The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #393: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #393: Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield.

Mike Oldfield created “Tubular Bells” when he was still a teenager. “Tubular Bells” is best known as the opening instrumental theme for the movie The Exorcist. It has won many awards and has ended up selling millions of copies and is regarded as being one of the most creative, influential and sophisticated records of all time. But, the story of “Tubular Bells” extends beyond the mere creation of a piece of music. It is a story that includes autistic, prodigy-like skills, billionaires and intergalactic space travel and Hollywood and it all started with a young, autistic boy named Mike Oldfield.

The Autism Spectrum is a vast and varied place. There is no one set of rules or characteristics that define who an autistic person is and/or who they can become. A lot depends of where a person sits on the Spectrum. In the case of Mike Oldfield, he grew up not knowing he was autistic. In the 1960s, to be labelled as autistic was akin to being labelled as being defective. Parents rarely sought out a diagnosis of autism for their child because of the stigma attached by society. Instead of defining a child’s place on the Autism Spectrum and then designing programmes and experiences best suited for their development based upon data specifically tailored for that child, many autistic children in the 1960s were left to languish; often isolated, misunderstood and unable to understand how to fit into a world that didn’t seem to have a place for them.

In the case of Mike Oldfield, his childhood challenges were exacerbated by domestic discord in his family home between his parents. This caused Oldfield to retreat into the safety of his bedroom and in particular into the world of sounds. As a young teen, Oldfield began demonstrating a proclivity for being able to master the playing of musical instruments. He approached each instrument from an analytical point of view; analyzing how the functionality of each instrument produced various notes and the degree of ease/difficulty present to produce these notes in certain sequences or combinations. Even though he was painfully shy, Oldfield’s desire to play his instruments resulted in him becoming involved in a variety of local bands. It was as a result of being involved in one of his bands that he was given a tape recorder. Oldfield immediately took the tape recorder apart; replacing the “erase” feature and creating an additional “record” function thus, he created a multi-track recording device which, in turn, expanded the range of musical sounds he was able to create.

As his late teens arrived, Oldfield began creating the initial foundation for what was to become “Tubular Bells”. But, he realized that his ambition extended beyond the capabilities of his small tape recorder studio. His search for larger recording facilities brought him to the attention of a young entrepreneur named Richard Branson….yes, that Richard Branson. Whether or not Branson understood Autism, he certainly recognized the prodigy-like talent of Mike Oldfield and so he gave Oldfield access to the recording studio at his estate. With that studio came a myriad of instruments (all of which Oldfield learned on his own). Most notably, it came with a complete set of tubular bells. Over time, Oldfield played each instrument, recorded and mixed each track and ended up creating an entire album called Tubular Bells. The song that you will hear today (which is The Exorcist theme song) is merely the opening first 5-6 minutes of an entire full-length instrumental magnum opus. Since then, Oldfield has produced several variations of this album called Tubular Bells II, Tubular Bells III and so on. The original Tubular Bells album was the very first album ever released on Branson’s Virgin Music Label. The proceeds from the millions of album sales helped fund many other Virgin-related innovative projects, including, all these years later, Branson’s wish to achieve intergalactic space flight. Oldfield ended up getting married and having children of his own. He has toured the world and has performed for audiences that included everyone from Royalty, to his fellow musicians, to regular folks like you and me.

Oldfield remains socially withdrawn but has found a greater sense of peace in his later years than he ever knew as a child. It just goes to prove how times are changing with regard to how those who are autistic are perceived. For many, being autistic is simply who they are. For some, their particular form of autism brings with it intellectual gifts that allow for great discoveries and creations. For Mike Oldfield, it helped him create one of the most memorable pieces of instrumental music ever created in modern times. For that we should all be grateful.

The link to the video for “Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, can be found here.

Mike Oldfield has a website that can be accessed by clicking the link here.

A link for the trailer to the movie The Exorcist (featuring “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield) can be found here.

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