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Gilbert O’Sullivan “Himself” Coming Soon, Naturally

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In a little while from now, if I’m not feeling any less sour, I promise myself to treat myself…and listen to a Gilbert O’Sullivan record.  The quirky Irish singer/songwriter topped the charts in 1972 with “Alone Again, Naturally,” proclaimed by American Top 40 as the fifth most popular song of the entire decade.  But it’s also one of the most unusual.  As the song begins, the narrator is left at the altar and is contemplating “climbing to the top” of a “nearby tower” to throw himself off.  He imagines what people are saying about him, and knows that he’s alone again.  He hastens to add “naturally,” and we know that he’s felt alone before.  As the song ambles on, he questions God (“if He really does exist”) but identifies with all the others in his shoes: “It seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended…left unattended…what do we do?”  Even the music sighs.  But that’s not all.  He then remembers his father’s death and his mother’s (“And when she passed away/I cried and cried all day”) before resolving that he’s, of course, “Alone again, naturally.” This could be dire, gothic stuff.  But O’Sullivan set the song to a rich melody and arrangement that’s never grandiose or melodramatic.  It’s deceptively bouncy one minute, painfully aching the next and then wistfully resigned.  In short, it’s ultimately quite beautiful, and all too universal.  There’s heartbreak in the mundane as O’Sullivan matter-of-factly recounts his story, and it can reliably bring a smile to my face in the way that only a great song can.

It’s difficult to listen to “Alone Again, Naturally” as if for the first time.  O’Sullivan’s song has been performed by jazz singers (Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan), instrumentalists (Hank Crawford, Herb Alpert), funk goddesses (Esther Phillips), MOR kings (Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis), divas (Shirley Bassey), swingers (Bobby Darin), Mamas (Cass Elliot), and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legends who are also divas (Elton John) and Jazz Singers (Neil Diamond).  But if you too hear “Alone Again, Naturally” as more than a maudlin artifact of the Seventies Preservation Society, has Union Square Music got a surprise for you!  The reissue and compilation specialist label has just announced plans to reissue deluxe editions of thirteen albums recorded between 1967 and 1997, plus a “best-of” and even a box set.  Union Square is probably best known for its acclaimed reissues of the Madness, Procol Harum and The Move catalogues, so O’Sullivan’s fans can reasonably expect comprehensive packages.

The first of these reissues has been announced for November 7, an expanded reissue of the singer’s 1971 U.K. debut, Himself.  Hit the jump for full details including track listing with discographical annotation!

In the grand tradition of Thomas John Woodward (Tom Jones) and Gerry Dorsey (Engelbert Humperdinck), Raymond Edward O’Sullivan was christened Gilbert O’Sullivan by a canny music biz manager in 1967.  He recorded singles for both the CBS U.K. and Major Minor labels, to little success.  Gordon Mills, manager of both Jones and Humperdinck, didn’t give Gilbert his new name, but Mills did sign the young writer and performer to his fledgling MAM Records (Music and Artists Management) in 1970 after those initial unsuccessful recordings.  Under Mills’ aegis, O’Sullivan scored his first U.K. hit with “Nothing Rhymed” (though some of the lyrics indeed did!) in 1970 and followed that up with a debut album, Himself, in 1971.  O’Sullivan was hard to categorize.  Both as a songwriter and vocalist, he seemed to owe a debt to Paul McCartney, and like McCartney, had an appreciation of the British music hall style.  The artist made clear what he wasn’t, and that was a robust, ladies’-man singer like Mills’ other blue-chip clients, Tom and Engelbert.  Gilbert O’Sullivan was a songwriter with an eccentric worldview, a sharp wit and an innate sweetness in his songwriting.  Not to mention unpredictability.  How many other songwriters would have written the offbeat sing-a-long ballad of euphemisms called “Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day” with no irony, or composed “B-Side Intro,” on which he begins, “Now that you’ve turned me over…”?

Himself introduced one of his signature songs, “Matrimony,” though it wasn’t released as a single.  But the American edition of the album included “Alone Again, Naturally,” which wasn’t on the original U.K. LP, and wasn’t even Mills’ first choice for single release.  Luckily the right decision was made, and the track went No. 1 in America on both the pop and AC charts.  (It only got as far as No. 3 in the U.K.)  A song off 1972’s Back to Front , “Clair,” followed “Alone Again” to the top spot on the AC chart and No. 2 pop.  Written for Mills’ daughter of that name, “Clair” is an offbeat, innocent ode to babysitting a young girl, complete with a harmonica solo and the girl’s giggles.  The song might walk a fine line of acceptability to some modern ears, but the earnest delivery by the lyric’s “Uncle Ray” (Gilbert’s real name) keeps it from crossing that line.  The same album’s jaunty “Who Was It” was covered by both Norman “Hurricane” Smith and Andy Williams.  In 1973, O’Sullivan continued his hit streak with “Get Down.”  The song had O’Sullivan pounding the piano and Laurie Holloway on Fender Rhodes, plus bass and drums.  The stripped-down approach worked, and it became his third million-seller.

Though the charts cooled down for Gilbert O’Sullivan after 1974’s “Happiness Is Me and You” (the title phrase of which melodically recalls “Alone Again”) he never stopped recording.  The late 1970s brought collaborations with Phil Ramone and H.B. Barnum, and in the 1980s, O’Sullivan teamed with Graham Gouldman, Gus Dudgeon and David Foster.  He even taped a duet with Peggy Lee in 1992!  O’Sullivan’s career, 1967 through 2003, was summarized on Rhino Handmade’s 3-CD Caricature: The Box (2003, RHM2 7849). Its cover immortalized O’Sullivan’s habit of wearing sweaters emblazoned with the giant letter “G.”  Okay, it was the seventies.  But could anybody mistake this music man even without benefit of the super letter?  If there was any doubt, the Rhino box set (produced by O’Sullivan, Bill Inglot and Joe DiMuro) put his idiosyncratic and enduring talent in sharp focus.  That wasn’t all from O’Sullivan, though.  His most recent album, Gilbertville, arrived earlier this year.

Union Square Music’s Peter Stack told MusicWeek that “Gilbert is one of the UK’s most loved and successful singers and songwriters with an amazing catalogue of recordings and we look forward to a creative, imaginative and profitable partnership.”  O’Sullivan himself commented, “Knowing how important it is to be with the right company especially in this current climate, coupled with the fact that up to now I have resisted all offers of representation including online access, I am very pleased to be in the company of USM.  Determination on their part, resistance on mine, meant it took quite a while but with lunches, teas and coffee, we got there in the end.”

The new reissue campaign kicks off with Himself, O’Sullivan’s debut.  The August 1971 release in the U.K. of Himself was a much-anticipated one as a result of the success of the artist’s debut single “Nothing Rhymed,” from October 1970.  Not only was “Nothing Rhymed” a pop anomaly, with its somewhat-twee, somewhat McCartney-esque melodic style, but O’Sullivan himself was a character of some interest.   On the front cover of Himself (restored to its original sleeve for this reissue), the singer (in flat cap, pudding-basin haircut and jacket) appears to have stepped out of some Depression-era sepia-toned film.  Who was this Gilbert O’Sullivan?

Upon its U.K. release, Himself reached number 5 and stayed in the album charts for 86 weeks. With both “Nothing Rhymed” and the infectious “Matrimony,” Himself heralded a major new talent.  Melody Maker‘s Michael Watts later called the artist “the only genuinely interesting and original new talent to appear in the Britain in the seventies.”  The American edition of the LP replaced two tracks, “Susan Van Heusen” and “Doing The Best I Can” with two new cuts, “We Will” and a little song called “Alone Again, Naturally.”

Although the expanded reissue of Himself includes “We Will” among its generous eight bonus tracks, “Alone Again Naturally” is curiously absent from the disc.  Himself been packaged in its original sleeve design along with a 20 page full-color booklet with copious liner notes, rare photos and memorabilia.   It arrives on November 7 in the U.K. and shortly thereafter on American shores.  The track listing and pre-order link follow!  “Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day,” indeed!

Gilbert O’Sullivan, Himself (MAM LP SS-101, 1971 – reissued Union Square/Salvo, 2011)

  1. Intro
  2. January Git
  3. Bye-Bye
  4. Permissive Twit
  5. Matrimony
  6. Independent Air
  7. Nothing Rhymed
  8. Too Much Attention
  9. Susan Van Heusen
  10. If I Don’t Get You (Back Again)
  11. Thunder And Lightning
  12. Houdini Said
  13. Doing The Best I Can
  14. Outro
  15. Disappear (Original Demo)
  16. What Can I Do (Original Demo)
  17. Mr Moody’s Garden (B-Side “I Wish I Could Cry”)
  18. Everybody Knows (B-Side “Nothing Rhymed”)
  19. Underneath The Blanket Go (Single)
  20. We Will (Single)
  21. I Didn’t Know What To Do (B-Side “We Will”)
  22. No Matter How I Try (Single)

Tracks 1-14 from Himself, MAM LP SS-101, 1971
Tracks 15-16 previously unreleased
Track 17 from Columbia (U.K.) single DB-8779, 1971
Track 18 from MAM single 3, 1970
Track 19 from MAM (International) single 6101 654, 1971
Tracks 20-21 from MAM single 30, 1971
Track 22 from MAM single 53, 1971

Written by Joe Marchese

October 26, 2011 at 12:17

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