Friday, 4 March 2016

Gilbert O'Sullivan and Me

Please excuse the intro, but it's relevant, as you'll see. It was late summer 1971 and we were parked overlooking the new, partially-filled Scammonden Dam. In those days the British had a fascination with going out on a Sunday just to stare at water and eat an ice cream, only that particular spot didn't do ice creams, I'm sorry to say.
I was with my parents and my eighty-three-year-old grandmother. She was sitting in the front, unable to stand properly and stoically accepting the pain and discomfort of being taken for what would be her last ever outing. 

We had the radio on and I remember the BBC pop chart programme playing the song in the number 16 slot: it was We Will by Gilbert O'Sullivan, and I was struck by the haunting melody and lyrics. I'd not heard anything like that before; it was so different to any of the other music that was in the charts and it fascinated me. Little did I know that within three years I would interview the singer/songwriter, and forty-five years later we would meet again.

Those lyrics still get to me because of the pictures they put in my mind: spending time with your family after you've moved out, being treated as someone special and missed when you've gone back home. Oh, and maybe not really spending enough time with them, but they love you all the same. This is what that song is all about—to me, that is, because, as Gilbert once said, once you buy a song it's yours and your own interpretation is all that matters. It will mean different things to different people, but for me there's just so much in that particular track; it's a time bubble, describing a way of life that was bygone even when the song was written. 

I was 13 and the feelings that song evokes in me have never left. It was March 1973 when I bought his first LP, Himself, for £2.49. I liked it so much that the following week I splashed out and bought the second, Back to Front. His single from the previous October, Clair, had been a giant hit worldwide and was responsible for innumerable instances of newborn girls being called the same name. It's rather special to be so influential, don't you think? 

One of my favourite tracks from the first album is Matrimony, where Gilbert suggests running away with his girlfriend to get married, and a few years later my girlfriend and I considered doing just that. And, just like the words in the song, we were mindful of the money we'd save by not having a church wedding, and our mums and dads were not pleased. Did I say influence? Well, it wasn't so much that we were in any way swayed by the song so much as in tune with the writer. It occurs to me that his music has been there, accompanying much of my life, and while I've had other tastes over the past 40 years, such as Queen, and Travis, Gilbert's music has remained a solid base to which I've always returned.
Whenever I hear Get Down, I remember him performing this live at Batley Variety Club in 1974. My father drove me there to interview Gilbert and for over an hour we stood in the smoky night club atmosphere, watching the spectacular performance. Later that night I met the man himself (no pun intended): 27 years old, outselling Rod Stewart and Elton John. I was 16, both of us were shy, yet the interview was such a memorable experience. 

Fast-forward to 28 February 2016 and the shyness has gone from both of us, but there's still a reserved aspect to his character that I recognise from all those years ago. His appearance at Huddersfield Town Hall was the 8th of his 9-date tour to promote his latest album, Latin ala G!, and the place was packed. Okay, so the seating in the stalls was dreadful, but with music like this it didn't matter: a mix of familiar and new songs, accompanied by a five-piece band and two backing singers, all providing a superb musical experience.

Gilbert played the keyboard, in stark contrast to the grand piano at Batley, but the voice was the same, and he moved around and sang like someone forty years younger.

After the show, his sister Marie and her husband Richard were running the merchandise stall with T-shirts and CDs—including those of the early LPs. Yes, most of his back catalogue is still available. In fact, when looking at his discography online there are 24 albums listed. Here is his official website

The queue to meet him stretched back up the stairs, round the corner and up another flight. These people would ask him questions, chat about the show, get a tour book or CD signed, and have their photograph taken with him. 

My wife and I took our places, fairly well near the end, though there must have been another 20 or so people behind us. We steadily edged along and, once back in the foyer, we could see that the queue went into another room and down some more steps. From there Gilbert could be seen meeting his admiring public, each of them passing their cameras or mobile phones to a blonde lady—and no, she wasn't confiscating them: she was actually taking the photos. 

When it was our turn, I passed her our SLR digital. It was larger than the other devices she'd been using that evening, but she began expertly clicking away as I asked Gilbert about a BBC documentary that I saw back in 1972. It showed him keeping his record album covers (I remember that the Beatles figured strongly) laid out on the floor of the living room at his house in Weybridge. That way he could see them all and choose what to listen to next. Makes sense; just not so good for vaccing the carpet.
"Yeah, my room still has albums all over the floor," he said, laughing. My wife joked with him that he still had LPs? Yes, so do we.

Then I told Gilbert about my book that describes some of my exploits interviewing celebrities in the 1970s, of which he was one, and I asked who I could leave the details with.
"Just leave it with my daughter," he said, pointing to the photographer.
"Oh, are you the one who went to Leeds University?"
"No, that's the other one," she laughed. "I was Edinburgh."
I gave her my card, said goodbye to them both and stepped out into the frigid cold night air of a Yorkshire market town. It was 11.35 and it didn't look as if her father would be finished for at least another quarter of an hour or so. But I got the impression that he didn't mind. Quite simply, he believes in looking after his fans and appreciates their loyalty. Each one gets something from his music, whether it's memories, or a liking for the whimsical, sometimes heart-breaking, lyrics that gets them thinking. Gilbert O'Sullivan is a constant, someone you can rely on, still producing great melodies with amazing harmonies, and not forgetting the music that accompanies people's lives.

My eBook, All Creatures Great and Famous, which tells the story of my first meeting with Gilbert O'Sullivan, is available from Amazon for just 99p (they refuse to make it free), but is free elsewhere.