Mike Oldfield – 1974

“The end of the first side of Ommadawn is the sound of me exploding from my mother’s vagina.” — Mike Oldfield. Although said with tongue planted firmly in cheek, no truer words have been spoken to describe a sound such as found at the end of Ommadawn, than the words spoken/written by Mike himself. By the time you’ve gotten to the end of the track, you’d probably heard the most emotional and heartfelt music Mike had ever laid to tape. Recorded as a means to get out the emotions culminating from his mother’s recent death and to pacify certain increasingly growing insecurities plaguing his own headspace, here lit bare, all the music and influences he had stewing in his head. Cycling through Progressive Folk, Celtic, Ambient, and African styles he had created a mammoth track signaling how porous English folk music can be.

By the end of 1974, Mike had been driven to do something, to prove some naysayers wrong. At the end of that year, he had released Hergest Ridge, a brilliant mix of folk and progressive rock, that in its time either completely enamored critics or completely labeled him as a major flop. Mike himself, knew the change in tone to one that was more peaceful and melodic would lose him a lot of the earlier fans who were looking for rock explorations. No matter, Mike was trying to progress as an artist. When Hergest Ridge was displacing Tubular Bells from the top of the charts, he himself was trying to remain as reclusive as ever. Rather than go out and tour in support of its release, the first thing he did was appear in concert as a backup musician for Robert Wyatt, in his first concert back from his paralysis. Live versions of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” and “I’m A Believer“, both lead by the synthesizer and electric guitar work of Mike, revealed sonically all the zeal for life his friend Robert had to tap into to endure his new found disability. Shortly after the concert he volunteered his time and production to his friend David Bedford’s Star’s End, a avant-garde classical album far from his own fan base’s taste. David in turn worked with Mike to create and record an orchestral version of Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge, to show the great compositional work already inherent within his records. Unfortunately, for Mike at the end of all this time something tragic happened.

Mike on the fields of Hergest Ridge.

Just at a time he had mustered the will to perform live, with orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall his orchestral version of those two albums he got new his mother had passed away. In December 9, Steve Hillage from Gong filled in for Mike as he was too grief-stricken to go on. He had to impose a bit of exile from public life and regroup. Little by little he released singles with others like Tom Newman’s whimsical “Sad Sing“, reggae joke songs like “Don Alfonso“, and joyful Irish Christmas carols like “In Dulci Jubilo (For Maureen)” (dedicated to his mother Maureen) giving his loyal fans glimpses into his psyche recuperating.

Mike Oldfield and session mates.

In 1975, he headed back to his studio (now outfitted with a 24-track recorder) the Beacon in Hergest Ridge and decided to lay down tracks for a new album. In the beginning he had decided to attempt to do all the tracks by himself. Diligently he did so, doing as he always did marking tape with crayon to denote different sounds and times to pick up a certain section. Little by little he started to realize that all his tapes were getting oxidized and corroding due to the damp, muggy region that Hergest Ridge resided in, rendering all his ideas to naught. It seemed luck was working against him again. This time though, rather than give up he decided to invite other artists to contribute to his vision. Artists like South African pan-racial band Jabula, members of Celtic folk-rock band the Chieftains, Gong art-pop drummer Pierre Moerlen, English neo-folkies like Bridget St. John, and his own sister Sally Oldfield. These musicians from all those diverse musical styles would help breathe some life into his recording. So far away, from any outside influence found in other English locations and studios, here they could just feel free to fuze ideas together.

Ommadawn album cover.

This musical world fusion, you hear clearly in the beautiful start to the album. Joining a Anglican choral sound, with a madrigal style classical guitar, Mike starts to quietly, incrementally amplify the sound and styles. A bit of tastefully distorted guitar here, a searching heavy ambient bass synthesizer there, a string machine mimicking bagpipes, and a melodic motif that goes from archaic to insanely avantgarde at the end. This is the sound of birth. The womb was the comfort of the past (its warmth and languidly), then you get the exciting embryonic transformation into an actual idea (the music becomes progressively more electrifying and rolling), followed by the long stage of gestation suggesting or giving glimpse of what might come (the songs whimsical and upbeat folk middle), and then you get the most important the musical bridge elongating as the sensational birth of the track comes out. Can you hear this shift at the 7 minute mark? Its preparation for the heartbeat rhythm pounded out by Jabula, as Sally and Bridget’s choral vocals blend in, signaling the start of the most electrifying part? Mike’s introduction of all his truly unique gifts as a musician, perhaps the best guitar solo he’d ever lay to tape, signifying the true birth of New Age. Blending local and worldly flavors he connects English folk music to the sound of the future, electric and modern. Something he couldn’t have done it by himself.

Ommadawn, as a word means nothing, its closest to the Gaelic word for idiot (Amadan) but that little prefix Om, means a lot. Its the sound of the whole universe in one word. Lord knows, if Mike wasn’t himself thinking of trying to capture the whole universe of music in one album. On certain days, when you hear the very faint lullaby playing off in the distance after the 5 minute mark, found in the second part of the album, doesn’t that realization strike you more often than not? I hope Mike doesn’t think he’s an idiot for feeling at peace riding on horseback, around those hills, rather than out dancing in the clubs of Spain. Anyway, more neo-folk goodness from a new year, 1975, tomorrow…

Listen to Ommadawn at Spotify.

Bonus track, here’s a promo video of Mike playing all the parts he did play of “In Dulci Jubilo”: