Tubular Bells (Part 1)

Album: Tubular Bells (1973)
Charted: 31 7
  • songfacts ®
  • This is an instrumental song that is more than 25 minutes long. The most famous part is the intro, which was used as the theme to the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist.
  • Without words, this song conveys a rich texture of emotions that reflect Oldfield's state of mind when he wrote it. Oldfield was 17 when he started working on it, 19 when it was released. He was broke, living in a shoddy apartment in the North of London, and working as a bass player in the Arthur Lewis Band.

    "I was so focused, and I put all my concentration and all my energy - emotional, spiritual, physical even - into it," he told Top 2000 a gogo. "There's a lot of joy in it and there's a lot of suffering in it. There's good and bad, there's all areas of life: there's comedy, there's ugliness, there's beauty, there's everything in it, all made by my young self. I didn't know anything about the world, just for one reason or another - mental instability, some hallucinogenic drugs maybe, the circumstances of my childhood. The feeling of being different, being a kind of outsider, it all comes out in that music and maybe it appeals to people going through that stage. As they get into their teens, they think, What is life, what am I supposed to do. It develops and encapsulates all of that."
  • Oldfield played most of the instruments himself, which required lots of overdubbing, trial-and-error and studio tricks. There were no synthesizers: the main theme was a combination of organ, grand piano and glockenspiel formed into a tape loop and pitched up by speeding up the tape machine.

    The only instruments Oldfield didn't play were the flutes (done by Jon Field) and string bass (Lindsay Cooper). There is also a wordless chorus at the end of the track with vocalizations by Mundy Ellis and Oldfield's sister, Sally. The song took six days to record.
  • Some unusual instruments were used to record this, including a Farfisa organ, a Lowrey organ, and a flageolet (a kind of wind instrument). There were also flutes, a mandolin, and of course, tubular bells. The bells are represented on the album cover.

    Oldfield has given different accounts of how he ended up with tubular bells at the session. In one account, he saw a set of tubular bells at Abbey Road studios, which gave him the idea to order them for the recording; in another, he saw the bells coming out of a John Cale session that preceded his and asked to use them. Either way, he wasn't sure how he was going to use them, but figured they might come in handy.
  • The actual tubular bell doesn't come in until 1:02. Its sound is distorted, which was Oldfield's doing: instead of using the small mallet provided, he whacked it with a hammer.
  • This makes up Side 1 of the album. "Tubular Bells (Part 2)" makes up Side 2 and is around 23 minutes long. Side 2 was recorded over about 4 months when Oldfield and his producers used studio time between sessions for other bands.
  • Oldfield made the demo for this song in 1971, playing the main section on a Farfisa organ and recording it on a Bang & Olufsen tape machine he hacked so he could multi-track. Oldfield pitched it to major record companies, but they all turned it down. He finally found a taker when he was working at The Manor, an old country house that Richard Branson had recently converted into a studio for his new label, Virgin Records. Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth, who were working on the studio, heard Oldfield's demo and became his producers. It took about a year, Oldfield eventually got a deal with Virgin to make the album. When it was finally completed, Branson wasn't thrilled with the album but released it anyway. It was the first release on Virgin, which grew into a massive company, with an airline, record stores, and cell phone interests. Some of the artists who recorded for Virgin Records included The White Stripes, Moby, Aimee Mann, and The Black Crowes.
  • Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band serves as the "master of ceremonies" on this track, appearing near the end of the song when he introduces various instruments that then each play the same melody:

    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

    Stanshall was available because the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was next up in the studio. According to Oldfield, getting Stanshall to say the words correctly was a challenge: he was sloppy drunk and kept getting them wrong.
  • The song got a big boost from the influential BBC DJ John Peel, who played it on his Top Gear show in May 1973. Peel gave some helpful background information on the song, listing some of the instruments used. He called it, "Mike Oldfield's rather remarkable 'Tubular Bells.'"

    This ringing endorsement gave the song tremendous credibility and exposure.
  • The album hit #2 in the UK and #3 in the US. An edited version was released as the single and hit #7 in the US.
  • Oldfield released the album Tubular Bells II in 1992 and Tubular Bells III in 1998. In 2003, to commemorate 30 years since its release, Oldfield released a new version of the Tubular Bells album that he worked on for nine months, recording with modern equipment.
  • The UK release concluded with a rousing version of "The Sailor's Hornpipe" and a severely drunken Viv Stanshall babbling wondrously meaningless nonsense in an imitation of stuffy BBC announcers. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Ekristheh - Halath
  • Oldfield told the Daily Mail March 14, 2008 that he'd been badgering Richard Branson and his business partner, Simon Draper of Virgin Records, to give him a break. He recalled: "They had been fobbing me off for a year. I was actually about to apply for citizenship of the USSR, where I thought I could become a state-funded musician. Then the phone run and it was Simon Draper asking me to come to dinner with Richard and his wife on their houseboat.

    Eventually, he asked me what I needed to make an album. So I gave him a list of guitars, drums and pianos. Tubular bells weren't actually on the list. But, as I arrived at the studio, I noticed they were bringing some out from the last session, and I grabbed them. I had a hunch they might be useful."
  • Tubular Bells was one of the benchmark albums of the progressive rock era, spending 279 weeks in the UK chart and selling 15 million copies worldwide.
  • Speaking to The Daily Telegraph in 2014, Oldfield attributed much of Tubular Bells' success to its unusual key signature. "Most music is in 4/4 time, but that curious little figure at the beginning is in 15/8. It's like a puzzle with a little bit missing," he said. "That's why it sticks in the brain. And that's why it worked so well as the soundtrack to The Exorcist - with that little bit missing everything is not quite right."
  • Mike Oldfield wrote much of Tubular Bells on an old piano. He recalled to Uncut: "When I lived in Harold Wood, Redden Court Road, my grandma came to live with us. She was a pub pianist in the days when pubs were nice places, and people would go along for singalongs and could smoke. She brought her old piano to ours. It had a lovely vibe to it. Most of Tubular Bells was written on that piano."
  • Virgin boss Richard Branson wanted to name the album Breakfast In Bed, with a cover image of a boiled egg dripping blood. Oldfield fought him on it, eventually convincing him to go with Tubular Bells.
  • This won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition.
  • A version of this song truncated to 3:18 was released as a single in December 1973 when The Exorcist hit theaters. Stamped with the message, "Now The Original Theme From "The Exorcist", it rose to #7 US on May 11, 1974, thanks to the movie's tremendous success.
Please sign in or register to post comments.

Comments: 28

  • Bryce from Lima, OhWith regards to "Caveman", there's an interview Oldfield did where he claims that, during recording, Richard Branson made a fuss over the fact of there not being any lyrics on the record. This infuriated Oldfield, who allegedly said "You want lyrics?! I'll give you lyrics!" then proceeded to polish off an entire bottle of Jameson whiskey, then went into the studio and "screamed his brains out for 10 minutes".
  • Brad from Topeka, KsMy all time favorite instrumental.
  • Roy from SloughI recently rebought the 1973 recording of "tubular bells" but Viv Stanshall is not on it WHY? Also the sailors hornpipe is a straight rip off from a TORNADOES B side called Popeye Twist.
  • Tom from Freiburg, GermanyI believe that "Caveman" is not backwards, but that it was played back at half tape speed or so (which is identical to having been recorded at double tape speed). He did what Les Paul did way back in the 50's with his guitar, just the other way round. This procedure not only brings the tempo down, but also drastically alters the sound of a voice towards a caveman quality.
  • Laurence from Bognor Regis, United KingdomStill soundz excellent 38 years on - TB2 also worth a try...
  • Paul from London, -Regarding:

    'The UK release concluded with a rousing version of "The Sailor's Hornpipe" and a severely drunken Viv Stanshall babbling wondrously meaningless nonsense in an imitation of stuffy BBC announcers.'

    This is not true. This version was removed from the original version before release and reinstated in a version in a later box.
  • Paul from Washington Dc, DcI learned to play this by ear on the piano. I was 13 and had been taking lessons since I was six. I tried to find it on sheet music but drew a blank. I wanted to perform it at a recital.
  • Oldpink from New Castle, InSo good to hear that someone did Pink Floyd one better (their songs "Atom Heart Mother" and "Echoes" took up an entire side of vinyl) by putting full album length tracks on BOTH sides of the disc.
    Definitely a chilling song, especially the way I was introduced to it: Used to great effect in "The Exorcist."
  • John from Rocklin, CaThe tubular bells that Oldfield discovered in the studio, which he decided to use for the album, were from a previous recording session by John Cale.
  • Cecilia from Portland, OrThis is one song I'd take with me if I were stuck on an island with a very limited collection of songs to bring along. One can reflect, and the song can mean many things depending on where life happens to be going.
  • Mars from Edinburgh, ScotlandThe famous end of this song, where Bonzo Dog Band leader Viv Stanshall names the instruments, bears a striking resemblance to Viv Stanshall's own song, "The Intro And The Outro", from the album 'Gorilla' (1967) - where the same jazz riff is repeated over and over, with new instruments being overlaid and introduced by Stanshall himself. The instruments include Val Doonican "as himself", and Adolf Hitler on vibes...
  • Dean from Waltham, MaThe flageolet is a tiny wooden flute that makes the piccolo larger in comparison.
  • Razor from London, EnglandActually the version of "Sailor's Hornpipe" with Viv Stanshall drunkenly narrating is included on the "BOXED" set (i.e the album which is called "Boxed"!)
  • T. Michels from Venlo, NetherlandsI gotta admit that I've listened to Part Two then Part One now, but that's just because it's very, very, very beautiful.
    Also, I have TB 2003, wich is a much better re-doing of the original one. It's more clear and bright, thereby, you hear many new instruments although the sound stays the same.
    Love the Bagpipe Guitar, Introduction and Blues section of that cd.
    Olso, John Cleese was the master of ceremonies on this one, wich is olso kinda cool. :)
  • T. Michels from Venlo, NetherlandsTo come back to the 'caveman' on part 2, okay I did listen to it more than once, it's just a totally hammerd Mike Oldfield grumbling nothing special. He was just screaming into the mic and that made the caveman. Vivian Stanshall or other men aren't the caveman, a totally drunk Mike Oldfield is/was.
  • T. Michels from Venlo, NetherlandsGreat song and an awesome intro wich gives me cold shivers eveytime I hear it.
    And olso, at the end, when Vivian Stanshall introduces the tubular bells, that loud sound, awesome.
    Olso great sleeve design. And although the Tubular Bells are illustrated bent on the sleeve, their actually straight. This 'bent idea' came from Oldfield himself. He used some heavier bangers for the Tubular Bells and thought he saw them bent. Therefor, he asked the sleevedesigner, Trevor Key, to make a bent one.
    Key got his inspiration from the painting "Castle in the Pyrenees", by Magritte. (1959)
    I only listen to part one, because I think Part 2 is actually worse.
    Everyone should hear/know this immediat classic!
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiawhat a mighty piece of work this is , would've loved to have seen this live , maybe a bit hard if Mike played all the instruments , would've been a lot of running around on stage....
  • Pat from Las Vegas, NvThis is an amazingly good album. I bought the LP when it first came out (yeah I'm an old f*rt) and played it until I wore out the record. I'll have to get a copy of the Mike Oldfield boxed set (also comes with two other Oldfield albums that I used to have, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, and excerpts from others) or download the set from iTunes sometime in the near future.
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiaand thanks to you Si.... he sounded really polished.... would've been great to be a part of
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiathanks Gavin
  • Gavin from Dundee, ScotlandThe guy who introduced the instruments on Tubular Bells was former Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band member Viv Stanshall. Actor Alan Rickman (credited as "a strolling player") did the same duties on Tubular Bells II which was released 20 years later.
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiajust found out he's name is Allan Rickman
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiaso who was the guy who introduced each instrument???
  • Katie from Miami, FlThis is also used at the beginning of Book of Love's "Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls".
  • Si from London, EnglandThe narrator at the end of Tubular Bells Part I is the late Vivian Stanshall who used to be lead vocalist with the Bonzo Dog Band.
  • Kyle from Wingham, Ontario, Canadaat some points in the song, there are as many as 16 tracks mixed at once. Myself and three classmates did a cover of this song two years ago for an independant study project. We stole the show!
  • Peter from Sydney, Australiaonly ever played live a few times, as Mike Oldfield had an extreme case of 'stage fright'
  • Anton from Hayward, CaIt has been said that without this album the Virgin conglomerate would not exist.

    I've forgotten who is the narrator at the end. It's not Oldfield.

    I once heard a rumor that the "caveman grunts" on side two are backward. Not true. (I dismantled a cassette to find out!)
see more comments

Rush: Album by Album - A Conversation With Martin PopoffSong Writing

A talk with Martin Popoff about his latest book on Rush and how he assessed the thousands of albums he reviewed.

Andy McClusky of OMDSongwriter Interviews

Known in America for the hit "If You Leave," OMD is a huge influence on modern electronic music.

Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go'sSongwriter Interviews

Charlotte was established in the LA punk scene when a freaky girl named Belinda approached her wearing a garbage bag.

Jesus Christ Superstar: Ted Neeley Tells the Inside StorySong Writing

The in-depth discussion about the making of Jesus Christ Superstar with Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the 1973 film.

Sarah BrightmanSongwriter Interviews

One of the most popular classical vocalists in the land is lining up a trip to space, which is the inspiration for many of her songs.

Timothy B. Schmit of the EaglesSongwriter Interviews

Did this Eagle come up with the term "Parrothead"? And what is it like playing "Hotel California" for the gazillionth time?