Gilbert O’Sullivan

TrackSingle / Album
Nothing RhymedMAM 3
We WillMAM 30
Bye ByeHimself
MatrimonyHimself
Alone Again (Naturally)MAM 66
A Friend Of MineI'm A Writer, Not A Fighter
Where Peaceful Waters FlowI'm A Writer, Not A Fighter
I Love It ButOff Centre
Dear DreamEvery Song Has Its Play
Dansette Dreams And 45'sGilbert O'Sullivan

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Gilbert O’Sullivan playlist

 

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

For a few years in the early 1970s, Gilbert O’Sullivan ranked high among the very best pop songwriters in the British Isles. In part, this was due to his innate melodic flair, which led some commentators to draw comparisons between him and Paul McCartney. Also, while his songs were always meticulously crafted and tuneful, they often went in unexpected directions both musically and lyrically. Indeed, in that early stage of his career, O’Sullivan had an unusual capacity to write thought-provoking – sometimes ‘profound’ to use Paul Gambaccini‘s word – lyrics, which went far outside the constraints that had traditionally existed in pop songs.

In many respects, this unpredictable and occasionally eccentric streak in his early music helped to make him such a refreshing and interesting artist. There was also an occasional surrealist edge to some of his earliest work (an example would be Mr. Moody’s Garden, his only single on Major Minor, and released simply as by ‘Gilbert’), which owed a good deal to his love of the Goons and Les Dawson. This strain occasionally resurfaces – if only very occasionally – in his later work, albeit with sometimes mixed results.

So where had this remarkable talent come from? Gilbert O’Sullivan was born in Waterford in Ireland in December 1946. When he was still a young boy, however, the family moved to Swindon in England, which is where he grew up. From an early age he showed an aptitude for music, first as a drummer and later as a pianist. While he never really took to formal lessons, he pursued his own musical education by practising for hours in a purpose-built shed at the back of the family home.

He later claimed that his chief musical influences at that time were bands like the Searchers, the Beatles and the Kinks and solo songwriters like Bob Dylan. The Beatle who influenced him most was Paul, with whom he shared a knack for writing memorably catchy songs. Ray Davies’ celebration of the ordinary and mundane also strongly influenced his early work. O’Sullivan was also a fan of the great tin pan alley composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and of their latter day successors like Burt Bacharach. The craftsmanlike approach of such songwriters also inhabited his work.

Rick's Blues photo

After finishing school, O’Sullivan went on to study at Swindon College of Art, where he briefly played in a number of bands. One of these, Rick’s Blues, also featured Rick Davies (who later joined Supertramp) on keyboards. This musical apprenticeship eventually led to CBS signing O’Sullivan as a solo artist/songwriter in 1967. This first foray into the music business, however, proved a largely abortive one. At the end, he had little to show for it but a few unsuccessful singles and some vague interest from other artists in recording a few of his songs. Nevertheless, he remained determined to pursue a career in the music business. In consequence, he sent a demo tape to Gordon Mills, who was then best known as the manager of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. What he heard impressed Mills and he almost immediately signed Gilbert to his MAM record label.

At the same time, Gilbert O’Sullivan had also invented a new image for himself. In a later interview, he claimed that this look stemmed from a desire ‘to be different’. Realising that ‘long hair was here to stay … [he] went instead for the Just William look, which came from a love of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.’ That look involved a flat schoolboy cap, short trousers, colliery boots and a pudding-bowl haircut. Although widely disliked (not least by his manager), this change in his appearance did serve to win him attention in the short term at least. In the event, it probably militated against his being accepted as a serious artist – in the way that he believed he should be – later in his career.

His debut single for the MAM label was the classic Nothing Rhymed, my first choice here. it gave immediate evidence that here was a songwriter of a very high calibre indeed. It had a beautiful folk-like melody (this is probably what led Martin Carthy to record his excellent version), but what was even more striking was the quality of its lyric. Unusually for a pop song, this was based around a series of moral and ethical questions, many of which were left hanging and unresolved. This gave the song an emotional punch, which belied the calm and stately quality of its melody. It also features what, in my opinion, remains one of the greatest verses to appear in any English/Irish pop song:

When I’m drinking my Bonaparte Shandy
Eating more than enough apple pies
Will I glance at my screen
And see real human beings
Starve to death right in front of my eyes

This verse also seems to come out of nowhere, which gives it much of its enduring power. Here is a near contemporary live performance of the song:

And for comparison’s sake, here is Morrissey’s emotional tribute from a concert in Dublin.

If this song were not impressive enough, Gilbert O’Sullivan followed it with another almost equally good single, We Will. It is hard to think of another song which, with greater economy, depicts what appears to be, essentially, emotionally stunted lives. The brilliance of the song also lies in O’Sullivan’s ability to convey a great deal through short snippets of dialogue. Also, as in some of Randy Newman’s best songs, the key to the lyric lies in what is left unsaid. What, for example, is the mysterious “affliction within” mentioned in the chorus?

As in a Ray Davies’ song, We Will also takes pleasure, despite its generally melancholic air, in what seem to be relatively mundane activities. These include, as Bob Stanley put it in a fine piece on the song in The Guardian, “kicking a ball, visiting distant relatives … [and] eating cornflakes”. Given O’Sullivan’s aptitude for writing such ‘kitchen sink’ songs, it’s a pity that he didn’t continue writing in that vein in later years.

The next two picks, Bye Bye and Matrimony, come from Gilbert’s classic debut album, Himself, which is still probably his finest collection. Both are classic pop songs, with the Latin-flavoured Matrimony also displaying O’Sullivan’s trademark idiosyncratic wit.

Alone Again (Naturally), his brilliant 1972 single, is one of the most extraordinary pop songs ever written and had to be included. In many ways, it reminds me of Leonard Bernstein’s comments about Benjamin Britten’s music:

“Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. It’s strange. On the surface, Britten’s music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming, but it’s so much more than that. If you really listen to (his music), you become aware of something very dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”

On the surface, Alone Again (Naturally) can be taken as a quintessential pop song with a charming and infectious catchy melody. The lyric, by contrast, is very dark, and touches on suicide (or, at least, attempted suicide), death and a number of very deep existential questions (“leaving me to doubt/ talk about God in His mercy/ or if he really does exist/ why did he desert me/ in my hour of need”). In a sense, this is so far removed from the normal subject matter of pop songs in the 1970s that O’Sullivan’s achievement here is to subvert our expectations of what they can or should do. Indeed, it is this very unpredictability in his music in this period which gives it a claim to greatness. Here is a live performance of the song:

And another Morrissey cover (apologies for the sound quality here). In relation to Morrissey, it could also be argued that his outsider/ curmudgeon persona owes something to the template previously set by Gilbert.

Arguably, O’Sullivan had set a standard with these early masterpieces that he never quite equalled in his later work. While he continued to write fine pop songs (his 1972 hit Clair had one of even his catchiest melodies, while his 1973 hit Get Down, although hardly Led Zeppelin, was his most effective rocker – and both No.1 records in the UK) the spark of genius that had inspired those gems dimmed somewhat over time.

By 1975, his chart hits also began to dry up, partly through his business and legal difficulties with his former manager, Gordon Mills. These difficulties eventually led him to retire almost completely from the music business for a time and, when he returned to recording in 1980, his style seemed increasingly old fashioned and out of touch with the musical trends at that time.

My remaining selections then are mainly album tracks. Two of these come from his fine 1973 album, I’m A Writer, Not A Fighter. The first, A Friend Of Mine, has a typically quirky and unpredictable O’Sullivan melody while the second, Where Peaceful Waters Flow, is an excellent soul-flavoured ballad.

I Love It But from his ‘return to form’ 1980 album, Off Centre, is a very witty comment on his struggles with the music industry. It also has some typical O’Sullivan musical and lyrical gymnastics.

Undeterred by his falling out from critical and commercial favour, O’Sullivan has continued writing and recording regularly. Since the early 1980s he has lived in Jersey, where he continues his long-term practise of writing daily from 9 to 5. More recently, there has been something of a low key revival of interest in his work, which was sparked, it appears, by the Morrissey cover versions included here, and by the other tributes he has received from some later songwriters like Paul Weller.

Will conclude with two fine slices of ‘nostalgia’ from O’Sullivan’s later albums – the first, Dear Dream from Every Song Has Its Play (1995) which deals with his ambitions in the early part of his career. It has one of those seemingly simple but haunting melodies which he seems to be able to write at will. The song also reflects his interest in musical theatre.

The last pick, Dansette Dreams And 45’s is from his most recent self-titled album which is one of his strongest CDs in years. There is a lovely bitter-sweet quality to the song which is beautifully sung by O’Sullivan.

If he had only written Nothing Rhymed, We Will and Alone Again (Naturally), Gilbert O’Sullivan would have a strong claim to be one of the greatest pop songwriters of all time. The fact that he has produced so many other fine songs over the course of an almost fifty-year career – and has retained a stubborn contrariness and quirky individuality throughout that time – means that the recent revival of interest in his work is long overdue. He is a songwriter who deserves to be celebrated far more than he is.

 

Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 19 UK studio albums: Himself (1971), Back To Front (1972), I’m A Writer, Not A Fighter (1973), A Stranger In My Own Back Yard (1974), Southpaw (1977), Off Centre (1980), Life & Rhymes (1982), In The Key Of G (1989), Sounds Of The Loop (1993), By Larry (1994), Every Song Has Its Play (1995), Singer Sowing Machine (1997), Irlish (2001), Piano Foreplay (2003), A Scruff At Heart (2007), Gilbertville (2011), Latin Ala G! (2015), Gilbert O’Sullivan (2018)

 

Gilbert O’Sullivan official website

Gilbert O’Sullivan Singles Discography at 45cat

Gilbert O’Sullivan at Discogs

Neil McCormick’s Needle Time: Gilbert O’Sullivan interview (2015)

Gilbert O’Sullivan: TV Profile (YouTube)

Covers of Alone Again (Naturally)

Gilbert O’Sullivan biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Martin Carthy, Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Morrissey, Randy Newman, Supertramp, Paul Weller

TopperPost #792

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    May 30, 2019

    The genius of ‘Alone again’ in its lyrics. On a casual listen you only really hear half the lyrics: ‘I promised myself I’d test myself’ or ‘I remembered I cried when my father died’. And you – well, I – thought, the typical slightly self indulgent singer songwriter stuff. But a nice melody. Then you give it a good listen. And wow. A shame he’s not a more prominent artist.

  2. Peter Viney
    May 31, 2019

    Excellent. He is under-rated. Rick Davies didn’t “join” Supertramp, but Supertramp were formed around him by advertising in Melody Maker. At one point in 1970, they seriously discussed inviting Gilbert to join. Rick Davies played Hammond and Wurlitzer piano, and they wanted to follow The Band in having two keyboards, with Gilbert on piano and Rick on organ. I don’t know why it didn’t happen, but suspect it was that the Davies / Hodgson / Palmer writing team were beginning to realize they didn’t need another songwriter. In late 1970, when I was working for Supertramp, we had a demo tape or cassette of Gilbert’s compositions, one of the few pieces of music we had apart from The Band, and it contained future hits.

    • David Lewis
      Jun 2, 2019

      I suspect that that was the right choice. I don’t think ultimately Gilbert and the guys from Supertramp would have been incompatible. Both are great but some things just don’t work together. It would have been interesting though while it lasted.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 2, 2019

    Peter & David, thanks for these comments. And, yes, ‘Alone Again’ is such a brilliantly crafted song. My own feeling is that Gilbert is far too much of an individual and too stubborn minded to fit easily into a band framework.

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