Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 29th February, 2016
A couple of years ago I was reawakened to the music of Gilbert O’Sullivan, a figure fondly remembered from childhood viewings of Top of the Pops. What I remembered most – apart from the songs – was how distinctive he was. Among the long-haired rock stars and emerging glam scene, he stood out as an individual. With his flat cap and awkward suit, he was a Peaky Blinder among hippies, delivering one catchy pop hit after another. Then came a relaunch: the cap was superseded by a mane, which he retains to this day, at the age of 69.
He walks onto the town hall stage, sprightly and striking in skinny fit black trousers and a black shirt with billowing white sleeves. There is something puritanical in his appearance, like The Crucible’s John Proctor with hair by Charlie Chuck (I’m only bitter because I haven’t got a barnet like that). As soon as he sits at the keyboard and plays, the warm welcome given by the crowd of die-hard fans is justified. The excellent band strikes up and we’re off on a trip down Memory Lane with a few stops to look at some new stuff along the way. Behind him, pictures and footage from the past are projected but I barely glance at them – just enough to see him as I remembered him compared to how he is now in front of me. He has barely changed. Age has etched its presence on that strong forehead but his eyes still twinkle and his voice, that familiar old instrument, is still as sweet as any Stradivarius.
The hits keep coming. O’Sullivan carved his own niche in the landscape of British pop and continues to plough it, yet there is no suggestion of being stuck in a rut. He doesn’t keep us waiting long for the seminal Nothing Rhymed, a particular favourite of mine that epitomises his style: intelligent, quirky lyrics that capture a conversational style, wedded perfectly to organic, serpentine and unforgettable melodies. The character in the song questions what is ‘good’ in the world? Is it giving up your seat to an elderly lady or man on the bus? And how does that square with gorging on ‘more than enough apple pies’ while watching real human beings starve to death on the telly? It’s a striking note, a sobering thought, that still jars today.
Other songs are lighter in tone. We Will begins like an Alan Bennett monologue as a parent tries to send his kids to bed – the genius of O’Sullivan’s lyrics lies in his unerring skill at taking colloquial speech, crafting it into rhyme and setting it to irresistible music. There is something of the wistfulness of Victoria Wood here too and the down-to-earth bathos of John Shuttleworth!
New material shows he has lost none of his powers as a songwriter and he remains a capitivating performer. There is an intimacy to his delivery that makes you feel like he is singing directly to you and just to you.
The innocence of the avuncular outpourings of Clair closes the first half and I already feel I’ve had more than my money’s worth. The second half brings more unearthed treasure. O’Sullivan quips that people believe him to be ‘dead, retired or disappeared’ and, to the inevitable astonishment that his voice is the same he gasps, “Why wouldn’t it bloody be?” Clearly, he is in tune with what we’re all thinking.
He dedicates Lost a Friend (written after the death of John Lennon) to the appallingly long list of music business greats that have already been culled by 2016, this most philistine of years. Bowie, of course, gets a namecheck but O’Sullivan is generous enough to include the late Sir Terry Wogan in the number – many of us feel we lost a friend there too.
A highlight for me, in a show that is all peaks and no troughs, is Happiness is Me and You. Just O’Sullivan’s vocal, a guitar, and a flute solo in the middle. It’s an achingly beautiful moment. The jaunty What’s In A Kiss? is deceptively, toe-tappingly simple but it’s the encores that get us all on our feet. Alone Again (Naturally) marries a cheerful tune to thoughts of suicide and the deaths of parents – upbeat melancholy and fatalism, it is light years ahead of Morrissey. Devastatingly brilliant. Sing-a-long-a-depression.
Matrimony is sheer perfection. How can you not love a song with the line ‘we show up an hour late like two frozen peas’? Finally, Get Down gets him up on his seat, one foot on the keyboard – as if we need a reminder of his star status! I sing along from the second row, exhilarated.
A thoroughly enjoyable evening in the presence of one of the true greats of British music, supported I must say by a superlative band of musicians.
I queue for ages afterwards – it seems like everyone wants to meet him – to shake his hand and burble out my gratitude and admiration. He signs my programme (left-handed, like all the best people) and puts his arm around me for a photo. Instantly I am transported back to the living room of my childhood, the television and my sister’s pop star magazines, reconnecting with memories and with an artist that ran through those days like lettering through Blackpool rock. The youngster that I was never envisaged that such an encounter was even possible or that all these years later I would still be in love with the songs.