Gilbert O’Sullivan. Then…and now.


I’m way too old to choose what music I listen to on the basis of what is hip, cool, cutting edge, or will make me appear any of those things.  Which is just as well, because my tastes in popular music run in a definite Radio 2 groove.

So I was in the car the other day and a familiar voice came on, singing an unfamiliar song.  It was a few bars in before I got it: it was Gilbert O’Sullivan.

If you’re very much under 50 you could – almost – be forgiven for going, “who?” – although, I assure you, dedicated middle-of-the-roaders of all ages know him.

He hasn’t had a top ten hit since 1973 and hasn’t bothered the top 20 since 1980.  And yet there he was, on my radio, with a new song, No Way, and he sounds exactly the same.

So I did a bit of Googling, and a bit of Spotifying and the last few days have been a joyful rediscovering of the songs and the man that were HUGE when I was about ten.  To my amazement, I can sing along with the biggest hits despite having hardly heard them in the intervening 40 years.

And what terrific pop songs they are: unpretentious, melodic and witty – bordering on properly funny sometimes, or properly sad, and often both – they have mostly stood the test of time extremely well.

Take his first big hit, from 1971 – Nothing Rhymed.  I was eight.  I can remember him on Top Of The Pops in his ridiculous get-up of shorts and cloth-cap. Having had a hit, and made his name familiar, he quickly dropped the fancy dress in favour of a normal look – which in the early 70s consisted of an extravagant bouffant and flares.  And a wooly jumper with a big G for Gilbert on it. Yeah, well…  (Completely incidentally, I’m personally convinced that, two years later, Leo Sayer copied the ruse of dressing stupidly to attract initial attention.  He performed his first hit. The Show Must Go On, in a full Pierrot clown outfit and make-up before reverting to civvies.)

In the late 70s O’Sullivan instigated a huge lawsuit against his manager Gordon Mills whom he accused of ripping him off.  Eventually he won a £7 million settlement – but he had taken his eye off his career and the hits had dried up.  He was in court again in 1991, when a rapper sampled Alone Again (Naturally) without permission.  O’Sullivan won 100% of the royalties, and set an important legal precedent.

He still writes, still records, still tours, but I doubt his posters are pinned up on any teenagers’ walls any more.  Besides, he never had the model looks of an Osmond or a Cassidy; his vertiginous forehead and long chin made him a nice-looking lad rather than a dreamboat.  These days, at 69, his hair is still big and dark, like Brian May’s before he gave up on the Just For Men.

If you’re young, please have a listen to his songs.  If you’re older, listen to them again, and marvel at their tunefulness and superb lyrics – lyrics which can bring a lump to this sentimental old fool’s throat.

Try the sweet-sad-funny Alone Again (Naturally) which has been covered by artists as diverse as Neil Diamond in 2010, Shirley Bassey, Andy Williams, and just last year, Michael Bublé.  Or the lovely Clair, probably his biggest hit and that most unusual of things: a love-song to a child.  Today – sadly – it would probably be considered creepy, but it isn’t.  The child in question was the daughter of his manager, Gordon Mills, the one who O’Sullivan later sued.  He and Clair Mills are still great friends.


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