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Loved And Lost: Gilbert O’Sullivan

August 9, 2018

Sometimes I try to recapture a feeling I had years ago. My mood, my attitude, my outlook – what it was like to be me back then. It’s difficult to do, and impossible to describe in words. But often, if I can reconnect to a song or piece of music I associate with that time, then the music acts as a bridge and takes me back to a particular place or situation, and I get a glimpse, for a fleeting moment, of that feeling. In the absence of my own tardis, music is the best form of time travel I know.

In 1980 I was a postgraduate music student at SOAS, London University. In order to pay the course fees, in the absence of any grant, I was working as a kitchen porter in my college for four hours a day and as a barman at the University Of London Union most evenings. In theory this was fine, but it left me very little time to be a postgraduate music student at SOAS, which was, after all, the object of the exercise.

By spring 1981 I had risen to the dizzy heights of Senior Evening Barman, largely by virtue of being able to serve five people at once, form a notional queue from the heaving mass of bodies in front of me (“It’s you, then you, then you, then you, then you.”) and sprint down to the cellar and change a barrel only fractionally more slowly than the speed of light. I could also deflect some of the aggro of disaffected drinkers away from my colleagues, in part because, as a skinhead, I looked like a thug. I still treasure this frankly negative appraisal of my character from a frustrated customer: “I think you are a very rude man”. Spot on.

ULU back then was host to an amazing programme of top indie rock and pop groups. On Friday and Saturday nights the bar would be crammed wall to wall from early evening until late closing, and you’d finish the evening soaking wet, exhausted but still feeling hyperactive, then get home around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. For all-nighters, double the wet, exhaustion and hyperactivity, and change the hour to breakfast time.

The prized shift was Sunday afternoons, when trade would be quiet, the atmosphere relaxed, and you’d have a chance to wind down and chat to colleagues, many of whom were also friends, without a mass of punters hurling insults at you.

On one such Sunday in early spring 1981 the warm afternoon sun was streaming through the windows of the bar and I happened to catch the strains of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s What’s In A Kiss? ringing out of the PA from the jukebox in the next room. And now I can remember the exquisite feeling of that day, and of those days. One of endless possibility, curiosity about where life would take me, a hint of insecurity about soon having to get a real job and stop pretending to be a postgraduate student, and a sense that almost everything was ahead, and very little behind. The sound of that song stood out from everything I was hearing, out of time and place for 1981 – not funky, not post-punky, not jazzy, it was clear, bright, almost translucent, a delicious mix of melancholy and optimism. It matched both my own mood and the light flooding into the room, and I went straight over to the jukebox to play it again. And again.

By 1981 Gilbert O’Sullivan had been out of the picture for a few years, embroiled in the inevitable legal wrangles that followed musical success back in those days. So my first reaction was: “I know that voice. Ah yes, him. Whatever happened to him?” At that time, everyone seemed to be coming back. As well as O’Sullivan, John Lennon’s glorious song Woman had recently been in the charts and was still on that same jukebox, and my favourite band Strawbs were touring again after a long break.

Factcheck for any popkids who were born too late: Gilbert O’Sullivan back in the early 1970s was massive in the UK, in America and in many other places around the world – a pop superstar. A string of number one and Top Ten hits had made him the biggest solo artist of his day.

Like Elton John he had started the decade as a serious, ‘alternative’, credible singer-songwriter, in the same niche as, say, John Sebastian, James Taylor, Nick Drake and Jonathan Kelly – this was the indie scene of those days. In an era when the regulation clobber of rock musicians was a woolly sweater, an Afghan coat, shaggy hair and a beard, O’Sullivan had adopted a unique and striking look – that of a 19th century street urchin, with pudding-bowl haircut, cap, baggy trousers, braces and hobnail boots, a rascal straight out of Oliver. Some have described that image as limiting his appeal and distracting attention from the music, but for me it’s a brilliant creation, anticipating the individuality of punk: be different, be yourself, use whatever comes to hand – rags, pins, second-hand clothes, anything. It’s the classic attitude of an ex-art student – you yourself are the work of art as much as your music.

Chart hits and a change of image soon altered my perception, and I remember being mildly irritated by O’Sullivan for having kept my own favourite ‘serious’ bands off the top chart positions for weeks on end. Top Of The Pops back then was like Division 1 in football, and we all passionately followed bands and supported football teams – in my case, sadly, my home town team Chester (Division 4). My friends and I had now rather snobbishly decided that Gilbert O’Sullivan had become a middle-of-the-road balladeer, making songs for teeny-boppers and their mums and dads. (My own father suffered a similar fate. A lover of Abba’s music, he was affectionately ridiculed by at least one of his children for his bland taste, only proving himself posthumously to be an arbiter of the cool and classic when the Swedish popsters came back into fashion in the late 1990s.)

To quote What’s In A Kiss?, it was ‘really rather stupid of me’ to deny how much I actually loved and admired Gilbert O’Sullivan’s songs, since I could still sing along with them nearly forty years later. Alone Again (Naturally), Nothing Rhymed, Clair and Get Down were locked into my memory as all-time pop classics, and I could predict every twist and turn of the lyrics and music.

So thirty-seven years later, just a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit What’s In A Kiss? – go back to that Sunday afternoon in the ULU bar and try to work out why this song had remained lodged in my brain and in my heart, off and on, for so long. At the start O’Sullivan sets up a simple three-chord sequence that runs through most of the song. It’s a simple and beautiful concept clothed in the most gorgeous of melodies. Three verses, a couple of middle eights and an instrumental, and you’re out in less than three minutes.

His voice is unmistakeable. It has the purity of a choirboy, but with a slightly hard and plaintive edge. There are echoes of both Lennon and McCartney, of Morrissey (years in advance), and a nasal quality reminiscent of Bob Dylan. He’s always totally in tune, thankfully almost completely vibrato-less, and has a way of phrasing that pulls the words this way and that across the beat, so that you feel he’s talking as much as singing.

Intrigued by what I’ve missed since 1981, and further back to those prehistoric early 70s, I’ve watched numerous documentaries, interviews and concerts. What have I learned? First, what an astonishing performer. Seeing him bound on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and burst into the upbeat, latinesque Matrimony, jumping on top of the piano and witnessing the joy and love of the audience, you just wish you were there, every time.

Watching him play live, as I happily had the chance to do recently, he’s always completely ‘in’ the song – never going through the motions or putting on a show. What you get is the complete sincerity of the person who wrote it and still believes in it. And this goes back a long, long way. On the 1978 BBC2 programme Sight And Sound you’ll find O’Sullivan delivering a blistering set which mixes the big hits with some less commercial offerings from his new album Southpaw, backed by a ready-made, fully-functioning working band called Wilder which he’d chosen in place of the standard session-men support fodder.

He writes and sings in an unusually conversational, colloquial way. In a song like We Will, he’ll stretch the lyrics across the beat, cram in crowds of words between the beats, pause and then catch up as the words cascade down – it’s not so very different from rapping, albeit from a very different musical perspective.

Then there are those enormously long verses. In Alone Again (Naturally) they seem endless, allowing the writer to construct a narrative and pack in a whole stack of information. Many of his best songs don’t have conventional, blockbuster choruses either, but just use a short and simple phrase as the recurring hook, often the title of the song itself, like Alone Again. It’s always enough.

The voice, incredibly, is unchanged after all these years. O’Sullivan is modest about his vocal ability, but he’s fully able to turn on the rock in a song like Stick In The Mud, or croon a beautiful ballad, while in the outro to The Niceness Of It All and in Bear With Me he’s a wonderfully authentic soul singer. George Benson wanted to cover the latter song, and you can’t imagine George doing it any better. The RTE programme Out On His Own shows O’Sullivan wowing audiences in Tel Aviv and London, talking about the headstart his mother’s sacrifices gave him in his musical career, and in particular about his focus on the present and the future rather than the past. Many people don’t realise that he’s continued writing for the last forty years, working eight hours a day to craft an incredible repertoire of work, including songs which easily match those 70s classics – songs like Miss My Love Today, For What It’s Worth, Where Peaceful Waters Flow, At The Very Mention Of Your Name, All They Wanted To Say, No Way, The Whole World Over and many, many more.

Viewing this wealth of material I’ve found him a thoroughly likeable character; bitter and cynical, yes, about his level of recognition today, justifiably arrogant about his work and his worth, but decent, honest, articulate and humorous in a quirky way. Someone you’d rather have on your side than against you.

I bought my first record in 1962. This means that I’ve been a music fan for over 55 years, and I would unhesitatingly describe Gilbert O’Sullivan as the greatest singer-songwriter in English popular music. If that sounds like an extravagant claim, let’s examine Exhibit A in the evidence for the defence – the song We Will. Paul Gambaccini has described Nothing Rhymed as one of the greatest songs of all time. I would put We Will up there in the same bracket. It’s an astonishing piece of work, all the more so for a writer in his early 20s – the bitterest-sweetest tale of achieving consolation through the mundanity of family life and old friendships. Referencing bedtime rituals, cereal for breakfast, visits to grateful aunts and uncles and playing football with old mates, I read the song as a kaleidoscopic journey from childhood to old age, three crystal-clear snapshots in just three verses. It features those sinuous, long and endlessly weaving lines which enable the singer to build an argument, add little interpolations and hesitations and throw in casual asides, the “then again”s and “on the other hand”s of everyday conversation, as they climb and climb to a climax and then fall away in quiet resignation. The two-word chorus, the song’s title, is delivered by a children’s choir and quietly echoed by the singer. It’s sublime.

The journalist and musician Bob Stanley, writing in The Guardian, describes finding the song by chance and being ‘knocked sideways’ by it, listening to it every night before bed to survive a bad time – which is easy to imagine, as it’s simply a song about being human and trying to get through life intact. There couldn’t be any greater compliment.

Exhibits B to Z are on YouTube, Facebook, and all those other places ‘out there’. It’s admittedly not the most scientific research base, but in the hundreds, thousands of comments about Gilbert O’Sullivan’s videos and concerts the most frequently recurring word is ‘genius’. You’ll find countless heartfelt testaments to how much his music means to people, and I hope Ed Heider won’t mind me lifting his post from YouTube: “Gilbert, you changed my life to a better feeling about all of its aspects, your songs, sound and music made me start every morning as a new person born again”. If, as a songwriter, you can look back at your career and tell your grandchildren that you changed people’s lives, that’s pretty much ‘job done’, I think. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

When my band’s profile was higher, I often used to be interviewed by fanzines, bloggers, indie magazines and even, once, by one of the ‘real’ music papers. A frequent question was whether there was any song I wish I’d written. I always replied that I was very happy with most of the songs I’d created myself, and refused to be drawn into this strange form of compositional envy, harmless though the question was. It didn’t matter to me whether I’d written a great song or if any other person had done the job – only that someone had written it. So no. With What’s In A Kiss?, We Will and so many others, anyone would be proud to have their name on those timeless, universal songs. They’re not mine, and I don’t care. I’m just happy and grateful that they exist, and that the writer was Raymond O’Sullivan.

Blog Image 2

We Will

What’s In A Kiss?

Gilbert O’Sullivan website

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