Gilbert O’sullivan first unleashed his wrath on a music journalist in 1967 when Disappear, his debut single, was released. Penny Valentine, a critic for Disc and Music Echo, a British pop magazine, had failed to review it, so he wrote her a letter suggesting that she had been incentivised by bribery. His record label was furious when it found out.
In the early 1980s, he appeared on the pilot episode for Terry Wogan’s BBC chat show and performed his song What’s in a Kiss. When the interview was cut from the show, O’Sullivan went berserk.
“I wrote [to Wogan] and said, ‘You’ve supported my music, but that cut was unforgiveable.’ Well, the shit hit the fan big time. I was never allowed near him again. He totally blacked me out. Sometimes I’ve done that with reviewers who either haven’t reviewed me, or dismissed my album by talking about how I looked. I only want them to be fair. In the last five years, I’ve got to the point where I don’t worry any more. I’m better now. Tara watches me like a hawk.”
Tara O’Sullivan, his daughter, is making coffee in the kitchen of O’Sullivan’s London apartment. “Besides,” the 70-year-old adds, “we’re bringing the critics around, aren’t we, Tara?”
“Absolutely,” she says. “Dad for me is the most positive man, the way he loves his music. A lot went on in his career that he had to deal with. I think he dealt with it really well.”
The dark is there but I do have a sense of humour
Even during the Swinging Sixties, when he lived in a London apartment around the corner from hip Portobello Road, O’Sullivan was single-minded in his vision as a songwriter. While his friends smoked reefers, his only indulgence was fish and chips. He did not touch alcohol until his mid-twenties, and describes himself as a shy and naive youth. “I hadn’t grown up in an alcoholic atmosphere. My father died when I was 11; I didn’t know him. Mum didn’t drink. It was all very normal. Not a lot has changed in how I work.”
In 1972, after Alone Again (Naturally) topped the American charts for six weeks, he was nominated for three Grammy awards but tried to wriggle out of attending the ceremony so he could stay at home to write songs. In 1974, his first American tour ended in disaster. It started off well in New York, but the decision to book huge arenas was overly ambitious. The audiences dwindled as he crossed the continent and the remaining dates were cancelled. The singer, however, was happy to fly home and write more songs.
O’Sullivan insists he does not do nostalgia, so his forthcoming 50th anniversary tour, which includes a show with the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin, will include tracks from recent albums such as 2015’s Latin Ala G!, as well as hits from the early 1970s. “If I couldn’t write, then I’d stop,” he insists. “I wouldn’t want to do those tours where you’re just going over the past.”
In recent years some musicologists have called for a reappraisal of his work and his abilities as a lyricist, which are frequently bleached beneath easy-listening melodies. Songs such as We Will (1971) introduced a form of kitchen-sink observational drama usually lacking in pop music.
More recent songs, such as I’ve Never Been Short Of A Smile (1995) and All They Wanted To Say (2011), suggest he has never lost his ability to craft a deft lyric. When punk arrived in the late 1970s, O’Sullivan was decried, alongside the rest of his peers, as a self-indulgent hippie, but his themes are frequently darker than most punk acts.
Alone Again (Naturally), a UK top 10 hit in 1970, dealt with bereavement and suicide. Talking of Murder, from the 2011 album Gilbertville, explores the Dunblane school massacre. A critic recently described 1971’s Nothing Rhymed as gently apocalyptic.
“As a lyricist, those are places you go to,” he says. “I take lyrics very seriously. Lyrics take a long time. The dark aspects of relationships, troubled relationships, are interesting. The dark is there, but I do have a sense of humour.”
Born Raymond O’Sullivan in Waterford, he moved to Swindon at the age of seven, and struggles to find any Irish lyrical tradition in his work. “I’m proud of my roots. I like the fact I’m from Waterford. I bought the Clancy Brothers, and loads of Irish records, and looked for my musical heritage there. I thought, it must be there. But it wasn’t. I have 1950s English pop music roots.”
He believes he inherited determination from his Irish mother, now 95. As a teenager, he recorded songs in the family’s garden shed and sent demo tapes to record labels. When Page One Records, an English independent label, failed to recognise his genius, he took a day trip to London, stormed into the chief executive’s office and demanded his tape back. “I said I wasn’t leaving until I got it. They said, ‘We get hundreds of tapes, who do you think you are?’”
O’Sullivan’s idiosyncratic, inflexible nature was seen at the start of his career, when he opted to dress as a cloth-capped street urchin while everyone else was wearing handlebar moustaches and paisley. He resisted the best efforts of management and record labels to dissuade him.
“The more people were against me, the more determined I was. [The image] worked totally against me in terms of an audience liking me. Himself [his 1971 debut album] is really good, but would you want to be walking around campus with an album of a guy who is dressing up in a cap and boots? I didn’t look like how a singer-songwriter should.”
I wonder whether his infamous court case against Gordon Mills, the manager he shared with Tom Jones, arose from his need to be in control. The pair fell out when Mills refused to let O’Sullivan work with another record producer. The singer sued in 1981 because Mills refused to hand over publishing rights, as promised.
O’Sullivan insists that the case, which he won, was about a point of principle rather than control. He never expected to win complete publishing ownership of his songs.
“I never asked for my master tapes. I just wanted what was promised. Gordon’s death [in 1986] was very sad. I often thought there was a possibility we could get back together again.”
Principle, he insists, also fuelled his court case against Biz Markie, an American rapper who sampled Alone Again without permission in the early 1990s. The court ruled that sampling without permission was copyright infringement, effectively changing the course of hip-hop.
O’Sullivan says his objection was over the song’s use in a comedy record, and he never intended the outcome.
“I allowed [Alone Again] to be used by another American rapper on a dark lyric. If Biz Markie’s request had been something not comic, I might well have said yes, and no precedent would have been set. You should have copyright protection — that’s the bigger picture. I agree that there are young samplers who don’t have the money [to license samples]. By the same token, musicians should be able to protect their work.”
O’Sullivan has mellowed in recent years. He has left the music business to the people around him, mostly his family, so he can concentrate on the music. He’s planning another album, which he hopes to record at home in Jersey, after the anniversary tour, with a producer of Kings of Leon and Paolo Nutini.
A headline roster of artists, from Nina Simone to Shirley Bassey, have covered his compositions over the decades, he points out. Fifty years into his career, he finally feels secure in his legacy.
“If I’m remembered for anything, I’m happy for it to be my songs,” he says. “It’s all about the songs.”
Gilbert O’Sullivan: The 50th Anniversary Tour. Cork Opera House, Feb 14; Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, Feb 16; Ulster Hall, Belfast, Feb 17