Mike Oldfield: Elements

Mike Oldfield - ElementsSynopsis: All of his Virgin single promo films are included on the package along with the very rare 2nd House BBC TV performance of “Tubular Bells Part 1”, which featured Steve Hillage and Mick Taylor amongst others. The bonus material includes “Wind Chimes” which is the virtual reality video album of the “Islands LP” featuring the tracks “The Wind Chimes”, “North Point”, “Islands”, “The Time Has Come”, “Flying Star”t and “Magic Touch”. “Space Movie” shows “Incantations Part 1” set to archive footage of N.A.S.A. and Soviet rocket flights. Also included is the original EPK for the first edition of CD best of “Elements”.  

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Mike Oldfield: Elements 6.0

eyelights: Tubular Bells.
eyesores: the many ’80s pop-rock songs. the crappy videos. the overall quality of the content.

As with many, my first exposure to Mike Oldfield was through his landmark ‘Tubular Bells’. I bought it without having ever heard it before, based solely on its reputation and the fact that it was a limited edition 25th anniversary gold CD edition. I figured that, if I were to experience the album for the first time, this was the way to do it.

I was blown away.

I’m no great fan of progressive rock: I frequently find the noodling pretentious and atonal, like self-indulgent showcasing of a musician’s technical ability to the extreme. In many cases, prog-rock compositions eschew musical harmony for skill, leaving only other musicians and intellectuals capable of dissecting and appreciating  them.

Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ was an exception to that (perceived) rule. As with Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I found that it gradually flowed from start to finish and offered listeners a series of hooks that were masterfully woven together into a whole. It remained self-indulgent, certainly, but it was accessible in ways that many of its peers weren’t.

Since first hearing it some 12 years ago, I have gradually explored Oldfield’s output. He has been rather prolific, releasing a full 20 albums in 40 years, not including live ones and other recordings. I have barely scratched the surface, but I’ve become a fan of his whole Tubular series and, most recently, of the phenomenal ‘Music of the Spheres’.

So it goes without saying that, when I stumbled upon this DVD collection of his videos, along with a few choice bonus features, I just had to grab it; I wanted to explore his oeuvre even further than I’d had (in fact, I came close to buying the ‘Elements’ 4CD boxed set a couple of times before, but this was before I had really decided I was a fan).

Originally released on home video in 1993, ‘Elements’ was rereleased on DVD in 2004, bolstered by an additional ten videos (doubling its original number) as well as the full ‘The Wind Chimes’ video album (minus the four videos added to ‘Elements’) a short film called ‘The Space Movie’ and an interview with Mike Oldfield himself.

Ultimately, it’s a very different release than originally intended, but I was very eager to get to it nonetheless.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Tubular Bells (Part 1): Performed live on BBC TV programme Second House in 1973, this 25-minute recreation of the first side of this classic album takes place on a stage with large letters-like designs behind it displaying colours and images. While there are many cameras and angles, it’s mostly a static affair featuring a few abstract visuals at key moments.

It’s a massive undertaking: although Oldfield originally recorded most of the album himself, he needed a band of approximately ten musicians to do this live. There are all sorts of instruments involved, including an oboe, a flute, many keyboards, five guitar/bass, tubular bells, etc. The performance even features a choir at the end.

The guitarists and bassists were all playing in a circle on an elevated central dais while the rest of the band were on the floor around them (as were the two guys manning the mixing boards). Despite the evident “class” differences, most of the musicians have their moment in the limelight, getting a small solo along the way.

It’s not a perfect recreation of the original (some tones are different), but that’s to be expected given the complexity of the material. They also don’t actually play the instruments mentioned in the recording at the end, but that’s likely a question of logistics, as they would have had to have many more instruments on hand.

Unfortunately, the BBC recording is full of hiss, marring the proceedings slightly, but it’s an all-in-all pretty impressive performance, technically-speaking. However, watching it would be sort of dull for anyone other than the more meticulous melomaniac if not for the mild artifice added to the proceedings by the visual effects. 8.5/7.5

2. Don Alfonso: WTF. This is a cover of a corny, folky bar-room song which is dated from the early part of the 20th century. Why Oldfield decided to make this his follow-up to ‘Tubular Bells’ is beyond me – and his label, apparently, who didn’t bother to support it.

Set in a “Spanish” town, the video consists of some guy dressed up as a toreador doing bad slapstick à la Benny Hill (who was offered the part, but turned it down). Is this a joke? Anyway, the highlight is the lead guitar, which is excellent – if reminiscent of “Tubular Bells”. 6.5/6.0

3. In Dulci Jubilo: Another cover, this instrumental folk number is rooted in guitar, flute and keyboard. It’s okay but, frankly, the lead guitar sounds a bit sloppy here. The video consists of a 9-way split-screen of Oldfield playing each of the instruments.What more is there to say? 6.5/6.5

4. Portsmouth: Jiminy crispy… this is an uptempo, flute-based Renaissance-type number. And it’s yet another cover. It’s catchy, though, which would explain why it’s his highest-charting single in the UK. The video consists of four young women folk dancing, waving scarves, while Oldfield plays various instruments. 7.0/6.5

5. William Tell Overture: This is an electric guitar-based rendition of the classic. Seriously. It’s okay, but it doesn’t translate too well to the instrument. The video consists of superimpositions of Oldfield playing the various instruments, as though his many “selves” were a whole band. Meh. 6.0/5.0

6. Guilty: The song is a dance/disco number featuring a choral unit and Oldfield’s guitar work. It’s really not what you’d expect. The guitar riff reminded me of Jeff Wayne’s ‘The War of the Worlds’. I have to give him points for doing something different after all those other numbers.

The video consists of cheap animation of Oldfield playing guitar, a blue cloud-filled sky, a dancing figure, the Statue of Liberty (and other U.S. landmarks). It’s not especially great but it’s certainly distinctive, for what that’s worth. 7.25/6.75

7. Blue Peter: This is Oldfield’s interpretation of the theme song to ‘Blue Peter’, the British  kids’ TV programme, and it was used on the show for a few years. To me, it was reminiscent of the theme to ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’, but with guitar and keyboard.

The video starts with black and white shots emulating archival footage of early pilots. Then it goes to colour and it consists of a bunch of disguised characters driving and piloting various vehicles (hovercraft, 3-wheeler, plane, …etc.) around. Had I known it was for a kids’ show it might have helped me dislike this less. 5.5/6.0

8. Wonderful Land: Another cover, this track is rooted in synth, mandolin and guitars. Nothing special. The video consists of shots of Oldfield playing various instruments in a field, in the forest, ..etc., with (presumably) his young daughter popping up from time to time. Ahem.. fascinating stuff. 6.0/5.0

9. Five Miles Out: This is a mid-tempo number with a dance beat and featuring a vocodered male voice and buried female vocals. It’s heavy on beat, with a guitar solo. It’s interesting, new wavy. Different. Its success apparently led him to more conventional pop music during the ’80s. Unfortunately.

The video is slightly surrealistic, with images of a plane, a man in shadow, all sorts of effects, prisms, a woman singing, a pilot, and an air traffic controller. It’s very ’80s, but the song is catchy and it kind of makes up for it. 7.75/7.0

10. Moonlight Shadow: Oldfield’s biggest chart success came at the hands this decent, but hardly spectacular, pop song featuring Maggie Reilly (who was also featured on “Five Miles Out”. The video is quaint, showing Reilly and the band performing in front of a fireplace inside a mansion, along with shots of a nighttime gun duel. Meh. 7.0/7.0

11. Shadow on the Wall: Oldfield goes rock!!! It’s a pretty good track for an early ’80s rock number, but it’s mostly due to Roger Chapman’s rough vocals. This song is edgier than Oldfield’s usual fare and he even affects a rock star look for the video, which consists of the band playing while the singer shouts in a small cel. There are also shots of a dominatrix, for some reason. 7.5/6.5

12. Crime of Passion: This song is a standard pop-rock confection, featuring Barry Palmer on vocals. Meh. The video is set in an over-sized playroom, featuring large letter blocks in background. The cast of characters, aside from Palmer are a clown, a toy soldier, and a shepherd girl on a swing. Oldfield, donning nothing but white overalls and wristbands, is playing guitar like a robot (a precursor to Daft Punk, no doubt). There are a few rudimentary effects to change things up slightly. 7.0/6.5

13. Tricks of the Light: Yet another pop-rock confection with Maggie Reilly and Barry Palmer sharing vocal duties. The video consists of live footage and shots of a girl with sunglasses. The song and the video are nothing remarkable. 7.0/6.5

14. To France: This song has a catchy melody, a nice guitar motif and an excellent build-up. It’s dated but still quite enjoyable, mostly because of the instrumentation. The video is an in-studio TV performance featuring Maggie Reilly and a four-piece band on a simple set. 8.0/6.5

15. Étude: This instrumental number, which is taken from Oldfield’s score to the motion picture ‘The Killing Fields,, consists of cheesy synth and beats. It’s really tacky. I actually don’t remember this from the soundtrack, which was excellent. But perhaps I’m blocked it out. Or is this a single remix? Either way, in this context, I hated it.

The video takes place on a modern set, with metallic walls, black piano, black furniture, …etc. An Asian (presumably Cambodian) boy arrives, looks at glossies of Mike Oldfield as a reel-to-reel starts to roll in time with the music. He goes to play on a Fairlight CMI and is showered with glossies before leaving. There’s also footage from the movie. 4.0/7.0

16. Pictures in the Dark: This is a bland ’80s pop song featuring a female singer and a young boy. It has a terrific guitar bridge, but that’s all that’s going for it. The video is rubbish, featuring early CGI, poor animation and effects. It’s super dated, although it might have been expensive and top-notch then. Frankly, it’s not worth describing. However, the risible image of Oldfield melodramatically miming the background vocals will haunt me forever. 5.0/4.5

17. Shine: Gosh… this truly is ’80s shite. Jon Anderson provides an annoyingly soft, high-pitched vocal, and Oldfield does background vocals. Utter crap. The video is CGI and fantasy crap with a performance from Anderson and Oldfield. I’ll give him points for trying to use technology to make his video interesting, but it’s too discrepant. 3.5/4.0

18. Innocent: This song is a catchy pop confection, very keyboard-oriented with a guitar solo. But it’s pop, no more. The video features a blonde Chiquita, clouds, and a musician playing keyboard to an image of the blonde woman. The musician is on a set that is visited by nurses, a mad doctor and other weird people. A baby girl also walks around. It’s got dated effects, but at least there are some artsy shots. 7.0/6.5

19. Earth Moving: This is a middle-of-the-road pop ballad with a soul bent and featuring a sax solo. Meh. The video starts in space, where a globe forms, then astronauts and a shuttle fly by. Then this is followed by landscape aerials, shots of a female singer, and animation. There’s more, but whatever: I can’t be bothered. 6.0/5.0

20. Heaven’s Open: This song started with a keyboard intro followed by a guitar lead. The only thing that makes this pop-rock number notable is that Oldfield sings the vocals. That’s all. The animated video is cool, if dated, featuring hand-drawn characters in a fantasy setting. The rest consists of Oldfield singing and playing guitar. He’s just not a convincing presence, singing in a corny, over-emotive fashion. 6.5/7.5

Frankly, I was flummoxed by this collection of videos. Given the limited knowledge that I have of Oldfield’s work, I never anticipated so much mundane pop-rock and folk stuff as this – we’re talking the bulk of the 90-minute collection for God’s sake! While each individual video is already a test of my patience, collectively they make for an insufferable viewing experience.

I was in no hurry to move on to the other features on this disc but, for the sake of meeting my deadline, I forged ahead.

The Space Movie

This is a 17-minute extract of the 78-minute full-length film ‘The Space Movie’ that Oldfield provided the music to. Conceived to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the footage consists of failed rocket launches, followed by archival footage of the setting-up of launch pads and astronauts prepping. Then we were shown successful launches, space footage in orbit, inside the ship, shots of Earth, the sun and the moon (including some on the lunar surface). It’s followed with shots of the galaxy, and planets before showing astronauts returning to Earth. The music in this clip (which is apparently culled from Oldfield’s ‘Incantations’) is good, but totally disjointed from the film. I highly doubt that it was written to the footage or that the footage was cut to the music. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. 7.0 + 7.0 = 6.5

The Wind Chimes

I didn’t watch ‘The Wind Chimes’. Since it was originally released separately, as a stand-alone home video release, I will treat it as such and review it at a later date. Must be good if it was deemed worthy of a solo outing. Or maybe the record label just wanted to spread the suckiness around.

Interview

This is a 13-minute interview with Mike Oldfield featuring long excerpts from his videos. This was clearly designed as a promotional tie-in for the 1993 CD compilation release, no more. It’s nice that it’s included here, but it contributes very little. It takes 4 minutes before we even see Oldfield (And when we do, he looks absolutely fried. Hard life, much?), and there’s probably only 3 minutes’ worth of him throughout. It’s vacuous stuff: he talks about the imperfections in Tubular Bells, how he decided that all instruments were as valid leads as the human voice is, discusses his difficulty collaborating with other artists (how he either take control or steps completely back) and talks briefly about writing for ‘The Killing Fields’. Meh. Had I not just watched all the videos, it might have been nice to see, but now it felt redundant. 4.0

I am very disappointed with this collection. I learned nothing about Mike Oldfield other than he became a self-indulgent mess by the ’80s, trying hard to become a pop star, whereas his true strength lay in the complexity of his instrumental compositions. I will give him credit for expanding beyond his initial scope, preventing himself from being pigeon-holed, but I despise the direction he chose.

Will I watch this DVD again? Very unlikely. In fact, while I had initially put this in my changer, I will shelve the disc and make room for something I may actually spin again in the foreseeable future. Or at all. I’m not disappointed with the purchase, as it offered me the chance to explore Oldfield’s work, but there’s no understating that it was an unpleasant surprise.

However, as a package, it’s quite complete. Fans of Mike Oldfield would do right to pick it up. At close to three hours’ worth of material, die-hards who don’t already have this should make haste and pick it up once and for all. It certainly gives them as much bang for their buck as they could ever dare hope to get. Others, however, should approach this with caution.

Dates of viewings: August 9+10, 2014

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