Gilbert O: He Knows He's A Mechanical Man
Source: Rolling Stone
Writer: Paul Gambaccini
Date: 02 August 1973
Weybridge: England -"My name is still Ray O'Sullivan. I would never change my name to Gilbert. No way. I don't like it. I couldn't be a Gilbert."
Ray O'Sullivan, a 26-year-old bachelor who lives in a cottage and thrives on toast and tea with honey, is known as Gilbert to the people who have brought ten million of his records in the past two years and as a commodity to the investors in MAM, his management and recording company. It doesn't bother him. His alter ego is, as he sees it, kept in his place.
"I'm not myself on tour; I'm told to do this, do that. I'm a mechanical man. But I don't mind it because I know it. For the stage I could be called Hieronamous Birkin and it wouldn't matter. People at MAM are not shaping Gilbert O'Sullivan. I read the first financial report in which I was dealt with as a product, but I don't mind now. No one tells me what to do at home or when I'm writing songs."
Although his cottage is on the same estate where MAM creations, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck reside, Ray never seeks their company. "If I see them I say hello, but the essential thing about living here is privacy." The privacy is a requisite for O'Sullivan's main concern in life - song writing, an art that Jones and Humperdinck do not dabble in.
"I can't get married now because music means more to me than anything else," the Irish native professed en route to a concert in Oxford. "When you get married that takes priority over music. Take Paul McCartney, and I say this because I admire the man. Since he's been married the element of strife that was in this old lyrics is gone." O'Sullivan has never come close to taking vows, and that fact renders his best known composition, "Alone Again (Naturally)," a fiction.
"None of the situations in the song ever happened to me," he explained as his chauffeur made a wrong turn and wound up at Heathrow Airport. "I've never been stood up at a church because I've never gotten close to getting married. My father is dead, but I didn't cry when he died. I distinctively remember that because I was the only one in the family who didn't. I was never close to him. And my mother I love very much, but she's not dead." This was demonstrated conclusively when she attended a family dinner after the Oxford concert.
"Why that made it in America instead of the others I'll never know," he mused. It was his fourth major success in England but didn't reach the top. But when "Alone Again" hit Number One last summer and stayed there for six weeks, O'Sullivan had to be introduced to the American public, and fast. The vehicle chosen was the The Dean Martin Show, and Gilbert and MAM image molder Gordon Mills decided the ragamuffin figure pictured on the original Himself cover had to go.
"We could have used that image in America and made an impact like Tiny Tim, but then it would have taken years to shake off. In retrospect, I'm glad I never made it that way in the States. The answer came from an old Jerry Lewis film where people were wearing old college sweaters." Overnight, Gilbert O'Sullivan was in a "G" letter sweater whenever in public, white on Dean Martin, black at the Royal Festival Hall, red at Oxford.
On at least one memorable occasion the sweater motif caused acute embarrassment. O'Sullivan didn't want to go to Nashville when "Alone Again (Naturally) was up for three Grammies, "But Gordon made me go. It wouldn't have hurt to lose if I hadn't been there, but I was, so I died three times. I had to do the song and then sit in the audience in my 'G' jumper while everyone else was in suits. It was horrible. When my categories came Allen Klein and the people at his table kept pointing at me. It was embarrassing. We felt worse for Don McLean, though, because he didn't win four times. He deserved something."
O'Sullivan returned from the fiasco to rack up two consecutive Number One British hits, "Clair" and "Get Down." (In the US "Out of the Question" was released while "Get Down" was being tested in Europe.) Within half a year he succeeded in confusing millions of people as to what is was singing about.
"I didn't know what 'get down' means in America, nor 'dog' for that matter, until Gordon came back from the States and told me. My lyrics are very British, and to me the girl in 'Get Down' is behaving like a dog - she's jumping up on him, so 'get down!' That's all. It's like when Ray Connolly (writer of the film That'll Be the Day) asked me why I'd written a song about masturbation, and I said, 'What? And he said, "why, "Underneath the Blanket Go." I told him it was news to me. The friends in Los Angeles told me about a DJ who played 'Clair' and then said, 'Now Gilbert likes little girls!'
"If 'Get Down' really is interpreted as Gordon thought it might, we should sell ten million and put it on the soundtrack of Deep Throat. The whole point of it is to be a good disco record, just a nice rhyme, a simple story. I used to play it was a warm-up on the piano, then I heard the Faces' "Cindy Incidentally' and that made me think of extending it into a song." As the car pulled to a stop, there was another reason to chuckle. Right outside the theater where Ray was about to perform, a billboard proclaimed the following week's attraction: The Best of Gilbert & Sullivan.