Win An Award On An Egg
Source: Daily Telegraph
Writer: Tom Hutchinson
Date: 16 August 1973
Gilbert OíSullivan, the 27-year-old-pop singer and songwriter, has moved house. It was necessary. For one thing, its four-bedroomed luxury accords better with his new status as winner of the Ivor Norvello Award as Songwriter of the Year than the bungalow he used to inhabit and in which he wrote his first hit, "Nothing Rhymed" and other songs such as "Ooh-Wakka-Doo", "Clair", "Alone Again" and his latest release, "Get Down". For another, it's secluded grounds bordered by banks of rhododendrons and old-established trees, give him some buffer of protection against the many fans who trek out to be near him. But its whereabouts can be given no more exactly than "somewhere in Weybridge", at the request of his publicity representative.
His previous home, which was without a garden, gave him no privacy, so that his youthful admirers would gather in the woods outside, staring in. Often, in the morning, his doorway was cluttered with debris they left behind: the empty Coke tins, the discarded orange peel.
He says he felt "much too vulnerable". Despite his success as a public performer the impression he projects is of a very private person and his quiet voice emphasizes the point. The fan hysteria, he confesses, seemed all too much for him at first. He used to retire to the bathroom and "sit in a state of paranoid fear on the toilet", hoping that his disciples would move on, terrified by their vocal invitations: "Come out Gilbert, come out and talk to us."
But, although he has moved house, he still lives within the gilt-edged belt of Weybridge in Surrey, near to the protective presence of his manager, Gordon Mills, chairman of Management Agency and Music, and ostler of a stable of two other pop-pedigrees, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, who live nearby. Nobody is saying how much the new abode has cost, but in that area the prices are so astronomical they can be glimpsed only by telescope.
He is reticent about the money he takes out of his consistently chart topping records, and his personal appearances, but it is a reticence that is there because he does not actually know or, in fact care. "Of course I don't make as much as Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. I may be a star, but I'm not yet a superstar like them."
Nevertheless, his personal appearances are usually sold out, his records, sell well abroad ("Alone Again" was No.1 in the United States for several weeks), and informed pop-world opinion is that his earnings must be close on £250,000 a year at the most conservative estimate.
Gordon Mills gives him an allowance of £10 a week and invests whatever is left over for him. O'Sullivan spends most of the £10 on cornflakes and eggs, which are his culinary passions and often the only things he will eat to sustain him while writing a song.
For him the song is, his raison díetre; that is why the Ivor Novello Award was so pleasing to him. It meant recognition from a showbiz world that had earlier commented sourly on a gimmick-ridden appearance that seemed destined to be short-lived.
Gilbert O'Sullivan has not only changed houses, he has changed public personalities. When he first started out in the show business he frankly admits that he realised that he had to "make an impact however eccentric". He chose an image which was counter to all that had been most successful in pop singers before. He assumed the character of a Thirties boy newsvendor: Bisto-Kid cap, trousers cut just below the knees, striped pullover, looped over scarf, clumsy bovver boots.
He remembers his mother cutting down the trousers to achieve that effect. "Is this really my son?" she moaned.
Now she is aware that his eccentricity has proved itself. "He was always so determined," she says. "That is what really got him ahead. His determination."
With the success that that determination has brought him he has felt free to change that image. "It was all right for a novelty, but novelty wears thin after a while and you can see right through it. But I'm grateful for the gimmick; after all, it brought me to the public's attention."
Above his blue eyes he now has a straggly hair-style to cowl his thin features. His bodyís leanness is accentuated by tight shirts and hugging trousers (making him look taller than his 5 ft. 10 ins.). He may look more like a conventional pop-star than he did, but he boasts none of their status symbols....apart from that new house in Weybridge.
He still does his own house-cleaning, never visits a pub ("I dislike the taste of alcohol") and has not bought a car; if he needs transport, Gordon Mills's chauffeur drives him. One recent change, he now, smokes small cigars instead of a pipe.
He wants to keep his inner identity intact. "Of course, I am manipulated as a pop singer. That is what being a success is all about. I am like a robot. But there is a difference between knowing that fact and not knowing it. I would never allow Raymond O'Sullivan, my real name, to be the puppet-on-a-string creation that Gilbert is."
He was born in Waterford in Southern Ireland and voice still has a faintly Irish resonance. His need for a Garbo-like solitude may come from being part of a large, noisy family. He is the second eldest of six children and, his family moved to Swindon England - where his mother still lives because his father, a butcher, was offered a job at an abattoir.
That background helps him keep his feet on the ground and is so often felt in some of his most popular songs, which he composes on any one of four upright pianos in his home ("I collect pianos the way a dog gets fleas".). The pianos help to fill one room in his new house which is only sparsely furnished at the moment; he has been on a European tour and to busy to add to the few pieces of heavily carved Spanish-style furniture he likes or to find some suitable Spanish-style rugs.
The results, from his first big hit 1970, "Nothing Rhymed", have a pavement poetry about them which make ordinary events seem important.
His most popular songs are to do with everyday life. "Clair" is about babysitting. "Permissive Twit" is about a girl who is going to have a baby. "Alone Again" is about the death of his father: "I remember I cried when my father died, never wishing to hide the tears; And at sixty-five years old, my mother God rest her soul, couldn't understand why the only man she had ever love had been taken: leaving her to start with a heart so badly broken."
It all sounds like a stream-of-consciousness that you may think welled up from some real event in life. But it has not. In that same song he refers to the death of his mother, but she is still alive, although since re-married.
"It's all in my imagination: I try to think myself into a situation and then make music out of it. I once toyed with the idea of a song about a love affair between a plank and a tank because it sounded so beautifully in congruous."
One musician who has worked with him says: "With him you feel that the words matter more than the music; it's the feeling that they convey which is important to him. Perhaps thatís why his music itself sounds a bit samey."
Gavin Petrie, editor of the pop paper, Disc, says: "His real strength lies in his lyrics. He has known that moon rhymes with June, but ignored it. He is the true 'working-class hero' who concerns himself with workaday life and workaday things."
His method of propulsion to the top of the pop world was not, however workaday; the intensity of his ambition was quite extraordinary. He had failed his Eleven Plus at school, but a teacher helped him to Swindon Art School where he made graphics his principal study.
"I was a real art school scruff. Long hair, jeans, the lot. My mother despaired of me. But I learned so much about real life at college, I learned to, believe in myself, and I learned to play the drums in a pop group. That was the most important thing of all."
For a former altar boy who had become increasingly cynical about his Roman Catholicism ("Young people must have charge, and I don't think the Church has changed at all in fundamentals"), pop music became another religion. He moved to London to try to make it as a pop star.
He lived in a limbo of bed-sit land, first in Notting Hill, then in Paddington. He got a job in a tailor's shop, worked as a postal clerk later. All the time he was making demonstration sound-tapes and sending them to publishers and recording companies. The gawky, Chaplinesque image that he had so deliberately contrived seemed to put people off.
His voice then was the unimaginable one that might have been heard if the Ancient Mariner had joined forces with George Formby. Delightedly he played a tape from that time. "It sounds just like a 60-year-old man, doesn't it?" he asked.
His persistence eventually got him a couple of contracts to write songs. "But once I'd signed they were frightened of the property they'd got. My stage appearance was too way out for them."
He realised that he had to have a manager, so he wrote to Gordon Mills and sent him along some lyrics. "Gordon treated me like a human being for the first time in the pop business. He was down to earth, a family man, friendly. I hadn't been used to that ... he wanted me to write more songs, though, probably to see if I could keep going before he signed me up."
O'Sullivan proved himself and got his contract with Mills, who now takes 20 percent of all, that his star earns. Since the early songs such as "Nothing Rhymed" and" Ooh-Wakka-Doo" those earnings have grown to many thousands of pounds. He has achieved 14 gold discs and a platinum one for selling so many records.
He gives the awards to his mother in Swindon, who plaques them on the wall of her home. "It is hard not to become a glamorous myth to the family as well, you know. They read the papers, too and see me on TV. You have to try not to patronise that attention.
"So I didn't buy my mother and step-father a new house when I made it big. Instead, I helped out with the mortgage. And, at Christmas, rather than buy them something outlandishly ostentatious I bought them a colour television set: something the whole family could share."
He is very much aware of other people's sensitivity because he himself seems to be a skin missing. He still remembers with bitterness the cool way in which he feels he was treated by the film star Dean Martin when he went to appear on television in America.
As a star, though, O'Sullivan is also a fervent fan of anything or anyone that ignites his enthusiasms: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, great songwriters such as Rogers and Hart and Cole Porter. He has two copies of a biography of Porter which he has not read. "Itís just enough to have them around. "Another astonishing enthusiasm is for former child-star Shirley Temple, of whom he has many records. "The purity is marvelous. She's so simple in her projection."
He is aware of his own over-toppling crazes. That is why he has not bought a car. "If I did I'd probably want something like a Rolls-Royce and become flashy and, perhaps, rather silly". He socializes very little and his friends are few but necessary to him: a former art school pupil, two others he picked up during his career, certainly Gordon Mills who father figures his professional life.
His dedication to his music is almost frightening. "I've got a fairly regular girlfriend who lives in Holland and sometimes comes over to see me. But she's as regular as I'll get. I'll take a girl out to dinner, but I don't get involved. Girls expect more and they're right to expect more. But I can't complicate my life. It's selfish of me, I know, but without sounding corny my work is the most important thing to me."
Working on his songs can take many weeks during which he thrives on his cornflakes, eggs and milk. "You see the music can come simply, a melody maybe in half an hour. But the verses come harder. I can work out ten verses, but then I have to prune them to four. You have to be selective. I think I've come so far because I have been selective ... and persistent."
The price of that persistence has been wealth, but also some of the hazards that success has brought with it. Like those fans, for instance: the intrusion into his privacy. This is something he understands, because "I used to go and just stand and stare at the house where Beatle Paul McCartney lived". But it can become sometimes unpleasant.
"Of course, some of the kids are so silly; about 50 percent of them are real twits: they put temptation in your way. One girl came round at 11 o'clock one night and it was obvious she wanted to stay. I asked her to leave, but she-was back again with a story about being chased by a man in the woods. I got her to phone the police. I didn't want any trouble and I got Gordon (Mills) to send a car so that it would seem that I had got to go to some party. Then there was this divorced woman with two children who camped out in the woods just to be near me. Now if it had been Sophia Loren I'd probably have had her in...after all I'm only human."
But you feel that Gilbert O'Sullivan's ambition has been almost superhuman, the charge of his enthusiasm to make good in his own world more than normal. For the fan to become the star requires a remarkable amount of willpower to manipulate the vision, even if the eventual vision is something as mundane in its status-symbolism as a house in Weybridge.