How do you follow such a remarkable album as Tubular Bells? If you’re Mike Oldfield you do it with another remarkable album, but a very different one compared with your debut. In the NME of 24 August 1974, four days before the LP’s release, the paper’s deputy editor announced in a feature headline: “Hergest Ridge Will Sell A Bomb”. The NME was not wrong.
Probably the only real similarity between Hergest Ridge and its predecessor is the fact that it was a single work that occupied both sides of the original long-playing record. Released some 15 months after Tubular Bells, it’s very much more “classical” in its musical construction, and more complex.
Tubular Bells had thrust the then 20-year-old Oldfield front and centre into the spotlight, and he was the first to admit that it was not his natural habitat. He retreated to Herefordshire, and the depths of the English countryside, to write his second album. Hergest Ridge is a hill near Kington in that county, on the border between England and Wales, near to where Mike was living.
Having sought inspiration for the writing, he took his demo back to The Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, where he had recorded TB, and began work on the album in the spring of 1974 with producer Tom Newman, with whom he had collaborated on his debut.
In every respect, Hergest Ridge is a far more sophisticated work than its predecessor. It’s redolent of the music of earlier twentieth century English composers, notably Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. Oldfield’s multi-layering of instruments is so innovative and so different from anything else that was being recorded at the time.
Yes were sailing the prog rock seas with similar experimentation on their late 1973 release, Tales from Topographic Oceans. But their keyboard-led layering was a collective affair, created traditionally as the group recorded together and bounced ideas and themes among themselves.
Oldfield’s brilliance is that he was working like a traditional classical composer and then using the studio, along with its equipment and the help of Newman, to create a work of sustained thought and creativity. He was helped by his sister Sally on vocals, as well as the London Sinfonietta Voices for choral effects; there were also some other instruments played by studio musicians that included Mike’s brother Terry, himself a composer, on woodwinds.
In 2010, Hergest Ridge was re-released by Mercury Records and it includes a remix of the album and the original vinyl mix of the album. Oldfield was never entirely happy with the original album cover and so he commissioned a new one. The deluxe edition of the album also includes Mike’s original demo, and it’s fascinating to hear how his ideas developed, offering a unique insight into the creative process.
In 1976, David Bedford, who conducted the strings on the original release, recorded a purely orchestral version of Hergest Ridge. Parts of this version were used in the NASA and Tony Palmer documentary, The Space Movie.
Hergest Ridge entered the UK album chart at No.1 on 14 September 1974. Three weeks later, the record that replaced it was, appropriately, Tubular Bells, which spent just a week at the top, its sales having been reignited by Oldfield’s follow-up. The synchronicity of it all somehow reflected the aural tapestries that he creates.
Oldfield’s ideas have gone on to inspire many artists, particularly with the advent of the home computer. The powerful iterations that followed that have allowed many aspiring composer/musicians to walk just a little way in Mike Oldfield’s footsteps.
Hergest Ridge can be bought here.