A Moan Again, Naturally

Source: The Sunday Times

Writer: Mick Heaney

Date: 24 June 2007

Some wrote him off, but Waterford-born Gilbert O’Sullivan has plenty to say, writes MICK HEANEY.

He cut an odd figure, a quiet, intense young man who haunted the foyers of London record companies in the late 1960s.  Sporting a pudding-basin haircut and a torn duffle coat – in stark contrast to the hirsute, denim-clad fashions of the era – Gilbert O'Sullivan would hang about the offices of CBS looking for a way out.  Day after day, the young Irish-born singer-songwriter, unhappy with the deal he had signed, would plead with executives to be released from his contract.  Finally, the company agreed.

A few months later, O'Sullivan was back sitting in reception areas, this time begging to leave his new label Major Minor, after it had “destroyed” one of his songs.  Again, the company eventually relented, allowing O'Sullivan to sign up with Gordon Mills, the manager and producer who would take the singer with the ‘silly street urchin’ image and help turn him into one of the biggest stars of the early 1970s.  O'Sullivan may have been shy and introverted in person, with a naïve approach to business, but when it came to music, it was a different story.

“I was very clear what I wanted,” he says.  “And that’s kind of unusual – I was clear-minded, I wasn’t worried about setbacks, I knew that I would make it.  Even if Gordon Mills had passed.  Actually, he hated how I looked – nobody liked that.  If you’d been a mate of mine you would have said, “They want to sign you, just drop it, put on a pair of jeans.”  But I said, “No, sod them, I’m going to stick with this, come hell or high water.” I think compromising in life is a dangerous thing.  I don’t regret anything.”

Nearly 40 years on, O'Sullivan life has changed beyond recognition, but his burning confidence in his ability is as incandescent as ever.  Though his brief stardom is a distant memory and his later legal tussles with Mills made him a wealthy man, as O'Sullivan releases his new album, A Scruff At Heart, he seems more eager than ever to prove his worth.

Certainly, his new album has an unexpectedly vibrant quality, from the urgency of tracks such as Take Your Foot Off My Toe and the single Just So You Know to the jaunty pop of I’m In Love With Love (Again).  O'Sullivan may stretch credibility by describing it as “my punk album, because it’s pushing the piano to the limits that you can”, but it is a reminder that his success was underpinned by an ear for catchy melodies.

For someone who has regularly turned out underperforming albums since the late 1980s, A Scruff At Heart has an infectiousness not normally associated with 60-year-old former pop stars.  “As a writer, I’m still 20 years of age,” he says.  “The mind is exactly the same, the energy, the enthusiasm.  The scepticism is outside of that.

His musical ebullience is matched by his vigorous presence: the shock of curly hair is slightly greyer, the face a bit more lined, yet the engaging and forthright O'Sullivan still cuts a youthful figure.  But equally, his sceptical streak is never far away.  Over the years, the one-time “quirky kid” has become altogether more jaded.  His wariness is not just due to his fraught experiences in the music business.  More obvious is his tetchy relationship with the media, for whom he has long been a byword for naffness.

“It seriously grates with me,” he says emphatically.  “Of course it gets to me, because I don’t understand why it’s necessary to do that.  The Irish Times review of my album was sent over for some reason and I suddenly saw ‘eternally unfashionable’.  Jesus Christ, why?  I have long hair now, I look normal, why am I eternally unfashionable?  Because of something that went on 35 years ago?  You tell me.  I try hard to write good songs – as a writer I feel I can compete with anyone.

He may be annoyed by such coverage, but it clearly has not dented his confidence: he breezily invokes Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as songwriting peers.  Such comparisons may seem preposterous coming from a man known for bouncy hits such as Get Down and Clair, but O'Sullivan’s tenacious self-belief is the reason he is still able to make music at all.

Born Raymond O'Sullivan in Waterford in 1946, O'Sullivan moved to Swindon with his “large Irish family” at a young age.  When he was 12, his father died, but even at that stage O'Sullivan knew where his future lay.  “Skiffle was an awakening.  I was 11 years old when I heard it, standing on this council estate at night, hearing these people down the street playing skiffle.  That was a momentous thing for me”.

It was the start of a journey that took O'Sullivan through art school and London’s music scene – where he first came up with his Bisto-kid alter ego Gilbert – before scoring his first hit, Nothing Rhymed, under the tutelage of Mills.  Despite having an unfavourable contract with the producer from the start, O'Sullivan knew the debt he owed to his mentor.

“I respect him for everything he did in those early days,” says O'Sullivan.  “I’ve nothing but respect for him.  I always did.  I encouraged the relationship with his family, I lived down the road, I babysat for them.  Gordon’s problem was that he was sidetracked.

While the hits continued, the relationship blossomed.  But by 1975, O'Sullivan's star had waned.  In an attempt to freshen his music, he suggested trying another producer: “Gordon didn’t like that, so that ended our relationship”.

He sued Mills and his record company MAM for withheld royalties: the case dragged on until 1983, when O'Sullivan emerged victorious, winning ownership of his music and £5m damages.  But the singer’s career was effectively over; after one last hit, What’s In A Kiss?, he was left in limbo.

“I was really not liked in the business,” he says.  “Record companies didn’t like me, I was anathema to management people, because here’s this wise guy who’s sued a manager and a record company – they didn’t like that at all.  So I had a hard job trying to overcome that.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, O'Sullivan has become ever more protective of his music.  Never more so than in 1992, when he won a landmark case in New York against rapper Biz Markie.  Refusing to let his suicide-themed hit Alone Again (Naturally) be used by a comic rapper.  O'Sullivan sued record company Cold Chillin’ when Markie’s album was released, resulting in it’s eventual withdrawal.  O'Sullivan has been an unlikely villain in some rap circles, but he remains unrepentant.

“I wasn’t looking for money.  All they had to do was ask – the answer was no.  But they went ahead and did it.  But that’s the black thing, that rap thing, you know what I mean, that they have against the system”.

O'Sullivan clearly has little fear of speaking his mind.  These days, while taking umbrage at being labelled a grumpy old man, he nonetheless sets out to ruffle feathers.  While his album contains some cringe-inducing quasi-political lyrics, it also includes images espousing “Justice for Palestinians, peace for Israelis” on his record sleeve.

“This is an issue that nobody talks about in the music business.  Free Mandela, everybody’s there.  Famine, we’re all there.  But you won’t see U2 talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and there are obvious reasons why they’re not going to do that”.

For all that O'Sullivan is also wary about being too politically strident: “If you do the Bono and Geldolf and get on the soapbox, then you’re in trouble.”  Instead most of his energies still seem directed to his music.  Married, with two grown-up daughters, he spends his weekdays working in his studio: “It might be difficult for people to understand how music can dominate your life and therefore your family must get pushed to the side, but they don’t.”

As he did when he was the shy kid in the funny clothes, O'Sullivan remains fixed on the future.  “I find it very difficult to reflect, because I’m moving forward,” he says. “I’m happy with everything that went on, but it has no relevance to what I want to do in the future.  So I think that’s part of the bullish attitude.  There were some really wonderful moments, but they’re not really relevant to being a contemporary songwriter in 2007.