Friday, July 13, 2012
breaking the rules
It's easy enough for popular song writers to follow the rules, because even though they're unwritten, the rules are well-known. For example, if you write a song dealing with despair, anguish, and potential suicide, that's OK as long as your lyrics present these potentially explosive feelings in a maudlin, sentimental, and vapid manner. Rule number one is "Don't disturb the audience."
This is what makes the international number-one hit "Alone Again, Naturally," written and performed by Gilbert O'Sullivan in 1972, so unusual and ultimately revolutionary. Even though I was familiar with the song at the time it was popular, I didn't listen to the lyrics closely enough to pick up the depth of anguish and profound sadness they express. Only now, 40 years on, am I secure enough to take in the song's disturbing message, and appreciate its author's audacity.
1972 Was a watershed year for the cultural revolution that had been playing out in the US for a decade at that point. Despite overwhelming public disapproval inspired by the anti-war movement, the war in Vietnam clanked on like the mindless machine it was, and the mood among the disaffected at the time has been described as "LSD hangover." Sadness and melancholy were in order, and apparent not just in O'Sullivan's tune, but also in the popular work of, for example, Burt Bacharach.
Raymond O'Sullivan (such is his real name) has continued writing pop songs down to the present day, but without his early success. Still, he's been luckier than a lot of pop musicians; he married his gorgeous Norwegian girlfriend with whom he still lives along with their children, and won a £7-million judgement against his early-70's manager whom he found to be ripping him off. He hasn't done badly for someone who broke the rules, including the one that says "Thou shalt not write a pop song dealing with the natural atheism of souls in despair."
The YouTube version below includes the lyrics to this wonderful song, but the better version for viewing, which is un-embeddable by the author's request, is a lip-synched-for-TV out-take which you can see here.