1979 Live!

Mike's almost legendary shyness had meant that the fans had little chance to see him play any live dates. Fortunately one of the by-products of the Exegesis programme was that Mike had conquered these inhibitions and was now able to take all his great works out on the road. Virgin announced plans for a major European tour with almost 50 other musicians which would, in London alone, take in three of the largest and most historic venues. These were the Royal Festival Hall, for two shows in one day, on April 21st, Wembley Conference Centre on the 25th / 26th April and finally Wembley Arena on 28th / 29th April.

Below: A jacket clad Mike performing at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1979. Gus Stewart

However, before this tour commenced Mike appeared in concert with two of his old friends. On the 14th February he appeared at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and played guitar on David Bedfords Rime of the Ancient Mariner which had originally been released in September 1975. The second appearance was at The Venue in London on llth March, again playing guitar on the track Downwind for Pierre Moerlen's Gong.

Mike could then concentrate on the tour that would introduce him to an audience starved of seeing him play any of his most famous pieces. On the 31st March, Mike opened this long awaited tour with four nights in Barcelona, Spain before visiting France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and finally his native England. Each concert set mainly consisted of Tubular Bells, Incantations and Guilty, with the occasional Sailors Hornpipe thrown in for good measure. The venture may well have been emotionally rewarding for Mike but it almost left him bankrupt. It later came out that both he and Virgin had lost half a million pounds, which inevitably led to stories that Mike was flat broke. Fortunately for both Mike and Virgin, there were several hours of live recordings from all over Europe available. This enabled Virgin to cull the best and release it as Exposed (V2511). This recording contained an edited version of Incantations as well as Tubular Bells and Guilty and received some acclaim from the critics.

Released on the 27th July it was originally only planned as a Limited Edition 100000 copy run, but due to public demand, Virgin finally succumbed and decided to increase production. This then enabled the LP to reach No 16 in the UK album charts. At the same time Virgin released the up-tempo, almost disco like, Guilty (VS245) which had taken the concerts by storm. This peaked at No. 22 in the UK singles chart with the Limited Edition 12" version (VS245-12) being produced on blue vinyl.

Meanwhile, the year had begun with Mike guesting on the title track of Pierre Moerlen's Gong LP Downwind, which was recorded at Mike's Througham studio. Mike was then to appear with Pierre and his Gong at The Venue, London on llth March where Mike would again play guitar on the Downwind track. Arista would release both the studio version in February and the live version in early 1980. He then made a guest appearance on Girl of My Dreams, a recording by Bram Tchaikovsky. The same track would also appear on Tchaikovsky's Strange Man, Changed Man LP, which was released in April.

In October, the independent mail order record company Tellydisc produced a retrospective double LP set called Impressions (Tel 4). This is a fairly sought after set as it was only released via mail order in the UK, and despite most of the material being already available on previous LP's and singles, it had a different, almost rough mix, of George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.

A more refined version of this track would appear on Mike's new LP Platinum (V2142), which was released in November. This LP was also to produce a rare track as the first 30.000 copies included the track Sally, which was written for his then companion Sally Cooper. Virgin, and especially Branson himself, decided at the twelfth hour that the track was not suitable for release and replaced it with Into Wonderland. Unfortunately, due to Virgin wanting to release the LP for Christmas they released records with printed covers and labels crediting the original Sally track, whilst utilising the new Into Wonderland. It therefore became impossible, when only looking at the cover, to tell which version was which. Luckily it was then discovered that by looking at the matrix number scratched on the record surface you could determine that the original Sally version had the number V2141-B-1 whilst the Into Wonderland version carried the matrix V2141-B-3. Today the original version is one of the most sought after recordings, with some fans willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a mint copy. The rest of Platinum also contained tributes to avant-garde composer Philip Glass and composer George Gershwin. It even had a track Punkadiddle which seemed to imitate the then up and coming Punk style. This so called revolution in music would distance Mike from Virgin and eventually cause irreversible damage. Despite its release during the lucrative Christmas period, Platinum eventually peak at a poor No. 22 in the UK album charts.

On the singles front, Mike was commissioned by the BBC to revamp Barnacle Bill, the signature tune for the popular children's TV programme Blue Peter. This re-working included a film crew going to his studio and filming Mike going through the various stages of playing, dubbing and recording the track. At one point Mike had the presenter, film crew and sound recorder all joining in on the finale. The subsequent recording was released as part of the Blue Peter Appeal for Cambodia, with all proceeds going to this fund. Ironically this was to prove one of his biggest single successes, with Blue Peter (VS312) reaching No. 6 in the UK single charts. Incidentally the promotional video released must go down as one of the funniest produced by Mike. It incorporated a Keystone Cops type chase using Microlites, Hovercraft and assorted other modes of transport, shot in black and white, whilst the Blue Peter theme accompanied them. There were two different versions of the single released after complaints by various DJ's that the record finished too abruptly. The ending on later copies was therefore altered from that of the original batch. Again there are no clues on the cover to which version you bought. The only way, apart from listening to each version, is to look at the matrix number scratched on the record. Copies with the matrix A4 are the original sudden ending version, whilst if you had the matrix A7, you had the version with the new refined ending. Mike was also asked to record a signature tune for a pop programme on Tyne Tees TV. Eventually he chose to cover Alright Now, originally recorded by Free, which was a track Mike particularly liked. Not much more was heard of this track until it was semi-released as a flexi-disc on a national music magazine.

Mike's love for space and flight would again resurface when, on the 20th July, Virgin premiered on British TV The Space Movie. This spotlighted America's early attempts and final success at putting a man on the moon. The sound-track featured different unheard versions and mixes of amongst others Incantations, Tubular Bells and Ommadawn. This televised programme was later to be released on video in 1983.

The decade had ended with Mike feeling threatened by the different musical forms appearing and what seemed to be Virgin's lack of interest and promotion in what he was doing. Nobody knew, however, that these differences would eventually cause Mike to leave Virgin to seek pastures anew.

┬ęPeter Evans