Lyric Theory: “Alone Again, Naturally,” Gilbert O’Sullivan (1972)

Today on Lyric Theory: A song that made history. Not in the VH1 documentary hype style like, “Sisqo’s bold gymnastics changed pop music… forever!” way, but for real.

Americans really only like about three movies total. One of them is about two strangers who meet and fall in love, but one of them has a secret that tears them temporarily apart, until they come to terms with it. You’ve probably seen this movie when it was called Aladdin, or While You Were Sleeping, or Never Been Kissed, or The Graduate. In that latter film, the girl makes it all the way to (and in fact past) the altar with another man, until the boy shows up and changes her mind. They run off together, happy ever after. Great story! Unless you’re the guy left standing at the altar, like this guy:

This cheery ditty ruled the pop charts in 1972, looking down from the #1 slot on both the pop and easy listening charts for six weeks each. Its chirpy, chipper musical appeal is clear, the most McCartneyesque piece of pop this side of “Baker Street.” It features the ascending I-Iaug-I6 chord progression also found in pop gems like “There’s a Kind of Hush” and “It’s All Been Done”. The lyrics are another matter altogether:

I promise myself to treat myself and visit a nearby tower
And, climbing to the top, will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to whoever
What it’s like when you’re shattered,
Left standing in the lurch at a church
Where people were saying: “My God, that’s tough!”
“She stood him up!”
“No point in us remaining.”
“We may as well go home.” —
As I did, on my own, alone again, naturally.

The second verse describes his feeling of estrangement from God, while the third covers the deaths of his parents. Peppy stuff, right? The “naturally” is the kicker. Getting jilted publicly is humiliation enough, but for this guy, it’s the natural state of affairs, the latest in a lifelong string of relational disasters. Movies have the luxury to make the jiltee a cad or shrew that we’re glad to see left alone (again, naturally), but that’s the convenience of fiction, not the messy reality in which every villain is part hero, and vice versa.

O’Sullivan’s performance took on historical significance beyond its intent when, almost twenty years later, it became the final straw in a decade-long debate about the fiscal relationship between rap music and pop music. Rap music in the 1970s usually consisted of live vocal performance over the top of pre-existing music, often the looped instrumental section of a pop hit. While technically illegal to do in any kind of public forum, matters first came to a head when the performances were captured in the studio, played on the radio, and topped the pop charts, as happened with “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang, which recreated the bassline of Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” Queen had previously adapted that same bassline for their own disco foray, but the Sugarhillers, lacking Queen’s clout, were forced to settle a lawsuit, adding Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers to the authorial credits. (However, no one stood up for the authorial rights of the Depression-era standards “Happy Days are Here Again” and “About a Quarter to Nine,” which Chic had appropriated for the lyrics of “Good Times.”)

Since that case was settled out of court, it didn’t go to trial and thus didn’t create legal precedent. Rap stars throughout the 1980s sampled more and more songs, until in 1991 rapper/pianist Biz Markie used the instrumental intro and core hook of “Alone Again, Naturally” for his own song “Alone Again.” Markie had risen from humble indie rap beginnings but by that point in his career was signed to Warner Brothers, whose deep pockets made worthwhile a copyright lawsuit brought by the company which owned the rights to O’Sullivan’s old song. Not only did Biz Markie (and more to the point, Warner Brothers) lose the civil lawsuit, but they were referred for criminal prosecution on grounds they had known they were stealing. Precedent had been set, and all future rap songs had to pay if they wanted to use other people’s music. Predictably, sampling receded dramatically, and rap became less about recontextualizating of old bits of pop history, leaving the modern rapper and his drum machine alone again.

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