Born Raymond O'Sullivan in Waterford, Eire in December 1946, Gilbert O'Sullivan became one of the leading singer songwriters of the early seventies, under the stern guidance of Tom Jones' manager Gordon Mills – the man he was to successfully sue in later years, in a major dispute over Mills' record company's royalty payments.
Gilbert O'Sullivan has been largely ignored by most pop music critics; his early image perhaps alienating a sizable portion of them with its contrived, down-at-heel urchin look. It didn't get much better when he soon decided to adopt preppy, American college boy garb with a garish jumper bearing the large letter "G" on the front – not a fashion statement that has stood the test of time.
What has stood the test of time in my view is the quality of some of his songwriting, along with the clean and natural vocal style he employed. Whilst he regularly managed to construct and carry a strong melody, it is the lyrics to some of his early work that I find fascinating.
His first major hit in 1970, Nothing Rhymed, set the tone for much of his writing over the next couple of years. Resolutely melancholic, there seemed to be a hint of Charlie Chaplin-like pathos lurking around every line:
'When I'm drinking my Bonaparte shandy, eating more than enough apple pies
Would I stare at my screen and see real human beings, starve to death right in front of my eyes? '
This is surpassed by the lyrics to the song that broke him internationally, Alone Again (Naturally). The record was a number one chart hit in the US, Canada and Japan and reached number three in the UK. It can be conservatively described as resolutely downbeat. Even the ubiquitous Steven Morrissey from The Smiths might struggle to articulate such despair
'And at sixty-five years old – my mother, God rest her soul,
Couldn't understand why the only man she had ever loved had been taken
Leaving her to start with a heart so badly broken – despite encouragement from me, no words were ever spoken
And when she passed away, I cried and cried all day – alone again, naturally '
Over the next couple of years, O'Sullivan seemed content to flourish at the more throwaway end of the pop spectrum, with such lightweight hits as Matrimony, Ooo-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day and Get Down, light years from the harsh depictions of reality embedded in his earlier work. Alone Again (Naturally) is, to me, the most melancholy of all Gilbert O'Sullivan lyrics, and his finest pop moment.