Tragically Unhip

Misunderstood pop maverick's heyday ('71-'75) and later forays reassessed

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O’Sullivan is generally undervalued as a Milliganesque novelty act who penned a few melodic hits, including the schmaltzy “Clair”, about his infant niece, and ploddy piano-rocker “Get Down”, which made the phrase “you’re a bad dog, baby”sound about as sexy as the Tweenies. He dressed as an urchin (though switched to preppier threads around the time of his first big US success in ’72) and, heinously, sang “Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day”. For years, he’s been about as hip as Leo Sayer.

Yet, eerie things happen here. Get over the stinking title, and at least three early songs here are glorious with abstract, melancholy wonder?poetic masterpieces which, had Harry Nilsson or Chris Bell birthed them, we’d be hailing as moody-bugger genius. In “Nothing Rhymed”(recently covered live by Morrissey) and “Alone Again (Naturally)”, Eire-born Jersey resident Gilbert created classics of lonely whimsy, of child-like innocence that’s so innocent it’s sinister. And on the haunting and haunted epic “We Will”, he outdid anything written by Dennis Potter?albeit with a lovely tune and ethereal strings. It’s as sublime, frozen and freaky as, say, Big Star’s “Holocaust”. So he used to enjoy smiling on Top Of The Pops? Look for the clown’s tears, friends, and see that his peak work is tragic, which we mean as the highest compliment. The three aforementioned songs will rise like a ghostly fog when 99 per cent of 20th-century pop music is burned to cinders. Though he began to shave back his lyrics for jerky light dance fodder and woolly schmaltz, a lovely later song like the extraordinarily minimal “Miss My Love Today” (think a pared-down Andrew Gold) is a real find.

It’s his early burst of creativity that does the damage, though. On “Nothing Rhymed” the (mother-fixated) narrator glances at his screen to “see real human beings starve to death right in front of my eyes”. In “Alone Again”, having been stood up then deserted by a dubious God, he recalls his parents’deaths and considers suicide (“it seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world than can be mended…left unattended”). And for me, the breathtaking Proustian madeleines of “We Will”?”I bagsy being in goal…Do we all agree? Hands up those who do, Hands up those who don’t…I see”?induce (given his impeccable phrasing and the perfect descending chord) a great big sissy lump in the throat.

Eccentric British pop, from that genre’s insanely brilliant golden age, at its best.

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