My life in music, part three


In 1974, I went up to university. Not to Oxford or Cambridge--my results were all right, but I failed the interview, the first of many--but to King's College, London, to study German and Latin. There's a lot that could be said about this period of my life, but it's not strictly relevant, so let's skip to the moment when I glanced at a television that was on in another room, and saw a glider soaring over the Welsh border hills, and heard a music like nothing I'd ever heard before.

Mike Oldfield had entered my life, and it was love at first listen.


By this time I was staying at More House, which was a student hostel run by a community of Catholic nuns in the Cromwell Road. I had already made some friends among the other students there, or rather they had made friends with me; for although, in my last year at school, it had dawned on me that I was actually miles behind the rest in certain extra-mural fields of study, I had had little or no success in catching up, and my interactions still tended to have a certain Martian-like quality to them.

More House had a piano, which was not surprising since several of the students staying there were attending the Royal College of Music, or the Royal Academy of Music. I loved getting on there and going through my repertoire ("Für Elise," by Beethoven; my bit of the Fantasia and Fugue: and a horribly trite and derivative tune I had composed myself and of which I was inordinately proud).

I don't want to turn this into a shopping list, but I had by this time got to know Berlioz (the Fantastic Symphony), Schubert (the Unfinished Symphony), Liszt (the Faust Symphony), and Cesar Franck (the, er, the Symphony; he only did the one). I'd also encountered Liszt in the Claude Rains film of Phantom Of The Opera, being played by one Fritz Leiber who was apparently the father of the sf writer of the same name.

Some of these discoveries, and many more, I owed to a book I'd found in the school library back in Tiverton and borrowed obsessively till I couldn't any more, through not being there. Sixteen Symphonies, by Bernard Shore (not Shaw), is a book I would recommend, despite its age, to anyone who wants to broaden their acquaintance with the classical symphony. It's easy to read, with lots of amusing anecdotes about various composers, conductors and orchestras, and light on the jargon, and it makes it easy to understand what the music's doing at any given point. I now have my own copy, and still re-read it from time to time.

Out in the real world, I met people who were actually making music, and found them nice. I met Lucy and Sophy, sisters who played flute and harp respectively, and Nick, Lucy's boyfriend who played guitar (he introduced me to the chastity belt song, and went on to do rather well) and Greg, who played violin and came from Australia, and Adrian, who was studying composition and who used to come up with some stunning improvisations based on Clark Ashton Smith stories I read to him. The priest in charge, Father Tim, I remember as being rather the way I imagined Tom Baker might have been if he actually had become a monk; he went on to do rather well in his field, too. In fact, a lot of people I met in those days have gone on to do rather well. It would be nice to think I helped, though I almost certainly passed through their lives quite unnoticed...

But I digress.


The version of Tubular Bells being played on the telly was in fact an orchestral one, and apparently Oldfield didn't like it at all. I did. I had to hear the real thing, and once I did, I was sold. And looking for it in the record shop brought other things to my attention. My goodness, there was a whole world of good music out there that wasn't classical!

I re-read Oldfield's autobiography, Changeling, recently, and I was struck by how often his attitudes paralleled mine on things. He liked Sibelius too, and didn't understand jazz chords, and didn't think much of standard pop song lyrics. He'd read a lot of sf, and often felt like an outsider, and...and...give or take a shedload of talent and skill and an equal quantity of horrendous trauma and recreational drug use, the man was me, more or less. Back then in 1975, though, I knew none of this, and Mike Oldfield was a name on an album cover, the name of some numinous figure from whose godlike hands flowed miraculous, wondrous music. I bought Hergest Ridge, of course, and marvelled at how much wilder and sparser it was than TB, and when Ommadawn came out in 1976 I was even more blown away than I was by the first album. This was even better than Sibelius.


In the meantime I was discovering other bands, primarily, of course, Yes, whose Close To The Edge I had glimpsed back in that sixth-form building in Tiverton. I started with Tales From Topographic Oceans (which had been out for a while by then), and loved it; Relayer was spikier and I wasn't sure about it, but the first track was excellent for timing me having a bath and washing my hair. I recognised several bits from Close To The Edge from an Omnibus documentary on sf that I'd watched, and recorded the soundtrack on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that my parents had acquired.

I had now moved into the next stage of snobbery, the first being "how special I am to appreciate this music." It was gradually being borne in upon me that I wasn't in fact in any way special, so this became "ah, the reason most people don't appreciate this music is because they haven't heard it, or haven't listened properly. I must educate them." I was already deep in this delusion with regard to sf, and had given carefully selected sf books to all my relations as Christmas presents, doubtless to their total bemusement.

Another musical phenomenon I'd discovered had already caused some friction. Walter Carlos, whom I'd discovered making strange yawps and hummings on the album with the op art cover, had recorded a bunch of pieces by Bach on a Moog synthesiser, and I'd leapt on the resultant albums with cries of delight. Good music and spacey sounds. What wasn't to like? Then came Isao Tomita with his synthesised Debussy and Mussorgsky, and I was sold. (The monumental insensitivity of playing these things in a hostel full of budding classical instrumentalists escaped me completely, and thankfully only one person was seriously upset, but I should have known better.)

When one of my friends at college described Tubular Bells as "tinkly and contrived" I was devastated, but I swallowed my disappointment and carried on. As a matter of fact, it was slowly dawning on me that there was more to actual pop music than I had hitherto admitted to myself. Part of this may have been due to the fact that my long-dormant glands were slowly starting to work, and I was surrounded by beautiful young women, and having to acknowledge that perhaps I wasn't a space alien orphaned on planet earth and brought up by unknowing humans after all. I wanted to be part of what I was seeing going on around me. I'd started going to parties, and trying (mostly without success) to talk to people, and this inevitably involved a degree of dancing.

But more on that in part four.

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