Words And Music By Gilbert O'Sullivan
Writer: Gavin Petrie
Date: 27 Jan 1973
When he wanted to become a pop star, Gilbert O'Sullivan came up with the bright idea of being visually different. After varying degrees of unsuccess, he joined the 'old firm' of MAM headed by Gordon Mills. This stirred the beast in a lot of people. Blinded by the bizarreness of his dress, his links with the 'establishment' of pop music management, some missed the sheer genius of Gilbert O'Sullivan, the man who writes the words and the music.
When Gilbert changed from the 'simple lad' to the hairy-chested sex symbol again the music was missed. But the buying public were not blinded and the new image of Gilbert O'Sullivan has now had a number one single, a number one album and a wildly successful tour under his belt.
Forgetting the image, I went to see Gilbert to talk about O'Sullivan - singer/songwriter.
He sits there, appearing slightly nervous with echoes of a Southern Irish accent that made me slightly embarrassed of the accusation I had once made in print that he was as Irish as the Pirates of Penzance.
He answers without hesitation, at considerable speed and with an honesty that might be construed as egotism, but when you consider his achievements you realise that it is just a quiet, almost naive confidence in what he does and what he does lovingly.
How do you approach writing a song and how long does it take you?
The words and the music are written completely separately. I can spend months on a lyric. The two are as important - but I get the melody and I complete the thing, although the words will be gibberish at that time, but for me it will be complete.
Then it's a case of sitting down and starting from scratch working on the lyrics. Obviously the lyrics depend on the melody - if it was a slow melody then that would dictate the kind of lyric.
Generally I have no idea what the lyric is going to be about - the ideas just come and I spend weeks, maybe months, doing the lyrics until I'm completely satisfied that the lyric is as good as it can be and then I marry the words and the music.
I'm conscious that what I'm writing has to fit into the song and I'm conscious of the way I actually sing. My style of singing means that I can get far more words into a line than people like Tony Bennett who like to hold notes.
How do your songs fare in Europe, because of translation problems, and America? The songs are very British working class lyrically and might have a limited appeal.
I like to think that some people like the lyrics, some people like the melodies, so therefore abroad they just like to hum the melodies. On the other hand in Holland when Nothing Rhymed came out, that meant so much to them lyrically - probably much more that it did to people here - because it was such a monster hit.
Your lyrics seem to be what you have seen or drawn from life rather than imaginative tales - is that true?
Yes, but my imagination is probably concerned with the things in life anyway. I make the songs up. I don't read about something and then write about it - if that happens it is purely unintentional.
I have just an ordinary working-class background - it's a bit corny to say 'working-class', it's a misused word - but there's no other way to describe them.
It never occurred to me that people would identify my lyrics as basic, down-to-earth, working class lyrics. I never analyse my songs themselves but looking back I suppose they are pretty normal. I mean 'Mum, the kettle's boiling' - you couldn't get more basic than that.
You write all your songs in the comfort of your own cottage - if the pressure of work was so great that you had to write whilst touring, could you do it?
I don't know - I've never tried. Fortunately I've never had the pressure of trying to write on the road, but at a rough guess I'd say the songs I'd write on the road would be as good as the ones I've spent a lot of time on at home.
I write the occasional lyric when I'm away from home: I'll come across something in a newspaper which will suggest a song title, which, I imagine, nine out of ten other songwriters do. You come across odd little lines or if somebody says something that might be useful - I'll jot it down.
Why do you write about such limited subjects? Why not about a desert in California or a space ship to the moon?
Well I've never been there, have I? I do write about crazy subjects, though, but as yet none of them have been put out. I do write all kinds of songs, but the songs that we are putting out as single records at the moment are songs that people can understand.
Half the lyrics to the other songs, no one would understand - they're really strange. Possibly they'll end up on LP tracks, as yet Gordon (Mills, his manager) is reluctant to put them out. There could be a couple on the next album.
Could you give me an example of the kind of lyric you mean?
Well yes. It's just lyrics, playing on words, ridiculous situations:
I can't forget the moment
Of my very first affair
When the lights were low
The music so soft Fred, my record player
Began to do the two step
Side by side my prize antique
And before you know it there they were
Engaging cheek to cheek
Now that's the story of a love affair between a record player and a prize antique - ridiculous! A lot of my lyrics are like that but nobody has heard those yet.
At the moment what Gordon and I are looking for are good songs. I like to think "Clair" was a good song and "Alone Again" was a good song. I got away with "Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day" which, in a sense, was quite funny but that was released more on my part than Gordon's.
Have you ever had an ambition to create a new sound like the Beatles did?
Impossible for a songwriter, absolutely impossible. You can do it with a group because you can play your own instruments and do everything yourself - but it's impossible for a solo artist - you have to fall in line.
I used to think, before I made it, I would like to be completely different from anybody else and I had the idea of using only pianos on stage. I planned to have a drummer, yes, but instead of having a bass guitar - have a bass piano. Instead of having a rhythm guitar have me playing on piano and instead of having a lead guitar have a lead pianist.
I though it was a marvellous idea but I tried it out - and it was disastrous.
Now if I had been able to do it then that would have been different. The idea was good I remember that Denny Laine String Band idea - that was highly original but not practical.
Anyway I've given all those ideas up. I'm past the stage of worrying whether I have strings on my records. As it happens, I like strings but it is the songs that are important to me, so really, as long as people recognise me as a good songwriter, an original songwriter, they don't have to recognise me as a trendsetter or an innovator.
If you were impressed by the range of sounds made by a synthesiser, could you write a song with the synthesiser in mind?
Well, yes - but I'm interested in songs not sounds. Stevie Wonder does (he smiles) wonders with that synthesiser of his - really incredible. His "Music of My Mind" album was really great and he is still really great, but now, not because of the songs but because of the overall sound, he is becoming more and more obsessed with sound than with songs.
Now when I listen to records, I listen to songs - Sinatra singing Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter which, on the face of it, is very corny because they have terribly old fashioned backings.
But I spent 12 months listening until I got through to the songs, so when I buy these records now it's the songs I hear - that's the thing for me, not so much the sound.
I think if I have gotten as involved with sounds as Stevie Wonder has the quality of my songs would begin to slip away.
Do you have an ideal backing line-up from an era of music that you would like to use?
When I was at the stage of that piano business and wanting to get away from those guitars and drums line-ups, I got to thinking about that - I had plenty of time to think about those things at that time - and I came to the conclusion that in pop music the natural thing to do is have guitars, bass and drums or an organ or a piano.
If I had gone out on tour (referring to last November's British tour) with a bass, drummer and guitarist, it could have been fun and it could have sounded good - but I would have been labelled a second-rate Elton John. I would have loved to have gone and sat on stage with a piano and no other backing, but if I did, people would say I was a second-rate Randy Newman.
I used to argue with Gordon on this subject and he said that I could possibly do a few numbers like this, but not a whole hour - it would be too much. At the time I disagreed, but now I wouldn't dream of doing that - so we went out as we did with the orchestra - now they say I'm doing a Tom Jones.
The backings that we have on my songs are usually criticised, but it doesn't bother me any more because I know people like them - and they suit the songs. Most critics never get past the stage of only hearing the sound of the thing and they think "corny - trumpets, strings, brass."
If they really listened long enough they'd get through to the songs like I do when I'm listening to Frank Sinatra and people like that. You by-pass the backing and get the beauty of the song.
Is there anything that you would like to re-record?
Nothing except the old reissues from before I went to MAM. I mean, the songs were good enough but the record companies always told me "sit down, do as you're told." I was happy with the songs but they used them in their way. I had no say in how they were recorded.
Around that time there was a song I Wish I Could Cry which I thought then was the best I had written, very proud of it I was. When we went to record it, I was more or less told "You can't do anything you want because we're in charge." I was pretty upset about that.
If after the first hit single you had not had any guidance, what sort of mistakes do you think you would have made?
Had it not been for guidance I would still have been in short trousers, which would have been ridiculous. When Gordon said: "Why don't you drop the short trousers," not literally, "and the hat?" I said "no" and kicked up a terrible fuss. I thought it was original and wanted to keep it.
He tried to make me understand that there was nothing very attractive about it. It was good fun, which is what I intended it to be in the first place, but the joke tends to wear off after a while. He persisted, and, of course, in the end I agreed. Now I can't understand why I persisted with it for so long. I'm not sorry about the short trousers - but I'm glad I changed.
How about the next steps - another tour for instance? There was talk of a "copycat" tour, repeating the November one.
It's out of my hands really - I only write songs. I know the demand after the first tour was huge. Everyone expected the tour to go well, but no one expected to go as well as it did. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the demand from people that didn't see me was so great that they are planning another tour. Theatres are booked but whether or not we are going to able to do it I don't know because there is something else coming up.
And new records?
That's what I'm doing at the moment. we have four or five songs to choose from for the single. At a rough guess I'd say it was another ballad - I seem to write more ballads these days. I can't tell you much more than that.
How about films?
I'd love to do a little bit of acting, only because I feel that most of the things I do are acting anyway. I'm better at that than I am in real life.
I'm sure I could make the world's greatest lover on the screen far better than I could in real life.
I would like to do a film, but whether there would be time is another thing - you see there always has to be a time for me to write.