The Superstars: Gilbert

Source: The Story Of Pop

Writer: Chris Walter

Date: 1974

Gilbert O'Sullivan - the kooky Irish kid turned champion of easy listening pop - is the enigma that proves the rule. He's stylish but introverted, reclusive but eccentric...and loved by many different factions of the record-buying public from teenies to grannies.

Raymond O'Sullivan was born in Waterford, Ireland on December 1st 1946. Somehow he's so perfect, he could almost be a plastic mock-up of the real thing.  In these days of flash and raunch, lipstick and campery, 'G' stood out as a successful anachronism.  He's a genuine, good died-in-the-wool, poet/musicman.  He's never pretended to be a rock & roller, and his only concession to the frenetic culture is the introduction of the electric piano.

The point is, it just isn't fair to consider Gilbert in rock & roll terms.  The smooth, innocuous arrangements - done with the help of Johnnie Spence - leave those rambling rhymes in the clear, and Gilbert's personality positively gleams through.  Soon after "Nothing Rhymed", his first hit in 1970, an astonished music press, still labouring under clouds of misdirected intellectual fantasy, was forced to admit "real talent."  Praise indeed for the times, but the fact that Gilbert has turned his back on the rock business and opted for Gordon Mills nonetheless created a lot of suspicion.  Why should a singer/songwriter with such obvious appeal get drawn into the glamour of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck - the other Mills proteges?

So right from the start, the new star had to contend with praise tempered with rather meaningless criticism, like why did he wear those ridiculous clothes? Ridiculous?  Why of course not!  It was either very clever management, or very clever Gilbert.  And if we are to believe it, the latter was true.

Gilbert's ready answer to all that criticism about hype and how his music made it unnecessary, was that he loved wearing suits that were too sizes too small.  He liked his "pudding basin" hair and cloth cap.  He preferred wearing army boots.  As someone said at the time: "An interesting example of the introvert with an enormous instinct for the extrovert; hence the carefully cultivated image."

But wasn't it all much simpler than that?  Didn't the lad who started writing songs at art college in 1967 have the drop on us all?  While the world was revelling in the psychedelic excesses of the late '60's, here was a young man with short hair, unusual clothes, and straight, tuneful songs sung in a George Formby style.  It was bound to shock!

It's not surprising that such an individual comes from a large family including two sisters and three brothers.  He always considered himself to be the black sheep, and, coming to England in 1960 after his father died, he gradually veered towards the loner's life.  When his mother bought an upright piano so that one of his sisters could learn to play, the lessons naturally fell to him when she refused them.  "I hated them", he has since said.  "After a while I packed them in.  Mother moved the piano into the garden shed and that's where I started writing.  I was always the odd one out - the scruffy art student with painted jeans and long hair.  My mother hated it."

But hairy Raymond kept at it until he was finally prompted to send some tapes to record and publishing companies.  That was in 1967, while he was in his last year at college.  With monotonous regularity, the tapes would be returned, mostly unopened.

His next step was perhaps obvious by today's standards, though in 1967 it may have seemed the antithesis of what youth culture was all about: he moved to the big city to get closer to the action, and found a job at a large store.  It just so happened that one of his working mates had a recording contract with CBS.  So, Raymond handed over his tapes...and the company became interested.  At first they could only offer him a publishing contract, but he stuck out and they finally agreed to give him a chance.  It was the start he wanted; it was not the break he really needed.

The contract required one single a year, and - by his own admission - the first was terrible, mainly because of an incompatibility with his production team.  Both Mike Smith (producer) and Keith Mansfield (arranger) had just had chart hits with the Tremeloes and Love Affair.  Raymond's songs, "You" and "What Can I Do", however, were of a totally different nature.

Another song, "Disappear", was recorded but Raymond reckoned the finished product sounded worse than his original demo made in the shed at home.  As a result, he got the company to add a string quartet to the original tape...and that became the first single.

Although people really liked the record, basically it failed.  Mike Smith then said he must release "You", and when that crashed as well Raymond wanted out.  Major Minor was the company to take an interest.  He would be a big star they assured him, and duly released 'I Wish I Could Cry' and 'Mr. Moody Garden'.  The only significance of this disc being the adopted name of its singer.  Then it was just Gilbert - the O'Sullivan only being added at Gordon Mills' instigation.


Gilbert believed in that particular single, but watched dismally as the record company went about destroying the feel by adding flutes and suchlike.  Again he wanted out, and this time he's only lasted six months compared with 18 months with CBS.

Next came a period of quiet re-thinking, a time for deciding how to do things properly.  Obviously a manager was needed, and already one or two music biz people were sniffing around.  Gilbert, however, was taking care.  He informed inquires that a list of possible management candidates was being drawn up.  Robert Stigwood (Bee Gees) was one the names he put on the list, Paul McCartney he also considered.

The thing was that it had got to be someone big enough to promote the talent he knew he had.  Already the '30s image was formulating in this head, and he was acquiring a few items for his wardrobe.  Abruptly he decided to approach Gordon Mills a man he admired.  This was the second start, but still this career fizzed like a damp squib.  Mills told him to go away and write more songs, come back in a year, and in the meantime continue as a clerk.

Then, once he had signed, Mills justified that wait by producing his first hit almost immediately.  The single was 'Nothing Rhymed', the prototype of the sound that was to make Gilbert very famous very quickly.  It got to no. 7 in the charts.

People feel sorry for me but I like it.  Some artists say 'don't categorize me'. I'm saying 'you can't categorize me.'  Anyway, people like me are good for the business."

In that first rush of success he was quite outspoken, perhaps because - like a clown - he could hide behind the mask of his new-found image.  It wasn't until later, after his like 'No Matter How I Try', and 'Alone Again (Naturally)' (the one that broke him the States), that the great O'Sullivan charisma began to build.  Maybe it was a by-product of the star machine that had made Engelbert and Tom.  Anyhow, Gilbert was by now installed in a bungalow on the Mills' estate, and was to be seen by the odd journalist who could get to him as a pipe-smoking collector of artifacts.  His bits and pieces included anything to do with his heroes Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton , the Beatles and Bob Dylan , and the pile was forever mounting.

Meanwhile, his records, including a first album 'Himself' were doing great business.  By Spring 1972, Gilbert had decided to make subtle changes to his image.  The trouser length was dropped below the knees, and the big 'G' T-shirts were introduced.

That was that start of a continuing process which saw him gradually transform himself form the boyish figure of 1970 to the hairy-chested he-man image that harmonized well with his two stable mates.

At the same time, his records moved gradually away from the fairly slushy efforts on this first album, through the up-tempo treatments of 'Back to Front' (1972), to the comparative sophistication of 'I'm A Writer Not A Fighter'

Throughout, Gilbert O'Sullivan maintained his rhyming jumbles of words that sometimes sound like a story, and often like an incomprehensible hodge-podge of ideas.  The important point must be, however his ability to trigger knowing smiles from listeners who have found themselves in the situations he sings about.  He's a storyteller without any heavy messages.  "They are real slices of life", is a comment often aimed this lyrics.

Having conquered both the States and Britain - they called him 'the scream machine' - and also the world record market, Mr. O'Sullivan wasn't going to go far wrong.  His appeal was broad enough to take him onwards if the boppers finally tired of his romantic tunes and clean living image..."I'm too shy to mix with people."..The matriarchal matrons could always be relied on to sweep him to their ample bosoms.  Most of all, Gilbert O'Sullivan has style, and showbiz looks after it's own.