Jun 07


FT + Popular48 comments • 8,735 views

#322, 11th November 1972


Singer-songwriters – today’s crop, certainly – tend to attempt universality through earnestness. Not so Gilbert O’Sullivan, whose remarkable “Alone Again Naturally” is determinedly low-key, the small thoughts of a small man as he contemplates ending his own small life. Off-handedly sung, it ambles along and finds a chorus hook in much the same way as a man strolling on a beach might absent-mindedly pocket a nice pebble. It’s like a pop equivalent of an Alan Bennett monologue, its power coming in the sad accretion of detail.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get to number one, and “Clair” did. O’Sullivan sings “Clair” in the same way – a distracted interior monologue – but it’s a far weaker record, one of those cutesy love songs to small children that the British charts used to turn up regularly. To its credit “Clair” doesn’t sound creepy now and improves when it drops the is-it-a-romantic-song conceit and just talks about the delightful hassles of babysitting, but the overdubbed giggle at the end gives the game away – intelligent touches or no, we’re firmly in greetings card territory, and O’Sullivan’s gentle delivery lands just on the wrong side of winsome this time.

(It’s fair to say, for any fans of “Clair”, that this whole area is a blindspot for me – even as a parent now myself I can hardly think of any songs about children that I like. It’s quite possible that this record does as good a job as can be done here.)



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  1. 1
    intothefireuk on 6 Jun 2007 #

    Alone Again and Nothing Rhymed were well observed pieces that belied the rather twee image (flat cap & braces) that Uncle Ray had decided to go with at that time. IIRC Clair was the first song he performed with his new perm & pullover image (which was barely any better but at least it was probably his choice). Unfortunately he didn’t maintain the high standard he set with his earlier offerings and Clair although a pleasant & simple song doesn’t ultimately fulfil in the same way. It’s subject matter though obviously gained it favour amongst the Mums, Dads & wrinklies and propelled it to numero uno. Unfortunately Rod Stewarts vastly superior In A Broken Dream stalled a little beneath it.

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    “favour amongst the Mums, Dads & wrinklies” — is this true? i mean, i guess it had little favour in any OTHER constituency and i have never been a member of any of these categories but the ppl i know in all of em would be fairly allergic to “clair” i think

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    Marcello Carlin on 7 Jun 2007 #

    My mum loved it but my dad was severely allergic to Gilbert per se.

    Still, engaged to a professional nanny as I am, I don’t mind this record at all… ;-)

    (Incidentally, for those interested, the guilty parties who kept “Alone Again (Naturally)” at #3 in the UK were Nilsson’s “Without You” and the New Seekers’ Eurovision flagwaver “Beg, Steal Or Borrow”)

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    Waldo on 7 Jun 2007 #

    I think that this was delightful, a record which would be impossible to release today, I’m afraid. It also came within a whisker of topping the charts in the United States too. “Alone again Naturally”, on the other hand, was a massive stateside number one but did nothing for me other than meke me laugh at the pious pillock and urge him on to stop whinging and just take the tablets, a sentiment which was to be repeated when Terry Jacks came along two years later. “Nothing Rhymed” was a different kettle of fish, a great song wondefully delivered and a first rate arrangement.

    Whilst we are on Uncle Ray (he’ll be back, of course)can I suggest another of his offerings which fell short of the top slot. “No Matter How I try” – a friendly, uplifting little number and a perfect antedote to singing about your mum and dad holing out to deep mid wicket and then threatening to join them.

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    Marcello Carlin on 7 Jun 2007 #

    But can anyone solve the enigma that is “Ooh Wakka Doo Wakka Day”?

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    Waldo on 7 Jun 2007 #

    That’s exactly why the bugger SHOULD have taken the tablets. Dreadful, wasn’t it?

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    Billy Smart on 7 Jun 2007 #

    I think that ‘Christmas Song’ may be the nadir. Although, like all of Gilbert’s seventies performances, its patent sincerity still makes it strangely compelling.

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    Waldo on 7 Jun 2007 #

    Does anyone know if Gilbert is still going? An end of the pier act in Llandudno, perhaps?

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    Marcello Carlin on 7 Jun 2007 #

    He’s been living very nicely in Jersey thank you since he won his court battle with Gordon Mills over unpaid royalties in the early eighties, not to mention the landmark sampling case against Biz Markie in the early nineties, for which he also received substantial damages. Still makes records as well, although these days they tend toward Keith Waterhouse/Jarvis Cocker-style “kids today etc” moaning.

    His absolute nadir, though, was “A Woman’s Place” which he has protested was meant to be ironic ever since.

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    Stevie on 7 Jun 2007 #

    His absolute pinnacle, btw, is “We Will”.

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    Marcello Carlin on 7 Jun 2007 #

    Quite agree – almost Dennis Potter-esque in its evocations. Also, as far as I know, the only hit single to contain the word “bagsy” in its lyric (“bagsy me in goal”).

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    Waldo on 7 Jun 2007 #

    Oh dear God, I’d forgotten about “We Will”. Never work with children. That song was truly grim, with promises to “go to mass on Monday” and whatever else. Playing footy with Uncle Ray in goal. NO NO NO!!!!!

    Marcello – Way to go, Gilbert, the tax exile! The man was fromage in excelsis but I’m pleased that he escaped the resorts of North Wales and running into folk like Pilot and The Rubettes, both of whom will be visiting us later on in this fable.

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    Erithian on 7 Jun 2007 #

    “Clair” was actually Gordon Mills’ daughter, with whom Gilbert became friendly while staying with the family. Ironic listening to this and thinking that a few years later he would cheerfully have strangled her daddy. Staggering to think, btw, that “Alone Again” was one of the top 20 biggest selling singles of the *decade* in the US.

    Good songs about children for dads (especially new dads) – how about Will Smith’s version of “Just the Two of Us”?

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    Snif on 8 Jun 2007 #

    >>Good songs about children for dads (especially new dads) – how about Will Smith’s version of “Just the Two of Us”?

    How about “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane”?

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    Tom on 8 Jun 2007 #

    I can just about bear ABBA’s “Slipping Through My Fingers All The Time” but it’s easily the weakest track on its album.

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    Ophir Zemer on 8 Jun 2007 #

    How about Kate Bush’s “Bertie”?

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    Waldo on 11 Jun 2007 #

    Surely the ultimate track for new dads has to be “Isn’t She Lovely”? After all, Stevie’s brat was “less than one minute old” and you can’t get much newer than that.

    Well, perhaps we could go back to “Je t’aime…”

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    Marcello Carlin on 11 Jun 2007 #

    I could have done with “Isn’t She Lovely?” being less than a minute long, that’s for sure (instead of the 98 minutes it actually does go on for).

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    Waldo on 11 Jun 2007 #

    I couldn’t agree more; especially when you hear them bathing the newborn as Stevie hammers the harmonica for what seems to be a lifetime at the end there. At least David Parton’s cover had the good manners to only last about three minutes. Most of “Songs In The Key Of Life” was magnificent but that baby song was utterly wretched.

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    Rosie on 18 Jun 2007 #

    Not my favourite of Gilbert’s, and I was never a fan, but it is a pleasant little ditty and amazingly enough it steers just the right side of mawkishness.

    Actually I find I like his stuff much more in retrospect.

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    Lena on 15 Jul 2007 #

    “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon isn’t as good as “Bertie” but I like it more than “Clair.”

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    Caledonianne on 18 Jul 2007 #

    I was a huge Gilbert fan in my teens, saw him live, and in a fit of madness one day about 10 years ago bought his first four albums on Japanese import CDs in the Virgin megastore in Seville. To this day the only 70s album by a solo male that I like more than “Himself” is Innervisions. The second side of “Himself” is wonderfully sequenced, but side one has “Nothing Rhymed” which continues to exert considerable power over me.

    Alone again(naturally) was the definition of profound to my 13 year old self (and its non-attainment of the #1 spot thanks to “Without You” is one of the reasons I wasn’t one of those giving the latter a 10 – that and the fact that the Harry N on the cover of Schmilsson album in that dressing looks too old to be getting so bombastically hysterical about getting dumped – IMHO).

    “Clair” is really just a bit of whimsy – and I agree that “We Will” is Uncle Ray’s highest achievement. It’s there I think that the Alan Bennett comparison (what a great insight!) is most earned. I grew up in exactly the kind of working class household captured in that song – so the “Go to mass on Monday” (though that wouldn’t win you any canonical brownie points) and “bagsy being in goal” resonate with me. I have an uncle and aunt in Newcastle, and every time I visit them I think about the reaction the narrator gets from “Uncle Frankie and Auntie May” when he honours them with a visit – it’s the generous hospitality of my folks (who I visit far too seldom) to a tee. It’s the sort of observation I also find in the wistfulness and slight melancholy that always underpins the observations in even Victoria Wood’s funniest vignettes.

    So, as Ella Fitzgerald so aptly sang ” I’m just a sentimental sap, that’s all”

    BTW – songs about children. I’ll make a bid for “St Judy’s Comet” on Paul Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”.

  23. 24
    Doctor Casino on 22 Jul 2007 #

    And “Whip-Smart” by Liz Phair! That’s pretty good too!

    “Clair” seems just fine to me, not nearly noxious enough to rate a 3 in my book.

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    henry s on 23 Jul 2007 #

    is this the song that rhymes “take off your shoes” with “the both of youse”?

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    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #

    That was “We Will.”

  26. 27
    henry s on 23 Jul 2007 #

    And so it is. Thanks!

    Listening again to “Clair”, I wonder does anybody else hear a foreshadowing of Stereolab circa ‘Space Age Bachelor Pad Music”?

    I also wonder if the Eau Claire, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce ever thought to use this as a theme song.

    I don’t wonder about Stevie Wonder, though. (Though I do wonder just what is that Laura Nyro song that has her newborn-baby-in-the-bath on it?)

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    Marcello Carlin on 24 Jul 2007 #

    Would be grateful for an expansion on that Clair -> Stereolab theory; don’t really hear the connection, I must confess, largely because of that very 1972 harmonica and the general feeling of a Two Ronnies musical interlude.

    I’m wondering about that Nyro song too, which I guess comes from one of the intermittent albums she made after ’71, none of which I have ever listened to (nor have I listened to the second CD of the Stoned Soul Picnic compilation which cherry-picks from all her later stuff; maybe I ought to, but all that save the whale stuff oddly makes me think of Nik “Jee-soos Chrieeest Oll-My-Tee” Kershaw’s song about saving the whale).

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    henry s on 24 Jul 2007 #

    while certainly jauntier than anything Stereolab have written, there’s something about that bouncy organ sound on “Clair” that puts me in mind of Stereolab tunes like “Allures” and “With Friends Like These” (both of which were predated by ‘SABPM’, but for an extreme example see the title track from that LP)…in fact, “Clair” (harmonica/strings notwithstanding) maybe fits in better with the whole sunkissed/cosmopolitan vibe of the Marina records aesthetic…

    I think that Nyro track is “Child In A Universe”, from the ‘Nested’ LP…(those “maternal” records she made never got their critical due, but I love them the same)…

  29. 30
    Peg on 11 Aug 2007 #

    I want to buy his album “Clair” but haven’t been able to do so

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