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An Elevated View

Source: The Sunday Times Culture Supplement

Writer: Michael Ross

Date: 18 April 2010



Gilbert O'Sullivan sees himself as the equal of any songwriter but feels he doesn't get the credit he deserves, he tells Michael Ross


Perhaps as a gesture of fellowship to another writer of melancholic songs, perhaps as a nod to someone whose upbringing included Irish influences as well as English ones, when Morrissey played two nights in Dublin eight years ago, he performed the song that brought Gilbert O'Sullivan to prominence in 1970, Nothing Rhymed. For O'Sullivan, who regards himself as a songwriter equal to figures such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and consequently feels perennially overlooked, Morrissey's gesture was a rare and welcome acknowledgement of his place in the musical firmament.

A few years later, browsing in a London bookshop, O'Sullivan checked the indexes of the three available Morrissey biographies to see if they mentioned him. There was no reason why they should: Morrissey's two performances of Nothing Rhymed at the Ambassador were the first and last times he included the song in his set. Moreover, when O'Sullivan had his string of hits in the early 1970s, Morrissey was busy gorging on the New York Dolls, and never subsequently cited the Waterford-born singer-songwriter as an influence. Nevertheless, O'Sullivan was irked to find no mention of him in the biographies. "So," he says, recalling the episode in suite in the Four Seasons in Ballsbridge, "I don't think it was that important to him."

To spend an hour speaking to O'Sullivan about his life and career is to enter a hermetic space built brick by brick from the frustrations and irritations of decades of feeling neglected and thwarted. After three years of hits, beginning in 1970, he passed out of fashion and into a long legal conflict with his former manager, Gordon Mills, that ended with a crushing victory for O'Sullivan, but at a cost to his career that he continues to calculate.

The subject of a documentary by Adrian McCarthy in RTE's Arts Lives series, to be broadcast on Tuesday, he has not had a manager for more than 30 years, and suspects that he is a pariah within the music business because of his case against Mills. Potential managers appear over the parapets from time to time but the discussions never come to anything.

"People are kind of wary of me," he says. "Maybe because I've been around the block a few times. Maybe I'm not young and new. Maybe they see me as having baggage."

Although he maintains a tireless songwriting regime, a minor hit in 1980 has been the only punctuation mark in his efforts to reclaim his place in the charts. Secure in his conviction that his writing is at least as good as it was 40 years ago, he works eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year in his home studio in Jersey, indifferent as ever to evolving music trends.

"My mindset is exactly the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "It is an isolation booth that you get into."

Now 63, he has spent his adult life chasing something that is seldom less than tortuously fickle, and has done so on his own, unyieldingly inflexible terms. Having stubbornly stuck to his gauche, Bisto-kid image at the start of his career, he now laments that it provides easy ammunition for the dismissively inclined. He complains that the music press either ignores him or derides him, while at the same time denigrating what he calls "that credibility shit". He notes with irritation that none of his albums is available in HMV in Dublin, but adds that he is not that concerned that his work is unavailable. He fell out with the respected American label Rhino Records a few years ago; he declined to renew a compilation album deal with EMI here and in Britain, even though it gave him his best sales in decades; and he has not made his work available on iTunes or elsewhere online.

"I'm very protective of the work," he says. "The product is there but it has to be the right situation."

Raymond Edward O'Sullivan grew up on a council estate on the Cork Road in Waterford.  His father was a butcher with Clover Meats, and his mother owned a shop, but in the early 1950s his parents moved the family to England after John O'Sullivan was offered a job in an abattoir in the Wiltshire town of Swindon. O'Sullivan lived with his mother and three siblings in a bedsit in Battersea for a year before the family got a council house in Swindon, where two younger brothers were subsequently born.

"I was an odd little sod when I was young," he says. "I lived in my own little world. I was extremely shy; I still am. I had a tremendous imagination and I'd go off into my own little world. I think that was important for me as a lyricist."

One of his few memories of his father, who died of cancer when O'Sullivan was 13, is of seeing him through a hospital window as he lay in a ward for the terminally ill. "I never really knew him," he says. "It's a shame. I always regret not having my father around to share the success that I had."

He describes his mother, who is now 89, as a disciplinarian matriarch who was particularly tough on him as a boy because of his rebellious streak. "I didn't like it," he says. "I resented it greatly but, in retrospect, I understand it, and I have no regrets about that."

Academically weak, he failed the 11+ exams, consigning him to a secondary-modern rather than a grammar school, something which he says affected him psychologically.  "By getting into a grammar school you were a step up from other people," he says. "There was a stigma attached to failing your 11+ and going into a secondary modern.  At 11 years of age, you felt a failure."

He showed promise in music and art, joining the school choir and winning the prize of a book about Cézanne in his final year, tearing out the nudes before he took it home in case his mother saw them. Encouraged by his art teacher, he got into Swindon art school. "That opened up a whole new world to me," he says.

Writing songs on a piano in the garden shed at home, as well as drumming semiprofessionally, he drew musically on influences such as the Beatles and Buddy Holly but found that he had an innate ability to write song lyrics. "The only lyricist I've really been influenced by was Spike Milligan. His poetry is crazy, nonsensical stuff, and I love that."

After a deal with CBS ran into the sand, O'Sullivan sent a demo and a picture of himself to Mills, a garrulous individual who kept a private zoo and both managed and produced Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. Mills disliked O'Sullivan's image but saw potential in the songs, so signed the then 23-year-old, quickly becoming a father figure to him. So close was O'Sullivan to Mills and his family that he went on holidays with them, lived in a house near his manager's Surrey mansion, and babysat Clair Mills, the subject of his 1972 song Clair, the first of his two No 1 singles in Britain.

By the end of 1973, O'Sullivan's chart appeal was on the wane; in 1975 he told Mills he wanted to work with a different producer, the then hot Tom Dowd. Wounded, Mills severed their association, but failed to sign over a previously agreed share of O'Sullivan's publishing rights, prompting the singer to sue. In 1982, the precedentsetting case was decided in O'Sullivan's favour, the judge awarding the singer £5m in unpaid royalties and £2m in costs. Mills appealed, settling the case for £1.7m in 1985, a year before he died from cancer, aged 51.

"The judge gave me the shirt off Gordon's back," says O'Sullivan. "I got far more than I was looking for. I tried to end it amicably but it didn't work out. It was soul-wrenching. It was a terrible time, not just because of the break-up with him, but because of the effect on his family." Having moved to Bunclody in Wexford for a year during the case, to protect himself in the event of losing in court, O'Sullivan returned with his wife, Aase, to Jersey, ostensibly a victor but isolated.

"You do suffer for it," he says. "You take on the business and you pay a price. By winning, you lose. I haven't had a manager since Gordon Mills. I've tried. To this day, my brother Kevin works with me, as my PA. He is very good but I need a manager and I don't have one." O'Sullivan remains indefatigable, releasing new albums to public indifference every couple of years, yet his sheer doggedness has worked against him. He maintains the same achingly sincere style that provided him with hits in his youth, while other veteran stars, such as Tom Jones, have revived their careers by adapting to the age of irony. O'Sullivan sees no reason to change.

"I never have a problem with trends that come and go," he says. "They don't affect me. As long as I can write good songs, I'm happy. I've always written my own songs. I don't need to do a James Taylor and do a covers album.

"I'm prolific and I'm able to improve on my lyrics, but I'm never given much time. I'd read reviews of albums by Paul Simon and Ray Davies and Paul McCartney, and I'd wonder why they wouldn't give me just a little bit of credit. I used to worry about it, but I no longer worry about it."