Mike Oldfield’s 1973 recording of Tubular Bells is the most famous progrock “symphony” of them all—and a bit of a “love it or hate it” affair amongst music snobs—but in actual fact, most of the instruments played on the album are played by Oldfield himself, layered during the recording process.
Wikipedia lists Oldfield as playing “acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, Farfisa, Hammond, and Lowrey organs; flageolet, fuzz guitars, glockenspiel, “honky tonk” piano (piano modified to sound more percussive), mandolin, piano, “Piltdown Man,“percussion, Spanish guitar, producer, “taped motor drive amplifier organ chord,” timpani, vocals and tubular bells.” He was just twenty-years-old when the album was recorded.
Oldfield did bring in a few others—notably his sister, vocalist Sally Oldfield and the Bonzo Dog Band’s Vivian Stanshall as the “Master of Ceremonies”—but it’s fair to say that, a few embellishments aside, that Tubular Bells is (almost) the work of a “one man band” or in this case, a one-man orchestra. Initially championed by BBC disc jockey John Peel (who played the entire album on his radio show), Tubular Bells has sold an estimated 16 million copies worldwide and was the first album to be put out on the Virgin Records label, making Sir Richard Branson a very rich man. The opening theme was famously used as the title music for The Exorcist.
An “in the round” live-in-studio performance of side one of Tubular Bells was taped for the BBC program Second House on November 30th, 1973 and aired on December 1. Taking part in this performance are Oldfield himself on bass and acoustic guitar, his brother Terry on flute, Fred Frith (and other members of Henry Cow), Gong’s Pierre Moerlen and Steve Hillage, Tubular Bells co-producer Tom Newman, Mike Ratledge and Karl Jenkins of the Soft Machine, Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and others. (Vivian Stanshall, in his role as the MC, is present, reading off the list of instruments at the end of the first movement in his plummy voice, but, sadly is not captured well on camera).
Oldfield has returned to his most famous work time and again over the decades. A newly remastered version of the original Tubular Bells album came out in 2009 that includes this video (in great quality) and a superb 5.1 DVD-A surround mix of the piece.
After Michael Oldfield’s performance at the 2012 London Olympics, The Quietus reported that the HMV record chain saw sales of Tubular Bells spike over 850%.