Working Class Hero

Source: Melody Maker

Writer: Michael Watts

Date:  09 October 1971

Whoever would have thought it?

Gordon Mills, manager of Tom and Engel, those popular, polished professionals, taking a shine to an odd young Irishman whose penchant is for schoolboy's trousers and Depression-era flat cloth caps, old pianos and tools, and general nostalgia for the British past.

After all, eccentricity may be acceptable among the freaks but it's hardly chic in the context of identical Rolls-Royces and television shows in which Raquel Welch guests, do you think?

Ah, but you'd be wrong you know.  The old showbiz cliché, the "eye for talent," is as durable as ever.  It mocks all the sharp comments of the cynics and the scoffers.  Those blessed with the eye can see the end product in what at most is just a formless embryo to the rest of us. Brian Epstein could visualise that showbiz is a factor, just as Tom Parker did and Mills does.  And so it goes on; which is how Raymond Edward O'Sullivan changed his name and came to love success; also, how there's more to Gilbert than meets the eye, even.

Gilbert is totally unlike Jones and Humperdinck, however.  He's got talent, for a start, which reaches beyond their superficialities of glam and glossy presentation.  He’s a single-writer and musician in the emergent idiom of the early seventies and able therefore to operate outside the claustrophobic "star" syndrome which sooner or later makes whipping boys of them all, devoted as they are to the whims of a changeful public.

He is simultaneously, an anomaly even within that context of the "modern" performer.  His songs, although striking to a rock i.e. young audience, work essentially within a popular frame of reference.  Their appeal is not exclusive to a lower age group as is the case with James Taylor, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell etc - even The Four Beatles now they pursue solo careers (with the possible exception of Ringo, whose, various activities qualify him primarily as a celebrity).

Their appreciation extends to exactly those people and age groups who dig Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, partly because his melodies and their treatment are more assimilable than those of rock artists and partly by virtue of act the much of the older pop public see him with his short pants and (particularly) cropped hair, as a cute sympathetic figure, a welcome anachronism in times when beards and deliberately casual clothes are so much in vogue. Conversely, this image, of course, has an opposite effect on young music fans, who may be turned off because it’s not hip.

That’s unfortunate because Gilbert O'Sullivan seems to me to be the only genuinely interesting and original "new" single talent to have appeared in Britain in the seventies.  When I first heard him, around 11 months ago and the release of "Nothing Rhymed" my reaction was, "my God, we've got ourselves a British Randy Newman!"

It was an initial impression based on what I took to be a satirical view of life, and also a total feeling of Englishness about his songs and him; there was a favourable comparison with the manner that Randy's stuff mixes ridicule and sarcasm with humour and pathos and with quintessentially American insights.

I was right, I think, about the sense of national identity, but wrong on the first count.  What they have in common is nothing more than idiosyncratic outlooks.  Gilbert's songs do contain irony, but he is much less a satirist, which Randy truly is, than a tragi-comic figure; and whereas Newman plays a different role in each song, Gilbert is always himself, his style deadpan and flat, like that of his beloved Buster Keaton; his comic sensibility rooted more in perversity and quirkiness than authentic amusement.

To an extent, his humour derives from being unfashionable.  His repertoire of words, unlike that of every other current pop writer in this country is completely un-American.  It's anti-slick.  Thus his songs contain homely references to "Bonaparte Shandy" ("Nothing Rhymed") and "apple pie" (in both "Nothing Rhymed" and "If I Don't Get You,") from his album "Himself."  They are about unmarried pregnant sisters ("Permissive Twit"), getting wed at the registrar's ("Matrimony") and - most British of subjects the weather ("Thunder and Lightning").

His themes are generally unromantic and undramatic; his main subject is the ordinary British working class, with whom he shares an inbuilt mistrust of American sophistication and hip attitudes.  Look at his lines in "Houdini Said": "some take the attitude that life is a drag," he sings. "They say, and I quote, man, it just ain't our bag'/But if that's where it's at why the hell don't they go."  That's a social stance echoed by the workers, both young and old, throughout Britain.  It reflects the working class bewilderment at what they assume to be the negativity of the middle-class young.

This makes him seem almost reactionary even extreme.  He wonders in "Houdini" why so many young people take part in riots "whereby all men in blue are the targets to destroy."  "Permissive Twit" is not, in fact, a tract against permissiveness but it is anti-abortion, he says.  While "Matrimony" - a sort of updates version of "Get Me To The Church On Time" presents as cosy a case for married bliss as any handed down by a local vicar; it's certainly a strange subject for a young writer of today to be thinking about. But then, as if to set the seal on his out modishness, he happens to be a practicing Catholic, and "a reasonably good one" at that.

His lyrics, however, are less preachy than conversational.  Listening to him is like hearing one end of a continual telephone conversation in which the gossip and the confidences leak out gradually until the main thread of the dialogue establishes itself ("oh Heaven help our Linda/she's really done it now . . . unless we raise the money she'll have to let it out."

On the printed page the lines run and merge into one another; at a glance they look like a tape transcription.  He has a brilliant ear for recording speech, and if his lyrics don't exactly flow it's because they are true to the invariable inelegance of language.  He loves to play upon the clichés that crop up in conversation and in the popular media.  For instance, "January Git" has the lines: "Feeling tired, one degree under, oh/what you need is picking up so off you go/(get picked up you know)."  What he lacks in colourful imagery is compensated by a full appreciation of how people react to one another in speech.

This is explicable when one learns that Gilbert "never reads books," that his lyrics and themes are all shaped by the less conscious influence of newspapers and magazines, whose tone, of course, is generally conversational.  What he is trying to convey is a realism of language which he finds is frequently missing after "artistic expression" has been at work.

It's for this reason - because he finds their honesty spurious - that he no longer writes love songs - the main stylistic vehicle of pop music.  "I did do.  I'd break up with a girl and then write a love song about it.  But my lyrics were pretty banal, pretty dire; as were the Beatles' in the beginning.  Maybe I don't write them anymore, ‘cause I'm not in love."

The extent of the autobiographical element "in his songs is difficult to judge.  To me they seem sad things; there’s often a superficial jauntiness about the melodies, but they give off too strong a whiff of loneliness and pathos to be convincingly humorous.  They speak also of self-absorption - “there too much attention/paid to people who just like me/who’ll confess their aim in life is down" ("Too Much Attention") - and this is a characteristic that carries over into real life.  He lives alone in a cottage in Weybridge, sleeping it is said by day, and working at night.  He has few known friends; and in person, despite his quiet pipe puffing, he bears the single-mindedness and intensity of someone totally wrapped up in himself.

This belief in himself is fantastic.  He always knew, he says he would make it eventually.  But in the beginning that was apparent to few people.  It was 1967 he was in his last year Swindon Art School and writing songs.  He decided to make tapes of them and send them off to respected people in the business.  Three months later the package would be returned unopened.

He thought his prospects of making it would increase if he came to London so he ended up in a job at C and A. There he met someone who had a recording contract with CBS and he got this guy to take a tape of his songs to the company.  CBS were interested; they offered him a publishing contract but refused to draw one up for recording.  Gilbert or Raymond as he was then, told them it was both or nothing.  They decided to give him a chance.

The terms were that he should release a single a year but the first cut was "terrible."  This was "You" backed with "What Can I Do" which Mike Smith, who had just had a number one with The Tremeloes, produced and Keith Mansfield fresh from the Love Affair’s successes, arranged. "It was bad," he says now, shaking his head in recollection.

I had the songs and the arrangements, but because I was a new boy they wouldn't listen to what I said.  We'd go in the studio and they'd never accept me.  I thought I'd make people take notice.  Then we recorded a song called "Disappear" but it didn't even sound as good as my demo, done in a shed, so I got 'em to release the original tape recording with a baroque quartet. I thought there was so much there for CBS to go on, but they did nothing.  A few people flipped out like Bernie Andrews, who gave me two Top Gears, but it could've done better.  Anyhow, because it failed Mike Smith said you'll do what we say, and they released 'You.'  I'd taken the day off from work in an office to record that."

That bombed too, so he persuaded CBS to release him, and the next people to take an interest were Major Minor.  So there he was, sitting in the office of Phil Solomon, the managing director, feeling uneasy at being informed how big he was going to make it.  He signed, at any rate.

It was a mistake. His producer was Tommy Scott, who was doing Malcolm Roberts, and he didn't want to give O'Sullivan much autonomy, either, so he was back to square one.  Major Minor did; however, release a single with "I Wish I Could Cry" as the A-side and "Mr. Moody's Garden" as the flip, the artist going out under the name of Gilbert (O’Sullivan's idea) the decision to use Gilbert O’Sullivan in full belonged to Gordon Mills.  Gilbert thought it was commercial (as did EMI, who re-released it on Columbia earlier this year after "Nothing Rhymed" hit:

"I had the idea of this voice coming back to me on the record, but after they stuck 'on this terrible girl vocal, I practically cried when I heard it.  The record did nothing for me, it was so disappointing and as they’d said if it doesn’t make it you can do as you wish. I recorded "Don't You Ever Change Your Mind."  It was fantastic.  It turned out really well.  And they said we’ll definitely release this,' and they were overjoyed.  Then they said before release, "I think well put on flutes and things.  They spoiled it and it didn't do anything.

He was so fed up that he gave Major Minor a sob story and said he couldn't write any more so they released him from his contract.  He'd been with them six months and previously, with CBS, about 18.

There followed a period however, in which several music business figures - among them the record producer and former Luxembourg dee-jay Tony Hall - showed interest in managing him. He told them all, though that he was making a list of managers from which he would choose the man he wanted.

On his list was Gordon Mills and Robert Stigwood former manager of Cream and The Bee Gees.  He was even going to write to Paul McCartney, then producing Mary Hopkin.  He felt he had something to offer even besides the songs: the clothes and the thirties image, which he was already acquiring on his initiative. But he knew he needed a big organisation to get the image off the ground.

Eventually, he wrote to Mills whom he admired and who he thought might be interested because he was such a different proposition to Jones and Humperdinck. He sent him some tapes one Friday with a letter saying.  On the Sunday Mills phoned him and told him to see him the next day.

Mills was indeed interested in his songs, but they both decided to play it cool and not rush into anything.  Gilbert went back to work as a clerk and carried on writing in his part time.  Mills had told him to wait until he was sure he could do something for him.  It was not a year after the first phone he agreed to sign him.

The relationship with Mills is still astonishingly familiar.  He is the producer, and the only person who can influence Gilbert to change a lyric.

They co-operate even to the extent that Gilbert will always write three middle eights and three times as many verses as are eventually needed in a song. Mills then picks out the middle eight and the verses, which he thinks, will set through to the public.

Gilbert says it's "an awful lot of fun" to have alternatives to play around with but to an outsider this ruthless accent on commerciality is a little unsettling.  The first album "Himself" suffers from glossy saccharine backgrounds that fit in with the general schmaltzy scenery on Humperdinck records but which here take the edge off some of the songs.  They sound like a compromise between the "popular music" of Jones and Humperdinck and pop/rock: pseudo-rock. Yuk!

The album would have sounded better with just the piano and voice in most cases; at the least, with the backups cut down, dramatically. Gilbert says that was his original intention but Mills persuaded him. It was better his way, for the moment, and he's now come round to that way of thinking: "Gordon says work up to it gradually so probably by the time of my third album it will be done like that.  If I'd done it with piano and voice it wouldn’t have been successful. It’s a question of what fits the songs and I think the backings are appropriate."

If Mills appears to be delimiting Gilbert's appeal to take in the nine to nineties, Gilbert is not loath to go along.  He is an interesting example of the introvert with an enormous instinct for the extrovert; hence the carefully cultivated image.  He feels and probably rightly that although his music has relevance for the public which buys James Taylor, Carole King et al, without the image it -would not get across to the higher age bracket.  You've got to put yourself over in the right way, he stresses: "My mother, you see, probably doesn't like Neil Young because she hates the way he looks, his hair and everything.  If you can get them interested in the way you look then they tend to like the music.

"But, look, I could be the same as these people - wear jeans and have the long hair - 'cause I'm equally as good musically; and that's not being bigoted.  If I had long hair I'd be cool but if I looked like that, I'd be categorised, and long hair doesn't suit the character of Gilbert O'Sullivan.  The thing which I'm trying to create is of the thirties; Keaton and Chaplin."

That is certainly borne out by the album cover, which has as its front piece a watercolour of Gilbert painted against a background of (Dublin?) trams, cobblestones and figures dressed in garments fifty years too late; or even the inside picture, which has at the wheel of an Hispano Suiza and Chaplin, Clara Bow, flappers and a selection of old-style hockey playing Chicks sitting in the back.  It’s a good gimmick, but the idea of an image in fact was picked up nearer home: from the Beatles actually, and McCartney to be precise.

"I was a Beatles fanatic. When I started off their lyrics had a lot of influence on me.  About the only thing I didn’t do was be a member of their fan club.  I even cut my eyebrows to look like Paul.  They put in me the idea of an image because of the fact that they looked so different. I tried to look like Paul McCartney down to the last.

"McCartney's melodies are great, some of the best in the past ten years - if not the greatest.  I listened to some of his lyrics early on, but not now.  He's not so interesting.  Maybe the reason is that he’s married and music is not the most important thing in the world to him any more.  But if I got married, my wife would be the main thing to me.  The strife cannot be there any more."

To my ear, the parallels with McCartney extend even further.  Although Gilbert is originally from southern Ireland, his singing voice holds to that McCartneyish mixture of Northern toughness in accent and deftness and elasticity in touch, but without the cloying sentimentality to which the ex-Beatle has occasionally been prone.  His little whoops in "January Git" - the kind of light up-tempo number which Paul might have done himself - are pure McCartney.  This "Northerness" however, is -even more apparent on his early singles.  On "Mr. Moody's Garden" for example, it's an almost exaggerated characteristic and when Gilbert, says that at the start of his writing career he was influenced by George Formby's lyrics and used to sing them, in fact, one can't help but think that he also assumed Formby's intonation.

The church has been another melodic well-spring.  A lot of his songs are hymnal, he believes; not in sentiment but structure.  However, it is the pre-rock and roll composers Rodgers and Hart and, particularly, Cole Porter - whom he looks upon as models.  If modern writers, he says, only listened more to Cole Porter they would realise just how far they have to go.  Porter, he says was summing up what was happening in American society.

"It was believable. In "Anything Goes" you can see the relevance of the song for the time.  If in a few year’s time people listen to "Permissive Twit" it’d be nice if they got an understanding of what is going on at this time."

"Permissive Twit" is the best song Gilbert has written so far, I think.  It's a gently wry tale of "our Linda" who's been put in the club by the twit of the title ("She thinks his name was Ronald or was it Sid or Len").  Her family, trying to uphold working class respectability, is mortified about all the neighbors knowing, but seems to be resigned to nature regularity taking her toll of such working girls.

With its ponderous tempo, its lugubrious melody, and woeful prosaic lyrics, the song evokes completely that sort of grey "Coronation Street" existence in which a family’s misfortune is the common gossip property of the whole backstreet community.

The tone is right even down to the tinkly piano, which sounds as if it’s been slowly gathering dust in the musty precincts of the back-parlour.

It’s pathos, but it's funny too because it's so absolutely natural.  "Life goes on." It seems to be saying "and there's no use crying over spilt milk; but sod the bloke who's gone and done it to her!"

Anyhow, Gilbert says he hopes it comes across as something like that: something for people to both cry and laugh at. Together with the image he can’t go wrong, can he?