More than 45 years on, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells has wrapped itself like an epiphytic orchid around the history of art rock. At the age of 19, the multi-instrumentalist released the two-track 1973 album (whose eeriest passages went on to serve as theme music for The Exorcist) that also just so happened to be Virgin Records’ debut release. While it would be a slight exaggeration to say Tubular Bells’ vision of early progressive rock fully prefigured Brian Eno’s ambient music, it was one of the first major recordings to abandon pop for art without the rickety scaffolding of a “concept” album.
A little over a decade letter, synthpop quartet Book of Love took it up. Initially consisting of Ted Ottaviano, Susan Ottaviano (no relation), Lauren Roselli Johnson, and Jade Lee, the New Yorkers by way of Philadelphia defined a certain gothic-queer mood that nonetheless sidestepped overt teen angst even as they toured with Depeche Mode. Less coy than Morrissey, more in love with ’60s girl-pop than Siouxsie, Book of Love put out classics like “Champagne Dreams” and “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls,” songs from a time when synthpop was considered practically disposable but which have acquired a steely longevity. Being a Book of Love fan probably got a lot of sensitive outcasts shoved in a locker in 1987, but today it might get you voted Prom Queen irrespective of your gender. Such is the power of Tubular Bells, you might say. (But also the power of the better-known “I Touch Roses” and “Modigliani (Lost in Your Eyes),” if we want to get real about it.)
“When you do a cover, you feel a responsibility and you also don’t know exactly if it’s going to work or not, but that one always felt like it worked for us,” Ted Ottaviano tells SF Weekly. “We used to practice in this old morgue, this third-level basement of an industrial building in what they call NoLIta in Manhattan. I had just seen The Exorcist and I was downstairs waiting for the rest of the band to show up and I started playing this version and then Jade came in and she added in more, then Lauren added more, then Susan was like, ‘What?!’ And we were pretty much doing Tubular Bells — and it just felt like it clicked enough for us to put it on our follow-up record.”
Calling Book of Love’s current tour the “longest 30th anniversary tour in the history of music,” Ottaviano notes while only he and Susan are consistent touring members, the others make contributions on their own terms. But they’ve played reunion shows and anniversary shows as a four-piece, and Ottaviano says Tubular Bells is often “the highlight of the night” — complete with a spinning doll head on stage.
The band’s enduring magic lies at the intersection of the cinematic with the danceable. Laura Palmer could die to Book of Love. Art-damaged children of art-damaged scenesters could smile their first smiles to Book of Love. Stephin Merritt clearly took some inspiration from them; although its lyrical tone is quite different, the Magnetic Fields have a song called “The Book of Love.” And San Francisco is gonna shake its booty to Book of Love on Sunday, June 30 when the band plays the Main Stage at Pride at 2:45 p.m. and later headlines Hard French Hearts Los Homos IX at Mezzanine.
The Pride party-slash-afterparty, which lures people over from Civic Center or wherever with an outdoor block party on Stevenson Street starting mid-afternoon, has often played host to high divas like Evelyn “Champagne” King (2018) and Ronnie Spector (2017). But it often makes room for straight-up weirdos, too, like Genesis P-Orridge (2016). And while Book of Love has played at the Folsom Street Fair, they’ve never done a Pride event before.
When not on tour, Ottaviano, a self-described music geek and purist, tends to revisit and remaster old recordings. For shows, though, he admits that some of the band’s electronic equipment is — unsurprisingly — “not happy in live venues.”
As a result, he says, “We’ve learned to pick and choose how to present our music in a live setting. … A lot of the music is programmed, so we try to add a visual element. Since we basically started off in art school, it feels like a comfy fit for us.”
Referring to Book of Love as a “medicine chest band” that helped its core audience of disaffected misfits get through adolescence or other rough patches, Ottaviano observes with some justification that they were ahead of the curve.
“What we were doing ended up becoming almost the main way music is created now,” he says. “We were early with a certain style and technique for making music that I think people are still excited by. As a result, we keep unwinding, with new chapters to it — pardon the pun.”
Book of Love, Sunday, June 30, 2:45 p.m., at the S.F. Pride Main Stage, Civic Center.
Hard French Hearts Los Homos IX, Sunday, June 30, 3-11 p.m., at Mezzanine, 444 Jessie St. $25-$35, hardfrench.com