The IT Crowd star and National Album Day ambassador’s love of prog was kickstarted by Mike Oldfield’s debut, a landmark album that, as he tells Steve Harnell, he remains in thrall to 30 years on…
“I first heard Tubular Bells on vinyl as a 14-year-old. I couldn’t afford CDs as a kid, I didn’t have any money, so everything was on vinyl for me up until the early 90s. My mum bought it for me after I told her it looked like something I’d be interested in.
“I first heard an excerpt of it on a compilation that was around in the mid 80s and that was all I needed. I was immediately obsessed and I’ve been playing it constantly ever since. It was my first introduction to prog, although at 14 I wouldn’t have really known what prog was at that point.
“Mike Oldfield was 17 when he made it, so I was impressed by the fact when I first heard it that it was someone only a few years older than me who created that record. It spurred me on to make my own things, whether it would be TV, art or albums.
“Aged 13, just before the first time I heard Tubular Bells, my parents bought me an organ, which they left in my bedroom. The cool thing was they didn’t hassle me to get any lessons, they just left it in my bedroom for me to discover. From that, I got a very early and cheap four-track, then I started to record the organ, four different tracks, building it up. I couldn’t play anyone else’s songs because I couldn’t read music – I still can’t.
A Strong Force
“Even all these years later there still aren’t that many albums like Tubular Bells, where one musician has played every one of the acoustic instruments live, hasn’t used a computer – basically played against themselves. You’ve got to remember that it was 1973, you couldn’t cut and paste and repeat musical phrases like you can now. For a phrase that lasts three minutes, he would have had to have played for three minutes. Not many people are doing that now, or did it since.
“I’d never heard anything like it before, and when you find out about Mike Oldfield’s state of mind when he made it, it makes perfect sense. There’s an atmosphere of total chaos that runs through the whole thing, whether it’s contained or set free. There’s a kind of mental illness you can hear through it. In terms of listening, that makes it rich, you can return to it multiple times and still find something new.
“When music has been thought about so obsessively by the composer, you’re going to experience a richness in it, as opposed to someone doing it as a cynical exercise for the money. That will probably just last two or three listens, you’ll get out of that exactly the same amount as whoever did it put into it.
“There’s this assumption that if you are incredibly talented within the arts then you’ll obviously be a dancing whatever, but with Mike that didn’t necessarily follow. There’s no reason why he should be an extrovert, a frontman, just because he’s made a best-selling album. That was the fight he had. I understand it from a record-label point of view and I understand it from his point of view. Neither he or Richard Branson would have ever dreamed that Tubular Bells would have been a best-seller. So thoughts of him playing live and doing interviews would have been far from their minds. When they were faced with it, I’m sure it was a shock to both of them.
“I didn’t care whether Tubular Bells was fashionable or not – the strength of the music was a lot more important. It’s a much stronger force for me than following fashion or being part of anything, or fitting in. I’m also very fond of Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, which he did afterwards. The first three of his albums are the ones for me.