Your first album is recorded in down time (when the studio isn’t being used by a paying customer). It’s released on a small label that no one has heard of. No one has heard of you either but within a year you are rich and the label owner will become one of the most famous entrepreneurs on the planet. Your wildest dreams have come true, except you are very shy, don’t like to do interviews and playing live is the last thing on your mind. Somehow you get through all this by the label owner giving you his Bentley and finally you can relax. Just one small issue – making another album!
Hergest Ridge came out in 1974 with the unenviable task of following up Tubular Bells. Oldfield had been heralded a genius and now after the dust settled it was time to see if he really was. Although he was a multi-instrumentalist and produced Tubular Bells himself, he wasn’t exactly a hit maker. How was he to follow up a hit album when the next record he put out was only ever going to be two instrumental pieces of 20 minutes per side?
It’s at this point that you realise that Oldifeld did in fact have a unique vison. First of all he sounds like himself, he has a unique guitar style and creates soundscapes in the same way as a classical or an electronic composer may do, but by using a myriad of instruments that you might find in a music store – and without the drums. The rhythms come from acoustic guitars and repeating chord patterns on the guitar, the bass and keyboards. Rising and falling and introducing new instruments, replacing the last one with a new one, adding another one, taking one away – this is how Hergest Ridge builds. Something in the chords he writes is uniquely him. Incredibly, he doesn’t sound at all like he has an album that will remain in the British charts for 279 weeks and go 7 x Platinum. But at this point it hadn’t, it grew slowly and in the meantime Oldfield just got on with writing and recording the follow up.
He starts with a floating keyboard pad, and penny whistles or flutes set up a mood as if they are heralding the arrival of an approaching army of fair maidens or something from a fantasy novel. Redolent of Tubular Bells in the melody, just, it starts to build in his inimitable way. (He must have listened to Ravel’s Bolero a thousand times). The electric guitars are introduced and the build begins, the guitars become more and more intense. Lead solos taking over from lead solos, acoustic guitars the rhythm section. Dropping in and out of intensity but at 7.50 he actually completely loses it,( I guess he didn’t hear it like that?), it doesn’t deter him and it almost becomes renaissance music 10 minutes into Part One with acoustic guitar, transforming into the multi-layered electric guitar he is best known for. Oboe, trumpet or french horn are also prevalent here and break up the electric guitars giving the track colour.
At about 13 minutes in, with distorted bass and organ, he does seem to be repeating a Tubular Bells chord sequence, although it develops into something different. What’s interesting is how he relies on riffs, patterns and guitar solos and they suffice. They build into greater and greater crescendos and eventually sleigh bells as a rhythm and then it all breaks down again before choral voices appear, (possibly a vocoder). It’s starting to sound like a mixture of Dark Side Of The Moon and Atom Heart Mother and then the Tubular Bells come in and off it goes onto Oldfield’s own planet again with the penny whistle/flute motif that started the first side – somehow he got back there.
Side 2, Part Two is another interesting chord progression, with multi-layered guitars, and like Pink Floyd, keyboards take over from guitars, except like in classical music, there’s no drums. And so the build begins again, all the dynamics are created with surges and cymbal flourishes and different textured instruments taking the lead and then there are voices – difficult to hear what they are singing but it doesn’t sound like English. Electric guitars come in and take over and then briefly mandolins and then just bass is left and a subtle keyboard and the theme returns. It carries on like this with electric guitars and keyboards appearing and disappearing and then what sounds like timpani? Then an odd and unsteady keyboard, not sequenced but played uncertainly (again he obviously didn’t hear it like that?), and then unexpectedly we are off into a circus of madness, the merry go round of hell, (where’s the screaming children)? Eventually the electric guitar joins into the madness. It’s like the dance of the merry devils, but Oldfield doesn’t break his pieces into named sequences as others might – he sees it as one composition.
It could be Phillip Glass at this point, it could be Koyaanisqatsi, and this is where we understand that Oldfield really is a modern classical composer, he’s just not an intellectual from New York, he’s just a shy bloke living in the countryside of the Welsh borders in Herefordshire composing this piece of music after breakfast, looking at the sheep or the cows, trying to be alone with his thoughts. The last 3 minutes of the piece are like the end of a film as the hero comes home and back come the foreign voices like Sigur Ros making up a language. Dense and intense this album is thick with instruments, fat with sound and singular in its vision, making it impossible to categorise and yet Oldfield might be the unhippest dude on the planet but not from his viewpoint. As an uncompromising left of centre, original composer he cannot really be compared to anyone, his success is unprecedented and he only ever did exactly what he wanted despite trends. Whatever you think about his music he is one of the most unlikely and uncompromising success stories in music – he lives in The Bahamas.
Just an added note – Hergest Ridge went into the British charts at Number 1 stayed there for 3 weeks and was toppled by – you guessed it, Tubular Bells.