Sentinel single and a fan video for Maya Gold as these are my favourite bits.