Mike Oldfield


1983, MO's home studio, Denham, Buckinghamshire

So … Simon Phillips calls me up one day at the end of January 1983 and says … 'Are you free tomorrow?' … 'Yes' I reply … 'Do you fancy coming to play bass in the studio for Mike Oldfield ?' … my next reply said it all … 'Is it complicated' I say first off, terrified !!! I hear Simon ask Mike in the background if it's complicated … 'Nooooooooo' I hear Mike say, laughing … 'OK' says I … Simon … 'Pick you up tomorrow in Albany St 8am' … EIGHT AM !!! FFS !!! Are they mad I thought ??? I'd be nursing some kind of hangover surely … was he serious  … YES !!! Mike, I learned, was a stickler for starting early …That conversation with Simon was my very first experience of the man who was to change my life in so many ways … haha … and I was terrified !!!

My first worry, ridiculous as it seems now, was that they were going to be really straight and boring guys and I wouldn't be able to smoke dope on the session !!! My God … what would I do ??? I hadn't really done any kind of recording session 'straight' since … well I can't remember but probably demos or something with my formative bands in the mid 1970's. Playing 'straight' as in, not under the influence of something mind altering, was something I just didn't do almost as much as I didn't do any recording at 9am !!! I had to process and accept this challenging situation very quickly as I had less than a day to think about how I was going to cope with this session and of course, apart from my fears, I realised intuitively that this was an opportunity that couldn't be missed. 

I took three basses with me that first day which I believe was the 1st February 1983; the Steinberger headless which I'd bought and started using on the final Toyah tour I'd done at the end of '82, the stock black, maple necked '78/'79 Fender Precision I'd used since Original Mirrors days and the black maple necked '81 Fender Precision fretless I'd had since the beginning of '82 and used a little on The Changeling. There's a funny story about this, the fretless bass, which I'll come to … 

On that first day there was a whole bunch of musicians crammed into Mike's control room in the Denham studio; Mike, Rick Fenn, Tim Renwick, me, Nigel Luby engineering and also Jeremy, Mike's assistant, floating around too. Simon P with all his drums was crammed into the tiled room next door. Mike, on first impression was … well … just Mike. Clean, honest, direct, focused, in charge too … I was pretty scared and probably trying to cover it with bravado. It didn't escape my attention though that recording with these guys was a serious prospect and, for now, I was going to have to behave myself. One thing I noticed was a barrel of Guinness in the studio (Mike had done some kind of advertising for them and was sponsored for a while) so I thought to myself … mmm could be some possibilities here …

I was used to using the Steinberger bass so I insisted on using it. Mike liked Fenders as do most people when it comes to recording bass so, on reflection, it seems strange now he didn't insist on me using one then. But, I suppose, we were starting out on a relationship which was to last just about seven years and was to be very personal in nature on many levels. I'd like to say that Mike took a lot more care over our relationship than I ever did over that whole period of time. I suppose one could say there was a nice bloke trying fight his way out of me, ostensibly an angry and confused young man, and at the same time there was an angry bloke trying to get out of Mike, who was ostensibly a really kind and sweet man !!! Call it what you like … irony, opposites attract, whatever …  but for some strange reason, thank God, I got on with him !!! 

More than anything Mike showed me that, as a musician, it was ok to be me, as in to BE myself, and I like to think that he could, for all my apparent madness, feel my passion for playing that came from deep within. From this first day with him, through the subsequent years of tours, albums, holidays, parties, love, laughter and sadness, I learned something new every day I was with this man, even if I didn't know it at the time. Mike gave me validation as a musician and I don't think, to this day, I could ever have, or have had, a higher endorsement than his or a better teacher than him.

The first day's recording is a bit of a blur now except that I remember we played the riff that now forms the part of Crises when Mike sings, 'Crises, Crises … can't get away', over and over having referred, at the start of the session, to a recording taken from a gig soundcheck from Mike's last tour with his previous band. I must say I struggled with this riff and could no way play it accurately or clearly enough at the time and the Steinberger bass was no way deep or heavy enough for Mike's music as I was to come to appreciate it. Having said that there's still something about the sense of danger and anxiety that comes from a group of musicians playing together and Mike would ALWAYS be pushing you … me, Rick, Simon, Tim whoever … Mike pushed you out of your comfort zone and thereby, if you weren't TOO scared by it all, you could experience the liberation of truly making music from the very depths of your soul. 

So I stumbled my way through the first morning and afternoon in the company of these esteemed and serious musicians wondering how and when I was going to broach the subject of rolling a joint because, of course, I had my usual stash with me hidden away in the hope that I'd be able to skin up at some point. After 6pm the bar was opened, as in the Guinness' were dutifully poured (those who wanted one), we then went over the music we'd played before during the day, having had a couple of drinks, and I got the sense that these guys could and were willing to party. Little did I realise that I was a mere beginner !!! I asked anyone if they fancied a 'smoke' and I think it was Rick and Tim who answered 'Affirmative' without blinking. I had some amazing Afghani Black hash and some equally amazing weed which was an incredible lime green colour. So having got 'permission' I rolled a joint, mixing the two, that could have got the whole county stoned. I remember thinking that these guys must be pretty experienced being older and having been around longer so I better load it up accordingly. Well … to this day Rick Fenn remembers that joint !!! Mike stuck to his Guinness and roll ups while we got hammered and then went off into the night looking for coke with Jeremy. 

So ended the first day with MO; a day that I began totally terrified and that ended, well, just the same as ALL my days ended back then. BUT … there was more 'terror' in store for me on day two.

On the second day I believe that I took an early train from Marylebone station, close to me in London, to Denham and was picked up at the station by someone, maybe it was Sally Cooper, Mike's previous live-in partner at Denham. Anyway I still arrived there very early and we continued much as we had the day before; going over bits and pieces of this and that and oh, Rick Fenn wasn't there on that second day and mine was not to reason why so I didn't think much of it. So we're hacking our way through the day and the next bit that I can actually remember, an hour or so of it, is all crystal clear to me. Mike says … 'Now we're going to record a single'. Now I'm thinking … 'How does he know it's going to be a single ??? Does he have a crystal ball or something ???'. You see, up until now, I'd always been in bands that would record a bunch of songs for an album and the singles, as such, would come organically to the fore and we'd work on them accordingly. I'd NEVER heard anyone say in advance that a certain song was definitely going to be a single. I'd done a couple of sessions with Toyah, namely 'Thunder In The Mountains' and 'Be Loud, Be Proud, Be Heard' that were done specifically as SINGLE sessions but I'd never experienced this on an album session, well the EIGHT whole albums I think I'd previously done up until this point in time.

Anyway so then Mike goes into the tiled room where the drums were set up and starts rummaging through my basses and attendant baggage stuck in the corner and then comes back into the control room triumphantly with the fretless Fender Precision in his hands saying … 'You can play this on this song'. Now right there and then my heart sank and the blood must have drained from my face !!! I'd only really brought the fretless bass along with me to try and 'look good'; I'd never considered in a million years that he'd actually ask me to play it and what's more, apart from one song on 'The Changeling' with Toyah I'd not really EVER played it professionally at all, apart from messing around with it at home, so I was terrified (again) !!! For those who know or don't as the case may be the notes on a fretless bass are positioned differently to a fretted bass. There are, on most fretless basses, some dots on the top side of the neck that are like a sort of guide and they appear there in lieu of the third, fifth, seventh and twelfth frets i.e.. G, A, B and E notes going up the neck. The difference in the playing of it is that the note is played DIRECTLY ON THE DOT whereas with frets you are 'between' the frets. (See accompanying pictures of the actual bass, neck, dots and all … )

So I'm bending down over the bass in the tiled room playing bass notes to myself acoustically and listening to check that I THINK I know where the notes are and I'm in mortal terror of what's about to become of me !!! Hahaha … Would you believe it but the chord sequence Mike started to show us was all based around the key of 'E' with accompanying passing chords of A, B and C Sharp … Thank God … all the notes I had to play were all ON THE DOTTED PARTS OF THE BASS … SAVED !!! As long as I looked rigidly at the bass I could play the notes accurately, bang on the dots and, what's more, make it at least look like I could play the fretless bass … Call it God, luck, coincidence or whatever it was a small relief to begin with but I still had to get through the tune. 

So there's Simon on drums, Mike on acoustic guitar, Tim Renwick on electric guitar kind of noodling around with little licks and inversions around the chord sequence and me on the bass desperately hoping to not get found out. I can't remember how many times we played through the sequence to rehearse it but it was only maybe once or twice at most and then Mike wanted to record it. Ok everyone says … fine let's have a go. Then THAT group of musicians played the backing track to 'MOONLIGHT SHADOW', the ONLY time it was committed to tape … and I mean … THE ONLY SINGULAR TIME we played that song while the tape machine was running. Talk about a f***ing miracle !!! Well maybe not so in hindsight … just MO's perception of feelings, a lot of faith, a bit of planning maybe and also a kind of far sightedness possessed by very few human beings. That ONE recording qualified a principle for me which I've tried to apply to my playing ever since which I DID have before then but couldn't really articulate it … get it done IN ONE OR TWO TAKES or at least get it done quickly if you can while it's FRESH !!! I distinctly remember Simon saying at the time that he wanted to do it again immediately and Mike rushing over to the tape machine, taking the reel off and packing it away in a box. He'd hear nothing of the sort … He had gotten what he needed and knew it !!! Haha … the next time I heard that track it had become a full song. Maggie's voice was on it, Mike's electric guitars were on it (Tim's weren't), the string parts too (Kurzweil strings to the best of my knowledge) and I could hardly believe I'd been fortunate enough to be part of a recording that felt and sounded THAT good. In fact Mike told me later he'd followed my bass line with the strings here and there during the verses. The fact is that once we were actually playing and I'd got safely through the first verse I became a bit more confident and you can hear the bass get a little more daring and melodic as the song progresses. I can still hear little sweeps on the fretless with me trying to cover myself to get to the next note ok. I think the point is, what we were doing together while recording the backing track for that song was a bit happy-go-lucky, a bit dangerous, a bit anxious, a bit lost here and there maybe but incredibly heartfelt and professional too. Mike captured something magical between us that day and and then used it to go on and produce the classic song that every one loves today. 

At time of writing (July 2014) it's now over thirty one years since that song was made and I still never get tired of hearing it. The story about how the basic track was recorded and my small part in it has become a very popular and important story during my shows, lessons and lectures because it goes a long way towards proving my own feeling that my own favourite kinds of music and the best music I've personally contributed to has never been laboured over or agonised over too much. As a musician, for me, it's a mixture of a lot of different things BUT … if you know yourself and you know your instrument AND you have a fair idea of how you're going to approach a piece of music it's about PERFORMANCE … that's what communicates the message to the public who are going to like the music so much that they'll part with hard earned money to buy it. I believe performance is what they look for, performance is what they listen to and performance is what they want to FEEL.  

I ended up on 'Crises', the track, too and that's because Mike kept my 'swoops' I played on the Steinberger before the 'Crises, Crises' vocal section. Yet another occasion when I didn't really know what I was doing or what I should or could do but Mike kept it, I suppose, because it felt right. It's not particularly musical but more of my kind of 'attitude' AND it got me on the track for which I'm grateful. I also did some backing vocals on the long version of 'Shadow On The Wall' when Mike needed an extended and alternative version. That was a buzz in itself because singing on the same song as Roger Chapman was a big deal to me and a box 'ticked' as I was a Family fan going back to 1971. We did that session, just the two of us together, sometime later on that year or the year after. Across the following years I did a lot of recording with Mike, just the two of us working together in the studio with no one else around. They were always wonderfully creative sessions because he always let me go and encouraged me to explore ideas, feelings, give feedback, make constructive comments … I could really work very effectively one on one with him. Of course he was forever the producer but I always felt that my contribution was valid and recognised and, over and above everything else, it was always enormous FUN !!!

Mike subsequently asked me to go on tour with him to support the 'Crises' album during the summer of 1983. It was the only time ever in my life that I EVER actually stayed at home learning and practising parts during the weeks before the tour. It seems quite incredible now but it really straightened me out for a while but then I soon put paid to that once we got away !!! I found a whole bunch of willing 'party partners' on tour and the pot, coke and booze flowed quite freely. There are a lot of good stories to be told about that band and all the behaviour around it but they're not for these pages. 

I think it's enough for me to say now that I carry Mike's influence over me into everything I do musically to this day … rarely a day passes without me thinking of him and, of course, Moonlight Shadow's ALWAYS on the radio !!! Hahaha … Enormous thanks and much love to you Michael … 

810orzcmxul. aa1500