What Rhymes With O'Sullivan? - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music News

What Rhymes With O’Sullivan?

The strange case of the pop star with the pudding basin haircut

Gilbert O'Sullivan

Gilbert O'Sullivan in Amsterdam, Holland in 1971.

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

London–”Hey, you mate, have you got permission to use this area? Have you actually asked anybody whether you can take photographs on British Railway property?” The uniformed representative of British Rail advances across the station car park and digs himself in.

A train whistles through Weybridge Station, 20 miles southwest of London, just in the countryside. It’s a green and pleasant area but the fields look regularly mown and the trees are suspiciously even-spaced. Apart from a frantic commuter rush each morning and evening, the station is almost deserted. The British Rail man takes out his watch from a vest pocket and twiddles with the knob.

“Checking your watch by the train, eh?” asks one of the knot of people that the British Rail man has come to investigate.

“No, just seeing how late the bleedin’ train is.” He almost breaks down in a fit of wheezing laughter.

He lights up another cigarette and rocks back on his heels. Obviously, he wants to stretch this out as long as it will go. British Rail personnel are well known as staunch upholders of a British tradition. They are followers of Jobsworth, the god of national industry. “I’m sorry Sir, you can’t go onto the platform without a platform ticket. I know you only want to go use the toilet. I’m afraid I can’t let you. You see Sir, it is more than my job’s worth.”

So far the British Rail man has ignored the fact that one of the group of people is not like the others. In fact, he’s not like anyone else anywhere. His feet are encased in shiny new army boots. Above them are six inches of baggy woolen socks, over which hang a pair of grey flannel trousers. They are held up by braces. The matching jacket and vest were designed for a 12-year-old. But the funniest bit is framed between an oversize cloth cap and the twisted collar of a grey school shirt. The face of Gilbert O’Sullivan, the face of every English schoolboy staring out of a faded 1930 end-of-term photograph of the fifth form.

But the British Rail man can hold back no longer. “I seen you on the telly, ain’t I. I seen you on the box yesterday. You was on that Golden Shot show … bleedin’ terrible, you were.” Wheeze. “Bloody awful noise you make.” Cough.

“Oh dear, oh dear.” The British Rail man is now incapable of speaking. His eyes are moist and his shoulders shake violently. “You’re that Gilbert O’Sullivan, ain’t you? Oh, Christ.”

Gilbert is having his photograph taken. His first album is due out in a couple of weeks and he’s good copy in any picture editor’s book. He’s also had two hit singles in Britain, “Nothing Rhymes” and “We Will,” both of which are exciting examples of a very particular style of singing-songwriting. And from a business point of view, Gilbert has won through against the odds. At the moment he’s strictly a record and TV merchant. No live gigs and yet at a time when they all say the only way up is through live exposure, Gilbert has managed to land himself as the most likely contender for the next wave. The next Rod Stewart, if you like.

In 1967, Gilbert could have been found posing for a similar set of photos. Actually, that time he was sitting in a wheelbarrow and looking more like Charlie Chaplin. You see, he’s been a bit like that for longer than most people imagine. Most people imagine, quite reasonably, that Gilbert suddenly popped on their TV screens out of nowhere. They had probably read somewhere that he is being handled by Gordon Mills, starmaker. Gordon Mills believes Gilbert is going to be the next big thing after Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. Mills manages Jones and Humperdinck, and heads the MAM organization, which in its rapid growth has swallowed up a score of smaller companies and now seems to have connections with just about everybody from Sinatra to the Pink Fairies.

Gilbert’s launching (re-floating to be more accurate) has been eminently successful, even if at first the connection with Mills was regarded with cynicism. Last October the City pages of a Sunday paper wrote about Gilbert in stockmarket terms. “He has been called the Phantom Voice because nobody has heard him sing publicly. He could be a fantastic success or a big flop … MAM’s figures are due next month. Profits are forecast to be $5,000,000 but I expect them to be higher.”

The heavyweight businessman’s newspaper, the Financial Times, was a little more droll. “Given the slide in MAM’s shares this year, much may depend on his new postage. But as MAM’s publicity describe him as ‘Frail, anemic looking, usually wears jacket and trousers two sizes too small, with a very unusual haircut,’ we can only assume that his voice and music must be quite something.”

A reader of Mirabelle, fab fan mag, liked his music but simply had to write a letter about her first glimpse of Gilbert on the TV. “I like ‘Nothing Rhymes’ very much but when I saw him perform it I nearly dropped my stitches (I was knitting at the time).”

That half-fan obviously didn’t see much of the 1967 Gilbert O’Sullivan, who cut a couple of singles for CBS. They were the results of his first experience of studio politics. He was the unwilling third figure in a recording company triangle. A five-year publishing contract with a clause calling for one single a year with options. One single a year? The others in the triangle were a record producer (unstoppable with a current Number One bubblegum record) and arranger (been in the business for years). They wouldn’t listen to Gilbert, who wanted it to be just his thumping piano and himself. But who would take notice of this 20-year-old with a pudding basin haircut and with a fetish for Thirties schoolboy clothes. His introduction to the publishing company hadn’t been been too conspicuous. Gilbert was working as a sales clerk in C&A’s Oxford Street department store. As was hopeful singer Mike Ward, who actually had a contract, no less, with CBS. Mike took him along one day and Gilbert played some tapes he’s made in a garden shed in Swindon, down there in the West Country. The shed was where his mother had put the piano. Gilbert knew it was time to call it a day when things started landing on the shed’s roof.

In Swindon, Gilbert had been studying at art school, as were half of the others throughout the country who would later spring up in groups. Gilbert didn’t quite fit in with Swindon. For a start, he was Irish, being born in Waterford. His family was one of thousands that came to England during the Fifties in search of better standards of living. His father, a butcher who had reared six O’Sullivans, went to Swindon for better wages. His family lived in London’s Battersea area while he searched for a house. The family lived in one room. Gilbert doesn’t reckon it was too bad. After all, he says, it was only for a year.

So Gilbert, the genuine schoolboy actually christened Raymond, like the rest became a fan. He chose Cliff Richard. And, like Gilbert says, everyone cool was trying hard to look like Cliff Richard. It used to piss him off when his elder sister had parties and played nothing but Buddy Holly. Gilbert much preferred Eden Kane, you know, the typical hit parade stuff.

And so then to art school, to earn a Licentiate of Industrial Design. Art school was the great between. Maybe not bright enough at exams or perhaps lacking the parental push to go to university, in those days mainly a middle-class treat. But certainly too restless to settle for being a clerk. You’d get a fair cross-section going to a provincial art school. And a lot of spare time to make music, especially in the second and third years, when as Gilbert remembers, you’d got over the fact that teachers weren’t going to keep you behind if your output of works of art dropped off—and before the final year when you became an Artist and stayed behind all hours of the day, finishing off a painting, stealing a bit of extra time at the potter’s wheel.

Now when visitors came to his mother’s house, Gilbert was in the habit of rushing upstairs and bringing down his revered collection of Beatles pics, Cliff having faded into the background by now. So you’d expect his group, formed at art school, to be more than a little Beatles influenced. But no, the sausage machine that churned out Gilbert’s group, the Doodles, managed to produce a batch of Searchers freaks. The lead guitarist, insisted Gilbert, must have the same battered old British electric machine as Searcher John McNally. To get the same chingachingaching you see.

* * *

The photo session being over, and the British Rail man having tired of the game and gone home for his tea, Gilbert and partners walk back through the woods to the country bungalow that he shares with another Gordon Mills singer. He’s called Nick, but his real name is said to be Eric. Nick, or Eric, sings with a big dance band at one of the ballrooms in the West End. He’s not often at the bungalow. The center of the bungalow is the kitchen. The walls are stuck over with newspaper clippings, letters, photos, menus, things. Gilbert is a hoarder.

One of the clippings reads, “Skinhead Gets Life for Murdering Boy of 19.” Another, “Brothers See Angel Killed.” Gilbert doesn’t read too many books but the kitchen table is a mess of magazines, and papers. Gilbert thinks of himself (Gilbert, that is—not the offstage Ray) as a Mickey Mouse, a character. His image has been carefully built up since art school days. His difficult passage through two record companies before he found Gordon Mills have smoothed off any rough edges. Trial and error had shaped up the character, layer like layer. Like Chaplin’s, which Gilbert is something of an expert on.

The refined, acceptable Gilbert O’Sullivan is a gadget, a Yo-Yo, a Frisbee.

“I’m a soap powder,” says Gilbert. “I’d love to see myself on sale in shops. It tickles me, does the idea of me being marketed. You know, that photo session, the stunt of being a newsboy selling copies of my album, that was my idea.”

Gilbert produces an earlier photograph. In it a spindly, rather delicate looking teenager sits behind a drum kit. Lined up alongside him are three matching guitars—Hofners, in those days when Fenders and Gibsons were rare jewels from afar, were the order of the day. They were the Prefects, an advanced version of the Doodles. They were a boy’s club band. Boy’s club bands usually contained one complete incompetent. He either was the only one old enough to sign a hire purchase agreement or was the only one with a van.

The Prefects, says Gilbert, used to play at borstals, approved schools (both are forms of junior prison) and mental institutions. “Great audiences,” he recalls.

Just after this, Chuck Berry, Bill Black and exalted company enter into Gilbert’s life via fellow art school student and whiz kid blues pianist-drummer Rick Davies, who can now be seen slogging away in Supertramp, an excellent British rock band that is fighting the effects of a real sucker hype launch. Gilbert joined Rick’s blues, kicked around the college circuit, narrowly missed going pro because of the sax player’s reticence about giving up his regular weekend dance band gigs. And so to London and CBS.

He caught a few ears with one of his CBS releases. The effect of a baroque quartet playing background to a song recorded in an echoey garden shed is indescribable. “Unusual,” says Gilbert.

Anyway, John Peel picked up on it and gave Gilbert an airing on his Top Gear radio show, and so secured for Gilbert the nominal affection of the underground. Even now Gilbert reckons that heads account for a good deal of his sales. “We did a census in a music shop. Surprised me really.”

But before anyone was going to buy his records in significant quantities, Gilbert had one more false start. Waving goodbye to CBS he jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Major Minor Records was the next port of call. And he walked straight into another confrontation with a producer. This one had just hit the jackpot with a blond, blue-eyed balladeer. It was strings-and-things time again. “I just couldn’t get it through to people,” says Gilbert, “all I wanted to do was to sing and play the piano. But they’d always want flutes, violins, the lot.”

Next on the list was Gordon Mills, Britain’s Colonel Parker figure. Mills took one look at Gilbert’s photo lying among his Friday morning mail and pushed it out of the way. But curiosity never killed a talent scout and later on he gave Gilbert’s by now battered demo discs a spin. Mills wasn’t quite sure that Gilbert had really written the songs. So at odd weekends Gilbert would pop down to Mills’ country house and play over some numbers. Mills may well have rubbed his eyes and given himself a pinch now and then. Who could have blamed him? Unbeckoned, someone had walked in and vowed to keep up an amazing image till he was 50, if necessary.

Six months later, Mills makes his move on a flash. Gilbert is installed in his bungalow. “Nothing Rhymes,” the first single, is cut and climbs to Number Seven. Actually, it wasn’t quite as pure as that. Gilbert may be a soap powder but he isn’t lily white. “We recorded two songs,” he explains. ” ‘Doing the Best I Can’ is a sure fire hit. Incredibly commercial. But what could you say about it? Catchy and good to dance to. But ‘Nothing Rhymes’ is different. A much bigger risk but it was lyrics people could talk about. So that was the one to launch me on. I got great publicity. I was irresistable really. Yeah, really great publicity what with the clothes, the hair and the lyrics.”

Across the kitchen table, Gilbert realizes that his pudding basin haircut is being stared at. It has a horrible fascination to it. It’s the haircut that a thousand army sergeants want to give to those damned hippies. The sideboards are level with the top of the ear and you can see part of the head that you can’t normally see. Quite unnerving.

“Don’t think that I liked cutting my hair,” says Gilbert, breaking the stare. “It looks out of place. I’m sure it embarrasses some people. People feel sorry for me having to carry this image around. Well, I like it. Some artists say ‘Don’t categorize me.’ I’m saying ‘You can’t categorize me.’ I always tell people that I went through long hair. I was a typical art school scruff. It was good then. TV announcers have long hair now. It’s satisfying you know, creating something successful, though I’m not as successful now as I’m going to be. Anyway, people like me are good for the business.”

Gilbert O’Sullivan, the creation, is successful if only for the way that the calculation behind it doesn’t show through. The point is that it wouldn’t matter. Everybody knows. Anyway, could the Seventies take one more set of flowing locks, another pair of skinny arms flailing out of a star-speckled vest. In other words, is it time for another showman with talent to take off. Another Elton John, whose picture, incidentally, decorates the center of the dartboard hanging in Gilbert’s kitchen. Judging by the number of pock marks in Elton’s rosy cheeks, Gilbert’s aim is pretty sharp.

The final touch to Gilbert is, as it should be, confusing. Is it Ray or Gilbert that doesn’t go out much, who in fact has a lousy social life by most standards? And who goes to church on Sunday and lives, will you believe this, on an allowance of $25 a week, which he refuses to have increased? And out of that pays all the bills, buys the food and manages to save a little, which he can add to the money mounting up in the bank from record sales?

“Self denial,” says Raymond and Gilbert, “is a great thing.” 

Popular on Rolling Stone


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.