The Bells, The Bells

Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells for Two *****

There was a time when all I wrote about online was the subject captured in this antique corner of this site. My introduction to Mike Oldfield wasn’t through his most famous album, but once I was hooked I bought it in short order, and there’s no doubt that it helped consolidate my lifelong love of his work. Even if it’s never been my favourite of his albums, that 1973 recording has a vitality that some of his later work lacks, including his subsequent remixes of the album in the search for its platonic ideal, which culminated in its complete re-recording in 2003.

In fact, for an album that isn’t my favourite, I sure do own a lot of different versions of it, thanks to a fan’s completist tendencies. To wit:

Tubular Bells (original 1973 LP)
Tubular Bells (quadrophonic mix from Mike Oldfield Boxed on LP)
Tubular Bells (live version from Exposed double LP)
Tubular Bells (orchestral version on LP)
Tubular Bells (live version from obscure early 1980s VHS release)
Tubular Bells (excerpts on The Space Movie VHS release)
Tubular Bells (edit on US 7” single)
Tubular Bells (alternative version on “Mike Oldfield’s Single” on 7”)
Tubular Bells (1973 version on CD)
Tubular Bells (quadrophonic mix from Mike Oldfield Boxed in stereo on CD)
Tubular Bells (live version from Exposed on CD)
Tubular Bells (orchestral version on CD)
Tubular Bells (2000 “25th Anniversary” remaster on CD)
Tubular Bells 2003 (re-recording on CD)
Tubular Bells 2003 (re-recording on DVD-A)
Tubular Bells (1971 demos on the preceding DVD-A)
Tubular Bells (2009 remaster and remix on CD)
Tubular Bells (live-in-studio BBC recording from 1973 on DVD with the preceding)
Tubular Bells (new version for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, mashed up with other work)

And that’s not including Tubular Bells II and III, which are distinct works in their own right, each with a swag of CD singles to boot. (Leg.)

So I was an obvious target for Tubular Bells for Two at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe, performed by two young Aussie blokes. I made my way along last Tuesday night to join a surprisingly long queue of disproportionately grey-haired people.

I’m not sure what I was expecting; a competent run-through, I suppose, which would nonetheless fall short of the hybrid version of all the above versions that I carry around in my head. Thankfully, that wasn’t at all what we got.

Instead, we had a breathtaking arrangement of the album for two very talented musicians, relying on nothing more than their bare hands and feet and the occasional loop pedal for those times when eight limbs simply weren’t enough. Daniel Holdsworth and Aidan Roberts played various types of guitars, keyboards and drums, a glockenspiel, kazoo, mandolin, and the tubular bells (non-bendy version), as well as humming and shouting various vocal passages. Watching them switch suddenly and almost always seamlessly from one instrument to the next was exhilarating, and for them obviously exhausting; by the end they were covered in sweat. The caveman drum section of Side Two was like watching Olympic boxers; and hearing Holdsworth gasp “Fuck!” as he lurched from that ferocious workout to the gentle guitar of the following section had to be my favourite moment of the evening.

Holdsworth’s close mimicry of Oldfield’s guitar-playing, and his passing resemblance to the late-1970s Oldfield, were disconcerting and captivating for a long-time Oldfield fan, but both performers were excellent. There were moments when it crossed my mind that this was as close as I’ll probably ever get to seeing Oldfield himself perform the work. What really got me was my eventual realisation that it may be better than that.

Mike Oldfield doesn’t perform live often nowadays, and even when he did it was all (apart from the one 1973 BBC studio recording) several years after Tubular Bells appeared. His first stage performances of it in the late 1970s were massive affairs, with dozens of musicians playing all the instruments involved. Later 1980s performances were arranged for a touring band of half a dozen people. It’s no surprise why: the album is one of the most famous solo multi-instrumental performances ever, only made possible through the technology of multi-track tape. To turn it into a live work meant substantial modifications to the personnel, the music or both.

It would be physically impossible for a single person to play it all live. But two... well, it’s been covered in the studio by a duo before, but that was a duo playing a watered-down version on classical guitar. There’s been nothing like this. The 59-year-old Oldfield couldn’t contemplate it: he’d be risking a coronary, and who would be the other performer? No, it needs two relative unknowns to do it justice, or no-one at all.

And justice they sure did it. What this live performance captured was the freshness and vitality of that original recording, way back before all the remixes and remasters; a freshness only glimpsed elsewhere in the 1971 demos. The night took me right back to listening to that World Record Club LP on my parents’ turntable in 1983, in part because I could match every note and instrument they played to the map of Tubular Bells I etched into my mind way back then. They made a few tweaks along the way out of practical necessity, but they captured the spirit of it, the essence of what makes this work—and this artist—so compelling to those of us in the know; and for me that made the evening a spectacular success.

So much so that I dropped another 25 quid afterwards on their DVD, signed poster and souvenir kazoo. Not for the swag, really, or even to re-watch it any time soon (too many DVDs, too little time), but to say thank you. Danny and Aidan reminded me that I do love Tubular Bells, when for many years I’ve been mentally filing it somewhere halfway down my list of Oldfield favourites and rarely listening to it.

That Mike fella was onto something.

27 August 2012 · Music