Still singing, naturally
The secret of success is the capacity to survive failure. Noel Coward said that, and it's something which could be applied to all areas of life, but with perhaps more resonance in the cut-throat, cut-and-thrust world of pop music. The pop star who was once famous and who now languishes in the no man's land of what-haveyou-been-up-to-for-the-past-15years is an all too familiar occurrence. Sitting before me is one such pop star, and an Irish one at that: an instantly recognisable face for a certain generation. You know his biggest hits, you recall his distinctive image, but the obvious question refuses to sulk off into a corner: what have you been up to for the past 15 years?
"The perception that if you're not on Top Of The Pops you're dead and buried is a good one for pop music, because TOTP is a catalyst or barometer for pop success," says Gilbert O'Sullivan. "As for the older generation, if you're not on variety shows then you're history again. The only bad thing about that perspective, is that if you are working it's frustrating when you come back from a European tour and some people wonder what you've been up to for the past 10 or 20 years. Whenever I'm asked if I'm still making records, I feel almost like an invalid. But I have no problem with it as a pop star. The basis of everything I do is down to the song. If I don't have the song I don't sing, and if I don't sing I don't perform."
Born in Waterford in 1946, Raymond O'Sullivan (the Gilbert moniker arrived as his pop career took off) and his family moved to Swindon when he was a child. Following a stint at Swindon Art College, O'Sullivan, interested in pop music from the 1950s skiffle era when he heard Johnny Duncan's Last Train to San Fer- nando; and, unusually for the time, an Irish person with no interest whatsoever in the likes of The Clancy Brothers and traditional music ("I hear the pipes and it's anathema to me.") signed first to CBS and then to Major Minor in the late 1960s. Lack of success as well as a conflict of interest between his creative leanings and the music industry spurred him onto writing a letter to pop impresario Gordon Mills. Mills, the then manager of UK macho pop Gods Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, loved the music O'Sullivan made but viewed his image (in essence a Bisto Kid; pudding basin haircut, flat cap, short trousers) with the sort of disdain perhaps typical of a person who managed Medallion Men.
"The image was mine," O'Sullivan says, eager to dispel the oft-cited notion that it was manufactured or spin-doctored by Mills the Mogul. "I loved Keaton and Chaplin and I used to go to see silent movies a lot. That's where I got the idea for the image. I was going to go on stage and not talk, but just look odd. Perhaps it was naive of me not to look beyond that, but it was totally different. It may not have been nice to look at, but it was distinctive. I felt I could look like that because I wrote the songs I did, that people would look at me and think I was an idiot, but then they'd hear the songs and change their mind. I liked that contradiction. But the record companies didn't get it. I didn't want to compromise. In retrospect I can obviously see where it hindered me.
"So then, eventually, I wrote to Gordon Mills. I said I didn't want to be Tom Jones or Humperdinck, but that my songs were good even though I looked odd. He said that provided the songs were good the image could stay. The irony is that if I had put on make-up and worn a dress, I'd probably be a cult figure today instead of being ridiculed for having a pudding basin haircut," he says.
Come the early-to-mid 1970s, O'Sullivan's success was such that he rivalled Elton John as the UK's most successful pop export. Although he regards himself as Irish, O'Sullivan's hit singles and albums, which travelled internationally as well as across the generation gap, evinced a songwriting talent that was peculiarly English. "You could argue that I'm an English songwriter," he says. "When I was initially successful the Irish embraced me but critically I irritated them. There was nothing Irish about my songs and there never will be." With topics ranging from death and suicide to genteel, fond and punning songs about love, girls, marriage and childhood, O'Sullivan stood out in the early 1970s as a weird antidote to prog and glam rock. It could also be argued that he was one of pop music's first true miserabalists and that, lurking in a suburb in Manchester, someone called Morrissey was humming along to the likes of Nothing Rhymed, Alone Again (Naturally), Clair and We Will in each instance wordy, colloquially-framed, superb self-pitying pop songs.
From 1970 to 1975, O'Sullivan was virtually unstoppable. Until, that is, relations soured between him and his manager Gordon Mills. O'Sullivan recounts the mess with a mixture of weariness and regret: he'd been with other managers, had heard the promises and seen them all disappear. With Mills, he trusted him; indeed, he was brought into the family home, and had babysat Mills' daughter, Clair (and even wrote a Number One song about her).
Yet continual requests for a percentage in his songwriting went unheeded. "The disappointment with Gordon was that he was a misguided businessmen surrounded by crooks and yes men," says O'Sullivan, who at this point was effectively on his own, with no legal representation. "I was determined to fight and to take it all the way. I thought it would take a year, but they fought and fought. Ultimately, they lost badly."
In 1982, the disagreement came to a head in a High Court battle that pitched O'Sullivan against Mills and the record company MAM. Justice Mars Jones awarded O'Sullivan substantial damages but also decreed that all the singer's master tapes and copyrights should be returned. The case made legal history, as well as having immense repercussions for British music publishing. "I regret the hurt it cost his family and I didn't like to see him exposed," says O'Sullivan. "You'd see him in court and you knew he didn't know what he was doing there. It should never have happened."
As a teenager, in an effort to give his mother and father peace and quiet, O'Sullivan was put into his garden shed with the family piano. He liked The Shadows, loved The Beatles, and as he began to tinker with words and chords, ideas of his own came about - quirky, playful, occasionally too clever for their own good, but always smart. He comes across as a serious, private person, passionate about what he does, and opinionated in a reasonable way.
He says he takes songwriting very seriously, because without it he's nothing. "I've never recorded anyone else's songs. I'm not interested. If you gave me a song by Bono and Edge and promised me a number one hit with it I'd still say no. That, for me, is not the kind of success I want."
He listens to everything (Shawn Colvin, David Gray, Alison Krauss, Elliot Smith are current favourites) and buys albums on a regular basis. He likes U2, although he thinks their best material is behind them (the pot calling the kettle black there, surely). Westlife? They can sing, O'Sullivan claims, but they have no originality.
Despite all the negative issues in his past life, the court cases, the rip-offs, the subsequent fall from fame (although he's still popular in other parts of the world, notably Japan), O'Sullivan argues that he's a forward thinking person.
"I only think in the following terms: writing, recording, releasing. That's what I have control of. What I don't have control is whether critics or the public like what I do. I love writing songs and I feel as good about what I do as I have always done. I'm still learning. The technology has changed, but not if you're still sitting at a piano. I don't have fancy gadgetry to enhance my demos, which are rural. Paul McCartney said that what he misses is Lennon sitting opposite him, and the two of them would strum away. The piano is my partner, in a room with a cassette player."
Gilbert O'Sullivan plays Corrib Great Southern, Galway, next Monday, UCH Limerick, Tuesday, Olympia Theatre, Dublin, Thursday, March 29th and Sunday, April 1st, and Opera House, Cork, on Friday, March 30th. His new album, Irlish, is currently on release.