1975: Mike Oldfield / Ommadawn
by J A Gray
1975 should belong to Bob Dylan and Blood On The Tracks. It’s arguably Bob’s greatest record, it’s surely one of the greatest albums of all time, and it’s been in my personal top 20 ever since I heard it. It’s a shoo-in, right? So what the hell am I doing writing about Mike Oldfield?
When I made a rough draft list of all the years I’d be covering, 1975 had both Blood On The Tracks and Ommadawn written alongside it. To be decided. Or maybe I’d write about both. Because Ommadawn is also in that personal top 20, even though it’s a very different animal than Bob’s album. One is mostly about words, and the other hardly has any (and those it does have are either in gibberish Gaelic or childlike in their naïvety). The major deciding factor was history. Ommadawn and me go way back.
Mike Oldfield has been terminally unhip for years now. You can date this back to punk rock and a generation’s rejection of all things prog. A line was drawn and you were meant to decide once and for all on which side you stood. I remember Marcus being a fan of both Thin Lizzy and The Jam and really struggling with it. For one thing, he didn’t know how to wear his hair. One week it was long and permed, the next it was cut short and spikey. Such identity crises may seem ludicrous today, but back then what sort of music we listened to pretty much defined us. Music was youth culture – there was precious little else (apart from maybe football). You chose your musical tribe, you wore the appropriate uniform, and you felt you belonged to something special. And that was alright – it feels good to belong. But you also felt inclined to point and jeer at all the fools who liked all the other crap, which wasn’t quite so healthy. It also meant that if you actually enjoyed any of ‘the other crap’ yourself, you either weaned yourself off it, or you listened to it in secret, with all the attendant feelings of confusion and shame that suggests.
In time, this intense tribalism began to diminish. This was partly because music culture matters less to grown adults with mortgages and kids, so the generations that once cared so passionately about such things simply grew out of it. And it was partly because music ceased to be the sole cultural signifier, with the result that subsequent generations became far less inclined to nail their colours to just one mast. And, I suppose, it was partly down to good old-fashioned common sense – what on earth was wrong with liking whatever you liked without having to justify or categorise it? So subsequently most of those artists and bands that were at one time strictly off-limits were allowed back in from the cold. Pink Floyd, for example, are now accepted as a classic rock band with little or no argument. Mike Oldfield has yet to be accorded quite that degree of compassionate revisionism, although there have been signs of a slight thawing out in the wake of a recent series of ‘Deluxe Edition’ CD reissues. Maybe it’s because he went on to make some fairly cheesy pop-lite records in the 80s that tarnished his back catalogue, or maybe its because he always came over as a bit awkward and nerdy, but either way it’s a real shame that the remarkable series of four albums he made in the 1970s aren’t lauded to the skies for their melodicism, their inventiveness, and their spectacular breadth of vision.
I first heard Mike Oldfield in The Ghyll. Marcus and I grew up in a house on a corner of a road near the top of a steep hill. If you went up the hill a little further and crossed over to the other side of the road, there was a beaten path that took you to a big tree. It was the first tree that everybody who lived on those streets learned to climb. I only ever made it halfway up. This tree also marked the gateway to The Ghyll, smaller than a full-sized valley, yet to us kids it was a mighty panorama. In spring the banks were a riot of bluebells. In winter they were a gift to sledge-riders. In dry months, at the bottom of The Ghyll where the earth was bare, baked and hard, kids would play football. Stiff and tall clusters of rosebay willowherb grew along the top of the ridge – perfect for a death-defying game of spear chucking. Just beyond there, bramble bushes, heavy with fruit in late summer, grew in and around trees, whose lower branches twisted and turned to form little secret dens, and all of this formed a natural boundary which sloped all the way to the bottom. There, any attempt to maintain a barrier had long since been trampled away by generations of children, and you simply stepped over the boundary line. To your left was a tall overhanging tree with a perilous rope-and-plank swing dangling from high above. To your right, the band rose up once more and lead you to the local golf course, the very thing they had been attempting to section off. The golf course itself was dotted with countless woods, the largest of which had banks of gloriously stinky wild garlic, and a stream running through it complete with a little wooden bridge. It was a perfect place for playing soldiers – it didn’t take too much imagination to make believe you were on manoeuvres in France or even Vietnam. By now we’d be so far away from home that we’d have to allow a good half-an-hour to forty minutes to make it back for tea. I didn’t always have the happiest of childhoods, but you certainly couldn’t fault the scenery.
One day when I was about 9 years old, an older lad called Pev was playing his tape machine near the top of the bank in The Ghyll. All us little kids liked Pev, he was a bit of a gentle giant and always made time for a bit of banter and fun with us. The music he was listening to that day was complex yet catchy at the same time. There were no words, but there were all these different instruments playing repeating motifs in and around each other until, at some point, everything would veer off in a new direction and another motif would begin. It was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. Marcus was there. He described to me how this was essentially the work of one man, playing all the instruments himself. He described to me, in layman’s terms that a 9 year old could just about comprehend, how overdubbing worked. My mind was blown! What kind of musical superman was this?
Before long I had my own copy. It was second-hand and I think that I recall swapping some other record for it with one of Marcus’s friends. Remember me telling you about singing Come Together in the back of the family car? I would sing all of my favourite songs there. Every single family excursion to a destination of any notable distance would be soundtracked by concert-length performances by my squeaky-voiced self. I even prepared mental lists of what I was going to sing before we set off. Oh, the horror! I grew to know Tubular Bells so well that I attempted to recreate its lengthy soundscapes in this same humble backseat setting. With just a variety of mouth noises to imitate each instrument. Marcus, bless him, would occasionally join in, hoping it might ease his suffering. Just imagine. It must have sounded like hell. I can’t help but squirm when I think about it. The embarrassment kicks any pride in my precocious musicality firmly into touch.
I got Oldfield’s follow-up album, Hergest Ridge, from some small electrical outlet in Wigan during a school holiday. I was disappointed with what I heard. It sounded like a very pale imitation of its predecessor*, but reading Oldfield’s entry in The NME Book Of Rock 2 had prepared me for this. If it wasn’t for that little reference bible, I may have gone no further, but it also told me that Ommadawn was a return to form.
I bought Ommadawn in a shop called Paperchase in Manchester. Paperchase was one of my favourite places in the world back in those days. Upstairs at the front they sold newspapers and magazines from all over the globe. I used to flick through American car and motorbike magazines in wonder. All those pictures of chrome-plated Trans-Ams and Harley Davidsons seemed so exotic to me – the first time I’d seen such things. Further back in the shop was a toy section with lots of kooky off-the-wall stuff. It’d probably look like so much tat to me now, but it was entertaining and fun back then. Then there was a tight, winding staircase down to the basement floor. Down there they sold records. Racks of 12″ vinyl. You took your time, made your choice, and a man at a tiny counter took your money. A second man was in charge of posters. He was legendary for being extremely grumpy and unpleasant. You’d try and flick through the flipcharts displaying the posters of pop singers and movie stars and he’d stop you, insist you told him what you were looking for, and then he’d show you any relevant posters with barely-disguised contempt. If you chose a poster to buy, he would remove it from its place and roll it up for you, with thinly-veiled loathing. He clearly hated children with a (hardly-concealed) passion. How he kept his bizarrely niche job for so many years is one of the greater mysteries of 1970s Manchester. It was the only dark cloud to hover over the Paperchase experience. Luckily the record section was much more user-friendly, and soon I had my copy of Ommadawn.
I’ve always loved the album’s front cover portrait taken by David Bailey. Oldfield at the peak of his long-haired and bearded hippy splendour, gazing out through a rain-steaked window. And, when the music begins, it shares the cover’s melancholic autumnal mood. It starts very quietly. It’s a record which uses a full dynamic range. In these days of everything getting compressed to the nth degree those opening minutes sound spookily quiet. So of course you turn the volume up, and, ha, great, because now you’re gonna get it! That first vinyl side is such a ride. It builds slowly. About a third of the way in it breaks out into this utterly joyful and spirited folk melody with acoustic guitars, mandolins and whistles. I’m absolutely certain that my love of folk tunes and folk instrumentation was born right here.
Not long after the folk melody, Ommadawn‘s main attraction begins in earnest. A circular rhythm of African drummers lock into a groove. Female vocalists are soon chanting indecipherable phrases. The guitars start to build, layer on layer. You can almost feel that something seismic is approaching from the horizon. Then an electric guitar elbows its way through to the front of the musical picture. I’ll forgive you if the idea of Mike Oldfield being exciting seems unlikely, but I swear that what happens next is one of the most hair-raising, blood-rushing, adrenalin-pumping climaxes in rock. Oldfield must have unleashed most his inner demons the day he recorded that guitar solo – it spits and snarls and wails, it damn near slices through the top of your skull. I always feel utterly wrung out by the time the final eardrum-piercing note dies away. And then the whole musical picture implodes, leaving just those African drums fading slowly into the distance. No doubt at all in my mind that this is his masterpiece.
Side two is less convincing, not least because it’s more bitty. It sounds like a few leftovers that didn’t fit onto the first side, all thrown together. Yet there’s some very choice scraps here. The acoustic guitar and Uilleann pipes duet, played by Mike and special guest Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, is hauntingly beautiful. The upbeat section that follows, with its distinct debt to Greek folk-dance music, is both charming and exhilerating. And then, after a few seconds silence, Mike starts to sing a song. “I like beer, and I like cheese”, he tells us, before he, and a choir of children, rhapsodise about the joys of being On Horseback. It’s sweet and cute, and all those other things that are guaranteed to make any jaded adult feel more than a little nauseous, and yet somehow Oldfield manages to get away with it. It manages to capture a sense of true childlike wonder and ends up sounding rather enchanting. No, really. It’d wipe the sneer off a cynic at twenty paces. Even that miserable old scrote who sold the posters in Paperchase would surely have had an epiphany and renounced his misanthropic ways, if he’d ever heard it. Oh, OK, perhaps not.
Trying desperately to be hip and cool during my 20s and 30s, I left my Mike Oldfield LPs at my parents’ house so as not to be caught owning them when anyone flicked through my album collection. How shallow of me. I was brainwashed by those changing times into thinking that he was hopelessly naff, and I convinced myself that I’d put his music behind me forever. But about ten years ago I felt this growing urge to hear those albums again and I decided to buy the CD version of Boxed, which included remixed versions of Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, and Ommadawn. I’d always wanted Boxed as a kid, but back then I couldn’t justify buying alternate versions of albums I already owned. I went into Swordfish Records in Birmingham and ordered a copy. I almost whispered my request, for fear that I might be ridiculed. I suppose this is what people mean when they talk about ‘guilty pleasures’.
Since then, not a year has gone by without my giving Ommadawn a few plays. What a relief it is to no longer care what types of music are fashionable. Now I can listen to Mike Oldfield and The Clash in the same evening if I want to, without worrying about what to wear.
* These days I enjoy Hergest Ridge on its own terms, especially Oldfield’s stripped-down remix, first available on the 1976 Boxed set and subsequently used for all vinyl and CD versions up until the 2010 remastered editions.
N.B. The original 1975 mix of Ommadawn is currently only available, in remastered form, on the second disc of the ‘Deluxe Edition’. This edition also features a less than convincing 2010 remix, a handful of shorter bonus tracks, Mike’s abandoned first attempt at Ommadawn, and a DVD containing a 5.1 mix of the album, plus some video material. The single disc edition features just the 2010 remix and the bonus tracks. A stereo fold-down of a quadrophonic remix is available on Boxed.
My other nominations for 1975 albums of merit:
Bob Dylan / Blood On The Tracks
Pink Floyd / Wish You Were Here
Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Zuma
The Who By Numbers
Richard and Linda Thompson / Pour Down Like Silver