As part of my irregular series on album titles, I have been thinking about Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, Tubular Bells. I listened to this album a lot in the early 1980s, and wondered if it could be considered a musical metaphor, no less. The cover art was fascinating, that shining tube, crossing over itself like some kind of rune, hanging in a cloudy sky above a wave breaking on a beach. It reminded me of a mystical version of one of those tube slides at a swimming pool.
I thought if I was going to write about a musical metaphor, it would be best to check that I knew what I was talking about. I reminded myself of the basics – that a metaphor is the describing of one thing in terms of another. Then I did some more in-depth reading and was intrigued to discover that metaphors used to describe the act of thinking almost always involve three things – journeys, building, and food. As an example, you can ruminate on a subject, build an argument and arrive at a conclusion. This was interesting because music also seems to have a powerful link with those same three elemental things – journeys, building and food.
For millennia, people have marched to music and sung shanties to help them on journeys. There’s also a tradition of work songs involved in all kinds of building activities, from laying rail roads in America, to constructing houses in Africa. There’s a similar tradition amongst agricultural workers producing food. For centuries people have used music to help them “tote that barge and lift that bale” – as Paul Robeson sang in Ol’ Man River. Lyrics might be about anything, describing the hopes, dreams and loves of people getting through the daily grind. Music itself, however, may well derive from the rhythmic effort of work.
Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film version of Show Boat
This all makes me feel better about having a repetitive job in a pharmacy. Music goes with repetitive work. The rhythmic crack of stone on stone in the production of stone tools, the regular thump of mortar against pestle in food preparation, the tramp of feet on a long, laborious journey, are possibly where music – and even elements of language itself – came from in the first place.
So does this tell us anything about Tubular Bells? Well, the music often involves repeated phrases. It’s also interesting that the album ends with a sailors’ hornpipe. The album preceding this hornpipe is abstract, a journey sliding down a mystical tubular bell perhaps. But mystical or not, in the end it comes back to toting that barge and lifting that bale. A collection of instrumental music, built around complex repetition, ends with the kind of music which, since music began, has helped people travel, build things, and get food to our tables.