That’s right, folks, the most disturbing Halloween EVER! From now until Halloween, the Popdose staff are going to be thumbing through their record collections in search of the music that gives them the worst case of the heebie-jeebies. In this installment, Jon Cummings reminisces about Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.” —Anthony Hansen
Sometimes I wonder if kids today are bothered in the slightest by the sorts of things that used to freak me out when I was a boy. For example, when I was 9 I spent several months in what I now refer to as my “Hitler phase,” when – fueled by the Nazi-horror stories imparted by aÂ creepy friend, and spooked by a coffee-table book called Sieg Heil! that I had checked out from the local library — I frequently conjured the very real image of Der FÃ¼hrer lurking behind my darkened bedroom door. (He didn’t have to hold a macheteÂ – the thought of that moustache alone was enough to make me wet myself.) Those months were probably the only time I was thankful to share a room with my older brother, because I couldn’t stand to be in the dark by myself. I often found myself running at a full sprint to the front of the house to escape Adolf’s clutches, and those were the days when my mom would stomp through the house, snapping off lights I had left on and muttering something about owning the electric company.
At about that same time, during the fall of 1975, my friend Kevin brought over a single he had snatched from his sister’s collection. We knew it simply as “The Exorcist,” but of course it was an edited version of the “first movement” (A/K/A side one) of Mike Oldfield’s debut LP Tubular Bells, excerpted for use as the theme to William Friedkin’s film version of William Peter Blatty’s religious-horror novel. The single, officially known as “Tubular Bells (Theme from The Exorcist),” had reached the Top 10 almost two years before, but its success had predated by just a few months my headlong leap into pop-radio obsession during the fall of ’74. And as a 9-year-old, I wasn’t yet familiar with the R-rated film.
I was, however,Â intimately familiar with the novel. I don’t know why my parents had allowed me to get my hands on Sieg Heil! or The Exorcist or Jaws (which I devoured that fall even as the film continued its 8-month-long run in a local theater) – maybe everything was fair game for a pair of atheist liberals in the post-Watergate era. Suffice it to say that my first real exposure to Catholicism (apart from a couple of masses attended with my aunt and uncle) involved copious amounts of poor Regan’s vomit and a crucifix inserted where no crucifix should ever go. The impact of reading The Exorcist at nine probably explains a lot about the dysfunctional functioning of my psyche ever since, not least my tendency whenever an electrical gadget refuses to work properly to proclaim, a la Dr. Evil when his chair won’t stop spinning around, “I need an old priest and a young priest.”
Even with all of that going on, it wasn’t actually the A-side of the “Tubular Bells” single that set me off when Kevin played it for me — it was the flipside, which excerpted the closing portion of the album’s “first movement.” (By the way, wasn’t it entirely more satisfying to flip over a 45 and discover a cool song, as opposed to merely checking out the second track of a CD single or downloading an extra file?) “Tubular Bells (long version)” started out ominously enough, with a couple repetitions of the percolating guitar line that would underscore the entire track.
Soon enough, a formal, bordering-on-snooty British voice intones the words “grand piano,” and a melody is introduced atop that persistent guitar.
As the melody line concludes, the voice returns (innocuously enough) to say “reed and pipe organ,” and the melody repeats, and a pattern is established … a not-unpleasant pattern, really, though that guitar still offers cause for concern. Then the voice comes in again, this time a bit more disturbingly.
“Glockenspiel? What the hell’s a glockenspiel?” said the other voice, the one inside my prepubescent head. “Is that some sort of Nazi torture device?” Yet the pattern continues … relentlessly, and with growing momentum … the melody repeated by a bass guitar, a double-speed guitar, two slightly distorted guitars, and then …
Why did he have to say “mandolin” that way?!? As though it was the last instrument I’d hear before Hitler emerged from my closet? (Once my college girlfriend had heard this story, all she ever had to do to make fun of me was bug her eyes and say, “mahn-doh-LIN!”) The mandolin itself is spooky enough – high-pitched, quickly strummed, and with the other instruments building behind it. Building, building, through one more cycle featuring Spanish and acoustic guitars, and then finally comes the voice one more time, this time sounding like either Hitler or the devil himself: “plus, tubular … bells!”
As soon as that monstrous bell clanged for the first time, I was screaming, “Turn it off! Turn it off!” But Kevin wouldn’t turn it off, and I was forced to sit through the clanging … through the choir that may as well be angels of death … through that melody that I never wanted to hear again, and yet knew I’d be hearing in my head for the rest of my life.
Even as “Tubular Bells” inevitably became the soundtrack of my Hitler phase, the melody that sent me sprinting toward the light of the living room as surely as “Chariots of Fire” would later propel Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, I became obsessed with listening to it again and again. Perhaps, I kidded myself, if I heard it enough times it would lose its ability to frighten me, and I could conquer my pathetic fear of a pop song.
It didn’t work, of course – and worse, Kevin and my brother Kit both knew it wasn’t working. Finally I banished the single from our house, telling Kevin I never wanted to hear it again and borrowing some other record of his that I can no longer remember – the Carpenters’ “Solitaire,” perhaps, or maybe “Fly Robin Fly.” This seemed to calm my nerves a bit, and soon I began to feel more confident in darkened hallways. But then, a couple of nights later, I was going to bed after a typical evening spent listening to my small collection of 45s, and my brother said, “You want me to play one more?”
“Sure,” I replied, and he set the needle down on a 45 – then walked to the door, cut off the overhead light and left, locking me inside … with “Tubular Bells” playing at full blast. That communist (which is what I called him when I was mad at him in those days) had borrowed the record back from Kevin, just so he could pull this awful stunt. I don’t know how many toys I stepped on, how many pieces of furniture I reduced to rubble, as I bolted from my bed and lunged for the door in complete darkness, screaming bloody murder while Kit held the doorknob on the outside so I couldn’t turn it. And when my dad arrived to bring down the hammer (which is pretty much what he was there for in those days), I could tell that even as he was figuring out a punishment for my brother he couldn’t hide the fact that he was … laughing at me.
Now I know why, of course. Now I know that the voice on the record isn’t Mephistopheles but rather Vivian Stanshall, former vocalist for the Bonzo Dog Band, and that his affect was supposed to be comical rather than nasty. (When Oldfield remade Tubular Bells a few years back in an effort to revive his sales numbers, he hired John Cleese to step in for the dearly departed Mr. Stanshall.) Now I know that the fascinating, haunting, but overly long Tubular Bells was pretty much the last stop for the hybrid classical/prog-rock instrumental genre before it morphed into New Age (and stopped frightening anybody). And now I know that the devil isn’t going to possess me via a pop song, no matter how menacing it is, and that Hitler isn’t going to leap out from behind every closed door.
Still, now I’m starting to think that maybe I shouldn’t have reminded myself of all this childhood trauma. And I’m thinking that you’ll have to forgive me if, over the next few days, I quicken my step a little bit when I traverse a darkened corridor.