Mike Oldfield

The exploration and deconstruction of English folk music seemed to be the path needed to be taken by new neo-folk artists. One unlikely champion of this became one that you’d least expect to be one. Now known as one of New Age and World music’s pioneers with albums like Tubular Bells, Incantations, and more, there was a time he was one of the best hidden talents in England. 1973’s Tubular Bells, although by far his most successful album, doesn’t quite display the true powers and ties to his England as Hergest Ridge would.

The Sallyangie
Few people know the Michael that you’ll read about now. Once there was a time that Michael Oldfield, together with his younger sister Sally, two very young teens from Reading were signed to Transatlantic Records (at Mick Jagger’s request!) in hopes of becoming the next wunderkinds of folk music. This group, The Sallyangie, released in 1969 a very green/twee album (with perhaps the last singing ever done by Michael!) of Donovan, and Incredible String Band influenced folk music. Children of the Sun, although a massive flop, displayed in songs like the title cut, or “Love in Ice Crystals”, a wonderful talent that needed much more nurturing than promotion.

After the band split up, Michael joined Kevin Ayer’s backing band “The Whole World” as a bassist and occasional guitarist. The time he spent being in the background with Kevin allowed him to start to foment grander ideas of a more artistic brand of English folk music. It is this time that brought to him under the friendship of David Bedford. David was a bit of an eccentric musician. A keyboardist by trade, he was a truly learned musician having studied at the Royal Academy of Music. In his spare time he was the resident composer at Queen’s College in London and would create serialist compositions like Nurse with Elephants that skirted the line between modern classical and rock music. As arranger for Kevin’s music, together with Michael he’d create such wonderfully askewed art pop like “Whatevershebringswesing” to accompany Kevin’s whimsical melancholia.

It was Bedford who convinced Michael to record a demo of Tubular Bells a track he’d be kicking around for a while. This demo recorded on a tape deck given to him by Kevin, that he’d use to overdub tons of instruments methodically became the tape he shopped around fruitlessly to all sorts of record companies. Sometime in 1971, he by some good graces, was able to play his demo to an engineer who sorta knew Richard Branson. This engineer was knocked off his feet by what he heard and decided to convince Richard to sign him up and help him record that album. Now we know the rest is history.

This album recorded in Branson’s Manor Studio, would become the first record released by the Virgin Record company, and a massive hit that propelled a young Mike Oldfield into unwelcome spotlight in 1972. Using the wonders of multi-track technology Mike had orchestrated by himself nearly all baker’s dozen of the instruments played on the album. Of note, were the intriguing snake guitar sounds he got from David Bedford’s secretive Glorfindel Box effects pedal. Quickly, either via England’s rampant love of it or the Exorcist’s use of a snippet of the album, Richard had a star in the making. Mike himself was dead afraid and angry that now he was going to be forced to play the role of a rock star. Things like a “Tubular Bells” single infuriated him, he wanted the album to be heard as it is and not moved by the machinations of a record company.

At a time, that he wanted to just be left alone and recede from the spotlight he was struggling mightily to even think of continuing his career. For a brief time after this time of tumult, he would occasionally appear to perform in public (in such great performances like the one seen in the bonus track section below) but most of the time he’d try his hand at helping other friends of his. One friend he helped immensely was Robert Wyatt. In 1973, Robert Wyatt fell from a window and became paralyzed from the waist down. To help him recover he recorded the album Rock Bottom. This masterpiece feature similar minded musicians who were struggling trying to fit in a more segregated rock and soul world. Members of Henry Cow, Soft Machine, Caravan and Mike himself lent their talents to this album. Mike particularly, wrote an elegiac and magnificent song in the album’s closer “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road”:

This song so markedly different in tone and substance, a hypnotic English music down to its core, reinvigorated some sense of conviction again for Mike. Now more forthright with who he was, he had to bend Richard to fulfill his end of the deal. Rather than go to a big studio to record his followup, Mike was able to take a 4-track and record a demo version of nascent Hergest Ridge at his home studio The Beacon in his home town of Kington, Herefordshire.

Hergest Ridge album cover.

This area at the border of Wales and England was so remotely away from any rock and roll lifestyle. There he could record demos in the morning and go out in the evening to ride on horseback or tend a field. There was no actual road to the Beacon, everything had to be carried into it. Mike worked tirelessly to bring studio equipment and instruments of all sorts to accomplish his recording. Out there in the hills, though, is where he felt at peace to create. Friends like David Bedford would contribute ideas that he’d integrate, and others like Lindsay Cooper (ex-Comus and now Henry Cow member) would visit with oboe, or other instrument at hand, to add to this widescreen English pastoral folk-rock music Mike was creating. Although the album was completed in Richard Branson’s the Manor, it was the spirit of this land that inspired its creation.

David Bedford and Mike

This is something you feel the moment Mike’s Solina string machine joins forces with the woodwind work of Lindsay that starts off Hergest Ridge. This is music that allows you to peep at the English countryside rolling down the ridge’s of Mike’s home. As other instruments get stately introduced; acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, real and unreal, the music just gets the much more green. My favorite bit, being the introduction of “floating” guitars (slowed down and Glorfindel box affected) that starts a bit before the 11 minute mark. People might have been expecting a more rocking or “spooky” Mike but here he was using the softness of all this Englishness to present a new type of English folk music, equal parts uplifting, vanguardist, and welcoming. It’s a new age, and something had to jump start it, right? Anyway, for Mike all of these new ideas culminate tomorrow…

Listen to Hergest Ridge at Spotify.

Bonus track, view the 1973 performance of Tubular Bells (a rare one for this time) with Mike and a whole slew of brilliant musicians, Steve Hillage from Gong, Mick Taylor from the Stones, Fred Frith from Henry Cow, Mike Ratledge from Soft Machine…