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Hard Times

Source: Jackie

Writer: Unknown

Date: 1973


Gilbert O'Sullivan and I were sitting at his circular writing table at his cottage kitchen in Weybridge, Surrey.  He had just made me a welcome mug of his favourite tea and was about to tell me his story.


Life for Gilbert started in Waterford in Ireland, a town dominated by a river and the age-old industry of glass.  Waterford crystal glass is some of the most famous glassware in the the world, but there is much other work there.


"My father was a butcher.  When I was about ten he was offered the same sort of job in England, only with half the money again added to it, so he came over first."


His father came to Swindon in Wiltshire, and if anything now, Gilbert has a pleasant slightly West Country accent.


"When the rest of the family came over, we went at first to a bed-sit in Battersea while our names were on the housing list in Swindon.  Eventually we got a place down there and could all join up."


Gilbert spent four years at an art school in Swindon.  It seems that art schools are very productive places for future pop stars.  Ray Davies of The Kinks, Pete Townsend of The Who and many other stars spent their formative years at art school.  Gilbert is aware of this and has his own theories about it all.


"The thing about art schools is the freedom you get.  You can do most of the things you can't do at school when you're under a different discipline.  Mind you I've heard there isn't the same freedom anymore.


"Our art school was like a dream come true.  You'd be set projects and if you didn't do them, then it was your bad luck.  So the first year you just wasted, and the second year you started to do a bit of work and in the third and fourth year you just worked all the time.  I remember working in the holidays as well.


"I studied graphic design and illustration.  Then I just started writing songs - art schools are breeding grounds for everything except art!  I started playing in local groups, playing places like local Borstals, but it was only for the fun of it.


"The last year I was art school I started sending tapes away to lots of people in the music business, people who'd written a lot of songs themselves."


"Nothing happened - sometimes the tapes would come back unopened.  But art was really the thing at that time.  My father had died and it became important to my mother that I pass my final examinations, which I did.


"She was upset when I took up music, but I explained that I had passed the examinations so if things didn't work out I had my qualifications to fall back on."


At the end of 1967 Gilbert left Swindon and went up to London.  But he didn't arrive as a musician, nor as an artist.  Instead he took a job as a temporary salesman at C & A in Oxford Street, at Christmas.


It was to take him three years before he succeeded as a songwriter, but Gilbert looks back fondly now on that period of his life.


"I refer to it as my apprenticeship.  It's good for you to do something like that.  It was miserable at the time, but I don't regret it.  You see I soon discovered that being a songwriter, you're likely to get a bad deal from record companies.  You do three songs and they make a mess of them.  So you keep on writing despite them and you write a really good song, and you say to yourself, 'I'll keep this one, I won't let them have it'.  That gave me some satisfaction doing that.  It makes you want to succeed.


"You see I was convinced that my songs were good.  I was the one person who believed in them.  I didn't take the views of publishers because I'd been writing for four or five years, I knew what I could do.  You must know what you yourself can do, it's very important to know yourself.


"For instance, I always remember being in a publisher's office once when this kid came in, he was just a normal guy.  He played this song and asked: 'What do think of that?'  The men sitting there said it was wonderful and that they were sure they could get him a deal.  As soon as he'd gone out the door, they said how bad his song was.  But you see, he should have known himself."


After being a salesman, Gilbert became a postal clerk. It was a temporary job that was to become permanent for two years!  All he had to do was open letters, but there was reason why he stuck it.


"I was so unimportant that if I went missing nobody noticed, or minded!  So I used to go out to a piano studio in Oxford Street, which has now been knocked down.  They had all these rooms with a piano in each one, and if you stood in the corridor you could hear everything from jazz to grand opera.  There were 60 to 70 pianos.


"I used to go there and play my songs.  It was a very good idea, because if you live in a flat you can't play a piano all night, and in that place you could play a piano full out to your heart's content."


But now he was beginning to shape his future in the music industry.  All this time he'd kept on writing songs and had also had some photographs of himself taken wearing a Charlie Chaplin jacket.  He would present one of these photographs when he presented a demonstration disc of one of his songs.


"As a result, record companies would sign me.  But unfortunately once they had signed me, it meant breaking up with them once again.  As soon as they signed me, they used to say, 'Why don't you become like somebody else?'  While what I was trying to show and tell them was that I was new and my songs were different, and I wasn't like anyone else."


At the time Gilbert was earning only 10 a week, so he certainly had incredible belief in himself.  But it must have been very disheartening.


"The record companies are always crying out for something original.  But once they get it, all they want is the same as before."


NEXT WEEK: HIS FIRST BREAK


Thanks JB