Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remember Gilbert O'Sullivan?

Gilbert in 1971. O'Sullivan is his actual last name; Gilbert is a stage name referring to Gilbert & Sullivan. An apt choice, given his lyrical songs that are dense with words. Note the collegiate look inspired by a Buster Keaton film!

Gilbert's top-selling album of 1972. Although chest hair dominates on the cover, on the back he's shown in his "G" sweater again.

Still sporting the chest hair, here's his 1974 release with the notorious song "A Woman's Place"

Peggy Lee, an admirer of Gilbert!

Gilbert O'Sullivan was an oddity in a screwball time. When he struck gold in the States with "Alone Again (Naturally)" in 1971, it was not only his weird and verbose song that struck a listener. There was his clean-scrubbed appearance on the album cover: wearing a collegiate V-neck sweater with a "G" emblazoned upon it, he seemed to harken back to a more innocent time.

Hailing from Ireland, Gilbert washed ashore on the wave of the singer-songwriter craze of that era. It was decidedly uncool to like him or his music, but there I was, proudly bucking the trend. I found his approach to a song completely idiosyncratic and refreshing. He had a memorable way of writing lyrics. For example, on his second album Back to Front, he celebrates Spring by comparing himself to a mole.

Everytime a bird sings
Everytime a bell rings
I go beserk
I climb into my hole
And sit there like a mole
Playing in the dirt
Contradicting people who think of me as being
So soft and gentle
Very clean

This album, which features his second U.S. hit "Clair", is one of his best. As I scan the lyrics, the melodies jump into my mind--each one is distinctive, and pleasurable to experience over again. You can't help but be amused by how goofy Gilbert is, especially when he introduces Sides 1 and 2 of his album by singing:

Side 1 ("Intro")

For those of you leaving to join the hunt
The name of this album is "Back to Front"
And those of you staying the whole way through
The name of this song is
(seque immediately to first track...)

Side 2 ("Outro")
I'm not quite finished yet
I'm not quite finished yet
There's another side to go before I go
Thought I'd let you know...

Gilbert plays the piano, and his signature seems to be a rhythmic striking of chords that goes "chunk-chunk-a-chunk-chunk." This is not to say that his music lacks sophistication. He almost always has other instrumentation to power his melodies along--mostly a drum, some strings, and wind instruments. He is never boring.

His songs tell simple stories. Usually they're about loving someone, as in "That's Love" from Back to Front:

Once in a while out of the blue
I might appear somewhat rude
But don't be alarmed or get upset
Just say to yourself this I'll forget
And when I come home from being away
It might do me good just to hear you say
Darlin' don't move an inch, keep perfectly still
Now do with me what you will

Can you sense those lyrics' inherent musicality just by reading them aloud? Gilbert O'Sullivan is fun to sing along with, and I think he's a terrific writer because his words get planted in my mind when I hear them. Like a truly professional pop tunesmith, he weds music and lyrics well. The song's subject is not that interesting on its face, but how he expresses the sentiment can be striking.

In Gilbert's lyrical world, there's always a girl that you're courting. He often creates clever little dramas. For example, in "Matrimony" he and his bride are trying to get to the church on time; in "Clair" he's babysitting; and in "I'm Not Getting Any Younger" he's explaining his feelings about a gulf in age to a lover.

He achieved international fame in the early 1970s. In the U.S. he had a hit with "Get Down" in 1973 but after that his star fell quickly. (His recording of "A Woman's Place" in 1974 certainly didn't help out matters. Check out these lyrics: "I may be old-fashioned/so what if I am/I'm not any different/from any other man/I'm not one of those who look for blood from a stone/but I believe/a woman's place is in the home".) Gilbert only toured the States once during this time (although his website reports he's working with promoters to return after a 35 year absence!).

In the late 1970s and periodically in the 1980s Gilbert was entangled in court with his producer, Gordon Mills (whose daughter was "Clair"). He recorded less frequently, with none of his work being issued in the States after a contract with Epic expired. I've imported some of his albums from this time. I recommend Sounds of the Loop from 1993. It features a duet with Peggy Lee (Who'd have thunk she'd be an admirer of his work?) and also contains a song I promise you'll be unable to get out of your head after one listen. ("Are You Happy?")

Gilbert O'Sullivan's website is fun to cruise. You can watch video of his early years when, at the height of the rock's popularity, he appeared on stage wearing a tweed cap and high stockings. You can watch five different stagings of the song "Matrimony". (I was impressed with how he pulled off a version that required him to circulate around a crowd as he sang.) I recommend his radio interview in Israel this year. Gilbert's articulate about his craft, and you have to respect someone who continues to write out of the pure pleasure of being fulfilled artistically and entertaining people.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Aha--so you admit he's goofy!
(It's true that "Are You Happy" is catchy, though.)