As groundbreaking synth/prog/proto-chillout album Tubular Bells tours the UK 50 years after its release, Rhonda Lee Reali speaks to Robin Smith – a longtime musical associate of the album’s now-retired composer Mike Oldfield, tasked with embellishing it for a contemporary audience.
I understand that you met Mike Oldfield through his sister, Sally?
Robin Smith: That’s right. Back, oh my God, about 30 years ago, I was recording and arranging for her. I did a few albums with her, and a big arrangement for one of her songs for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When her brother said to her, “I’ve got to do a premiere of Tubular Bells II at Edinburgh Castle; I need somebody who knows about orchestras and software, who can relate to musicians and is a nice bloke” – that’s when I first met Mike. He redid Tubular Bells a number of years after the first one, and I became his musical director. We did Tubular Bells II, number III, The Millennium Bell in 2000 and of course, the London  Olympics.
So will this 50th Anniversary Concert be the original work?
Robin Smith: It’s my reimagination of the original version; it’s totally the original Tubular Bells, and I’ve re-soundscaped all the music exactly as Mike knows it and it will be performed live by nine musicians.
Can you elaborate a little on the re-soundscaping?
Robin Smith: Many, many people have been doing this since Tubular Bells was recorded. It’s like a cover version – they play all the instruments and all the sounds exactly as it was on the original record, so it comes out sounding like the original record. You can go see a Tubular Bells cover down at your local pub – people have been doing that for 40-odd years – and that’s great, but this is a chance to bring it to a wider audience, to a new audience as well, and for people to appreciate the absolute beauty of this music.
I’ve taken all the written music, all the composed music of Mike’s, and made it bigger, more beautiful, more theatrical, brought it up to date. Sometimes, you see the beautiful parts of it even more than in the original. Of course, Mike was restricted by the software and the recording techniques he had; 50 years on, we have a wealth of things we could do, and that’s what I’ve done. Every single note. In fact, you can play my version of Tubular Bells on top of the original one, and it’s exactly the same movement and tempo, but all I’ve been able to do is make the sounds now, as opposed to 50 years ago.
With updated and improved instruments like the synthesizer.
Robin Smith: It makes a big difference. Mike did this himself. He re-recorded Tubular Bells about 25 or 20 years ago [Tubular Bells 2003, released in that year] – went back in the studio and re-created his own album using modern technology; it sounded like the same version with a slightly newer sound. I’ve looked at everything as a composer or an arranger would – I’ve rearranged it and recoloured it, so it has much more depth, drama, beauty. And the concert experience is fantastic. It really captures it, because it has the drama.
You said you’re also looking for a new audience. Younger, possibly non-classical or non-prog audiences, would that be correct?
Robin Smith: Absolutely. If you left Tubular Bells on its own and never touched it, in a few years’ time it would become a relic – which is really sad because it’s an amazing piece of work. We don’t go, “Don’t listen to Bach now – we’ve got to leave it back in the baroque period.” That’s how I feel about Tubular Bells: it needs to last forever. To take another example, Elvis can relate to a listener for many, many, many years to come, but in order for that to happen, you have to take it out of the package of what it was.
Or else it becomes stale.
Robin Smith: It does – it sits there as something old people look at.
What would your response be to people who say, “I like the original. Don’t make any changes!”
Robin Smith: There are plenty of those, my word! I really respect that, and as I said, they can go down to the pub and see a band play that almost every weekend. There’s somebody always doing that. In fact, this year the concerts are full of people doing the original version as it is – somebody’s doing the  version by David Bedford with an orchestra. The difference is, I started this six years ago when I played it to Mike – who said, “This is absolutely beautiful, Robin. Do finish this off.” So I didn’t actually write this for the anniversary, I wrote this to bring it to an audience because I love the work; it’s coincidental that we’re playing it on the anniversary.
I believe with every iconic artist or composition, you need [the original and new versions]. If you take a Burt Bacharach song, it will be recreated for the rest of time. You don’t have to only play Do You Know The Way To San Jose as it was originally done. As arrangers, as creators, it’s about going in there and respecting the work: you don’t rip it to pieces or change it, you respect it, taking the composition and reworking it, and if you get a new audience, that’s amazing.
What goes into the whole production, as an arranger and as a conductor? Will you be conducting this also?
Robin Smith: I’ll mainly be performing and directing from the keyboard. One of the very first televised performances of Tubular Bells, on BBC 2 [in 1973], was a very iconic picture, eight or nine musicians all performing live sat in a semi-circle, all interacting with each other. There weren’t music stands; they weren’t looking like classical musicians. That’s what we’re doing onstage – people get to experience nine musicians intensely working together to create this music. Also, Rhonda, the guitarist who kind of plays my part is Jay Stapley, who actually played guitar with Mike for Tubular Bells II at Edinburgh Castle.
What goes into getting this whole production together? It’s not as large as having an orchestra, but still…
Robin Smith: No – the moment you have an orchestra, you do lose that intimacy, so I tend to look at it as a modern representation, as would Hans Zimmer when he does his concerts. Or if you went to see The 1975. It’s a core of musicians playing the notes, with a whole array of sounds and effects that run parallel. That’s what Mike and I did in Tubular Bells II.
There are some things we make with our technology that you literally can’t create live. Just because you’ve got a string sound [on the record] doesn’t necessarily mean you want an orchestra playing all the way through it. You take each section and you make it as vibrant and as modern as possible.
How would you describe your relationship with Mike after all these years?
Robin Smith: I haven’t seen him for a while – the last time was at the 2012 Olympics in London. He’s kind of retired.
And living in the Bahamas.
Robin Smith: I’ve got a funny feeling that if I lived there as well, I probably wouldn’t have left! He’s wonderful, and is an incredibly creative person – I’ve always respected the massive, intense creative bubble that he has. Over the years, I’ve worked with him from Tubular Bells II onwards: on all the albums, [1996’s] Voyager album and various other pieces, and it’s always been an amazing experience to be around him. He’s not really interested in being a famous artist or performer. Everything about him is about creating beautiful, beautiful music, so when you’re part of it, it’s just a real privilege.
I told Mike I wanted to reimagine [Tubular Bells] as a ballet, and he sent me a message saying, “Robin, this is beautiful – find a choreographer but do one thing for me. Don’t involve me at all because I won’t get involved.” That always makes me laugh – I’ve got it pinned on my wall. Does that tell you something? But he’s been very supportive. When we first premiered this version at the Royal Festival Hall [in 2021] for 10 performances, he sent the most beautiful messages through.
So, you did set the music to a ballet?
Robin Smith: My original idea was to have exactly that. One of my favourite pieces of music in the world is Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, which was originally conceived for dancers and acrobats. In general, ballet is episodic, in a sense, and that’s what Tubular Bells is – a series of amazing episodes that last 50 minutes. For me, it made complete sense to get in there and recreate this as a piece that could potentially be done as a ballet or theatrical work.
Can you see the ballet online?
Robin Smith: The ballet never happened, but hopefully down the line it will. However, there’s a DVD of what we did at Royal Festival Hall which was theatrically performed by acrobats. All these things are lovely to watch but cost an absolute fortune! Apart from me shaking my leg violently, that’s as close as it’s going to get to ballet. Keep your fingers crossed, though. We’ll get there one day!
Most people know Tubular Bells as the song from The Exorcist, but the music is so much more: prog-rock, folk, not heavy metal exactly but it’s got almost everything in it. What would you say to those who connect it only to The Exorcist?
Robin Smith: You’re right. That’s the funniest thing, Rhonda. In America – because I go over quite often – you can say the words “Tubular Bells” and they look at you blankly. You can say “Mike Oldfield” and they kind of look at you like, “yeah…”, but if you say “the theme to The Exorcist”, their faces light up – “oh, that piece!”
So I would definitely say to anybody who only knows the beginning is to embrace it, listen to it, and come and see us – I have tried to take the whole work and give it an overall modern sound which hopefully enhances all these different episodes. There are some bits which, when changed slightly, the orchestration sounds like it could have been the Game Of Thrones theme or from a Hans Zimmer film.
You get to the end of side 2, and you realise it’s exactly the same as the original album, all the notes are, but suddenly you’re listening to ambient chillout music and you go, “wow, that’s amazing!” When you consider this is long before ambient and chill-out music was actually conceived, Mike was writing that in his head back then. Also on side 2 is a section called Peace – Mike does it as a guitar solo, and we do a cello solo – which, if it wasn’t on Tubular Bells, you’d think must have been written by Holst. It has all the development of a classical composition, but is wearing this mantle of being on a prog rock album.
Do you have a particular lucky ritual that you do before going onstage to play or conduct?
Robin Smith: Mittens, mainly! Especially these days. I get cold hands, and that’s really painful. I remember we played Tubular Bells in 1999, Millennium Eve, in Berlin, and for about a minute, I’m just playing the right hand on the piano, whilst being aware that at any given point I’ve got to play my left hand… which by that point was frozen stiff. From that moment on, I’ve made sure my hands are nice and warm.
Tubular Bells: The 50th Anniversary Celebration, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Fri 3 Feb
Tickets: £23-£58 (sold out – check box office for returns). Info: here
Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Mon 20 Mar
Tickets: £23-£58. Info: here
Swansea Arena, Fri 24 Mar
Tickets: £27.90-£58.90. Info: here
words RHONDA LEE REALI
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