Should you fancy a trip north-west of London to the town of Kington for an afternoon of golf, head on A44, take the roundabout to B4355 and the first left to Barton Lane. In a few minutes you will find Brandor Hill and the Kington Golf Club. Park your car and notice a black and white building just below the parking lot. You are looking at The Beacon. Many moons ago, in 1975, a 22-years old Mike Oldfield made music history in that house. Acting as composer, performer and engineer in a studio built inside one of its rooms, he realized the music that ended up on the album Ommadawn. This is the story of that album.
1974 was a difficult year for Mike Oldfield. The phenomenal success of his debut album Tubular Bells did not sit well with him. At that stage in his life sales numbers and chart figures meant nothing to him. Seeking refuge from the limelight he went far from the madding crowd and found that house, a perfect spot to lose himself in an idyllic country-side setting.
Taking inspiration from the beautiful, long, ridged hill in front of his house, he composed a follow up to Tubular Bells and named it after that hill – Hergest Ridge. Like its predecessor, the album was recorded at The Manor studio owned by Richard Branson, head of Oldfield’s label Virgin Records. It is a wonderful album, full of lyrical passages and melodies, but Oldfield had difficulties finishing it: “My heart just wasn’t in it. I had to squeeze it out, it was like getting the last bit out of the toothpaste tube.” While reviews of the album were less complimentary than the love fest that engulfed Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge was riding high on that wave of success, and at some point the two albums captured the top of the albums chart in the UK.
Mike Oldfield remembers vividly the moment he saw The Beacon, located only a mile or two from the Welsh border: “It was only a little place, flimsily built and a bit run down, wedged on that hill surrounded by bracken and sheep. It was all quite lonely up there and the wind was blowing all around.” By the time he was ready to work on his next album, he decided to ask his record label to install a complete recording studio in a space that functioned as the billiard room. Ask and you shall get. As main breadwinner for Virgin Records, no questions were asked and all costs justified a new album by the recluse artist. Oldfield remembers: “Virgin, Richard and the engineers delivered an entire top-of-the-range recording studio to my little cottage in a big lorry. They even got me a grand piano, a beautiful Steinway that fitted in the old snooker room. Richard himself carried this Farfisa organ I needed to the house.”
The home studio became a mini Abbey Road for Oldfield, equipped with everything from a large Neve console and a 24-track tape machine, to a slew of instruments including accordion, bouzouki, banjo, harp, tubular bells (what else?), and even a set of timpani drums: “We had concert timpani. I’d loved them since recording with Kevin Ayers at Abbey Road. I loved getting there in the morning and playing them. It was my dream to have my own set.” Seeking full artistic control over his next album, he let the house engineer go and took that role in addition to composing and performing the music. In perfect isolation behind his walls, he had everything he needed to create a masterpiece.
Mike Oldfield’s social life at the time was almost non-existent, but he had a few folks in the secluded environment he built for himself who played an important role in his next album. One was recorder player Les Penning, who performed his take on early English music with a band at a small restaurant called Penrhos Court, just five minutes down the road from The Beacon. One night someone mentioned to him a guitar player who lives up the hill, one named Mike Oldfield. Penning never heard of the chap but decided to give him a ring: “Would you like to come and play with my band?” “What sort of band is that?” asked the chap. “Early music”. With knowledge about Early music approaching nil Oldfield showed up with a guitar in tow. After a while the band fizzled out and only two remained: Penning and Oldfield, playing for their suppers. Later on Oldfield would ask Penning to play recorder on Ommadawn, resulting with one of the most endearing passages of music on the album.
The house was not solely occupied by Oldfield, for he had a housemate. Early in 1975 when BBC2 recorded symphonic versions of Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge, a friend came to visit Oldfield. Glasgow-born drummer William Murray knew Oldfield from the time they were both members of Kevin Ayers’ band, circa 1971. Oldfield fondly remembers spending time with his friends: “Sometimes we would walk all the way from the beginning of Hergest Ridge to the end and back. From time to time we would go pony trekking together with Les Penning. If we had particularly bad hangovers, we would go clip-clopping around the place and up to the ridge. It wasn’t great horsemanship, just three hung-over guys on little ponies.” The ponies would become the topic of On Horseback, the lovely catchy song that closes Ommadawn.
Like its two predecessors, Ommadawn is made out of two long compositions, each occupying a side of the original LP as it was released in 1975. We shall listen to short samples from some of the most interesting parts on the album before I share a link to the complete sides to enjoy the full effect of the continuous music.
The first thing that grabs you as you listen to the opening of part 1 is the richness and variety of acoustic instruments. Mike Oldfield went all out on this album with his curiosity about the unique sound and style of each instrument: “I had all these strange instruments that I had got from a music shop somewhere, like a bouzouki, a marimba and a Celtic harp. I played the harp myself, it was a very simple melody so it wasn’t difficult to play. I tried lots of different techniques, like overdubbing a twelve-string guitar a few times, to get a really stringy, rhythmical sound. There was an acoustic bass I just tried as an experiment.”
Part 1 opens with a lovely melody and ethereal vocals: “I started with a Celtic harp. I wanted to make a simple folky tune with a tiny four-note phrase that had stuck in my mind. It sounded like calling someone’s name out of the ether.”
During the recording of the album Oldfield had guests in the form of the Edgar Broughton Band. Oldfield met that excellent band a few years earlier when as part of The Whole World he opened for them. Drummer Steve Broughton had previously played drums on the Caveman section of Tubular Bells. Oldfield remembers: “They turned up at The Beacon one day wanting me to play on some of their tracks. They told me about the ARP Solina string synthesizer, an electronic version of the mellotron. That was the only ‘modern’ instrument on Ommadawn.” Oldfield did play on the band’s album Bandages, released a year later in 1976. More importantly to Ommadawn, that ARP Solina made wonders on the album. Lets pick up part 1 a few minutes later:
Fast forward to the 6:50 mark on Ommadawn part 1 and we come to the lovely melody played on the recorder by Les Penning. One of the album’s biggest strengths is the power of its melodic lines. Oldfield came up with many great melodic ideas on this record, which he then masterfully weaved into a larger composition. His choice of instrumentation in each segment is wonderful. Along with the recorder we hear a piano, mandolin and bass guitar.
An important figure in the making of Ommadawn, although in the background, was Virgin Records A&R man Simon Draper. Oldfield was looking for guest musicians to play on the album from a very wide range of music styles. Draper was the perfect man to introduce the shy Oldfield to many artists who added colorful musical flavors to the album. One of Oldfield’s wishes was to add African drums to the closing section of part 1, a hypnotic repeating rhythm played by multiple drummers. Draper, a South African who moved to London in 1971, called in an African troupe called Jabula. Like many wonderful South African musicians, they were forced into exile from their native land during the Apartheid era.
Their contribution to the album was one of the only recording sessions outside The Beacon, simply because Oldfield run out of room in his small home studio. Moving to the Manor, the group started to work on various ideas, with Oldfield providing direction. However the session was not happening at the onset, the band being too sober to deliver the goods. Oldfield tells the story: “Somebody suggested getting some beers, so we gave them a couple of beers each; they wanted more, so then we sent out for another couple of crates. They started smoking marijuana, and after a couple of hours it started to come alive. They were getting into some kind of trance, like a ritual. They played all day and by the evening they were really cooking.”
The hypnotic section that ends Part 1 is greatly enhanced by a repeated female chant. Clodagh Simonds, member of early 1970s British folk band Mellow Candle, participates for the second time on a Mike Oldfield album after contributing vocals to Hergest Ridge. William Murray was the drummer in that band and made the introduction to Oldfield, who remembers her for her “raw way of singing, like a Celtic bat out of hell.”
Mike Oldfield tells the story of how the words to the chant were written and their meaning: “I wanted to have some lyrics but I didn’t want them to be normal, sensible English lyrics, just sounds. I thought, ‘Clodagh’s Irish, she could work out some sounds in Gaelic.’” If you were thinking of blissful, otherworldly lyrics as the subject of that angelic chant, you may be disappointed to discover that the words, in loose translation, mean:
Daddy’s in bed
The cat’s drinking milk
I’m an idiot
And I’m laughing
More instruments make an appearance in this section, including wooden marimbas.
The words to the chant were also the genesis of the album name. Oldfield explain the lineage of that title: “Clodagh rang up her mother or someone, who translated the words into Gaelic: those are the lyrics to Ommadawn at the end. ‘Ommadawn’ means ‘idiot’, but it’s actually spelled ‘amadán’; that’s how I decided on the title for the album.”
So far we have focused on the acoustic nature of the album, but lest we forget what an incredible electric guitar player Mike Oldfield is. The end of part 1 features a shining moment for him on the instrument with a solo he considers one of his best: “One night I had this indescribable feeling, I wanted to play electric guitar in a way that would somehow reach out, release the tension that had been building up. There were the stringy guitars, the African drums, Clodagh’s voice, which was kind of screaming, and on top of it all, I just put my whole power, committed all my energy to this one guitar solo. I don’t know what the hell happened. I started to unleash this guitar solo and, somehow, got it all out. It still raises the skin on my neck to hear that solo. The feeling of playing like that is just incredible, it’s like a mouse suddenly stepping into a lion’s body and roaring.”
Right at the very end you will hear an interesting rhythm played on Tympani drums. Time to introduce another excellent guest musician on the album – Pierre Moerlen. Oldfield remembers the contributions by Gong’s drummer: “He worked out a part that was quite difficult to play, so he spent the entire day practicing it, with these orchestral tympani, on the top of Bradnor Hill. There are houses all around there; eventually a delegation of the neighbors came en masse to tell me to shut up.”
I am not really doing this album justice with these piecemeal samples, as the transitions between these musical segments are no less wonderful. Here is the complete part 1:
We flip the LP to side 2 to discover more ethnic instruments. The first is a staple of Scottish and Irish music, played by Paddy Moloney, a member of the Chieftains. Oldfield remembers the recording session with the uilleann pipes: “Paddy Moloney flew into Shobdon with his manager and I met him there. He was a lovely man, like a living leprechaun. We sat down in my living room in The Beacon and I played him this track while he took down some music. He didn’t write music as notes, he wrote, ‘Do, re, la, la.’ Once he started on those pipes it was like magic, it was such a privilege to play with such a wonderful musician.”
The amount of instruments Oldfield is playing on this album is astounding. In the photograph below, taken in 1976 and featured on the Boxed 4LP set, he is pictured with some of the instruments, each labeled.
Here is one more sample from part 2, with Oldfield playing the bodhran drum and bouzouki:
Like he did with his debut album Tubular Bells, Oldfield decided to close the album on a lighter note with a children’s song. “Following all my pony trekking experiences with Willy Murray and Les Penning, I decided to write a song about it all.” The song offers a rare opportunity to hear him sing, or rather recite, a song. This is of course the song On Horseback, with lyrics by Oldfield and William Murray:
I like beer, and I like cheese
I like the smell of a westerly breeze
But I like more than all of these
To be on horseback
On this lovely song you can hear the Penrhos kids, children of the owners of Penrhos Court: Jason, Ivan, Abigail and Briony Griffiths. A fine tribute by Oldfield to the place where he played music with Les Penning while he was working on Ommadawn.
The album cover features a portrait photograph of Mike Oldfield by famed fashion photographer David Bailey. It shows Oldfield in a reflective mood looking through a window while rain is pouring. Oldfield on the shoot: “The picture was me observing, rather than trying to get me smiling or anything; all this rubbish. I’ve since got used to doing those things – it’s part of the situation.”
A different photograph by David Bailey can be found in the inner sleeve of the album. It was taken when the Jabula drum group came for their recording session at the Manor. In it we can find many of the musicians who contributed their talent to the album.
Top Row: The Hereford City Band, the African drummers from Jabula – Julian Bahula (leader of Jabula), Ernest Mothle (Jabula’s bassist) and Lucky Ranku (Jabula’s guitarist and percussionist).
Middle Row: Herbie (played bagpipes, tracks not used in the final album), William Murray, Mike Oldfield, Jason Griffiths, Sally Oldfield and Clodagh Simmonds
Front Row: Leslie Penning, Terry Oldfield (pan pipes), Ivan Griffiths, Abigail Griffiths and Briony Griffiths.
Ommadawn was released by Virgin Records on October 28, 1975. Unlike his two previous albums, it was Oldfield’s first studio album not to top the UK album chart, reaching #4. On the Record Mirror & Disc chart it reached #2 in November of 1975.
For many fans of Mike Oldfield’s music, including myself, Ommadawn remains a favorite among his vast catalog, surpassing even the hugely successful Tubular Bells. There is something special about that album and the music within, maybe a reflection of the therapeutic experience it was for Oldfield at that time in his life: “Creatively, it was a very good period for me. It was beautiful living in that part of the world and I was very happy with my work. But I was very unhappy personally. The basic problem was that I was scared by the success and the attention I was getting. I was a sad person and life wasn’t much fun, apart from when I was making music which kind of made up for it. There was so much joy there, it balanced things.”
The following resources were used during the research for this article:
tubular.net, an open website dedicated to Mike Oldfield
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like reading about Mike Oldfield’s collaborations with composer David Bedford in the 1970s: