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What's Eating Gilbert?

Source: Ireland On Sunday

Writer: Peter Robertson

Date: 21st March 2004


Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan was a massive star on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s.  But, he tells Peter Robertson, his efforts to win a fairer deal for artists left him ostracised by the music industry.  Today, still churning out songs, he says he's angry but not bitter...


Even at the ripe old age of 57, Gilbert O'Sullivan still has a big bush of dark brown hair, but it's a wonder he has any at all.  For decades now he's been, at least metaphorically, tearing it out over his career..


Waterford-born O'Sullivan had a string of international hit records from 1970 to 1975, including "Clair" and "Get Down", winning many prestigious awards for his singing and songwriting.  But since suing the man who made him a star in a landmark court case, he has been cold-shouldered by the music industry and his albums have been ignored.


Today, as a result, he's an angry man.  Furious in fact.  "Most music critics despise me," he says matter-of-factly.  And it wasn't just his court case that upsets them, he explains.  There was his image, too.  "I didn't conform to how they thought I should look."


He is referring to the bizarre look he adopted when he started out.  It included a pudding-basin haircut, Charlie Chaplin jacket, shortened trousers and a cloth cap, and was likened to that of The Bisto Kid from the TV commercials.  But despite his critics, it was during that phase that he became a star.  Within a couple of years, he had a different look altogether (which involved sweaters bearing the letter G).  So he can't seriously feel that's ever bothered anyone, especially the music media three decades on.


"It had to", he insists.  "I've written every song I've ever recorded and I'm never given credit for it.  You can read about most songwriters - Randy Newman, Paul Simon, McCartney - and they'll always talk about the lyrical content.  Not in reviews of me.  Perhaps if someone else had written my songs, they might say something."  I was going to say that you wind him up and off he goes.  But Gilbert is already wound up, however much he may deny it.


"It rankles, but it doesn't bother me.  I don't lose any sleep over it.  I've gone past the stage of worrying about it", Gilbert maintains - but without pausing for breath, he adds "It's the Q magazine mentality - these people who dominate our business.  The only good thing about getting written about in Q and Mojo and stuff is the fact young record-buyers buy those magazines.  They're never gonna read about me, because the people who run these magazines don't like me, and they give me credit for nothing.  That's an uphill fight for me."


It's more like Gilbert O'Sullivan versus the rest of the world.  Going solo for so long has clearly had an effect.  Even for this interview in the living room of his London flat, he keeps his distance - positioning his chair a noticeably long way from mine.  Conversations with the guy are like treading on eggshells.  He analyses most of what you say, and jumps on anything he doesn't agree with.


Surprisingly, when I suggest attention may always have been an issue for him as, like so many driven people, he comes from a large family, Gilbert reacts as though this has never been brought up before.


"I can see where you are coming from, about the need to stand out", he says, giving it some thought.  if six years at the top of his profession didn't make him feel the outstanding one of six siblings, maybe Gilbert has gained satisfaction from having two brothers working for him - Kevin "runs the computers and all that kind of stuff" and Terry "looks after our U.S. company" - or, indeed, from buying their mother the family home in Swindon, in the west of England.


"Mum has most of my gold discs and stuff - I don't have them on display.  My sisters have a few too.  They're proud of me.  Not like my younger two brothers who, when they first saw me on Top Of The Pops, were horrified at what I was wearing.  they could hardly face going to school the next day."


The O'Sullivan family moved to Swindon from Waterford in 1955.  Gilbert (real name Ray), whose classic "Alone Again (Naturally)" discussed the death of his father from cancer in 1960, has had a stepfather since 1969 when his mum, Mae, married another Irishman.


"We're all proud of our Irish roots, and we go back.  My mother's sisters still live in Ireland and we're close to them.  But when I was first successful, I tried to find my Irish roots, to see if the diddly-i-di was there, and it wasn't.  All my music roots are to do with hearing late 1950s, early 1960s American pop.


In the 1970s, he returned to live in Ireland and bought a place in Bunclody, Co. Wexford, largely as a hedge against losing his then imminent legal battle with Gordon Mills.  That battle lasted four years, after which he took his family to the Channel Islands.


Could this, I ask him, be the reason his record sales haven't enjoyed the success he might have hoped for in Ireland?  For a moment the anger subsides and  spark of humour breaks through: "While the likes of Damien Rice and David Gray go platinum in Ireland," he quips, "I go rust."


Yet here's a rare artist who triumphed on both sides of the Atlantic, and countless other territories too.  That success was masterminded by Gordon Mills, whose MAM management stable also included Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.  "I knew I would make it", says Gilbert.  "I didn't envisage being successful in America, Japan and the rest of the world.  But I definitely wanted to be successful in England, and I knew I would do it.  You couldn't dress the way I dressed, when 99 per cent of people in the business said I was making a big mistake, and not believe in yourself."


Gilbert's debut chart hit was "Nothing Rhymed."  His British chart-toppers were "Clair" and "Get Down."  However, his masterpiece was surely "Alone Again (Naturally)."


"Not in Britain", Gilbert interjects.  "I could show you reviews of it which describe is as "a nice ditty but nothing special."  But in the U.S. it was No.1 for six weeks.  The U.S. look upon it as one of the all-time great records.  If they had an all-time top 200 list, it would be in there.  If Britain had a top 1,000, you wouldn't find one of my songs in it."


In June 1979, Gilbert sued Gordon Mills for a fairer share of the 21 million earned by his songs, having then only received 750,000.


Victory turned Gilbert into a multimillionaire through backdated royalties.  he was granted the copyright of all his recordings, and even given the master-tapes.  It all but destroyed MAM.  "They deserved everything that happened," reckons Gilbert, who says he felt no guilt when Mills died a few years later.  the verdict is said to have inspired the likes of Elton John , George Michael and Sting to pursue similar litigation in later years.  the difference with Gilbert has been his career has never been the same since.  "I took the business on and won", he points out.


Had I taken the business on and lost, I would have had more friends.  To this day, I have never been able to get new management.  I've tried for the last 20 years to get good representation, but people are loath to represent me.  Every time I make an album, I take it to  major record companies and I can show you a big reject file.  I get rejected the way young hopefuls get rejected.  The difference is that I have a lot of baggage.


During the course of the court proceedings, Gilbert married a Norwegian stewardess names Ase (pronounced 'Orse').  They have two daughters - Helen Marie, 23, who's working for the BMG label, and Tara, 19, a student at Lancaster University.  Does Gilbert ever wish they had followed in his footsteps?  "God forbid"! he says.


The family have been based in a luxury mansion on the low-tax island of Jersey since leaving Ireland in the early 1980s.  Gilbert works in his music room there ever weekday from 9am until 5pm.  he describes his existence as hermit-like, and gives the impression he works like a man possessed.


In 1991, Gilbert got what many an older artist might have considered a compliment.  The U.S. rapper Biz Markie sampled "Alone Again (Naturally)" for his single, Alone Again.  But Gilbert wasn't happy.  In fact, he sued Markie.  "That was the first time anybody had ever taken a sampling case to court", says Gilbert.  "Warner Bros were the company which supported Biz Markie and the judge told them: "If you don't remove this track from this album, I will have every Warner Bros record taken off the shelves."  Within half an hour, their lawyers were on the phone and it was all sorted out.  Amazing, isn't it?"


Hearing all about O'Sullivan's trials and tribulations over the years, I'm relieved to have his comments safely on tape.  "Oh, I haven't read anything about myself for 20 years," he confides.  "I ignore it, and get on with the work.  They can't stop me doing that.  Like I said, I don't lose any sleep over it and I'm not bitter and twisted."