Up To The Age Of 17 or 18 I Was Very Normal

Source: The Times

Writer: Richard Williams

Date: 10 Feb 1972

Engelbert: Sunday 7.25 BBC1 Colour

Thereís a lot more to Gilbert OíSullivan - Englebertís guest this week-than grey flannel trousers and a pudding-basin hair cut.  Here Richard Williams talks to this unusual down-to-earth character.

GILBERT O'SULLIVAN'S idols are Charlie Chaplin and Cole Porter.  He likes dressing up in funny clothes when he appears on television, and he enjoys being 'manipulated' by his manager. Gilbert O'Sullivan is decidedly different.

In a pop world which likes its heroes to resemble each other as closely as peas in a pod, he sticks out a mile as an original thinker.  Not for him the old denim jeans; he thinks that stars should be stars, and if you can't dress up when you go on stage, what on earth can you do? Gilbert's songs are unusual, too, as you may have noticed from his hits like the current 'No Matter How I Try.'

Gilbert thinks that his unique qualities stem from his usual qualities stem from his unusual childhood.  Born in Waterford, in Southern Ireland, he was the second of five children.  They all came to London 13 years ago, stayed a year and mover to Swindon where they stayed.  His Father died in 1960.

I had a very normal Catholic upbringing,' he says.  'Unlike most kids of my age, I couldn't and didn't drop out in any way. Up to the age of 17 or 18 I was very normal, and my writing reflects that, because it's where my material comes from.  It's alien to the way other people are writing songs, but it's not alien to the way most people live.  I don't think there are many other writers doing the same thing.'

His songs deal with those real situations with humour, and with genuine sympathy and understanding for their subjects.  It's probably these qualities which make him so popular with an older generation.  'It's great,' he says.  'The mums and dads can identify with my image, because thatís how it was in the 30s.'

On stage, he places his upright piano on a piece of carpet, put an oil-lamp on the instrument, and place a large Victorian coat-stand within easy reach.  'It makes it more like homeí, he says.  'It's very comfortable to have all those things around you.'  And the clothes?  Only in show business would I get a chance to wear them.  Itís almost like being another personÖ. Ordinarily I couldnít tell a joke to save my life, but in the clothes I only have to walk on stage and people laugh.  But they appreciate the songs too.'

Success for Gilbert took quite a long time to arrive.  Having finished his art school course, he found himself the family's breadwinner.

But I wanted to try and make it in music, so I had to explain to my mum that if I was a failure in the music business, at least I had the qualifications to become an illustrator.'

In 1967 he came to London and took various job while trying to sell his music.  He did, in fact, have two recording contracts before he became successful, but for much of this time he was working as a clerk in an oil company.  'Most musicians don't believe in taking ordinary jobs if they aren't getting the chance to play their music,' he says, 'and they seem to think it's somehow blasphemous.  It never bothered me.'

Then he decided to take a big step, and wrote to all the top managers.  The man who showed most interest was Gordon Mills, manager of Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck, and eventually he signed Gilbert to a contract.  The rest of the story has been success all the way, but it hasn't changed him much because he's not terribly interested in material possessions.  He doesn't drive, for instance, so he hasn't bought a car.

However, he does have a bungalow in Weybridge, newly bought so that he can write and play all night without disturbing anyone, and the money means that he can now go out and order half-a-dozen grey flannel stage suits if he likes.  The future?  'I've got ambitions of course, but Iím not going to tell them to anybody.  I may never achieve them, but itís important to have to hold on to.  As long as I know Iíve tried...that's what counts.