For Whom The Bell Tolls: Mike Oldfield

28th March 2014

London 2012 gave participants and spectators alike ‘a new burst of energy’, but few people outside of those in the Athletes’ Village ended up quite as invigorated by it as musician Mike Oldfield. Al Gordon finds out more…

Inhabiting a beach house in the Bahamas after swapping his Reading roots for altogether sunnier climes, Oldfield was all but retired, and had stated on more than one occasion he didn’t expect to make any more music. Fair enough. If you had written Tubular Bells as a teenager and seen it go on to sell in excess of 17 million copies worldwide, in the process setting you up for a critically acclaimed and eclectic 35-year career – a heady concoction of progressive rock influenced by music as disparate as ambient, electronic, world, folk and classical – you might be entitled to want to take it easy.

But the Olympics changed all that. One unanticipated phone call from opening ceremony organiser Danny Boyle and the reclusive musician was taking centre stage in the biggest show on Earth, performing the most famous section from the instrumental-opus that is Tubular Bells.

It set him on the course that has led to 'Man on the Rocks', his first album of new material in six years.

“When they asked me, I fell on the floor!” the 60-year-old says of Boyle’s invitation. “I couldn’t believe it. When I first spoke to Danny Boyle I didn’t have to think about it. There was nothing else that would get me away from the Bahamas. It was the most prodigious event you can think of.

The opportunity fully lived up to Oldfield’s expectations. “Fantastic to work with all these amazing people, the best that the country could get together. There was none of this ‘the Olympic ring didn’t turn up’, it all worked like clockwork. Everybody loved it. On the background on my computer screen I have a picture of the show to this day. It really is the pinnacle as far as I can see.”

The effect on Oldfield was seismic: suddenly, with his standing as prog-rock pioneer reinstated, he felt significant again. “Yes, it gave me confidence that I wasn’t this washed up rock star from the 1970s; I was still relevant. And the new album has had a great reception so far. It was a validation that Tubular Bells wasn’t just a flash in the pan or a ‘one hit wonder’. I needed this.”

Buoyed by this vote of confidence, and after, peculiarly, admitting to being inspired by his recent divorce – “it left me with something inside that I felt like I needed to say” – Oldfield started experimenting with different guitar styles and techniques. “It was like going back to when I started out in 1968 with the local blues players in Reading”.

Suddenly, songs of a rockier, more straightforward nature than he is normally associated with came to the fore. And out of nowhere there was an album full of demos ready to be sung. Enter Luke Spiller, singer with Oldfield’s label mates The Struts, who had “the perfect voice” for this new material.

The only problem was that Oldfield couldn’t be tempted away from the Bahamas again. So what was the solution? “We hooked up by virtual reality,” he laughs. “That’s how I made the whole album. I didn’t have to leave my studio – I just linked to studios in London, LA and here. There were different cameras in different parts of the studio and I never had to leave my chair. I didn’t have to travel at all – the way I like it!”

You can hardly blame Oldfield being unwilling to leave the home he has made for himself; he makes it sound wonderful.

“What I love best is the water. With these tiny islands, you can go out on a little boat, land on a beach and be completely alone. That is where the title comes from: stand on a rock in your own little island. I am a wilderness person, happier on the desert where there is nothing much, not the hustle and bustle of cities.”

What’s more, Oldfield allowed his surroundings to influence what many are already describing as his finest album for years.

“It definitely influenced the lyrics. It’s one thing thinking about being on a little rocky island in the middle of this ocean but it is another thing actually being there. I can go there and be there whenever I want to. The culture reminds me of Reading in the 1950s, it is very British. I am very fortunate.”

Mike Oldfield’s new album, Man on the Rocks, his 25th full-length studio release, is out now.

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