I like beer, and I like cheese
I like the smell of a westerly breeze
But what I like more than all of these
Is to be on horseback.
Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow
Big brown beastie, big brown face
I’d rather be with you than flying through space
–From “On Horseback” (1975)
While it is frequently argued that the breathtaking originality of Mike Oldfield’s early music has been largely overshadowed by the commercial success of his breakthrough album Tubular Bells (1973), it is also undoubtedly true that it has suffered neglect as a direct consequence of the reclusive artist’s exegesis rebirth therapy, tarnishing many of his post-Incantations (1978) recordings, which resulted in the composer producing, over a prolonged period, a far less authentic and more schmaltzy synthetic sound, a downward trend which has only been countered by some more recent releases like TR3S Lunas (2002), Music of the Spheres (2008), and Return to Ommadawn (2017).
And it is to the original Ommadawn (1975) and his immediate post-Tubular Bells recording, Hergest Ridge (1974), that I now wish to return in this brief analysis. In the opinion of this commentator, these quintessentially English recordings have not received the critical acclaim they deserve, mainly as a result of the “punk” critics of the period, particularly in the British music media like the New Musical Express and Sounds, reacting so negatively to what they saw as the ubiquity, industrial-scale production, and gross profits generated by Tubular Bells in its original vinyl incarnation. This is a fact which, when coupled with the pressure put on Oldfield by Richard Branson’s Virgin Record label, which wanted another monster hit to bolster their fledgling brand, unsurprisingly inhibited the creativity of the still adolescent and naïve musician.
Faced with such crushing expectations, Oldfield retreated to Hergest Ridge on the Hereford and Welsh border where, influenced by the natural beauty of his surroundings and, after a period of self-imposed solitary confinement, delivered a rather refined and spacious work of near-pastoral perfection. After all, I ask myself, what discerning member of Oldfield’s devoted fan base do not fantasize about sitting on the wet grass next to the young prodigy while he flies his model aircraft over the ancient trackway of Offa’s Dyke, heading towards Bradnor Hill, skirting an anvil-shaped stone deposited during the last Ice Age, and circling back above the slated roof of Hergest Court? This is a structure dating from 1267, and is one of the most famous buildings in the Welsh Marches, long associated with the Red Book of Hergest and haunted by legends of Black Vaughan and his “demon death dog,” said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s book, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). One imagines rambling back down the steep slope to Kington locked in deep and meaningful conversation with the sullen, stubble-chinned genius, the giant Irish wolfhound, Bootleg, by his side, smoking roll-ups and swapping yarns before taking a seat in the snug of some sixteenth-century hostelry, sipping dark beer by a blazing fire.
From a technical perspective, Hergest Ridge is compositionally far more sophisticated than Tubular Bells and, like its successor album, Ommadawn (1975), shows all the early promise of continuing the lineage of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), William Byrd (1539/1543-1623), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Hubert Parry (1848-1918), Edward Elgar (1857-1943), Frederick Delius (1862-1934), and Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958). A grandiose claim, one might say, but this album has subsequently and somewhat ironically been compared to the minimalist works of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. One critic (cited in the sleeve notes) described it as “a somnolent pastoral epic.” And remember, Oldfield was barely in his twenties at the time and yet commanded immense respect, not only among the environmentalist and pagan milieu but also with the cognoscenti of what was beginning to be called New Age music. This was a particular idiom of which David Tame, in his book The Secret Power of Music (1984), wrote:
Yet ultimately, we must also begin to look ahead once more; to reawaken within ourselves the confident hope that a New age music is about to dawn; a music of equal or even greater sublimity as the great works of the past, and yet possessing a character and effect which is entirely new.
Oldfield still had decades to hone his talent, developing a unique and subtle distillation of the folksong tradition first spoken of by Johann Herder (1744-1813) in his “Essay on Ossian” (1773) and in the classical expositions of previous centuries. He was simply ahead of his time, a pioneer of an evolving genre that would spawn many forms in the near future, examples of which might include The Dead Can Dance, and Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry’s work as solo artists; Bo Hansson (1943-2010) and his Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings (1970), The Magician’s Hat (1972); and The Mediaeval Babe’s Salva Nos and Undrentide album, the latter of which contained a cover version of the “Maypole Song” from the eponymous movie, The Wicker Man (1973). In fact, returning to Oldfield, one of the main progenitors of the new sound, I dare anyone to sit alone in a darkened room and drop the stylus on the original mono recordings, or flick the play button on the deluxe versions of both albums re-released in 2010, and then dispute my oh-so-wild assertion.
Within a few short bars, you will be transported into England’s gloaming, a soundscape full of vivid impressions and melodic expressions replete with acoustic and electric guitars, Farfisa and Lowrey organs, glockenspiel, mandolin, and gong, all played by Oldfield himself. And when mixed together in SQ 4-channel quadraphonic sound, they conjure a panoply of images and feelings that carry you on a bird’s-eye journey through a timeless Anglo-Celtic landscape full of trees and babbling brooks, with the elfin Maddy Prior performing an Irish reel. Which puts me in mind of a very insightful review by Stuart Millson, a member of the Traditional Britain Group, about Em Marshal-Luck’s publication Music in the Landscape: How the British Countryside inspired our Greatest Composers (2011).
The works of those I have already mentioned and their fellows like Granville Bantock (1868-1946), who wrote Pagan Symphony; Benjamin Britten (1913-1976,) who scribed Curlew River in 1964; Arnold Bax (1883-1953), composer of November Woods; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) of Immortal Hour fame; John Ireland (1879-1962), who penned Ex ore innocentium; and Gustav Holst (1874-1935), immortalized by The Planets but also a fervent supporter of the English folk-revival, can only be truly understood if one has a profound appreciation for England and an intimate knowledge of its history. A simple literary comparison would be trying to comprehend the inner mechanisms of J. R. R. Tolkiens’s The Lord of the Rings without a grounding in Beowulf. To quote from Millson’s piece about Marshal-Luck, “the haunted, medieval Fen country, or walking the expanse of Egdon Hill in Dorset . . . the distant South Downs, or the tide eroded Suffolk coast and Channel Islands, or communing with nature in the blue-remembered hills of Shropshire and Worcestershire . . . the beach at Aldeburgh and the grey North Sea, with sunlight breaking through cloud and turning the ocean silver . . .’ And I make the same claim for Oldfield’s work, which at its moist poignant echoes with reminiscences of the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes (1945).
Indeed, Oldfield’s whole early opus is imbued with romantic colors and influences that bring to mind lines such as those from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850):
The earth was all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way
With such light motifs as those above contrasting sharply with darker shades and textures more in keeping with the literary imagery of the West Country author Thomas Hardy, whose lead character in Tess of the d’Urbervilles reminds Angel, her male counterpart, in a scene set at Stonehenge that she is indeed a “pagan,” as per his earlier description of what is one of Hardy’s most tragic heroines. Which, of course, provides a segue back to Tubular Bells and reminds us that one of the central reasons for that album’s success was the additional publicity it received from being the soundtrack to Director William Friedkin’s 1973 movie, The Exorcist.
The film is an adaption of William Peter Blatty’s supernatural story featuring graphic imagery of a young girl, Regan, played by fourteen-year-old Linda Blair, suffering demonic possession. And pulses of that pagan mythos reverberate through both Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn too, but in a more restrained and understated manner. It is ever mindful that this Sceptred Isle is home to as many mist-shrouded mounds of warrior kings and lichened-licked standing stones as Protestant pulpits and Catholic rosaries; as many water nymphs and woodland gods as Christian saints; and where the ethereal chanting, particularly in the latter portions of Ommadawn, carries the same sense of foreboding that permeates the distinctly British folk horror genre, so marvelously identified by Adam Scovell in Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017), a well-informed study not only of the works of writers like M. R. James and Alan Garner, but also celluloid masterworks like David Rudkin’s screenplay, Penda’s Fen (1974,) and Robert Hardy’s aforementioned The Wicker Man.
And with this overwhelming sense of place, which Oldfield’s music emotionally amplifies, comes the intrinsic understanding that both individual and communal identity is rooted in the landscape from which such inspiration springs. The music, a clear celebration of the artist’s gene pool and the ecosystem that nourishes it, succeeds because it recognizes the complex interplay between a people and their ecology, reinforcing the extent to which, and the boundaries within which, a family, tribe, nation, and race can rightfully claim to be at home and at peace with itself.
Ommadawn, Oldfield’s third album, was recorded on a 24-track tape machine, and was conceived in the composer’s mind as a direct response to the rather dismal reviews of Hergest Ridge, which, although it entered the UK charts at number one, was fairly rapidly deposed by his own Tubular Bells, an illustration of the enduring popularity of his first composition, and notably, a circumstance that had only previously occurred in relation to The Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Staring Jesus-like from the record sleeve, Oldfield once again indulged his audience in a mélange of instruments that pushed the capabilities of the then state-of-the-art recording equipment to their breaking point, the studio tapes at the legendary Manor in Shipton-on-Cherwell literally having shredded or their oxide simply wearing out before the immense diversity of the old and unusual instrumentation being utilized could be laid down. The whole work flows towards capering crescendos of anxious intensity juxtaposed between lengthy passages of ice-cold control and expertly suspended tonality. In fact, the piece’s orchestration is masterful from start to finish, and includes trumpets, Northumbrian pipes, recorders, and cellos, with the lower-register bass and percussion complementing the nineteen or so instruments played by Oldfield himself, as well as guests like the Hereford City Brass Band, Pierre Moerlen’s timpani arrangements, and Paddy Maloney’s heart-rending Uillean pipes.
Indeed, throughout Ommadawn, there is the recurrent twang of the Celtic harp and 12-string guitars, with a forlorn repeat rumbling about in the background, giving the album’s sound that earthy quality that smells of damp sod. The underlying motor is an ensemble of bass guitar and Jabula drums which drives it rhythmically forward, building slowly to culminate in an ominous and ritualistic finale, jangling around a cacophony of E major, F minor, and E minor, and a sublime guitar arpeggio before the heartbeat fade-out of taught skins being pounded by bone-hard fists.
In the creation of his first three albums, Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, and Ommadawn, Mike Oldfield plugged not only his Hofner guitar into his mysterious Glorfindel box but also himself into the zeitgeist of mid-seventies Britain. It was a Britain that was still capable of producing a vibrant nationalist party that could command both the streets and national media coverage. A Britain that was decidedly cautious about the Franco-German European Project. A Britain that was enthralled by the progressive music scene from which Oldfield himself had emerged. A Britain that would soon descend into the crass nihilism of punk, Margaret Thatcher’s illusory patriotism, and the trite electro-beat of The Human League.
So if you feel a little glum,
To Hergest Ridge you should come
In summer, winter, rain or sun,
It’s good to be on horseback
Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow
Big brown beastie, big brown face
I’d rather be with you than flying through space
And having made my case, I will now retreat to my well-worn leather armchair, reach for a Balvenie Doublewood 12 whiskey, and listen to the relentless rain beating on the leaded windows of my cottage in some far-flung corner of windblown Albion. Swirling my glass, I gaze nostalgically at both album covers from their original pressings, hoping that the fiery spark of enigmatic genius, will, like the legendary King Arthur, awake at the sound of the battle horn and return in the form of a blazing torch to once more light the way in this, our country’s darkest hour.
Changeling: The Autobiography of Mike Oldfield (2008)
The Mike Oldfield Chronology, Patrick Lemieux (2014)
Mike Oldfield: A Life Dedicated to Music, Chris Dewey (2013)
The Making of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Richard Newman (1993)
Mike Oldfield: A Man and His Music, Sean Moraghan (2006)
June 1st 1974: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico, Eno, Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt: The Greatest Super-Group of the Seventies (2013), Dave Thompson
Mike Oldfield, Jose Santos (2007)
“Beyond the Ridge: Portrait of a Genius,” K. Dallas in Melody Maker Magazine, October 1975
The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty (2011 ed.)
Punk Rock: An Oral History, John Robb (2006)
Oh, So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-1980, R. Poynor and T. Mott (2016)
Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, J. Lydon (2015)
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, J. Lydon (2016 ed.)
England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage (2016 ed.)
Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, Chris Salewicz (2012)
The Welsh Borders: Archaeology, History and Landscape, Trevor Rowley (1986)
The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063-1415, R.R. Davies (2001)
The Secret Power of Music, David Tame (1984)
The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present, N. Crane (2016)
The British Landscape 1920-1950, I. Jeffrey (1984)
British Art: Ancient Landscapes, S. Smile (2016)
Beowulf: A Prose Translation, translated by E. Talbot Donaldson and edited by Nicholas Howe (1998)
Folklore, Myth and Legends of Britain, Russell Ash et al. (1977)
The Land of the Green Man: A Spiritual Journey through the Landscape of the British Isles, C. Larrington (2015)
The Book of English Magic, P. Carr and R. Heygate (2012)
Looking for the Lost Gods of England, Kathleen Herbert (2011)
The Isles of Many Gods, David Rankine and Sorita D’Este (2007)
Angels and Goddess, Mike Howard (1993)
Echoes of the Goddess: A Quest for the Sacred Feminine in the British Landscape, Simon Brighton and Terry Welbourne (2010)
The Devil Cult in Britain and America, John Ashton (2015)
Pagan Britain, Ronald Hutton (2015)
The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton (2001)
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Ronald Hutton (2001)
Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, Ronald Hutton (2011)
The Eleventh Hour, John Tyndall (1988)
The National Front, N. Fielding (2017)
The National Front, Martin Walker (1977)
Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew – How Britain’s Jews Shaped Margaret Thatcher and Her Beliefs, R. Philpot (2017)
Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (1993)
Margaret Thatcher: The Path to Power (1995)
Margaret Thatcher: Statecraft (2002)
Titanic Britain: 50 Years of the Left Wing Liberal Iceberg, J. Cater (2016)
King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist, A. Hunt (2010)
Paganism in Arthurian Romance, John Darrah (1997)
The Real Camelot: Paganism and the Arthurian Romances, John Darrah (1981)
New Romantics: The Look, Dave Rimmer (2013)