Michael Gordon “Mike” Oldfield is an English musician and composer. His work blends progressive rock with world, folk, classical, electronic, ambient, and new-age music. His biggest commercial success is the 1973 album Tubular Bells – which launched Virgin Records and became a hit in America after its opening was used as the theme for the film The Exorcist. He also recorded the 1983 hit single “Moonlight Shadow” and a rendition of the Christmas piece “In Dulci Jubilo”.
Oldfield has released more than 20 albums with the most recent being a sequel to his 1975 album Ommadawn titled Return to Ommadawn. It was released on January 20, 2017.
Mike Oldfield’s parents were Raymond Oldfield, a general practitioner, and Maureen Liston, an Irish nurse. His older sister Sally and older brother Terry are also successful musicians and have appeared on several of Mike’s albums. He also had a younger brother, David, who had Down syndrome and who died in infancy.
Oldfield was born in the Battle Hospital in Reading, Berkshire, and attended St. Joseph’s Convent School, Highlands Junior School, St. Edward’s preparatory school, and Presentation College in Reading. The family lived in Western Elms Avenue, Reading. When he was 13, he moved with his parents to Harold Wood in Essex and attended Hornchurch Grammar School, where, having already begun his career in music, he took one GCE examination, in English.
Having taught himself to play the guitar, Oldfield’s career began in his early teenage years, playing acoustic guitar in local folk clubs. At this time, he had already written two 15-minute instrumental pieces in which he would “go through all sorts of moods”, precursors to his landmark 1970s compositions. In his early teens, Oldfield was involved in a beat group playing The Shadows-style music (he has often cited Hank Marvin as a major influence, and would later cover The Shadows’ song “Wonderful Land”). In 1967, Oldfield and his sister Sally formed the folk duo The Sallyangie and, after exposure in the local folk scene, were signed to Transatlantic Records. An album, Children of the Sun, was issued in 1968. After The Sallyangie disbanded, Mike formed another duo called Barefoot with his brother, which took him back to rock music.
In 1970, Oldfield joined The Whole World – former Soft Machine vocalist Kevin Ayers’s backing group – playing bass and occasionally lead guitar. He and Ayers shared a flat for a time at the northern end of the Seven Sisters Road in London. Oldfield is featured on two Ayers albums, Whatevershebringswesing and Shooting at the Moon. The band also included keyboardist and composer David Bedford, who quickly befriended Oldfield, encouraged him in his composition of an early version of Tubular Bells and later arranged and conducted an orchestral version of the Tubular Bells album. Oldfield was also the reserve guitarist for the musical Hair and played with Alex Harvey.
Having recorded sections of this early version of Tubular Bells as demo pieces, Oldfield attempted to persuade record labels to take on the Tubular Bells project. Nothing came of his efforts until September 1971, when as a session musician and bass guitarist for the Arthur Louis Band, he attended recording sessions at The Manor Studio in Kidlington, near Oxford, owned by a young Richard Branson and run by engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. Branson already had several business ventures and was about to start his own record label, Virgin Records, together with Simon Draper. Newman and Heyworth heard some of Oldfield’s demo music and took it to Branson and Draper, who eventually gave Oldfield one week’s worth of recording time at The Manor. During this week, he completed “Part One” of Tubular Bells; “Part Two” was compiled over a number of months.
Virgin years (1973–1991)
Tubular Bells is Oldfield’s most famous work. The instrumental composition was recorded in 1972 and released on 25 May 1973 as the inaugural album of Richard Branson and Simon Draper’s label Virgin Records. Oldfield played more than twenty different instruments in the multi-layered recording, and its style moved through diverse musical genres. Its 2,630,000 UK sales puts it at No. 34 on the list of the best-selling albums in the country. The title track became a top 10 hit single in the US after the opening was used in The Exorcist film in 1973. It is today considered to be a forerunner of the new-age music movement.
In 1974, Oldfield played guitar on the critically acclaimed album Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt.
In late 1974, his follow-up LP, Hergest Ridge, was No. 1 in the UK for three weeks before being dethroned by Tubular Bells. Although Hergest Ridge was released over a year after Tubular Bells, it reached No. 1 first. Tubular Bells spent 11 weeks (10 of them consecutive) at No. 2 before its one week at the top. Like Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge is a two-movement instrumental piece, this time evoking scenes from Oldfield’s Herefordshire country retreat. It was followed in 1975 by the pioneering world music piece Ommadawn released after the death of his mother Maureen.
In 1975, Oldfield recorded a version of the Christmas piece “In Dulci Jubilo” which charted at No. 4 in the UK.
In 1975, Oldfield received a Grammy award for Best Instrumental Composition in “Tubular Bells – Theme from The Exorcist“.
In 1976, Oldfield and his sister joined his friend and band member Pekka Pohjola to play on his album Mathematician’s Air Display, which was released in 1977. The album was recorded and edited at Oldfield’s Througham Slad Manor in Gloucestershire by Oldfield and Paul Lindsay. Oldfield’s 1976 rendition of “Portsmouth” remains his best-performing single on the UK Singles Chart, reaching No. 3.
In 1978, Incantations introduced more diverse choral performances from Sally Oldfield, Maddy Prior, and the Queen’s College Girls Choir. Around the time of Incantations, Oldfield underwent a controversial self-assertiveness therapy course known as Exegesis, which had a significant effect on his personality, making him more confident and out-going. Possibly as a result, the formerly reclusive musician staged a major Tour of Europe to promote the album, chronicled in his live album Exposed, much of which was recorded at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham.
In 1979, Oldfield’s music was used as the musical score for The Space Movie, a Virgin movie that celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Also in 1979, he recorded a version of the signature tune of the British children’s television programme Blue Peter, which was used by the show for 10 years. In 1981, Oldfield was asked to compose a piece for the Royal Wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer, titled “Royal Wedding Anthem”.
The early 1980s saw Oldfield make the transition to mainstream pop music, beginning with the inclusion of shorter instrumental tracks and contemporary cover versions on Platinum and QE2 (the latter named after the ocean liner). Soon afterwards, he turned to songwriting, with a string of collaborations featuring various lead vocalists alongside his characteristic searing guitar solos. The best known of these is “Moonlight Shadow”, his 1983 hit with Maggie Reilly. The most successful Oldfield composition on the US pop charts during this period was Hall & Oates’s cover of Oldfield’s “Family Man” for their 1982 album H2O. Released as the album’s third single, it hit the Top 10 during the spring of 1983 and was a hugely popular MTV music video.
Oldfield later turned to film and video, writing the score for Roland Joffé’s acclaimed film The Killing Fields and producing substantial video footage for his album Islands. Islands continued what Oldfield had been doing on the past couple of albums, with an instrumental piece on one side and rock/pop singles on the other. Of these, “Islands”, sung by Bonnie Tyler and “Magic Touch”, with vocals by Max Bacon (in the US version) and Glasgow vocalist Jim Price (Southside Jimmy) in the rest of the world, were the major hits. In the US “Magic Touch” reached the top 10 on the Billboard album rock charts in 1988. During the 1980s, Oldfield’s then-wife, Norwegian singer Anita Hegerland, contributed vocals to many songs including “Pictures in the Dark”.
Earth Moving was released in July 1989 and was a moderate success. The album was the first to consist solely of rock/pop songs, several of which were released as singles: “Innocent” and “Holy” in Europe, and “Hostage” in the US for album rock stations. This was a time of much friction with his record label. Virgin Records insisted that Oldfield use the title Tubular Bells 2 for his next instrumental album. Oldfield’s rebellious response was Amarok, an hour-long work featuring rapidly changing themes, unpredictable bursts of noise and a hidden Morse code insult, stating “Fuck off RB”, allegedly directed at Richard Branson. It was not a commercial success. His last album for the Virgin label was Heaven’s Open, released under the name ‘Michael Oldfield’. The album, notable for being the first time Oldfield had contributed all the lead vocals himself, consisted of songs and the rapidly changing instrumental piece “Music from the Balcony”. However the rift with Virgin was healed some years later. In 2013 Oldfield invited Sir Richard to preside over the opening of the new school hall at St.Andrew’s International School of The Bahamas, where two of Oldfield’s children were pupils. This was the occasion of the debut of Tubular Bells for Schools, a piano solo adaptation of Oldfield’s work.
Warner years (1992–2003)
The first thing Oldfield did when arriving at his new label, Warner Bros., was to write and release Tubular Bells II, the sequel to his first record on Virgin, in what appeared to be a final insult to his former label. It was premiered at a live concert at Edinburgh Castle. He continued to embrace new musical styles, with The Songs of Distant Earth (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name) exhibiting a softer new-age sound. In 1994, he also had an asteroid, 5656 Oldfield, named after him.
In 1995, Oldfield continued to embrace new musical styles by producing the Celtic-themed album Voyager. In 1992, Oldfield met Luar na Lubre, a Galician Celtic-folk band (from A Coruña, Spain). The band’s popularity grew after Oldfield covered their song “O son do ar” (“The sound of the air”) on his Voyager album.
In 1998, Oldfield produced the third Tubular Bells album (also premiered at a concert, this time in Horse Guards Parade, London), drawing on the dance music scene at his then new home on the island of Ibiza. This album was inspired by themes from Tubular Bells, but differed in lacking a clear two-part layout.
During 1999, Oldfield released two albums. The first, Guitars, used guitars as the source for all the sounds on the album, including percussion. The second, The Millennium Bell, consisted of pastiches of a number of styles of music that represented various historical periods over the past millennium. The work was performed live in Berlin for the city’s millennium celebrations in 1999–2000.
He added to his repertoire the MusicVR project, combining his music with a virtual reality-based computer game. His first work on this project is Tr3s Lunas launched in 2002, a virtual game where the player can interact with a world full of new music. This project appeared as a double CD, one with the music, and the other with the game.
In 2003, Oldfield released Tubular Bells 2003, a re-recording of the original Tubular Bells, on CD, and DVD-Audio. This was done to “fix” many “imperfections” in the original due to the recording technologies of the early 1970s and limitations in time that he could spend in the recording studio. It celebrated the 30th anniversary of Tubular Bells, Oldfield’s 50th birthday and his marriage to Fanny in the same year. At around the same time Virgin released an SACD version containing both the original stereo album and the 1975 quadraphonic mix by Phil Newell. In the 2003 version, the original voice of the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ (Viv Stanshall) was replaced with the voice of John Cleese, Stanshall having died in the interim.
Mercury years (since 2004)
On 12 April 2004 Oldfield launched his next virtual reality project, Maestro, which contains music from the Tubular Bells 2003 album and some new chillout melodies. The games have since been made available free of charge on Tubular.net. A double album, Light + Shade, was released on Mercury Records in 2005, with whom Mike had recently signed a three-album deal. The two discs contain music of contrasting moods, one relaxed (Light) and the other more edgy and moody (Shade). Oldfield headlined the pan-European Night of the Proms tour, consisting of 21 concerts in 2006 and 2007.
His autobiography Changeling was published in May 2007 by Virgin Books. In March 2008 Oldfield released his first classical album, Music of the Spheres; Karl Jenkins assisted with the orchestration. In the first week of release the album topped the UK Classical chart and reached number 9 on the main UK Album Chart. A single “Spheres”, featuring a demo version of pieces from the album, was released digitally. The album was nominated for a Classical Brit Award, the NS&I Best Album of 2009.
In 2008, when Oldfield’s original 35-year deal with Virgin Records ended, the rights to Tubular Bellsand his other Virgin releases were returned to him, and were then transferred to Mercury Records. Mercury issued a press release on 15 April 2009, noting that Oldfield’s Virgin albums would be re-released, starting 8 June 2009. These releases include special features from the archives. As of 2013 a further seven albums have been reissued and compilation albums have been released such as Two Sides.
In March 2010, Music Week reported that publishing company Stage Three Music had acquired a 50% stake in the songs of Oldfield’s entire recorded output in a seven-figure deal.
In 2008, Oldfield contributed an exclusive song (“Song for Survival”) to a charity album called Songs for Survival, in support of the Survival International. Oldfield’s daughter, Molly, played a large part in the project. In 2010 lyricist Don Black said in an interview with Music Week that he had been working with Oldfield. In 2012, Oldfield was featured on Terry Oldfield’s Journey into Space album and on a track called “Islanders” by German producer Torsten Stenzel’s York project. In 2013 Oldfield and York released a remix album titled Tubular Beats.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Oldfield performed renditions of Tubular Bells, “Far Above the Clouds” and “In Dulci Jubilo” during a segment about the National Health Service. This track appears on the Isles of Wonder album which contains music from the Danny Boyle-directed show.
In October 2013, the BBC broadcast Tubular Bells: The Mike Oldfield Story, an hour-long appreciation of Oldfield’s life and musical career, filmed on location at his home recording studio in Nassau.
Oldfield’s latest rock-themed album of songs, titled Man on the Rocks, was released on 3 March 2014 by Virgin EMI. The album was produced by Steve Lipson. The album marks a return of Oldfield to a Virgin branded label, through the merger of Mercury Records UK and Virgin Records after Universal Music’s purchase of EMI. The track “Nuclear” was used for the E3 trailer of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Interviewed by Steve Wright in May 2015 for his BBC Radio 2 show, Oldfield said that he was currently working on a “prequel to Tubular Bells” which was being recorded using analogue equipment as much as possible. He suggested that the album might only be released on vinyl. The project is in its infancy and would follow his current reissue campaign. Oldfield suggested that it would be released “in a couple of years”.
On 16 October 2015 Oldfield tweeted, via his official Twitter account “I am continuing to work on ideas for “A New Ommadawn” for the last week or so to see if […] the idea actually works.“ On 8 May 2016, Oldfield announced via his Facebook group page that the new Ommadawn project with the tentative title of Return to Ommadawn is finished, and he is awaiting a release date from the record company. He also suggested that he may soon be starting work on a possible fourth Tubular Bellsalbum.
Oldfield’s latest album, Return to Ommadawn was released on 20 January 2017 and reached #4 in the UK Album Chart. On the 29 January 2017 Oldfield again hinted at a Tubular Bells 4 album via his official Facebook fan page; he uploaded photos of new equipment and a new Fender Telecaster guitar with the caption “New sounds for TB4!”
Multi-instrumentalism and instrument choices
Although Oldfield considers himself primarily a guitarist, he is also one of popular music’s most skilled and diverse multi-instrumentalists. His 1970s recordings were characterised by a very broad variety of instrumentation predominantly played by himself, plus assorted guitar sound treatments to suggest other instrumental timbres (such as the bagpipe, mandolin, “Glorfindel” and varispeed guitars on the original Tubular Bells). During the 1980s Oldfield became expert in the use of digital synthesizer and sequencers (notably the Fairlight CMI) which began to dominate the sound of his recordings: from the late 1990s onwards, he became a keen user of software synthesizers. He has, however, regularly returned to projects emphasising detailed, manually played and part-acoustic instrumentation (such as 1990’s Amarok, 1996’s Voyager and 1999’s Guitars).
Oldfield has played over forty distinct and different instruments on record, including:
- a wide variety of electric and acoustic six-string guitars and bass guitars (plus electric sitar and guitar synthesizer)
- other fretted instruments (banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, ukulele, Chapman Stick)
- keyboards (piano, organ, assorted synthesizers, spinet),
- electronic instruments (Fairlight CMI plus other digital samplers and sequencers; assorted drum programs, vocoder, software synthesizers)
- wind instruments (flageolet, recorder, penny and bass whistles, Northumbrian bagpipes)
- free-reed instruments (accordion, melodica)
- string instruments (violin, harp, psaltery)
- unpitched percussion (including bodhrán, African drums, timpani, rhythm sticks, tambourine, shaker, cabasa)
- tuned percussion (tubular bells, glockenspiel, marimba, gong, sleigh bells, bell tree, Rototoms, Simmons electronic drums, triangle)
- plucked idiophones (kalimba, jaw harp)
- occasional found instruments (such as nutcrackers)
While generally preferring the sound of guest vocalists, Oldfield has frequently sung both lead and backup parts for his songs and compositions. He has also contributed experimental vocal effects such as fake choirs and the notorious “Piltdown Man” impression on Tubular Bells.
Although recognised as an extremely skilled guitarist, Oldfield is self-deprecating about his other instrumental skills, citing them as having been developed out of necessity to perform and record the music he composes. He has been particularly dismissive of his violin-playing and singing abilities.
Over the years, Oldfield has used a range of guitars. Among the more notable of these are:
- 1963 Fender Stratocaster
- Serial no. L08044, in salmon pink (fiesta red). Used by Oldfield from 1984 (the Discoveryalbum) until 2006 (Night of the Proms, rehearsals in Antwerp). Subsequently, sold for £30,000 at Chandler Guitars.
- 1989 PRS Artist Custom 24
- In amber, used by Oldfield from the late 1980s to the present day.
- 1966 Fender Telecaster
- Serial no. 180728, in blonde. Previously owned by Marc Bolan, this was the only electric guitar used on Tubular Bells. The guitar was unsold at auction by Bonhams in 2007, 2008 and 2009 at estimated values of, respectively, £25,000–35,000, £10,000–15,000 and £8,000–12,000; Oldfield has since sold it and donated the £6500 received to the charity SANE.
- Various Gibson Les Paul and SG guitars
- Used extensively by Oldfield in the 1970s and 80s.
Oldfield used a modified Roland GP8 effects processor in conjunction with his PRS Artist to get many of his heavily overdriven guitar sounds from the Earth Moving album onwards. Oldfield has also been using guitar synthesizers since the mid-1980s, using a 1980s Roland GR-300/G-808 type system, then a 1990s Roland GK2 equipped red PRS Custom 24 (sold in 2006) with a Roland VG8, and most recently a Line 6 Variax.
Oldfield has an unusual playing style, using fingers and long right-hand fingernails and different ways of creating vibrato: a “very fast side-to-side vibrato” and “violinist’s vibrato”. Oldfield has stated that his playing style originates from his musical roots playing folk music and the bass guitar.
Over the years, Oldfield has owned and used a vast number of synthesizers and other keyboard instruments. In the 1980s, he composed the score for the film The Killing Fields on a Fairlight CMI. Some examples of keyboard and synthesized instruments which Oldfield has made use of include Sequential Circuits Prophet-5s (notably on Platinum and The Killing Fields), Roland JV-1080/JV-2080 units (1990s), a Korg M1 (as seen in the “Innocent” video), a Clavia Nord Lead and Steinway pianos. In recent years, he has also made use of software synthesis products, such as Native Instruments.
Oldfield has occasionally sung himself on his records and live performances, sometimes using a vocoder as a resource. It is not unusual for him to collaborate with diverse singers and to hold auditions before deciding the most appropriate for a particular song or album. Featured lead vocalists who have collaborated with him include:
Oldfield has self-recorded and produced many of his albums, and played the majority of the featured instruments, largely at his home studios. In the 1990s and 2000s he mainly used DAWs such as Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo as recording suites. For composing classical music Oldfield has been quoted as using the software notation program Sibelius running on Apple Macintoshes. He also used the FL Studio DAW on his 2005 double album Light + Shade. Among the mixing consoles Oldfield has owned are an AMS Neve Capricorn 33238, a Harrison Series X, and a Euphonix System 5-MC.
Oldfield and his siblings were raised as Roman Catholics, their mother’s faith. In his early life Oldfield used drugs such as LSD and discussed the mental health effects that it had on him in his autobiography. In the early nineties he underwent a course on mental health problems and subsequently set up a foundation called Tonic which sponsored people to have counselling and therapy. The trustee was the Professor of Psychiatry at Guy’s Hospital, London.
In the late 1970s, Oldfield briefly married Diana D’Aubigny (the sister of the Exegesis group leader), but this lasted just a few weeks. Oldfield has had seven children with his partners. In the early 1980s, he had three children with Sally Cooper: Molly, Dougal (who died aged 33 in May 2015) and Luke. In the late 1980s, he had two children (Greta and Noah) with Norwegian singer Anita Hegerland. In the 2000s, he married Fanny Vandekerckhove (born 1977), whom he met during his time in Ibiza; they have two sons together (Jake and Eugene). Oldfield and Fanny separated in 2013.
Oldfield is a motorcycle fan and has five bikes. These include a BMW R1200GS, a Suzuki GSX-R750, a Suzuki GSX-R1000, and a Yamaha R1. He says that some of his inspiration for composing comes from riding them. Throughout his life Oldfield has also had a passion for aircraft and building model aircraft. Since 1980, he has been a licensed pilot and has flown fixed wing aircraft (the first of which was a Beechcraft Sierra) and helicopters (including the Agusta Bell 47G, which featured on the sleeve of his cover version of the ABBA song “Arrival” as a parody of their album artwork). He is also interested in cars and has owned a Ferrari and a Bentley which was a gift from Richard Branson as an incentive for him to give his first live performance of Tubular Bells. He has endorsed the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the Mercedes UK magazine. Oldfield also considers himself to be a Trekkie (fan of the popular science fiction television series Star Trek). He noted in an interview in 2008 that he had two boats.
In 2007, Oldfield caused a minor stir in the British press by criticising Britain for being too controlling and protective, specifically concentrating on the smoking ban which England and Wales had introduced that year. Oldfield then moved from his Gloucestershire home to Palma de Mallorca, Spain and then to Monaco. He has lived outside the UK in the past, including in Los Angeles and Ibiza in the 1990s and, for tax reasons, Switzerland in the mid-1980s. In 2009, he moved to the Bahamas and put his home in Mallorca up for sale.
Oldfield has had more than 30 charting albums and 25 charting singles on the British charts and many more around the world.