My obsession started when I was 10 years old. A song that started with an isolated, bending bass note – boing!
The man on the TV had a pudding basin haircut and big cap (think Peaky Blinders), a shirt, stripy thin tie and waistcoat, as if he stepped out of the 1920s. Nobody else looked like this in the early 1970s. Then he began to sing:
“If I give up the seat I’ve been saving, to some elderly lady or man,
Am I being a good boy,
Am I your pride and joy,
Mother, please, if your pleased,
Say I am…”
And so my love for Gilbert O’Sullivan began. That was 45 years ago.
Then, last year, there was an opportunity to see him in St Albans, Herts, but circumstances meant we didn’t go. But now this chance had to be taken and I booked two tickets for Lady Barton St Mary and I in the front row of the circle, the best place to watch anything at Cheltenham Town Hall, unless you’re 6’7″, when you can see everything from the stalls, usually sat in front of me.
“What hits has he had? I know ‘Claire’,” said Lady BSM on the car journey to Cheltenham.
I reeled off the list: Alone Again (Naturally), Nothing Rhymed, Matrimony, We Will, Oo Waka Doo Waka Day, Ooh Baby, Get Down, Why Oh Why Oh Why, What’s in a Kiss?…
She looked at me curiously. I hardly ever listen to Gilbert O’Sullivan these days.
In 1973, at the height of his fame, my sister Nanny Janet made me a Gilbert t-shirt, using the transfer that came free with the ‘I’m a Writer, Not a Fighter’ album. I played this record to death, along with his debut ‘Himself’ and ‘Back to Front’. I think I can reel off the lyrics to nearly every track on these three ‘long players’ even now.
Of course, no other child at my school was remotely interested in Gilbert. I was regarded as a curio – they were listening to Slade and The Sweet, I was informing them that Hurricane Smith’s ‘Who Was It?’ was actually written by Gilbert. I had a Gilbert O’Sullivan songbook. I knew his real name (Raymond Sullivan), I knew where he was born (Waterford, Ireland, 1st December 1946, a few days before David Bowie) and where he grew up (Swindon, Wilts).His manager was Gordon Mills, who also looked after Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. His records were released on the MAM label. I even received Christmas cards from schoolmates with ‘to the Gilbert fan’ scribbled on the envelope.
By 1976, Gilbert was taking up less of my life, I’d discovered punk and my record collection grew. By my 20s, Gilbert, to my shame, was all but forgotten, consciously.
But now, sitting in the circle, surrounded by much older people, who would have been more likely Gilbert fans back in the day.
At 7.30 sharp, accompanied by a band of musicians and backing singers, he appeared onstage to rapturous applause, starting with ‘Thunder and Lightning’.
Second song up was ‘Nothing Rhymed’ – fantastic, and so early in the set.I feared that Gilbert may be shy, but after ‘Nothing Rhymed’, he took time to engage with the audience, straightforward, matter of fact, confident, even halting one song, explaining he was in the wrong key. Memories flooding back, watching that unique piano technique, his left hand like a karate chop to the piano keys.
The songs flowed : Houdini Said, Out of The Question, Oo Waka Doo Waka Day, Time for Tea, We Will… then a particularly clever reggae version of Why Oh Why, interspersed with newer material and songs from albums released throughout the last five decades. Here is an artist who has never stopped releasing music – it’s just that it doesn’t get played. His latest single, ‘No Way’, is on radio playlists – he explained that people asked him for years why wasn’t being played on the radio, now they’re complaining that they hear his song all the time!
‘Lost a Friend’, a song I didn’t know, was written as a tribute to John Lennon. Gilbert dedicated it to David Bowie, Terry Wogan and Colin Vercombe of Black fame, who died from injuries sustained in a car crash last December.
Lady BSM and I had wondered what the finale would be. We both decided it would be ‘Get Down’ or ‘Claire’. Sure enough, Claire finished the show, with the backdrop of the video from the early 1970s, Gilbert chasing young niece around a garden before sweeping her up into his arms. At the time this film was made, it was considered endearing. In more cynical times, post Operation Linden Tree and various sex abuse cases, it made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
Gilbert returned for an encore of ‘Matrimony’ and a rock and roll, stand on the piano stool, all join in rendition of ‘Get Down’. As the crowd in the stalls made their way to the front to dance, it was interesting to observe that they tired rather quickly.
Then, to wild applause, Gilbert said farewell. A familiar smell wafted in the air from the assembled Gilbert fans. In 1973, it would have been patchouli. In 2016, it’s mothballs.
Thanks Gilbert, you’re still brilliant. I promise to listen more often.