322. Gilbert O’Sullivan – Clair (1972)

I said you’d never get a song like Mouldy Old Dough at number 1 now, and it also applies to this song that toppled it in the winter of 1972. Thanks to 60s and 70s celebrities like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter (two of which had number 1s), any song referencing love for a child is understandably looked upon with suspicion nowadays. In this song, Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan professes his love for his manager’s young daughter.

O’Sullivan was originally Raymond Edward O’Sullivan, born in Waterford on 1 December 1946. The family moved to Battersea, London when he was seven, and Swindon, Wiltshire a year later. O’Sullivan attended St. Joseph’s and the Swindon College of Art, and he briefly played drums in the band Rick’s Blues. Rick was Rick Davies, who went on to form Supertramp. He taught O’Sullivan drums and piano.

1967 was a big year by O’Sullivan. His then-manager Stephen Shane suggested a name change from Ray to Gilbert as a play on ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’. At the time his songs were avant-garde – so much so, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band expressed an interest in recording some. He was then signed to CBS Records by Mike Smith, producer of number 1s by The Marmalade, The Love Affair and The Tremeloes.

His first three singles, all credited to just ‘Gilbert’, got nowhere, but things improved after O’Sullivan sent demo tapes to Gordon Mills, manager of Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. Mills signed him to MAM Records, despite not being a fan of his idiosyncratic image. At a time of long hair and flares, O’Sullivan was going against the grain with a retro look consisting of a pudding-bowl hairstyle, cloth cap and short trousers.

In 1970 O’Sullivan had his first top 10 hit with Nothing Rhymed, considered one of his best tracks. He built on this success the following year with his debut album Himself and singles We Will and No Matter How I Try, which was recognised as Best Ballad or Romantic Song at the 1972 Ivor Novello Awards.

Then came his most famous single. Alone Again (Naturally) was a bleak introspective tale of a man contemplating suicide after being jilted at the altar. This critically-acclaimed 7-inch reached number three here, but topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.

Upon the release of his second album Back to Front, O’Sullivan ditched the old image and went to a different extreme, perming his hair and displaying his hairy chest like labelmate Tom Jones. Despite this, the music contained within was still light melancholic pop with a touch of music hall.

Clair begins as a straightforward love song. O’Sullivan and Clair began as friends, but he knew from the start this was special, and his feelings grew even more as the friendship did. But hang on, there’s an age gap, which has clearly thrown a spanner in the works:

‘But why in spite of our age difference do I cry.
Each time I leave you I feel I could die.
Nothing means more to me than hearing you say,
“I’m going to marry you. Will you marry me? Oh hurray!”‘

Wonder what the gap is… sounds tricky, a teen perhaps?

‘I’ve told you before “Don’t you dare!”
“Get back into bed.”
“Can’t you see that it’s late.”
“No you can’t have a drink.”
“Oh allright then, but wait just a minute.”
While I, in an effort to babysit, catch up on my breath,
What there is left of it.’

Oh… he’s her babysitter… and it’s his manager and producer’s daughter… right.

Now, I’m not going to be silly enough to suggest O’Sullivan is a paedophile, or that everyone who kept this at number 1 for a fortnight condones such behaviour. Clearly they saw this as nothing more than a cute song about this lovely little girl and how he can’t help but love her. They perhaps also liked the punchline of it being about a child, in the same way they Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses for Me at number 1 for six weeks in 1976. Times have changed.

But yes, there’s no escaping how problematic some of the lyrics are, namely the fact he can see himself marrying Clair eventually, and most of all ‘I don’t care what people say, to me you’re more than a child.’ When we’re only a year off the likes of Glitter conquering the charts, it can’t help but make modern listeners feel queasy.

Songs about children are a precarious concept. Even a musical genius like Stevie Wonder overdid it with Isn’t She Lovely, a nice tune that went on far too long and didn’t need baby noises thrown in. John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) just about stays on the right side of sentimentality. It’s very easy to be too twee and make the listener feel sick, and that’s what Clair does for me, particularly that ‘Oh Clair’ and the giggle at the end. Yuck.

Written by: Gilbert O’Sullivan

Producer: Gordon Mills

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 November)

Meanwhile…

18 November: 100 years to the day since the England men’s team played its first official association football match, the women’s team did the same, against Scotland, in Greenock. They won 3-2.