Alone Again (Naturally)
Writer: Jack Hutton
Gilbert O'Sullivan recently expounded his thoughts in an interview with Sounds Managing Director Jack Hutton. The following is what emerged...
When Gilbert O'Sullivan appeared several years ago looking like the Bisto Kid - flat cap, pudding haircut, short trousers and hobnailed boots - people fell about laughing.
But the Bisto Kid was soon among the gravy, becoming one of the most prolific and successful songwriters since the Beatles.
The arrival of fame saw the disappearance of the funny clothes, Gilbert made annual tours, recorded and wrote in seclusion.
He is fiercely possessive about his songs, somewhat of a recluse, and no fan of music papers, SOUNDS he says, should review more of his records.
Who do you think your fans are?
I think they are aged from five years to 50. When I toured in Britain one concert hall would be full of kids which was nice. They're not too intent on what you play as seeing you do it. Then at another hall, the majority would be from 25 onwards and they would sit there very coolly and appreciate you on a different level.
You must get a warm reception back home in Ireland?
Oh it's Gilbert mania, but that's nice. I've seen a lot of couples at my shows and a lot of old people too.
It must give you a nice feeling to appeal to all ages.
Initially I wasn't too mad about that. I very much wanted the kids. When you're not really a professional performer the mistakes go by, they get lost in the screams.
Do you still not consider yourself a real professional performer?
Not really, I've an awful lot to learn. But I can only get better: I'm a songwriter first, a recording artist second and a performer third.
If you're shy, as you say you are, how could you initially project yourself in the Bisto kid image?
Determination. A hundred and one per cent belief in yourself as a songwriter and believing that, if you are as good as people who are making it without having to dress up, you can do something originally visual and get away with it.
The Beatles started it for me. I liked them fifty per cent for their music and fifty per cent for the way they looked, Beatle jackets, Beatle boots, Beatle haircuts. Totally original as far as I was concerned. So, when I came to try and make records of my own, and I thought I was writing songs that were good enough, I tried to come up with something original visually.
I came to the conclusion that everything had been done. So I then said to myself, 'I'll look original and funny instead of original and good'. So I came up with something based on Charlie Chaplin. I've always been fascinated by him.
The first pictures I had taken myself. I was working in an office. I took a day off and a photographer friend and I went to the park. When there was no-one about I slipped on this Charlie Chaplin jacket and hobnailed boots. I gave the pictures to CBS but they wouldn't touch them with a barge pole.
It was the short trousers that got me...
They didn't come till 'Nothing Rhymed'. That was the first record with Gordon (Mills) that was good in my estimation. I had so much faith in it I was prepared to go overboard for it. We took some pictures outside the bungalow I lived in. Chris Hutchins (press agent) was there. I had short trousers on and a car came along. You couldn't see Chris for dust.
Gordon wasn't all that knocked out by the image at the time, was he?
Hated it: Who wouldn't? But I was always sure of my songs. If a record company took one and ruined it I would say, 'well, they won't get the next one'. If I hadn't had that I would not have survived four years in a routine job. To get my songs across I would have shaved my head.
You hate discussing your songwriting, but you must have some routine. You must be alone and you like doing it late at night?
Yeah, it's on my own, that's it. It's the results that count. It doesn't matter which country I'm in, it just has to be an empty room with a piano. That can be anywhere and all the money in the world wouldn't make any difference.
You've a new British tour coming up?
Yes there's one set for March. There'll be no orchestra, just myself with a large rhythm section. I'll handle it myself, there'll be no MD.
Can you read music?
No. I think that's true of most modern writers. I record my songs on tape and Johnnie Spence transcribes them.
Does Gordon Mills say to you 'we need this kind of single now' or do you produce what you want?
Oh, he'll say that of course. If a single doesn't make it he'll say maybe we need a discotheque type of sound and so on.
But you don't write to order?
No, I just write what I feel, exactly. If Gordon suggested any kind of song I've got so many ideas I'm sure I could give him one. Sometimes they are finished songs, sometimes they're melodies with gibberish words, the most important thing is melody. The first time that you hear something it's the melody that hits you.
Was your Christmas Song in your mind for a long time?
Yes, I just wanted to write a Christmas song, I had this melody and the line "I'm not dreaming of a white Christmas" as opposed to the classic of all time. It just pleased me.
I'd have thought if it had been released earlier it would have been bigger.
Well there are reasons for that which I can't go into. Several things should have happened, that didn't happen.
Why did Marie Proops in the Daily Mirror call you the Stinker of the Week? Was it because of 'A Woman's Place Is In The Home'?
I've no idea. I wrote the song that's all I'll say.
Do You Agree with Woman's Lib?
No I don't like it. Totally against it.
How many songs come out of what you write?
Whatever's released is what I've done up to now. Nothing's more precious to me than my songs. I have every single piece of paper containing every song I've ever written all in one room. I wouldn't let anyone near them. That would be the biggest loss in the world. Originally I couldn't afford a tape recorder so I used to write the melody note by note - A, G, B etc. I could understand it. Then I'd put the lyric underneath. Then for the tempo I'd put a record that was popular at the time and say "in the tempo of 'Day Tripper' " or "in the tempo of blues" I still possess every single one and I started writing when I was around 15.
Do you buy many albums?
Yes, I buy everybody's albums, David Essex, Gary Glitter, David Bowie. I probably don't give half of them a chance. They're all good for what they do, but I keep going back to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. Once I forced myself to listen to the songs, and ignore the old-fashioned backings, I realised they were great songs.
How about records for Desert Island Discs?
Well, I'd pick Ella singing Cole Porter and Ella singing Rodgers and Hart. That was the turning point for me buying those two albums in a second hand shop, that was my first insight into good songwriting. I think every record is valid for what it is, Gary Glitter's records are very good. If I was a kid I'd love them. I like Kenny and the Bump and everything. I think it is very unfair that someone who makes a record should be dismissed or that he shouldn't get an airing. Everyone should get an airing, let people make their own minds up. Even the worst record is done with the best of intentions.
Are you religious?
I was brought up a Catholic but I would say that I question more now than I accept. I've even written a song which will come out this year which describes my feelings, it's a sort of hymn song. It's full of questions. What I'm saying is - I don't believe in You but if You do exist then show us.
You've changed in your beliefs through the years?
I've become realistic in this day and age, it seems to me the more people pray for peace the more wars increase. And when miracles take place or visions appear, why do they always happen in some little village in Italy? Why doesn't it happen in Oxford Street? But there's two ways of looking at it. A lot of people I respect, intelligent people, are religious, they're not cranks, and it would appear the older people get the more religious they become. Perhaps the older you get the more fear you have of dying.
My attitude is that I certainly won't dismiss it. I make an effort and go to church as often as I can and I sit through the service and hum my songs and melodies, I take no interest in the service.
Because church atmosphere is so unreal. It is nice, it's peaceful whether you believe in it or not. But I always hum my songs and think of the lyrics. If one day I convince myself that I believe in the Catholic Church I'll become more serious about it, if I convince myself I don't believe then I'll stop. I'll come to my own conclusions.
How about your future, will you continue writing songs?
Yes, everything revolves around that. If my songwriting stopped tomorrow and, for the next ten years, I could go on, performing other people's material - no way. I'd rather have continuing success record wise and be personally unhappy than to be personally happy and not have success. I'd rather take the pains in my private life than the pains in show business, or lack of success.
Are you a selfish person?
Of course. I have always been. My career, which is my life anyway, is more important than anything.
Are you hard on friends?
I don't have any friends. Not now.
That's a sad thing to say
Well, I had a couple of friends from way back - I mean people I'd grown up with, one is now the organist in Supertramp. He taught me to play the piano and drums, he was my hero at college because he introduced me to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. When I would play the latest Beatles record he'd say have a listen to the real thing and put on Chuck Berry. I had another friend from college, but we just grew apart. I like to feel that it wasn't my fault, that it was their fault.
Do you need any crutches in life like drink and drugs?
I like a glass of wine but I don't like spirits much. I'll drink something I like, but I will not drink just for social reasons. I smoked cigarettes, a pipe, and cigars and gave them all up. I smoked pot once, I was totally against it before for the wrong reasons because I didn't even know. I was living in London with about 15 art students in a flat for three. I was the straight one with the tie going to work in the office. They used to have pot parties so I tried it once but found it was more psychological than physical or anything.
How do you feel about the number of guys in the business who have screwed up their lives with drugs?
I think it's sad but I have no sympathy for them, you must shape your own destiny, it's so easy to be tempted. The temptation is always there for everything and anything, and if you're weak you'll take it. Now you may say if a person is weak it's not his fault, I don't believe that. I don't have too much sympathy.
Do groupies turn you up?
I could act the part very well but when it comes to the crunch, midnight or something, I'd run away. I'd send somebody else. To go back to drugs I will say I think it's sad that a great drummer like Phil Seamen who was the best drummer we ever had here died of drugs, that's sad. But I can't have much sympathy because I've been offered these things but I'm very naive about drugs.
I remember when I came to London. The Pretty Things were appearing at Tiles in Oxford Street, I was helping their support group, the Lonely Ones. By acting as temporary road manager, I got in for nothing.
The Pretty things were hip characters and big then, at the interval I was with the gear in the corner and one of the Pretty Things came up to me and said: "Hey man, got any stuff?" And I said: "Oh yeah. We've got three Vox's, a drum and an organ". He looked at me and couldn't believe what he heard!
If everything came to an end now, what would you do?
First thing I'd hide my own embarrassment, get totally out of the music business. I'd live abroad and do something, I thing you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I could be a good gardener, a good domestic. I was a very good postal clerk....