by Rob Miles
The world into which Ommadawn was born was on the verge of a major change in 1975, but this was not easy to foresee at the time. Whilst the more mainstream rocksters such as The Rolling Stones were touring the United States, a young Bruce Springsteen was cutting his first hit record, the shape of things to come. The Who's 'Tommy' had a cinema release, gobbling up the box-offices wherever it went. Disco and reggae were establishing themselves, eventually usurping singer-songwriting combos such as The Carpenters in the singles charts.
But these would not define the times. A more cynical, hard-nosed era was beginning. The United States' ally South Vietnam finally succumbed to the nationalist forces, humiliating the world's most influential power. In the UK, terrorist bombs were tearing communities apart and the good times promised by the Sixties' high-rise boom were turning bad. Hooliganism was growing, with many young men feeling cut off from the rest of society by increasing joblessness, poverty, lack of spirituality and hatred of the status quo. The hippie generation was losing its way, taking with it the artistic and intellectual high ground that these young people had held for a little while. 1975 would see it come to an end. The second half of the decade would be defined by a harsher, less melodic sound.
Right at the end of this year came the greatest pieces of the passing era in terms of musical expressiveness. Ommadawn was the triumph of the Rock Symphony, whilst shortly afterwards came one of the most artistic singles of the decade - Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody - which ruled the charts throughout the final month of that year. Amid the triumph of these two forms, on November 6th 1975, a group of disillusioned young men performed as a group for the first time. This group was to be known as The Sex Pistols.
On Friday 15th May 1953, Michael Gordon Oldfield was born to parents Maureen and Raymond Oldfield in Reading, England. When he was around the age of seven, his father bought him his first guitar and taught him a few basic chords. With two musically-gifted older siblings, Sally and Terry (both of whom forged successful careers in their own right), music became Mike's principal escape from a world which, for him, was rapidly turning dark.
Throughout this period, Mike's mother was frequently suffering bouts of severe depression, forcing her to be admitted to imposing Victorian mental hospitals for treatment. This domestic unhappiness drove Mike in upon himself. He would spend hours and whole weekends listening to Bert Jansch, Segovia, John Renbourn and Julian Bream records, lifting the needle to copy what he heard, and becoming in the process a secluded, introverted genius whilst the world passed by in ignorance. The style he copied would later be used on all the guitars Mike would play - not just the classical or Spanish guitar.
Communication with fellow human beings was always difficult for Mike. He would go out with friends and sit quietly as they talked around him, but when he got his guitar out, it was their turn to fall silent. The guitar became Mike's voice - the voice that could not find expression through his vocal chords. He was also not a company man right from the start - he was expelled from his school for refusing to cut his long hair.
Mike's early career revolved around the folk music favoured by sister Sally. When Mike was still only 15, they formed a folk duo called The Sallyangie, and, in 1968 recorded an album called Children of the Sun, which featured Mike on guitar and vocals. However, although this period left its mark on Mike, he wanted something more, so he joined his brother in forming an electric group called Barefeet. Although this was more what Mike seemed to be looking for, the group failed to make much headway, but he finally managed to find a home of sorts in Kevin Ayers' Whole World Band, a group of eccentric musicians and composers among whose ranks Mike found a long-term friend and collaborator in David Bedford, who would later arrange Mike's music for the orchestra. Although principally a bassist, Mike was given freedom of expression on lead guitar on a couple of tracks, particularly a section resembling what would later become the second half of Tubular Bells Part Two on 'Whatevershebringswesing' (from the album of the same name).
After the break-up of this group in 1971, Mike became a session player, whilst simultaneously putting his ideas together for what would eventually become Tubular Bells. When his current group, The Arthur Lewis Band, took up residence at Richard Branson's new recording studio, The Manor, Fate, or Chance, or History, finally caught up with him. Over the following couple of years, he would not only develop as a musician and a composer, but also as an engineer and producer- skills which would be brought to bear on Ommadawn.
When Mike had recorded Tubular Bells, he thought he would be happy that he had accomplished his dream of creating his own album. However, the unexpected success was more than the fragile young man could handle. "It was like heading for the top of Tower Bridge and ending up on the moon" he would say much later. Mike was terrified of the usual trappings of stardom: the screaming fans, the groupies, the interviews and, particularly, the live performances that were now expected of him. He retreated to The Beacon, a house on a hill overlooking Hergest Ridge near Kington, Herefordshire, where Ommadawn would eventually be recorded, and there began to build himself his own studio.
It was in the countryside that Mike found some degree of peace from the chaos of success and the city. He loved to fly model aircraft and just walk or ride along the hillsides without any pressure or unwanted noise or commotion. He later took flying lessons from Martin Griffiths of nearby Penrhos court, whose children sang The Horse Song on Part Two of Ommadawn. Simple pleasures ruled Mike's life - he would spend time with his friends William Murray and Les Penning getting drunk in local pubs. This lifestyle was more than just a preferred choice - it cured him temporarily of the panic attacks he suffered whenever he was forced to act in the role of the rock superstar the record company wanted.
Mike's isolation and inability to communicate was a major problem for those trying to promote him and his music in these early years. After trying to fend off the commercial pressures to produce a follow-up album, Mike finally rushed out the album Hergest Ridge just over a year later. Given the plaudits Mike had received after Tubular Bells, the chances that his second album would be seen as equally revolutionary were rare indeed, but that did not stop the young Mike from taking to heart the negative reviews that appeared as people realised that this was no 'Tubular Bells 2'. A man who had struggled to live with success now had to reconcile himself to what to him appeared as relative failure, despite the huge volume of sales. Two years before, Hergest Ridge would have been a huge success. The context of Tubular Bells changed all that. Again, Mike retreated, pulling out of concert engagements for the new 'Orchestral Tubular Bells' and an orchestral version of Hergest Ridge after the sudden death of his mother.
At the moment before composing Ommadawn, Mike was firmly ensconced in The Beacon with a fully functioning studio and a growing number of artists he was prepared to work with. The bright lights of the city held nothing but terror for him and he yearned for the serenity and beauty of a simpler, rural way of life. Success had frightened him and disappointment had wounded him, and the death of his mother had scarred him.
For a man whose voice lay in the guitar and whose pent-up passions found a vent in music, the ingredients were gathered for one of the most emotionally-charged pieces of music ever created.
Ommadawn seems to capture Mike's conflicting moods at the time of its creation. The album was released to the general public on the 28th October 1975, and any astrologer listening to this piece will quickly recognise the characteristic qualities of Scorpio in this music - dark, moody, full of passion and yet capable of tender and loving reflective moments. It is an album with a story to tell. Perhaps it could be said to be an instrumental autobiography.
Certainly, it has an heroic birth mythology. Started in January 1975 with the intention to beat back at the world which seemed to have cornered him, Mike found the going very hard in the first few months. Working mostly with Les Penning and William Murray, he was beset with technical problems which culminated in the whole of Part One having to be started again because of problems with the master tape. Mike and William worked on the same mixing desk that had been used for the live premiere of Orchestral Hergest Ridge at the Royal Albert Hall, with Les Penning making regular calls to add more layers to his recorder sessions.
By August, the deadline was approaching, and the album was a long way from being finished. The arrival of the more prominent guest musicians would change all that, and also give the album its name. Clodagh Simonds had been asked to write some Gaelic lyrics, and one of the words was 'Ommadawn'. Mike liked the sound of that, although it is probably a part of the mythology of the album that he naively failed to understand that it meant 'idiot'. Another part of the mythology concerns the recording of the Uillean Pipe section. Phil Newell claimed that it was a late night drinking session that led to the completion of this section, but a more likely story comes from Paddy Moloney himself, who relates that he arrived at the studio, heard Mike play the melody and then recorded it almost immediately.
The natural nine-month gestation period was up in September, when the master was finally delivered to Virgin, only narrowly meeting the deadline.
Ommadawn's importance to the wider canon is obvious almost right from the start when seen in the context of the first two albums - this is a significant shift away from the largely gentle, mellow trips that the others were. Shortly before the four minute mark, we hear something that will soon become another signature of the artist - the screaming solo guitar. This is no dying fall as might be found in Hergest Ridge, or a gospel-inspired phrase as might be found on Tubular Bells (although this is clearly a development from the Piltdown Man section of that album - another time when Mike had cause to scream) but a soul-wrenching wail that is initially contained beneath the pastoral exterior before bursting out like a pent-up force to occupy the centre ground of the album. It returns to spend itself into the climax at the end of Part One. The screaming guitar would feature in one form or another on every Mike Oldfield album from this point on.
Other important developments with this album are more in the way of shifts rather than sudden changes. Mike recorded almost all of Ommadawn at his own home studio, with only the Jabula section being recorded at The Manor. This would lead on to greater autonomy with respect to recording and, with the finishing of his next home/studio at Througham-Slad, the opportunity to use his growing skills as a producer and engineer for his friends. More additional artists were featured on this album, a trend that would continue. The growing use of vocals would develop into full songs, some as singles, others as a part of a wider instrumental piece.
Ommadawn stands at a crossroads of Mike's life, as he himself has said. On the one hand, this was an album that sought to convey confidence and great personal belief, and as such it was a lot less timid than his earlier works. It is also the last of the first great phase of his life, for the age of the hippie was dead, and pastoral pleasures were destined to be swept away in a tide of Punk. Ahead lay the complete abandonment of the progressive movement in Western music that had taken rock and jazz influences to their highest measure. For Mike personally, ahead also lay exegesis, a new confidence, tours, and a more popular approach to composition. Incantations, released in 1978, was largely composed before Mike's shift in direction, and so contains a mix of the old Mike and the new. After that, there would be no whole-album instrumental track until 1990, when Amarok would turn back the clock.
Mike's style, both as a composer and a musician, has varied considerably, but scratch the surface of any Mike Oldfield album and you'll find artefacts that could even take you right back to Tubular Bells composed in 1973. Sometimes it is the structure and orchestration that links ideas from one album to ideas found in previous works - Mike remains one of the most frequent users of tubular bells in the world of modern music (and, indeed, they can be heard on this composition). More often, it is actual themes and motifs, often heavily disguised which hint at the detailed archaeology of a Mike Oldfield composition.
The chief source for Ommadawn in this context is Hergest Ridge, particularly, but not exclusively, Part Two of that album. Although much of this source material is still intact, the album in its original form is, sadly, lost due to the composer's desire for the remixed version produced in 1976 to become the standard master for all future reissues. Tubular Bells may have been the model for Hergest Ridge, but it is quite clear that Hergest Ridge has a much more cohesive structure, with recurring and developing themes spread over both parts of the album, leading to a more symphonic development than can be found on the earlier work. Ommadawn follows this pattern, with the same themes and motifs present in both parts, albeit softened on Part Two. It is interesting to note that the album that followed Ommadawn, Incantations, is even more symphonic in nature, to the point of having its first "movement" structured in accordance with ternary form.
Thematic ideas taken from Hergest Ridge begin at the beginning, and can be heard right at the end. There are at least two variations of the main theme of Part Two present in Ommadawn - one becomes the more strident 'pre-climax' theme which is heard prior to both the main explosive points on Part One of Ommadawn, and the other is a more familiar slow adaptation first heard during the cacophonous opening of Part Two, but occurring throughout. The cacophony itself is a development from the 'Thunderstorm' section of Hergest Ridge - a wall of sound made up from dozens of layers of guitars. Another obvious link between the two albums is the rhythm, which was first heard towards the start of Hergest Ridge Part Two, and can be said to resemble the rhythm of a horse at the canter. As well as being prominent throughout Ommadawn, it was also used on the single released by Mike in February of the same year (1975) called 'Don Alfonso'. One other link is a little more difficult to describe, since it appears in many guises on both albums - a four note motif.
It has often been said that Amarok, produced in 1990, was supposed to be some kind of 'Ommadawn 2', and, indeed, there are many similarities between the two albums, not least the use of many of the same musicians. Albums of the late 1990s also drew heavily on the drum rhythm found at the end of Part One, most notably Tubular Bells III, which uses the quotation to create almost the same emotional explosion as the original. Only Amarok, however, makes use of the same four-note pattern that can only be found on Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. It is like a genetic code that links these three albums together. Listen out for it.
There are many reasons why one would expect to find similarities between Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. One of these is, obviously, the fact that one album follows another, and it is only to be expected that ideas conceived on one album should be developed and refined on the next. However, there is also a commonality of ideas between the two albums. Mike's only escape from the city-induced panic attacks was his life in the countryside, and the pastoral ideas that formed the concept of Hergest Ridge were still just as important to Mike when he composed Ommadawn as they were a year earlier.
In a more general way, Ommadawn was a kind of successor to Hergest Ridge. Tubular Bells, although relatively straightforward in comparison to Ommadawn, is famous for its overdubs, but Hergest Ridge pushed the boundaries of the reproduction medium to the limit, causing severe problems with the technical quality of the album in the process. Ommadawn follows in this tradition of putting layer after layer onto the master tape, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to hear all of the detail without the aid of headphones. You will find a surprising amount of half-hidden treasures as you listen to this album, whispering to you upon the cusp of hearing. Although Ommadawn is by no means the only album in the canon to exhibit such tantalising teasing, it can certainly be said to be the album which makes the most use of it.
Part One begins with the two melodies Mike based his concept for the album upon. The simple folk round gives way periodically to a more menacing, deep bass, before resuming, until something else appears in the background - a solo guitar playing insidiously beneath the calm, pastoral exterior. With a sudden flourish, this guitar bursts out to usurp the melody, repeating itself and building up towards a climax, but before the climax is taken to its conclusion, it resolves into a pattern of guitars, taking the listener back in time to a happier, more content time, filled with recorders and jolly melodies, all interweaved with some breathtakingly beautiful passages. After a momentary halt, the most glorious of these passages passes, and a fast guitar-riff sets the scene for the finale, bump-starting a reprise of the first theme before a demonstration on recorder of the darker second theme. From here begins the relentless African drumming, mixed with the Gaelic lyric, which repeats, getting faster and faster, with more and more orchestration, until, finally the guitar theme that announced the first climax returns. This time, it is allowed to spend itself fully, sending guitars, drums and voices scattering in all directions, burning up all the vented anger, frustration, joy and passion in one great orgasm of sound. And when the final moment of the climax is reached, everything is taken away, leaving only the heartbeat rhythm of the drums.
Part Two opens with a cacophonous sound created by layer upon layer of guitar. It could be said to sound like the tortured sound of the soul exposed at the end of Part One, and, indeed, Part One elements can be heard within this tapestry of sound. The main theme of Part Two is also present here, but greatly slowed down. After a time, the acoustic guitar's dominance is assured, and the cacophony gradually diminishes, leaving the listener emerging blinking into the sunlight of a pastoral scene. A gentle guitar piece soothes the mind after the opening, and leads into one of the most beautiful, sad and reflective passages of the album as Paddy Moloney's pipes take up a haunting melody, which grows gradually in confidence as more layers of orchestration are laid upon it. A softer, but still menacing, version of the pre-climax theme appears, but this time it precedes an expansive passage, reminiscent of the glory of a view from the top of a high hill, before a crazy bazouki-led party take off, finishing this part of the album on a note of happy optimism.
The Horse Song, which follows the end of Part Two, is a hymn to Mike's love of horse-riding which he picked up soon after moving to The Beacon. It is expressive of the pleasure to be found in the countryside as opposed to 'the city...the noise...chaos' which drove Mike to seek a rural retreat in the first place. Simple pleasures fill this song, and this together with the choir of children give this section of the album a very child-like quality to the album. Lost childhood is an important issue with Mike, and so this theme is as deeply-rooted in Mike's soul as anything else you hear on Ommadawn. Besides, as a way to continue the narrative, the ride on Hergest Ridge depicted in the music is as good a way as any to suggest 'And they all lived happily ever after'. Mike used to ride first thing in the morning to clear his head of 'the thunder' of the night before.
If you enjoyed Ommadawn, the most effective next step would be to purchase Amarok which features many of the artists Mike used and revisits some of the themes. However, if the explosive passion of Part One is what you are interested in, I would recommend Tubular Bells III which has a similar emotional structure and borrows extensively from Ommadawn in its own climactic conclusion. Fans of Part Two, particularly the Paddy Moloney section, may wish to start with Taurus II from the album Five Miles Out which also features that artist and contains some beautiful pastoral passages. Obviously, Hergest Ridge would also be of interest, but bear in mind that this would not be the original version of Hergest Ridge upon which parts of Ommadawn were based. If a narrative style is more your interest, The Songs of Distant Earth is the strongest narrative Mike has ever produced, based as it is on a work of fiction by Arthur C Clarke, although this album is light-years away from Ommadawn in terms of orchestration.
I like beer and I like cheese
I like thunder and I like rain
Some like the city, some the noise
Some find it strange to be here
Some are short and others tall
So if you feel a little glum
(I'd rather be on horseback)
Jabula were led by percussionist Julian Bahula (b. 1938), who was a founder member of Afro-Jazz group The Malombo Jazzmen (later Malombo) in South Africa in the 1960s. Because of the apartheid regime, many musicians were forced to work in exile, and so Julian came to London where he formed the group Jabula with fellow exiles Ernst Mothle, Lucky Ranku and Eddie Tatane. In 1975, they were signed to Virgin, and produced at least one single in that year (Jabula Happiness Virgin VS118) and an album, Jabula, on the Caroline Records label (2004). Julian Bahula returned to work with Mike along with other Ommadawn veterans on Mike's 1990 album Amarok, and, in 1995, he recorded the appropriately-named album 'Wind of Change'.
Pierre Moerlen (b.1952), the son of music-teaching parents, studied percussion under Jean Batigue at the Strasbourg Conservatory before graduating in 1972 at the top of his class. He joined the eclectic group Gong in 1973, just after they had signed up with Virgin, and it was this that led to Mike seeing both Pierre and Steve Hillage (who would later take Mike's place for the orchestral concerts). Pierre was immediately taken on to play at the live premiere of Tubular Bells, and from then on he appeared regularly on Mike's tours and albums (including Hergest Ridge) well into the 1980s.
Paddy Moloney (b.1938) was born into a family with strong links to the traditional Irish music scene. He started learning the Uilleann pipes from Leo Rowsome when he was at the tender age of eight, and worked throughout his early life on developing his technique with this instrument. After working in his spare time with various musicians, he put a group together to produce an album called 'The Chieftains', and thus the most famous traditional Irish group was formed. When he joined Mike at The Beacon in the late Summer of 1975, he had just finished working as a producer for Claddagh Records in order to concentrate on his career as a musician. After Ommadawn, he returned to work with Mike on the albums Five Miles Out and Amarok.
William Murray (d. 1999) was a good friend of Mike's from the Kevin Ayers days. Although later known as a photographer, at the time he worked with Mike (from 1974 to the completion of Ommadawn) he was still a percussionist. 'Willie' lived with Mike at The Beacon and contributed to both Hergest Ridge and the single 'In Dulci Jubilo', and continued to be a house-guest after Mike moved to Througham-Slad towards the end of 1975. In addition to percussion on Ommadawn, he also helped to engineer the album. Later, he took an interest in photography and made that his career. Indeed, it was he who produced the short story and cover photograph of Mike for the album that was originally intended as a follow-up to Ommadawn, Amarok, almost fifteen years later.
Sally Oldfield (b. 1947), Mike's older sister, had the good fortune as a schoolgirl to meet and befriend Marianne Faithfull, who became Mick Jagger's girlfriend in the late 1960s as well as a highly successful musician in her own right. She attended Bristol University where she met two of Mike's heroes: Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (the latter introducing Sallyangie to the Transatlantic record label). She worked again with her younger brother on Tubular Bells as a vocalist, and went on to perform in the concert and record with Mike on Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn and Incantations. In 1978, her solo career finally took off with the album 'Water Bearer' and the single 'Mirrors', having particular success in Germany.
Terry Oldfield (b. 1949), Mike's older brother, left school at sixteen and immediately became fascinated by the music business. Like his younger brother, he was mostly self taught, and his first instrument, the one that became for him what the guitar was for Mike, was the flute. He travelled extensively, soaking up a variety of cultures and experiences, and would later become a hugely successful write of music for film and television, starting with the BBC's series 'Great Railway Journeys of the World'. He first collaborated with Mike in the group 'Barefeet', and then played the flute on Hergest Ridge. After Ommadawn, he played the flute again on Incantations.
Leslie Penning was a local Herefordshire musician when Mike became resident at The Beacon, and Les quickly became a regular guest there. It was Les who introduced Mike to horse riding, and, together with William Murray, they would visit local pubs or ride on Hergest Ridge. A man with a passion for early music, his recorder playing is steeped in the tradition of what was once a mainstay instrument throughout Europe. He contributed recorder on In Dulci Jubilo before working on the many recorder layers built up on Ommadawn. He continued to work on Mike's singles after Ommadawn was released. After spending some time with Mike after his move to Througham-Slad, he went his own way, having some success with the traditional folk song 'The British Grenadiers' in the late 1970s.
Clodagh Simonds was born in Banbridge, Co Down and sent to the Holy Child Convent school in Killiney in 1963. There, she founded a group with two schoolfriends in the late 1960s called Mellow Candle, and she learned her trade singing popular songs of the time for school concerts. At the age of 15, the group signed their first recording contract, but success was elusive until a reformed line up appeared in 1970, supporting Paddy Maloney's group The Chieftains. Late in 1971, the percussionist William Murray joined the group, who would be instrumental in bringing Clodagh to Mike's attention. When Mellow Candle split up in 1973, Clodagh began to seek other artists to work with, and worked extensively with Mike on both Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. She would later return to work with Mike on Amarok and Tubular Bells III.
Bridget St John was another artist Mike met during his time with Kevin Ayers. She had actually seen Mike before, when he was performing with his sister as Sallyangie in 1968. Although pushed by her parents into studying a variety of classical instruments, Bridget was determined to play the guitar, and she finally had the independence to own one at the age of 19. However, it was as a vocalist that she would become well known, and she joined The Whole World in 1970, performing with Mike on the 'Shooting at the Moon' album and on the single 'If You've Got Money'. After recording her layers of voices on this album, she did not work with Mike again until reunited with many other artists from this album to produce Amarok.
Sleeve notes by The Sledgehammer
Join - Members - Submissions - Mike Oldfield - FAQ - Links