How ‘The Exorcist’ Accidentally Made ‘Tubular Bells’ a Hit Album
As Oldfield recalled to Guitar Player in 1978, Virgin Records waffled on whether or not to accept and promote the LP — not all that many rock musicians were taking his voice-less, much more avant-garde approach at the time.
Once Virgin eventually agreed, Oldfield played the majority of the album's instruments himself, with the help of a handful of other musicians, plus two co-producers, Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth. Oldfield was just 19 years old, working out of a part-studio, part-residential space called the Manor in Oxfordshire, England. (Other artists to have utilized the space over the years included John Cale, Queen, Van Morrison, Rush and dozens more.)
"I just wanted to make something that sounded large-scale on my own; I wanted an orchestral effect," Oldfield explained to Guitar Player. "It was enjoyable working in the studio, just messing about with the equipment. And I found that it was easier to work on my own at that period."
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Oldfield enjoyed himself at the Manor working on music that felt truly his own, as he would later recall. "You can hear it in the music," he told Classic Rock in 2023. "It was the only time I felt sane and vaguely happy. I suppose it describes in a nutshell the anguish of teenagerhood [sic], which most people can relate to. It personifies all that."
When Tubular Bells was officially released in the U.K. in May of 1973, it made little impact on the charts, exactly as Virgin had feared. (It would be released in the U.S. the following October.) Though progressive rock at that time was in full swing — bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson were finding major success with the genre — Tubular Bells evidently proved too far out for even the most dedicated of prog fans. Critics, meanwhile, piled praise on it, with various British and American publications and radio stations calling it one of the most impressive albums of the year thus far.
How Horror Made 'Tubular Bells' a Huge Hit Album
Oldfield was then left in a complicated position. Though the press loved Tubular Bells, the general public seemed to not. It took two entire months for the album to finally creep up the U.K. charts, reaching No. 7 in July 1973, where it appeared to plateau.
Until a certain blockbuster horror film hit the market. Directed by William Friedkin, based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 book of the same name, The Exorcist arrived in theaters on Dec. 26, 1973. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Linda Blair, it traced the terrifying ordeal of a mother and her demonically possessed daughter. Hugely successful at the box office, The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for and Academy Award for Best Picture.
The film's primary theme song? Oldfield's Tubular Bells title track.
As Friedkin would recall to Vice in 2015, he hadn't originally planned on this — he first had commissioned Lalo Schifrin to compose a score, which he wound up not caring for.
"I felt the need for something that was akin to Brahams's 'Lullaby'—a kind of childhood feel," he said. "I went to see the head of Warner at the time, and he didn't know what the hell I was talking about, but he said go into that room over there, the music library. There were a couple tables stacked with demos.
"I went through that stack until I came to this thing called 'Tubular Bells' by a guy named Mike Oldfield. And [Warner] had no interest in it — was not going to release it. ... But I listened to that refrain, and it hooked me, and we won the rights to it. I think it sold 10 or 20 million records. And it was an accident."
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Oldfield was briefed on Friedkin's interest, though in his recollection, he really didn't mind or think that much of it.
"My manager mentioned that an American film company wanted to use part of it for a movie which was expected to be very successful, and so I said okay," he explained in 1978. "I didn't play any part in choosing which sections to use, however."
He did, notably, watch the film, which uses "Tubular Bells" in the intro and outro, at some point, and thought highly of it.
"That was a very good movie," he told The Guardian in 2014. "It was about exorcising a demon, and if my music can help do that, that's a great thing. People do go crazy sometimes and consult exorcists."
Throughout the two-hour film, there's only 17 minutes of music, but that was exactly the right amount for Friedkin.
"What I wanted", he said in a 1974 interview with Castle of Frankenstein, "what I think we have in the film, is understated music. The music is just a presence like a cold hand on the back of your neck, rather than assertive."
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising thing The Exorcist accomplished was that it brought Oldfield's Tubular Bells to the top of the charts, making it to No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 3 in the U.S. In the decades that have followed, the album has re-entered the charts multiple times. In 2023, the famous melody was used again for a sequel film, The Exorcist: Believer.
"Nothing can take away from the fact that I'm very, very proud of the composition, the way one idea runs into another idea and the variations of ideas scattered around the place," Oldfield told Classic Rock in 2023. "It's got a great introduction, great riffs, lovely little tunes. ... It all seemed to fall into place, as if some wheel of fortune had swung in my favor at that time."
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Gallery Credit: Michael Gallucci