With a low cloud, rain and wind all that has been provided by the weather gods of Argyll this weekend, a slobby Sunday has resulted for all at The Grannary. Well, not so slobby for Her Maj, who has been piling into the remaining boxes that still clutter the first-floor gallery. Amazed to dig out my old hammock, which must be the best part of 25 years old and which had previously nestled me to slumber when slung inside the Series III Landrover which I once used to increase my overdraft to gargantuan proportions in between pootling to caving trips in Yorkshire and the Mendips. Her Maj is now wondering about slinging the hammock between the beams up in the gallery, but I think I’ll let it migrate to the attic for the duration.
We’ve been listening to Mike Oldfield on the gramophone this morning. I’d been thinking about Tubular Bells for a while recently, and it was an opportunity to dig it out and play it. The stereo (with its ancient speakers) actually sounds pretty good up in the gallery and we’re certainly capable of broadcasting to most of the village, should we choose to whack up the volume and open the skylights.
My copy of Tubular Bells is thirty years old this year and a sixteenth-birthday present. I actually received four LPs for my sixteenth birthday: Tubular Bells, Hergist Ridge, Ommadawn and A Night at the Opera. I had a couple of friends around and we went upstairs and listened to the music on the old Dansette with the detachable speaker that I’d acquired from my mother.
Tubular Bells was one of those defining pieces of music from my school career. We were day-boys at a Welsh public school and had a bus journey of 45 minutes from our town in Herefordshire to school every day. The service bus was dominated by thirty-odd public school boys who assumed complete territorial control of the rear two-thirds of the bus. The more senior you were, the further back up the bus you were permitted to sit. In my first couple of weeks I tried to sit at the back, but got soundly cuffed for my impertinence by one of the prefects and demoted to my proper place just behind the public. Tubular Bells was issued at a time when most boys at my school were showing an interest in prog-rock, so groups like Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis were the favoured listening. One or two boys had the ability to record their LPs onto casette tape and we would listen to the music on the bus, provided the driver didn’t object. It was in this way that I first heard Tubular Bells, as a distorted, tinny taped copy played through a portable casette player – hi-tech stuff for the Seventies. We were entranced by this music and knew the programme of the piece intimately; “This is a good bit”, “Shush, it’s Viv Stanshall” and so-on as the music commanded our attention. We’d all join in the recital of the instruments as they came in “Grand piano; reed and pipe organ; glockenspiel; bass guitar; double speed guitar; two slightly distorted guitars; mandolin! Spanish guitar, and introducing acoustic guitar, plus… tubular bells”. So, with a 45-minute bus journey, we’d listen to side 1 on the way to school and side 2 – doing Piltdown Man impressions – on the way home again.
What was it about this piece that so grabbed our attention? It was, for most of us, a unique composition using multi-track recording technology and with every instrument played by one young man, who was not so much older than ourselves. Also, he was working not very far to the north of us in the Welsh Marches, so we felt a bit of a local pride in Mike Oldfield. I suppose it flattered our intellectual self-importance in some way. In other ways it was simply rythmically and melodically fascinating. Perhaps it was also that this was amongst the first music that we listened to together as a band of young men and boys and amongst the first that we brought with us in a portable form. You can’t share your music on an iPod, but you can with a casette player and this was a communal experience of music that was perhaps unique to our generation. After all, the tape Walkman came out only a few years later; after that, the personal stereo consumed the communal experience.