Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gilbert O'Sullivan

Gilbert O'Sullivan has once again been appearing here in Ireland. It is a long time now since his hay day in the early 70's. However due to the poverty of the present pop scene, nostalgia for the hit makers of early years still grows so that interest in his career will never entirely wane.

Indeed I was quite a big fan of Gilbert O'Sullivan (and still am). Though I did not like his original image branding him somewhat in stage Irish terms as an uncouth tramp, I could see that he undoubtedly possessed considerable singer/songwriting talent.

Indeed before his first big hit "Nothing Rhymed" he had recorded a song called "Mr. Moody's Garden" under the name "Gilbert". Listening to it again, it seems to have borrowed tunewise - and perhaps also in name - somewhat from "An English Country Garden". And the voice here does have an exaggerated Irish slant (though O'Sullivan had already been long resident in the UK). However one can already see a unique talent - which was to become his hallmark - for writing quirky though very appealing lyrics based on unusual phrasing and juxtaposition of words.
The B side of "Mr. Moody's Garden "I Wish I Could Cry" represents, I believe, one of O'Sullivan's best songs. The original version perhaps suffers again from his exaggerated style at the time and a production that speeds the song up too much.

I imagine that Gilbert also considers it one of his best songs as it was released again as an A side following his big breakthrough (though not a hit). Then he recorded it again in a slower more soulful style in 1995 (which represents the definitive version). Indeed in this respect it reminds me very much of "Castles in the Air" which was originally recorded by Don McLean on his first album "Tapestry". However this recording always seemed too fast! Then about 10 years later he recorded a new - and in my opinion much superior - version of the same song.
However as O'Sullivan has been out of the public eye so long, his own new recording of "I Wish I Could Cry" did not receive the attention it deserved.

Much has been made of O'Sullivan's relation with the noted manager Gordon Mills who in fairness - recognised his talent as an unknown artist - and then guided him successfully to super stardom. One of Mill's earlier marketing tricks was to change his recording name to Gilbert O'Sullivan (bearing obvious association therefore with Gilbert and Sullivan). Indeed this is what first attracted my interest when I heard him on radio. Having suffered through several Gilbert and Sullivan productions at school, I was only too happy to embrace this modern replacement (whose music I enjoyed considerably more).

Mills also saw the value of maintaining O'Sullivan's somewhat unusual scruffy image which served to attract attention. However this was gradually toned down and by the time he became hugely successful in the US his image had changed to that of a well groomed college boy!

However these marketing tricks should not be allowed to detract from O'Sullivan's talents for he could write tunes reminiscent of Paul Mc Cartney at his best delivered in a very distinctive voice and with unique lyrics that can be confused with no other artist. Apart from the afore-mentioned "I Wish I Could Cry" other notable efforts include "Nothing Rhymed", "I Will", "No Matter How I Try" (one of his best), "Alone Again Naturally", "Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day","Matrimony" (not released in most jurisdictions as a single) "Clair", "Get Down" and "Ooh Baby". However as so often is the case, the hits eventually started to dry up with the quality of output gradually dropping.

In a way the very factors that led to O'Sullivan's success were the eventual cause of his demise. His very popularity was due to the distinctive niche he had created with respect to image, voice and songs (especially with respect to his unique lyrics). However having saturated the market for a time with his particular talent, the uniqueness started to wear off with new material resembling very much the old. And this trend has continued. Though he has brought out many new albums over the years, it seems very much as if he is still reworking old material. For example I heard him performing a track off his forthcoming album "All They Wanted to Say" which immediately reminded me of "Alone Again Naturally"!

This is a problem that has always interested me. When an artist like O'Sullivan tours, everyone remembers him by his old hits. Though they may tolerate listening to a few tracks from the inevitable "new album", they really are there to indulge their nostalgia for the old, which have rich associations with their earlier lives.

Therefore it is not surprising that in writing new material the artist himself will find himself trying to capture the magic of the old (in essentially reworking this material). One possible escape from this would be in perhaps recording well known songs by other artists (in a distinctive manner) thus perhaps widening the basis of one's appeal. However O'Sullivan has never tried to do this and in truth though possessing a distinctive voice he was never really a great singer or indeed a great performer. In short he was designed to fill for a time a unique niche in pop music (which in fairness he managed superbly for several years).

O' Sullivan' career is also notable in a very different way. Though his relationship with Gordon Mills was an integral part of his earlier career he subsequently fell out with his manager due to the limited amount of money he made from his success. So he took his former manager to court and in an important decision issued in 1982, the judge ruled in his favour. So this case serves as a landmark for many other successful artists who have found themselves in the same position.

Best Recording

Alone Again Naturally would have to be a strong candidate. It is a truly marvellous song that was to prove a huge international hit (spending six weeks at the top of the US chart). It is probably his deepest song emotionally, and autobiographical with respect to its overalls sentiments (if not the exact lyrics).

In the many interviews I have seen conducted with O'Sullivan he comes across essentially as a loner. Though intelligent and articulate, he masks an intense and brooding personality that often demonstrates very little real rapport with the interviewer.
It seems to me that his song writing ability offered for him an ideal counterbalance to this tendency. Indeed he has a unique genius here to write lyrics in an informal conversational style that greatly adds to their appeal.

However his outer personality represents the opposite tendency where he comes across as too serious. This tendency also affects his performing style without him ever seeming to fully relax. Indeed this came out in a rather prickly attitude where he did not want to perform on his recent Irish tour in his native Waterford (due to a less than full audience on a previous occasion). However his attitude here might likewise reflect the old marketing shrewdness as this "controversy" has managed to garner him a significant amount of publicity.

"Alone Again Naturally" also strikes a chord with many listeners as they can identify so well with the universal quality of the lyrics (in that we all feel deserted and alone on occasions). Again it is just a superb song that deserved all of its considerable success.

Favourite Recording

I would have to pick "Clair". For me this is just one of those perfect pop songs where I would not wish to change a single note.

As is well known Clair was the baby daughter of Gordon Mills. And at the time of this recording in '73, O'Sullivan was a virtual member of the Mills family. So in this context it is even sadder to reflect on their subsequent breakup!
Again O'Sullivan's unique conversational style is very much to the fore on this track (especially in the last verse) giving it an utterly charming quality. Indeed O'Sullivan was to continue this conversational trend with his follow-up - another great song "Get Down" - which this time was addressed to his dog!

As I say, though I well recognise O'Sullivan's limitations as performer and singer, I still rate him very highly for his uniquely distinctive talents. At his best he was able to produce several truly memorable pop songs in his own inimitable style. For this he deserves to be remembered and for old time's sake, I would be delighted if he could enjoy just one more big hit!