In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 13 January 2012
Gilbert O'Sullivan "A Stranger In My Own Back Yard" (1974) (News, Views and Music 129)
“I may be old-fashioned, so what if I am? I’m not any different to any other man” “I know what you’re thinking and you’ve every right to moan...” “You’re not her type, you’re too carefree, so pack up your wild petunias and go!” “See the statues in the square, they almost look alive, it’s amazing after all these years that they have survived” “It’s funny how we always tend to look back on our past, as if they were the only good times we were ever going to have” “Talk about doing what you do your best, seems to me the more you do the less you get” “There’ll be days when we’ll be in each other’s ways, down each other’s throats like you wouldn’t believe” “Who really knows when two people get that close that their feelings to each other won’t change?” “Funny old world this, or haven’t you noticed? Everything’s glued on, nothing is screwed on...” “The music was so soft that Fred, my record player, began to do the two-step...” “When the Indians begin to charge, what will the cavalry pay?” “To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure, I’ve been told I have something that’s difficult to cure” “I’ve got dreams which are nothing but the weirdest of thoughts”
Gilbert O’Sullivan “A Stranger In My Own Back Yard” (1974)
Number Four/ A Woman’s Place/No More/It’s So Easy To Be Sad/My Father/The Marriage Machine/If You Ever/The Thing Is//Just Like Me/Victor E/I Wonder Would You Mind/15 Times/Nothing To Do About Much/Can’t Get You To Love Me/Always Somebody
This is the second of my reviews to come under my ‘new year’s resolution list of reviews for artists I haven’t really covered much. Like last week, I start this essay with a bit of a bit of a warning: unlike pretty much every other artists on this list I don’t own all the Gilbert O’Sullivan albums, don’t play the ones I own that much and as a result don’t know the ins and outs of each of his records like the anorak you’ve learnt to read and put with for the other artists on this list. ‘Off Centre’ (review no 79) is the one big exception to that rule, a genuinely moving and pioneering album that deserves far more credit than it gets and, whilst acknowledging that it’s one of the hardest LPs on the whole of this list to track down, it goes without saying that that’s the album you should get if you’re in any curious to know what Gilbert sounds like. Frankly, every other album apart from that one (and I own eight of the things now, as I was deeply surprised to learn while scanning my shelves for this record) has been something of a disappointment, with the odd glimmer of hope deluged against some rather ordinary material. We said it before and we’ll say it again: had Gilbert waited longer between albums, trashed the cutey songs from his act and worked with a collaborator who cared about his material he’d have been one of the biggest musicians on the planet, having all the natural ability a good songwriter should be born with. It’s just that the records that are left after ‘Off Centre’ are a frustrating rollercoaster dip through things that worked then and now, things that worked then but now sound horribly dated and things that never had a hope of working in a million years. In fact, more than once while writing this review I wondered what on earth I was doing writing about rubbish like ‘Number Four’ and ‘No More’ when I could be writing about, say, the scatterbrained saga of ‘Smile’ or the ins and outs of CSNY reunions. But we promised to cover albums by every act on our list and so I shall soldier on, with the caveat that ‘Off Centre’ truly is the only un-missable, close-to-perfection record your collection needs and deserves.
That out the way, it’s time for another history lesson. When we last left Gilbert in our review some three years ago he was facing public persecution, critical indifference and more court cases than the News Of The World. This album, his fourth, is the start of that public decline and in retrospect seems a very odd album to put out to stave off falling sales, having not one single on it and very few developed songs on the album at all. Indeed that’s why I chose this one out of the handful of records I could have done – the songs aren’t always the best, some dull arrangements let even the better songs down and yet this album has bravery in spades, being as out of touch with anything else around in the day (the glam-fading world of 1974) as, say, Neil Young’s ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ did in 1983 or The Beach Boys’ ‘Friends’ did in 1968. Unlike those two panned albums, however, there’s no mitigating circumstances this time round: there’s no illness or sudden life changes to explain some curious musical decisions (as happened to Brian Wilson after ‘Smile’ and Neil Young’s son Ben in the early 80s), just a wilful determination to remain as individual and anachronistic as possible. The reward was, sadly, a slow slide from public grace, but had critics looked past their snooty noses at the fact that a musician was suing his manager then they might have heard a brave face being put on Gilbert’s music and muses.
That court case, with Gordon Mills, is the fact that most fans know about Gilbert O’Sullivan./ If you’re one of them then you’ll also already know that Gilbert’s most famous song, ‘Claire’, was written for Mills’ toddler daughter who Gilbert used to babysit back in his earliest days as a struggling wannabe songwriter. ‘A Stranger In My Own Back Yard’ is a highly suitable title for a record that was the last gasp of Gilbert and Gordon’s friendship and one that found the singer increasingly out into the cold. It’s actually one of the best album titles by any of the artists we cover on this site, perfectly summing up Gilbert’s growing mistrust and confusion over how a record company largely made successful through his body of work could shut him out and ignore him. Back in 1972 when Gilbert started on the scene with his ‘bistro boy’ 1930s look no-one else had wanted to know – even Mills was unsure enough of what the public would make of Gilbert but had stuck by him, added a few suggestions of his own and the pair had come up trumps. But the two saw eye to eye less and less as success wore on and Mills gradually withdrew his involvement, something that must have been a huge blow to Gilbert at the time, as if the one person who had belief in him now thought he was a failure. The turning point of the relationship came when O’Sullivan realised he was actually getting less out of his MAM contract than Mills was, unfairly (the courts later found in Gilbert’s favour, awarding him £7 million in back pay). It speaks volumes that Gilbert didn’t get a record deal for some time after this, even though the much publicised court case for control of the 1970s recordings didn’t actually take place till 1982, as the general view rightly or wrongly was that Gilbert must be ‘difficult’ if even his manager had fallen out with him.
When Gilbert returns to making records three years later with ‘Southpaw’ (a ridiculously long gap for the 1970s when most musicians were still doing an album a year if not two) it’s as a cult figure with a small but loyal following, quite unlike the big-hope-of-the-future commercial blitzkrieg of the MAM years. ‘Stranger’ is the stepping stone caught between the two moulds really, half packed with commercial singalongs that could have been hit singles in a different era with more people willing to work and make this record right and half really oddball oddities more like the later records that suggested Gilbert was getting his own way more often. By and large it’s a tie which method worked best for Gilbert – some of his ideas, while eccentric, are spot-on, with some songs like 1980’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Younger’ forgotten classics – but equally some like ‘A Woman’s Place’ is so entirely the wrong song for 1974 that you have to question how seriously he was taking his career. It’s a shame, too, that such a family squabble was so in the public eye as neither man was particularly fond of publicity (for all the use they made of it) and it ended up damaging both of their reputations in the end when they could have, publicly at least, walked away without another word.
Confusing times then, and it’s probably not surprising that ‘Stranger’ is a peculiarly confusing record. Gilbert sounds anxious to move away from his previously successful sound of complex nostalgic reverie and boogie-woogie soft rock love songs, but he hasn’t yet worked out how he wants to fill in the gaps in his sound and sometimes is forced to fall back on his ‘old’ sound at the last minute, with some of these arrangements sounding more like pastiches of his past classics than genuine sentiment. Occasionally Gilbert stumbles across the direction that will serve him well – much as we’ll later be damning the lyrics of ‘It’s So Easy To Be Sad’, the music for this song is the perfect logical step forward for an artist used to writing melancholy songs and wanting to ask himself the question why. ‘Victor E’ is another intriguing path forward that was sadly never explored again, with Gilbert going down the Kinks route of old English verse with a then-contemporary musical twist. But equally there are cul-de-sacs here that never would have happened had anyone, Gilbert included, actually had faith in this record and in a long-term career, with the opening and closing sketches (you’d be hard pressed to call them songs) particularly embarrassing.
Intriguingly this album was recorded in California, under the watchful eye of producer Phil Ramone, at Mills’ request rather than Gilbert’s – proof on the one hand that Mills still had some interest in this record (which was still likely to become a best-seller whatever his feelings about his client) and proof on the other that Gilbert was being kept at a distance. Gilbert was very ill at ease by most accounts, especially as he was a much bigger name in the UK and Europe than he ever was in America (indeed, this album was the first of many not to be even released in the US) and wasn’t treated with the same awe as a team working with him in, say, London would have felt in 1974. Ramone, while a strong producer with a proven track record, also tends to give his albums a strangely anonymous sound to these ears (the Paul Simon fans among you may be interested to learn he produced Paul’s 1975 album ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, the one album where Paul doesn’t really sound like himself). Assuming that this decision was taken in the genuine interests of making the most out of the record, it’s a sad mistake and one that leads to having all but the best songs on this album submerged in what could be considered, at best, rather faceless arrangements.
Reading reviews others have written about this album (not many, I note), people seem to have picked up on both these ‘surprisingly sophisticated arrangements’ and ‘the occasional childishness of the lyrics’ and yet no one seems to have put the two together and pointed out what a strange development this is. Some of the lyrics on this album are actually really good – so good they deserve a really cracking lush backing to re-enforce their complexity and power. But that’s not what we get – more often than not the trickier, more layered songs on this album end up being shoe-horned onto the most basic piano-led arrangements. And on the other hand the tracks that get the deluxe treatment, with full band arrangements, are the ones that sound likenursery rhymes, ones in simple 4/4 time in one key and with questionable rhyming schemes that might have been better pared back to basics. The result is odd, but undeniably memorable – arguably more so than many of the songs here deserve and completely distinctive, whilst being as outside the box of the fag-end of Glam Rock posing and prog rock earnestness as it was possible to get. A stranger in his own back yard? Gilbert sounds alone in the musical world here and that’s something to applaud as he could easily have played the game, recycled a few songs and given up.
Talking of childish, if there is a running theme on this record it’s one of childhood and general nostalgia. All Gilbert records are like this to some extent, remembering times that were more certain than the present that, if not better, then at least seemed to make more sense than the present day where everything is in doubt and no one quite knew what their roles in society were meant to be any more. This album’s much-talked about mis-step ‘A Woman’s Place’ is seen by modern eyes, quite rightly, as a horribly patronising piece of work (the answer is ‘...inthe home’, if you hadn’t guessed) and yet that message is really missing the point. It’s not that Gilbert’s trying to put women down and he’s not out just to upset (hence the sheer amount of apologies in the record), it’s more that Gilbert is yearning for a past time when he’d have known how to interact with the people around him, when the girls and young women around him weren’t torn between careers and motherhood and never thought of questioning their futures. In Gilbert’s world a future where you might or might not get married, have children, work or know what your station in life is is a dangerous, uncertain, frightening one and responsible for all the ‘wrongs’ he see sin the world around him. It’s a perfectly natural re-action for a songwriter to sum their feelings up in a song – the trouble is when it’s presented as nakedly as it is here, with no get-out clauses and no opportunity for debate or for other views.
That’s just one example of nostalgia for a ‘better’ or at least more stable world on this record: ‘My Father’ is a song about mild childhood abuse tinted with rosy specs in the present (because that was a ‘dad’s job in those days, to belittle and ‘earth’ children who were out of control); ‘The Marriage Machine’ yearns for a time when both husband and wife knew their roles; ‘If You Ever’ sighs about how the narrator can never be a teacher’s pet because his teacher’s too in love with corporal punishment and no one is spared (thankfully even ‘The Beano’ had dropped caning by 1974; see last week’s ‘top five’); ‘No More’ is a song about a teenage romance gone sour sung so genteelly it sounds more like the 1870s than the 1970s (how does the narrator try to get his love back and please her mother, seemingly in 1974? With a ghetto-blaster? A T-Rex album? A lude T-shirt? A ride on a motorbike?! Nope, ‘daisies in a jam-jar, looking bored’); ‘I may be old-fashioned’ sings Gilbert at one point on this record. Might be?! Surely there’s no question – as his early inter-war deprived-childhood image suggests, Gilbert was unlucky enough to be born into a time that didn’t suit him and yearns for it, even though he arguably is too young to have experienced much of it for himself (take note, though, that’s not a criticism; I was born 15 years after the ‘Summer Of Love’, an event and experience more real to me than any of the things I actually lived through). Brave or foolish or both, there’s no record quite like ‘A Stranger In My Own Back Yard’, one that could have been recorded in 2004, 1994, 1984, 1964, 1954 or (had they had gramophones back then) probably 1874 without being changed one iota.
The one constant running through this record is Gilbert’s stylised but recognisable piano sound, one that’s obviously self-taught and simple but is nevertheless right for the songs on this album, cutting through the sometimes flowery lyrics and sometimes superfluous strings. It turns up somewhere on every single track on this album, like a lifeline Gilbert’s afraid to let go of and the one constant reminder of why Gilbert entered the music business in the first place, sat at his own with a piano as his escape. Much criticised by superior, flashier players of the day, this plodding piano accompaniment actually makes perfect sense in the context of this record and most others in Gilbert’s career, as the human heart holding his songs in place. The only time it really backfires is on the truly unique ‘By Larry’ album (1994) when the piano is all there is and that simply isn’t enough to colour these sketch-songs in; by contrast, on a song like ‘Back Yard’s ‘The Thing Is’, with its flowery strings and horns floating into the eccentricity of e-space (don’t worry, it’s a Dr Who reference) and really needing something to tie it down.
Arguably, though, this album is a frustrating experience if only because it sounds like it needs something more. Owing to a combination of Gilbert’s loss of confidence, the rather anodyne production and the feeling that no one working on this record is communicating with anybody else, the end result is rather less than the sum of its parts (and some of those sums are pretty horrid, it must be said). There are some genuinely strong ideas on this record, some clever witty lyrics and Gilbert’s usual lovely melodic touches where, like Paul McCartney, tunes seem to come him as natural as breathing. There just isn’t enough of these instances to last across a whole record and there are just too many mistakes and gauche touches which, had Gilbert had a proper team working with him on this record, someone would have spotted and solved (or at least tried not to magnify, as this record often does). I’m glad I own this record for the melodic strengths of ‘It’s So Easy To Be Sad’, the clever and surprisingly honest lyrics to ‘The Marriage Machine’, the cuteness of ‘Nothing To Do About Much’ (the best ‘boredom’ song Brian Wilson didn’t write) and the groove of ‘The Thing Is’, all four of these major things to applaud on any album by any artist, it’s just that not one recording here excels all the way through and in the end nothing here measures up to even the weakest of songs on ‘Off Centre’.
‘Number Four’ has got to be the strangest, most postmodern opening to a song since The Beatles’ send-up count-in on ‘Taxman’. Usually postmodernism works quite nicely in AAA music – insert yet another Beach Boys Smile reference here – but in this track there’s no actual ‘song’ to go with the idea. Simply a list of simple rhymes about how this is Gilbert’s fourth album, the song does seem to be going somewhere thanks to probably this album’s best orchestral arrangement, a dazzling display of prog rock violins and mournful trumpets that make it sound like the bastard love child of ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Sesame Street’ . Alas even that promising thirty seconds simply fades instead of dove-tailing into the next track, making this piece less of an overture and more of an anachronism compared to the other songs on the album. There’s also not much sense to this song because, well, it’s my job and people like me to tell you that this is Gilbert’s fourth album and most listeners probably don’t care how many albums in this is anyway. This tactic will reach daftness levels by the end of sides one and two where these interruptions get in the way terribly, but at least it shows an original mind at work I suppose...(The closest thing to these snippets and introductions are on Mike Nesmith’s first post-Monkees records, but even these are slightly different thanks to adding a bit of humour about ‘remembering to turn the record over’ and so on).
Next up is the uncomfortable ‘A Woman’s Place’, a song that sounded as out of place in the women’s lib world as it does today. Generally speaking, this is regarded as easily Gilbert’s most embarrassing moment and brought a lot of criticism at the time, not least because it came out at the same time as Helen Reddy’s superb ‘I Am Woman’, generally regarded as the feminist anthem of the mid-70s (though far from her best – check out ‘Candle On The Water’ for the definitive Reddy performance). Gilbert has always stubbornly stuck to his guns about how women should be restricted to being home-makers, spicing the track up with some interjections from his female backing singers about how now a woman’s place is ‘...on the phone’ or ‘...on the throne’. Yet while its true that, as some shocked critics say, ‘this song is without irony’, it’s not without apology. Throughout the song Gilbert’s narrator is asking whether it’s him that’s odd because no one else seems to think like he does and seems to want to clear steer of trouble (though putting the title phrase to the sound of his biggest, most attention-grabbing chorus is probably not the best way to hide his views). It seems a small defence, but the very fact that Gilbert is singing ‘I believe...’ going into each chorus actually make this song more palatable than the ‘men are going to die a horrible death in revenge’ song Yoko Ono’s ‘sisters’ were singing in the mid-70s, as at least it admits that its only a personal opinion (even if it’s an opinion that seems outrageously wrong to put into a song). Sadly, ‘A Woman’s Place’ features possibly the best melody on the album, a characteristically complex tight-rope walk between lowly boogie woogie and circus parade and there’s more thought put into the backing vocals in particular than all the other songs on this album. I say sadly because throwing such attention onto a song that was never going to work and seems pretty much designed to get everyone’s backs up is such a waste. Less of a song, more of a sociological study of views in the mid-70s when roles changed quicker than ever before, there’s simply no reason to listen to this song now that such views are outdated and disregarded. Despite a good tune and a pretty thrilling vocal delivery, ‘A Woman’s Place’ is still hugely disappointing because it marks such a backward step both for Gilbert and for society as a whole (did this album really come out a full two years after Yoko O no’s superb feminist manifesto ‘Approximately Infinite Universe?- review no 54).
At least ‘A Woman’s Place’ has a tune to recommend, though, however misguided the lyrics – third track ‘No More’ doesn’t have anything going for it. A Vaudeville throwback that’s amongst Gilbert’s worst tracks, musically it makes perfect sense on an album all about nostalgia and forgotten genres, but it’s simply not as entertaining or as rounded as Gilbert’s later attempts at the same subject. The sinaglong tune is irritating rather than cute and the subject matter – the mother of the narrator’s girlfriend turning him away because she doesn’t like him – seems trite even for Gilbert, without the passion or the drama of the similar story in The Beatles’ ‘No Reply’. That said, there is another good arrangement on this song which just about stops the tune from going way past the borders of taste and Gilbert turns in another of his better vocals, curiously sounding more at home on his ‘very English’ songs than he does on the Americana-tracks (perhaps because he’s recording these songs in front of a bunch of engineers who work with the real thing every week). There are the odd good lyrics in this mess somewhere too: even the narrator’s gifts conspire against him, with some ‘daisies in a jam jar’ all he can afford and looking about as dead as his relationship in the chorus – although even there the ‘looking bored’ bit rhymes with ‘...looking like bullfighters that have just been gored’, a truly awful rhyme that doesn’t fit this song one iota and suggesting the whole song is being made up on the spot. ‘No More’ indeed...
Thankfully these three opening tracks are easily the weakest material on the album, so much so that it seems like either career suicide or managerial revenge that saw these most palatable songs stuck together to put off Gilbert’s fans (remember, this was Gilbert’s last album for MAM before he went elsewhere and might potentially have been as big a star for another label...)
Thankfully the next song, ‘It’s So Easy To Be Sad’, almost single-handedly saves the album. In fact it used to be my favourite of Gilbert’s songs until the day I managed to decipher the rather heartless attack on the unemployed in the fade-out (why would anyone choose to be unemployed if they can possibly help it, living off a pittance and filling in endless forms every day even though 5000 people are up for the same position and having advisors bordering on abuse attacking you every five minutes? Even in 1974 there weren’t enough jobs to go round and that was when our population was much smaller than it is now...honestly, our society has things so skewed – save your wrath for the big businessmen taking your money in bonuses and feeding off a system designed to help the spread of poverty...) Anyway, that attack aside this is a very lovely song and one that should have been the start of a whole new method of songwriting from Gilbert. Although I would say the division between roughly ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ songs in Gilbert’s catalogue are about 60:40, it is true that most of the songs by Gilbert that people remembered in 1974 tended to be miserable (‘Alone Again, Naturally’ particularly).
This song is Gilbert’s answer to critics who accused him of writing empty songs about being melancholy, a kind of ‘Silly Love Songs’ for his fans where he states by way of metaphor that its the tragedy and sadness in lives that stand out, both in our memories and inthe lives of famous people. The song starts by wondering why statues survive so many years (the hinted answer is because the tragedy and deaths of the men and women involved make for a good story that helps us remember them), moving on to seeing a river drifting away and moving on, oblivious to all the obstacles in it’s way. The third verse then comes right out and says it: sadness and problems are sometimes a ‘blessing in disguise’ because they make us human, keep us in touch with our ‘human’ side and make us sympathetic to others suffering problems. After nearly three and a half minutes stuck in the same major key the song then sighingly resolves itself to the minor key that’s been tugging at our heart-strings all the way through, sounding less like the heart-wrenching tug it should be than our ‘feelings’ coming ‘home’ to rest in a natural position. As this much-delayed chorus tells us over and over, ‘it’s so easy to be sad’ when there’s so much wrong with the world and so many people suffering in it. Easily Gilbert’s most cleverly constructed song, with a melody that’s a perfect accompaniment to this revelry in sadness without sacrificing the honesty of the words or going over the top, it’s only that ending dig at the unemployed lazing on the sofa (‘everybody’s doing it, so why not me?’) that lets this song down. Note too how Gilbert sings this song straight and doesn’t add any ‘gimmicks’ to distract the ear, unlike the past three songs which only existed as gimmicks. Listen to how natural a writer Gilbert can be when he writes from his heart and about himself, on easily the best song on the album and the only song here up to the standard of ‘Off Centre’. Superb.
How typical, though, that things are spoilt by the needless chuckle of ‘My Father’, a song superior to the opening three tracks but clearly not in the same field of vision as ‘It’s So Easy To Be Sad’. At least this song is original, being one long trick to get the listener to think the narrator is up to something really naughty and X-rated, only for things to turn out to have an innocent explanation (‘..if he came home and found me in bed with more than just one lovely big...strawberries’). Like many of the nostalgic songs on this record, this song is a longing sigh for a simpler time when everyone knew their place in society, although I can’t say that a song chuckling about a father’s outdated abuse is the best means of conveying that fact. To be honest most teenage listeners listening to a song like this would have walloped their dad for less and quite right too (the last great taboo subject in the Western world is how we treat our children and don’t give them rights anything close to adults). That said, there’s a nice tune on this song and the use of riffs and instrumentals to delay the punch-lines is a clever one. There’s also some intriguing lyrics buried away in the middle, with Gilbert’s narrator questioning what it is inside him that makes him want to rebel (‘shouting ‘up yours’ and running away...’), even though he loves the people who brought him up and desperately doesn’t want to disappoint them. True, Gilbert’s plodding piano style is already getting on the listener’s nerves by song five, but of all the songs on this album this simple arrangement is spot-on, with only a mournful and rather pretty horn lick to go alongside the piano. This is a monochrome, black-and-white Hovis world and for once we get an arrangement as suitably monochrome and fragile to suit.
‘The Marriage Machine’ continues the better arrangements of this part of the album and is one of the stronger songs here too. On a surprisingly honest song, Gilbert’s latest narrator talks about how when two people get married it’s inevitable that there’ll be bad times and that no one can predict how things will turn out (as ‘it’s inevitable with time there’ll be change’). That synopsis and the title suggests that this is going to be a nasty, cynical song but it’s actually quite a sweet little number, with Gilbert’s vocal the right side of pathos for the performance to ring true. There’s also hope in this song, thanks to the melody that often stumbles over itself and seems to fall but always picks itself back up and a prettiness that dilutes the horror of even lines as extreme as ‘we’ll be down each other’s throats. Just you wait and see’. Intriguingly, this is one of the few songs on the album that looks forward rather than backwards, with the threats of a possible future outlined in stark detail in contrast to the rosy-tinted images of the past.Certainly this song’s confusion over whether the narrator will succeed at making his marriage work and his dread of things going wrong, which he knows is statistically likely, makes more sense of a song like ‘A Woman’s Place’, with its wish for pre-determined roles and a world where both partners know what each other expect before they become a married couple. A minor classic.
‘If You Ever’ is a slower, dreamier song that yet again looks back at the past. The lyrics are again odd, returning again to the theme of corporal punishment, this time at school. Just as on ‘My Father’ Gilbert sounds less angry or bitter about the experience than doey-eyed, saving his sarcasm instead for the present day, suggesting that it’s the modern way of ripping people off that causes the bigger problems, not a ‘corrective shock’. The chorus contains the memorable chorus ‘everything’s glued on, nothing is screwed on’, which is actually a pretty neat metaphor for the 20th-21st centuries, when subjects and lessons are taught once and forgotten, rather than re-enforced and family values are aspired rather than accepted. Whatever you think of the argument (personally, I think a world where everyone questions everything is a much happier, truer, better functioning world than one where everyone is made to think the same), at least it’s argued with more pizzazz and form than ‘A Woman’s Place’, with Gilbert turning his nostalgic revelry into a laidback call to arms. Some of the rhymes on this song are a bit clunky, even for Gilbert, and the tune wanders between singalong harmony to non-descript doodling a few too times for comfort, but there’s a heart at the centre of this song that makes it one of the better pieces on the album.
The first side ends with ‘The Thing Is’, a perfect example of Gilbert’s natural abilities and gift as a writer but also his inability to work on his songs to get them right. This is a ‘groove’ song, with much in common with his similar ‘groove’-led singles of the period ‘Get Down’ and ‘Ooh Baby’, two other songs that like this one have some nifty ideas, great hooks and yet some of the weirdest, most basic lyrics ever written. There’s no real story to ‘The Thing Is’, just a surreal tale of a narrator thinking he’s seen a bear out the corner of his eye (if I didn’t know Gilbert’s laudable attempts to remain the one 1970s rockstar free from drugs I’d assume this was a drug song) only to find he’s mistaken and ending up by moaning that he doesn’t have a radio but does have a sister who lives in Crewe (hmm, this truly is one of the strangest lyrics I’ve ever had to write about on this site...) But for all its lyrical faults, this is one of Gilbert’s better semi-rock songs, with a real cooking boogie woogie piano lick and a vocal that somehow manages to make such daft lines sound urgent and a horn arrangement that makes this song sound STAX-big. The main trouble is the truly blood-curdling rhyme in the middle eight of ‘Hong Kong’ with ‘...isn’t that the place that Suzy Wong’s from?’, a character never mentioned again in any of Gilbert’s recognised. Such writing (and the lines ‘hello there...well, hello there’) are just sloppy writing – how great would this song have sounded with the kind of words alongside the melody that we know Gilbert at his best can write? The end is a true disappointment too, being another postmodern example of this record’s need to tell us that the end of the record’s side is coming up and it’s insistence on playing us ‘spoilers’ of the tracks coming up on the second side. I hate it when records do this to me, although at least other AAA examples like Allan Clarke’s 1974 album ‘Allan Clarke’ and The Hollies’ 1980 album ‘Sing Buddy Holly’ have the decency to medley other songs together at the end when we’ve heard them (and Ray Thomas’ ‘From Mighty Oaks’ plus The Who’s ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ turns the songs melds the themes together in w hole new way), this just sounds like lazy writing and the quick-change between tunes is awfully distracting when you’re not paying close attention to it. So close and yet so far.
‘Just Like Me’ starts the second side off with a slow, slinky groove – thankfully there are no postmodern hints in the song this time around. Like ‘The Thing Is’, this album features a slow burning groove that might not be that original and there’s another set of lyrics that are pedestrian at best, but the ‘feel’ of the song is strong enough to overcome such problems. This is another in a long series of AAA records dedicated to the love of music (thank goodness there are so many, or Max The Dog’s Youtube videos plugging this site would have ended a lot sooner than they did), although this song must be unique in AAA circles by claiming that the singer is the best at rocking (well, that and Beach Boy Bruce Johnstone’s uncharacteristic ‘I Write The Songs That Make The World Sing’ anyway). Well, him and Chuck Berry and Little Richard anyway, although once again this song is more of a slow slinky soul ballad than a true rock and roll song, having none of the fire, passion and menace of rock and roll at its best. For the first time in a while, Gilbert sounds uncomfortable on his vocal, perhaps because he’s surrounded by the same team who worked with real rock and roll stars like Rolling Stones and feels too self-conscious (not that Gilbert isn’t as star – its just that no one who knows their rock and roll could possibly call him a rock star; as we’ve seen on our two reviews Gilbert’s in a whole genre on his own, quite unlike anyone else); it’s notable that his vocal is ducked in the mix here, under the horns, unlike the rest of the record.
‘Victor E’ is a bright and sunny song, exactly the sort of poppy music hall piece Gilbert became best known for and while it doesn’t have the maturity of ‘So Easy To Be sad’ ort the honesty of ‘The Marriage Machine’, it is a very pretty song. Quoting from the bible and using war-time slogans, this is probably the best of ‘Back Yard’s ‘nostalgia’ songs, commemorating a local man who overcomes all the things life has to throw at him and yet remains helpful, hopeful and a credit to his community. His name – Victor E if you hadn’t guessed – is a very Gilbert pun and yet quite a suitable one too, with the character standing as an ‘everyman’ figure Gilbert aspires to. The song then fades on a quite lovely little coda, with Gilbert singing in counterpoint to his bright and bouncy tune with a list of all those who had fallen along the way, unable to match the strength and spirit of this man (‘Victor A...Victor B...Victor C’). There’s one of the album’s better arrangements at work here, too, with a flowery, flutey feel that makes this song seem like the long-lost cousin of The Beatles’ ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ (and with a similar bouncy joy to it). Gilbert really is at his best when writing these sort of cute throwback-to-another-era songs no one else would ever think of writing. Not bad at all.
‘I Wonder Would You Mind?’ is a bit of a wobble, though, a return to Gilbert the balladeer alone at the piano. While certainly an improvement on the album’s opening trilogy, this song sounds too close to what we’ve heard from Gilbert before and features yet more annoying rhymes (‘fuss’ and ‘bus’, ‘upset’ and ‘respect’, the list goes on). To be honest, on an album that lasts for a pretty impressive running time of 46 minutes, songs like this one should have gone, especially the lengthy instrumental just before the last verse (which consists of the same three chords played over and over). There’s also a curious disembodied voice, un-credited on the sleeve but presumably not Gilbert’s as it sounds too deep for him -that joins in at odd moments and really unsettles you if you’re not expecting it (‘Did you ever?’ – ‘Ever?’- ‘Ever know...’) That said, Gilbert’s own vocal is strong again (perhaps because he’s on his own, not trying to work with other musicians) and there is a calming mood on this track that really suits a simple song about the narrator almost-but-not-quite getting his courage up to ask his date if she would ‘mind’ going out with him. Taken as a whole, though, this song is strangely muted, slipping by almost un-noticed.
Just when you think things aren’t too bad and you must be mistaken as to how bad the early songs on this album were, here comes ’15 Times’ to remind you of everything that’s bad about Gilbert at his worst. This is, quite simply, an awful song, with an awkward angular riff and a sing-songy verse-chorus structure that’s so irritating I’m amazed it hasn’t been used for the ‘Go Compare’ TV ads that are on every five minutes. There’s even a twanged jew’s harp in the mix, never a good sign of a song wanting to be taken seriously. Amazingly, the lyrics are worse, a seemingly random string of words that tries hard to be a surreal song about a goldfish getting the better of a whale and somehow that acting like a metaphor for the disintegrating marriage of the second verse. There’s some sums in the middle of the song too, with a truly bizarre ‘1-2-3-4-5’ chorus even worse than Paul McCartney’s on the similarly uninspired ‘Driving Rain’, but like everything else on offer here they don’t add up. Truly mind-numbingly toe-curlingly ear-achingly awful.
‘Nothing To Do About Much’ is something of an improvement, another sweet little song with a bah-bah-bah bah-bah-bah horn riff that makes up for a melody line that seems to have been lifted wholesale from a nursery rhyme or a xmas carol. Like the best of Brian Wilson’s 1967/68 songs (post-Smile breakdown), this is a love song masquerading as a song about boredom, taking sheer delight in having time to spare and lots of things you don’t have to do in it. There’s a breezy, bouncy quality to this song that’s infectious and, however much the narrator tries to hide it, you can easily read between the eyes of a love-sick narrator who doesn’t quite know how to fill in the time before his next meeting with his girl. There’s a sweet little chorus that starts ‘to tell you the truth...’ that’s among the most touching of Gilbert’s catalogue, seemingly letting us into the narrator’s thoughts and how nervous he actually is. The arrangement could be better – the strings are superfluous and the ting-tinging triangle is a schmaltzy touch too far, but overall this is one of the album’s better moments and really deserved to have become a single (it’s certainly a much better fit for his modern concerts than ‘A Woman’s Place’.
‘Can’t Get You To Love Me’ is an unwanted third return to the r and b groove that Gilbert so loved in this period. The good news is that this time there’s a pretty decent tune on offer here this time, with a staccato that – hilariously – sounds like ‘W-O-M-A-N’ (the other feminist anthem of the age, best performed by, erm, Miss Piggy actually one of the best Muppets episodes) and another strong middle eight that seems to push the song into reverse and go backwards, tracing several of the same chords in retrograde. Alas, like all other examples of the genre in Gilbert’s hands, the lyrics seem like an afterthought, not really telling much outside the basic tale of a narrator wanting someone to fall in love with him and them not wanting to know. The performance also seems a little low-key, with Gilbert not as well suited this attack style of delivery and once again being mixed far too low so that it’s often hard to hear what he’s singing. Still, on balance, this might well be the best of the three R and B grooves on the record and lyrically at least is still an improvement on the patronising ‘Get Down’ and the banal ‘Ooh Baby’. Why this song too was overlooked as single material is anyone’s guess, as there’s plenty of worse songs in Gilbert’s catalogue that became best-sellers.
After what has become quite a bumpy ride the album finally fades away on the brief (0:45) sermon ‘Always Somebody’. On the one hand it seems like quite a nerve to end 46 minutes of moaning with a song about how big some people’s problems – and I’ve always had problems with this saying anyway because it’s wrong: somebody somewhere must be the worst of out of everyone living, even if it isn’t you (and who knows, perhaps it is – if you live under a Coalition Government, the Spice Girls are playing on the radio and you’ve just lost your internet access to Alan’s Album Archives). On the other, it’s nice to hear Gilbert thinking about someone else, as the few times he does he really is among the most sympathetic of writers, with a compassion I wish he’d use more. Brief as it is, this is quite a pretty tune too, and one that deserves to become a full song (certainly it deserves to be a song more than ’15 Times’ does). Thankfully there aren’t any hiding postmodern remarks about ‘be here for album number five’ either, although in retrospect it’s sad that the last Gilbert O’Sullivan album the average fan in the street was statistically likely to buy before a legal nightmare and semi-retirement is such a downbeat finale is a sad one. For such a comparatively upbeat and bouncy album it seems a very odd note on which to end, but then this was a very odd chapter in Gilbert’s life, one that inspired both the best of his writing and his worst.
In all, then, you really won’t want to listen to this album all the way through too many times – trust me, you’ll go mad (I only managed to survive by listening to some Paul Simon CDs I bought last week in-between each playing and even then it was touch and go for a while). But there’s much to recommend too: for a kick-off, this album arguably contains the best Gilbert O’Sullivan moments in ‘It’s So Easy To Be Sad’ ‘Victor E’ and ‘Marriage Machine’, whilst some of the other songs here also deserve better notice from fans. Had the whole album been as poor as ‘A Woman’s Place’ ‘No More’ and ’15 Times’ then, quite honestly, I’d have thrown the thing out the window, but taken together with the better moments it becomes clear that this record isn’t the worst album Gilbert ever did, as some fans, think (even if it does contain some of his worst songs). I struggle to recommend this album to you because of the huge number of mistakes on it – but then again there’s an equally huge amount of things that Gilbert gets right and it would be a shame to write off an album because of a few mistakes. If you’re debating whether to buy this album then I would say track down a greatest hits set or ‘Off Centre’ first and then see whether you want to go deeper into Gilbert’s catalogue (you’ll be rewarded and punished equal measure), but if you do decide to buy then there’s enough magic in these grooves to just about cover the lesser moments and enough talent on offer to make you ask where it disappeared to for several moments on this most rollercoaster of records. Overall rating: (3/10).