Gilbert O'Sullivan Can Be 1971's Big Star Find
Source:New Musical Express
Writer: Alan Smith
Date: Jan 1971
Gilbert O'Sullivan, who is at No.7 with "Nothing Rhymed" this week, is no twit - let's get that straight from the start. Underneath the basin haircut and the flat cap, underneath the apparent naivety of his image, and underneath the grey flannel shirt and sad smile, there lies a shrewd and capable man who abilities as a songwriter may well surprise us all in 1971. O'Sullivan is no shrieking Tiny Tim. He creates.
I refuse to join the music business's currently fashionable lynch mob against O'Sullivan because I believe that many of his critics (a) hate short pants or (b) want to see no new talent emerging from the already powerful Gordon Mills stable.
This is patently unfair to O'Sullivan. If his critics have any intelligence at all, they will shout him down on the quality of his music, not the cut of his clothes.
Having said that, it should be said that O'Sullivan dresses to attract attention and readily admits so.
Is he misguided? I don't know - his theme is that for God-knows-how-may-years he wrote and sang, and very few people wanted to know. Then he came up with the Gilbert thing and suddenly it's all happening. Maybe he's right.
"Once you're established," I suggested, "I suppose you'll be dropping the present image."
"Oh no," ha said, surprised. He tapped the pipe that always seems to make him look like a schoolboy playing teacher. "I'll probably get worse. This Gilbert thing has got a long way to go."
He always talks about "Gilbert" as if it's another person.
"I'm glad Gilbert has got this public image," he went on. "It's what I wanted. I wanted to create something...and when I examined it, I realised that what I wanted to create was really myself.
"This Gilbert image is something I've had in my head for years. It started off as a Charlie Chaplin thing, and eventually came out into the Gilbert thing.
"The way I think is - it's so nice to be noticed. And it's nice to stick out like a sore thumb - y'know."
He often say "Y'know." And Annie-thing instead of anything." It's the real Irish in him, the Eire Irish. He says that that's the only real part of the country and that eventually it's his dream to go and settle back in Waterford, which he left 12 years ago.
Looking at him - he turned up for the interview in snazzy industrial boots, football socks, duffel coat and junior school tie - it was occasionally difficult to reconcile the way he looked with the fact that he so obviously knows what he's talking about.
He used to be a group drummer; knows his pop history right from the Dennisons and the Searchers in Liverpool to Elton John today; and will chat at length and interestingly about the music business's past and future.
"As far as my writing goes," he told me, "I've got no problem with material for the next single. There are at least five or six numbers, but it's all really a question of Gordon picking the right one. I've got all varieties...three of them are fast.
"In my bungalow in Weybridge, I spend all my time working, except for the days when I come to town for interviews. And I don't go out anywhere. I don't socialise at all. The only time I leave is to get milk and potatoes and bread.
"I spend my time playing the piano - I've got four - and I have a tape-recorder so i can put down whatever I play and then come back to it later. And I can work through the night because I've got no distractions.
"I'm still working on songs I wrote years ago. Sometimes I might get half a song, and maybe two years later I'll finish it. The thing is that a good song stays the same whether it was written now or ten years ago.
"It's funny how it started. I used to play in groups and things, as a drummer. This was in Swindon, and it wa the time of the beginning of Mersy beat and the Dennisons had a record called 'Be My Girl' or something.
"This tune of theirs knocked me out, and what I did was, I whipped the tune...I just took it and wrote me own words to it! But it was just the ideas I wanted to bring out and we never really did anything with it.
"The first song I wrote completely myself was a thing called 'Ready Miss Steady.' I still hope to be able to use it, because the thing is still good, y'know.
"What's it all about? Well now...'She travelled to the city through the streets on her own / she's lookin' for a feller who can sit on a throne / to make a fool and idolise whatever she can / is all this girl that walks the town can understand / Ready Miss Steady and everybody knows / She's Ready Miss Steady who really goes / for her man / and she can.' He reeled off the words with much enjoyment.
"When I was in a group before the Beatles came along, though, I used to sing things like 'Bachelor Boy' and that, and I used to like the Shadows. I used to like them but then the Beatles really got me interested in actually being involved in creating something myself. That was the good thing about the Beatles. They got people actually making their own music."
"I idolised the Beatles. The only thing I didn't do was become a fan club member, but I can remember when my mother used to have visitors and I'd run upstairs and get these scrapbooks out, and I'd come down and spread out all these hundreds of photographs all over the floor.
"I idolised Paul McCartney. I used to have my hair like him and I even tried to make my eyebrows go up like his...like this - Y'know? The Beatles meant that much to me - Y'know?
"First of all I formed my own group. I called them the Doodles and we just played in boy's clubs. But you know something....the Searchers were also my big idols. A great group! A beautiful sound. Everybody wanted to copy the Beatles, but I wanted us to sound like the Searchers. I used to get this guy we had to do all the John McNally stuff.
"Then I was in a group called the Prefects and apart from boy's clubs this time we also used to play in places like approved schools. That was different. And then I joined a group called Ricks Blues, and that was great because the pianist there taught me to play the piano and it was a very big influence."
A period of self-searching and change then followed. In the years between then and now he went to art school, played and composed on a piano in the garden shed because his mother wouldn't have him or it in the house, and worked at a variety of jobs.
"I started on the piano in the front room," he told me, "but as I began to write more and more, my mam said the piano had to go. But I kept on in the garden and I started sending tapes to people like Tony Hatch. The Tremeloes did some things and there was this big feature saying 'Trems Record Shed Song.'
"They didn't make it a single, but I kept trying to get somewhere and I even had a list of managers for myself. It included the likes of Robert Stigwood, Gordon and even Paul McCartney.
"I don't think I'm making a mistake playing up the Gilbert thing. the first time I ever did it I was unknown. I went on stage dressed in all the gear and I stuck out, and people roared laughing, and I went down so well I could have taken an encore and gone off without even doing a thing. But then I sat down at the piano and just sang this sad song. And they really, really appreciated it.
"I've said it before....comedy and tears are that far apart. And yet they're that close.
"I don't care what people say about me. People don't know anything about me. You can't categorise me in any way...because I'm not part of anything, or anybody else. I'm Gilbert O'Sullivan.
"I'll never drop this thing. I wear these flannel things because I enjoy wearing flannel thing. I wear these socks because I like it. I do all these things because I like it - not because some man came up to me and said: 'Be like this.'
"The thing is, when I walk out on a stage, it's Gilbert. But what happens after that is songs...and if I don't write good songs, then we can all forget the whole thing.
"The songs have to be good. And if they are good I believe I can make the biggest fool of myself in the world, providing I've got something solid behind me."