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Gilbert O'Sullivan

Source: New Musical Express

Writer: Tony Norman

Date:  6 May 1972


THE MUSIC MAN sits there sipping tea and talking music.  Although he has always been a bit of a loner, he is certainly not an introvert.  A little shy perhaps, and wary but also frank and sometimes amusing.  You feel he might be more comfortable getting his points across to you if he were seated behind a piano.  After all, that's all Gilbert O'Sullivan does in his songs, you know.  Talks to you.

But there is no piano and it is Wednesday afternoon in London, interview time.  So he gets on with it and talks about his next album.  "I've got all the songs.  They're not finished, but they are there.  Gordon (Mills his manager) has heard all the melodies.  I just have to write the lyrics.  We have actually started recording and it's going great.  Like the first album, it will just be a collection of songs."


From what I've read and heard I tend to think of him as something of a perfectionist when it comes to recording.  Is that really the case?  "I'm never really satisfied at the time, but Gordon (who also produces) is the one who says, that's it...finished.  If it was left to me to record my songs, I'd probably take months, Gordon takes weeks."


"Being the writer I will keep picking on little things - even if it's just a tambourine missing.  But when we give the songs another listen after a couple of weeks, it's all there.  Gordon is always right.  He knows when to stop.  It's amazing."


For some peculiar reason, O'Sullivan's open admiration for his manager strikes me as vaguely unhealthy.  I happen to believe O'Sullivan is a gifted musician.  How can he bow to the opinion of a man who, in my mind, is essentially part of the Jones / Engelbert fantasy world?


I'm pretty sure middle aged mothers will never throw frilly panties at Gilbert.  He has nothing to do with any of that scene.  Hoping to ease my own confusion, I ask him about the link with Mills.  "It's almost like a father and son relationship, because I'm pretty much told what to do.  Whereas for all the years I was struggling, I was very dogmatic.  Determined not to do things unless I thought they were right.  Nothing could sway me.


"With Gordon I still flare up occasionally, but he put me in my place.  I need that really.  It's like a 50-50 thing.  I write the songs and Gordon produces them.  But I contribute as much as him, even when we are producing.  We both get what we want.  It's a good relationship.  It's much better than , say, doing it all myself. Then it would become such a personal thing that I'd lose touch with the fact that the record is for release to the public.


"Gordon is a brilliant producer and he is very aware of what the public likes.  Taste, diction, things like that.  When we started recording, one of my problems was diction.  It's like handwriting.  I can understand my own. But nobody else can.  With recording, it never occurred to me that my diction was so bad people couldn't understand the words.  Gordon made me go over things hundreds of times until I got it right.  That was important.  What's the point in writing what you think is a good lyric, if the people can't hear it?"


When hearing the words of praise rolling from O'Sullivan's lips, it is worth remembering that Mills was the first man to show real interest in his music.  In Gilbert's eyes he is doing a good job.  The enthusiasm underlines the sincerity.


Mills is not a popular man in the music business, but he has the confidence of his clients.  O'Sullivan takes advice and sometimes orders, for that reason.  It's certainly not blind subservience.


Gilbert may look skinny and weak, like a starving village idiot, but he's certainly no fool..  He's only happy with the present set-up because it's a good one.


I stop probing and get back on the straight track.  We talk about his distinctive lyrical style.  He crowds an amazing number of words into his songs.  Ask him why and he is somewhat self-effacing.


"It's because I'm not a singer," he says.  "A person with a good voice likes to hold certain notes, certain words.  I can't do that, so I stick in another word.  But my style is more conversational.


"Many of the words may not be necessary, but then that's the way it is in normal conversation.  I just use everyday language in the songs.


"I know I'm not a good singer, but I don't think I want to be.  I'm happy the way I am."


He says he listens to just about every album that is released.  he likes to keep aware of what's going on.  Carole King, Neil Young, Sly and Carly Simon.  "I like them all, but they don't have any real bearing on what I'm doing."


Listening, recording, writing or performing, O'Sullivan is never far from music.  Even as we walked along the hotel corridor before this interview, he was humming a merry melody.  he agrees his life revolves around music, adding: "It's the only thing that I get any pleasure out of."


Had this always been the case?  When he was a kid, were the charts important to him?


"Oh yes," he replies, "very much so.


"I was brought up on the Beatles, I did everything bar joining their fanclub.  I kept all their pin-ups, tried to look like Paul McCartney, the lot.  So I know what it's like to study the Hit Parade."


He knew what it was like to be a real, 100 per cent fan.  But could kids still find that same sort of glamour?


"No, not so much now.  I think football has stolen it.  Pop music will always be there and girls will always have their idols.  Marc Bolan isn't too bad, is he?  But for kids like my brother, the big thing is football.


"Probably the only thing he isn't doing is joining Bobby Moore's fanclub.  It's that sort of thing.  They like music and listen to the radio, but they really live for football.  We were obsessed with the Beatles.  That's the difference.  I worked on Saturdays and if the Beatles were on 'Thank Your Lucky Stars', I'd get off half an hour early just so I could get home and see them mime to 'She Loves You'.


"The music hasn't got any better since those days, but the music business is much more interesting today than it has ever been.  Five years ago, when it was Beatlemania and all the rest of it, you'd never be able to make an album with all your own songs.


"In those days, if it didn't have that hook chorus and it wasn't going to be a Top Ten smash, forget it.  Now people get the opportunity to do their own albums and that's a very good thing."


As a songwriter he has his own way of doing things.  But I'm interested to find out what he thinks the composer's role is.  Would he, for example, defend McCartney's right to put out the "Ireland" single when it could be argued that that it was an irresponsible move in the present tense climate?  Does the songwriter have the right to do that sort of thing?


"Sure if he wants to.  But I bought that single and it was very bad.  I thought that it was awful.  But he should be able to state his feelings, there should be no restrictions at all.  But I can understand the BBC and Luxembourg not playing it because he was taking a stand and it's a very dicey situation.  I often get tempted to do that sort of thing, but I wouldn't do it.


"There is a subtle way of doing it.  Paul wasn't subtle.  he stated: Give It Back To Them.  Whereas if I was to do something like that, I might say, wouldn't it be nice if they had it to themselves.  I wouldn't come out one way or the other.  I'd try and keep it confused.


George Harrison's "Bangla Desh" single didn't exactly knock him out either.  "Although everyone says it was a very sincere record, you couldn't hear what the hell he was singing.  It was just twanging guitars.  If he really wanted to be sincere about it, he should have just talked the record.  But it was just 'Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh.'  You could hardly hear what he was saying.  It's a bit hypocritical really."


He says his main aim is to entertain.  I just write songs I hope other people will like.  Tell stories and things, that's all.  I never really think about what I'm going to do.  I just write songs."


"The only time I do think is when I feel like having a dig at something.  I stop myself from doing it because for me, it's not right to preach.  When Dylan did it in the early years, it was good because he was the first to do it as far as we were concerned.  But I wouldn't do it now.


I'd never release a song where I was preaching or making a stand on something.  I mean I'm Irish.  I'm as concerned about Ireland as anybody, but I couldn't do a single or a song about it.  I just give opinions, remarks in the middle of songs."


So, on occasions, he quietly slips in his views.  But his greatest quality, in my opinion, is his ability to get right inside a very real and basic situation involving very real characters and capture the whole mood of the moment in his jumping selection of words.  he has great descriptive powers.  Obviously, these are drawn from what he sees around him.


"It's purely an observation thing," he explains.  "My feet are firmly on the ground.  It's an uneducated look at things.  It's just a bit of reality.  My songs have to be like that, they can't be moon in June."


"For me, if you are going to have to say it the way you would.  The chances are you wouldn't say 'I love you'.  "It's probably me, 'I think you're alright', or something like that.  And that's the way I think, so if I was doing that song, those are the words I would use.


"Most of the situations with the songs are realistic, down-to-earth.  They usually come from newspapers.  A lot of writers depend on books for their inspiration, it comes from fantasy.  There's nothing wrong with that if you want to observe from the past or take books that were written hundreds of years ago and use them.  But with me, it's newspapers.  They are current.  they move on every day."


Are the songs every taken from personal experiences?  "I don't think so. 'Alone Again' wasn't.  A lot of letters I've had have said, it must be awful, your mother dying like that."


"My father's dead, but that song's go nothing to do with me.  It's just that I think I understand that situation.  I get the feeling that if someone was jilted at the church, even though he had never contemplated suicide before, it might be such a shattering experience that he would.  Maybe I would.


"Then , in that sort of deep depression, you would probably think of all the bad things that had happened during your life.  They'd all come to you.  But it's not about me.


"I don't think I've written any songs about myself.  Oh yes, I have.  Years ago.  Girlfriends and that when I was in Swindon.  "Every time we had a bloody row.  I'd write a song about it!


"I don't know how many people realise "I Wish I Could Cry" was about Bobby Kennedy.  If you listen to the lyrics again with that knowledge, the words will mean a lot more.


"I did it in a subtle way" said Gilbert referring to his earlier point.  "I don't mention his name once.  I didn't say, 'Bobby Kennedy's dead.  It's awful.  What are we gonna do?  Why did they kill him?'


"I just wrote the song: 'Day to day, someone we really love seems to feel the pain we're always thinking of.  And, you know, if only we were the men we're supposed to be, it wouldn't happen again.'


"Now I mean, if you didn't know that was about Bobby Kennedy, you'd never guess.  You'd just think it was quite a sad song.


"It makes me cringe when people write songs about a person and use his name.  I much prefer songs like Bobby Hebb's 'Sunny'.  That was about President Kennedy done in a subtle way.  It's really nice.


"If he'd been a very conscious writer, thinking of public taste, the chances are he would have written, President Kennedy's dead and all the rest of it, to the same tune.  But because he didn't care about anything but his feelings, that's what happened.


"He wrote 'Sunny' and it was successful all over the world.  It was the same feeling with me.  I wasn't thinking about writing a commerical song.  It was just a song about a particular man."


Gilbert says that he can't turn out songs in a steady, even flow.  "I'm not a flaming computer," he grunts.  But the songs do keep on coming.  He works this way: "I usually sit down at the piano with no specific ideas in mind.  I just play.  Do a few Fats Dominoes and just have a good time.  The melodies just come out while I'm playing around.  I don't force it or anything.  I just enjoy it.


"It's usually late at night.  Something will come and I will stick it on a tape and leave it a few weeks.  The songs I'm finishing lyrically now, I wrote maybe a year ago.  Possibly one of the best songs I've ever written, we haven't even recorded yet."


Of the material we have heard so far, Gilbert names "No Matter How I Try", "Too Much Attention" and "Permissive Twit" among his personal favourites.  But he adds with a smile he likes most of them.


"There's nothing that we record now that I don't like.  That's the way it should be."


Yes, the recording side is totally under control.  The charts make the point.  But when he is he going to get on the road?  I know it's a question that's always asked, but don't forget, we are still waiting for an answer.


"Well, when Elvis comes to Britain," says Gilbert with a wry smile.  "I'm playing support on that.  That'll be my first live appearance."


It's a good joke, a witty remark.  But it is not an answer.  I pursue the point and says he does feel he does feel he needs a feedback from an audience.  But there is no rush, although it is important?  But surely the fact that his career is going well isn't enough.


If he really does love his music as much as he appears to, surely he must want to get out and play for the people.  It's not really enough to reach them via the telly screen in the corner, is it? "I do want to do live appearances because I love working in front of an audience more than anything.  I feel that's when the real fun will begin.  But what Gordon is worried about is that I need an awful lot of time to write.  I can't just write after gigs.  But there are plans at the moment to get a backing group together and we'll start.  Definitely."


Does he ever get letters from people saying that they wish they could see him play live?


"Masses," cuts in his publicist.

"Sure," agrees O'Sullivan.  "Every letter I get says that.  But you see, I probably do more television than...."


Yes but it's still not the same as going out there and doing it.  I insist.


"I agree," he says.  "I very much want to get out and play in bloody Grimsby or somewhere, more so than London.  But I know we'll do it.  Gordon is adamant about it.  We're not resting on our laurels or anything."


"The biggest hang-up is musicians.  What I would like is four 16 or 17 year old kids who have never been professional, but would like the opportunity.  In other words, guys who haven't necessarily had the experience, but who have the knowledge.


"I've got nothing against hard professional guys who have been around a long time, but it would be nice if I could grab hold of four young kids who need a break.  I'd rather have enthusiasm than experience."


He says, yes they are auditioning already.  They have seen some nice people.  "The ball is rolling," he assures me.


"The only thing that worries me is getting the right people.  I've always been independent.  I've always been on my own.  I've never hung around with musicians.  I've never had a league of session men behind me - so called friends.  So it's difficult.


"If Klaus Voorman and all those other guys who play on each other's records were my friends, it would be great.  But I don't know those people.  So therefore it's very hard.  But we will get the right guys.  It could be next week or next month."


Sadly, I get the impression we are a long, long way away from seeing O'Sullivan doing concerts.  That is the feeling our conversation leaves me with.  I think this is a great pity.


But to get back to the music we do get to hear, you will have noticed that i only asked O'Sullivan about his lyrics.  Why?  Because the melodies need no explanation.  They are among the strongest you can hear today.  That is why I refer to him as the melody man.


So it's surprising to hear him say it's pretty sure one day he will run out of good songs.  he is practically certain that in latter life he will have to turn to something other than music to earn his keep.  As long as you realise that, he says, there's no need to worry.


Right now he is enjoying his success.