In the second part of M’s interview with Gilbert O’Sullivan, the veteran songwriter talks about his dispute over publishing and the influence of Spike Milligan, amongst other things.
What are your aims as a songwriter, are there any big themes you explore?
It doesn’t work like that. There’s no analysis involved, it’s just what comes into your head, it’s not preconceived. I like straight-forward love songs but I like the way you can write ‘I love you’ without it being the cliché. There are still ways to write about something that’s been covered a billion times and still find a new way.
All They Wanted To Say on Gilbertville is about an aspect of 9/11 that very few people picked up on, the fact people were in the buildings and on the planes and they were calling on their mobile phones to say ‘I love you’. It gave that clichéd phrase such poignance.
That’s what makes lyric writing interesting, it isn’t just ‘I love you, you love me’. That’s okay but you can also take things that are going on around you and make a little twist. And I like humour. If you’re going to be locked away for months in a room on your own, you need a sense of humour.
I said to people that Spike Milligan was a big influence on me and people were like ‘Really, how?’ Harry Hill does a poem written by me on Gilbertville, a lot of my early songs had that nonsensical element – ‘Mr and Mrs Regards came to see me yesterday’. I put them on an album called By Larry a few years back.
I like the playing with words. So another example of Milligan’s influence is the only new track on the new Best Of. The first verse is ‘I wanted to give her my heart but as as the doctor observed “what would she do with it?”‘. I bring in that Milliganesque fun with lyrics.
But these things only happen when you get down to the work. If tomorrow I’m reading the newspaper and I see a good title I’ll write it down and leave it.
When I was a teenager I bought everything by Ella Fitzgerald. If you’re an art student you’d have no hesitation in studying the great arts, the classics and contemporary stuff – you’d buy the books and songwriting to me is no different. If you’re a young kid today, be influenced by what’s going on around you, but if you want to be a good songwriter, go back. Go back to Cole Porter, go back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. Learn your craft. Amongst my Stones albums and my Beatles albums and all the records I bought in the 60s, I was buying records by Peggy Lee, because of what she was singing. It didn’t sound how you’d want it to sound but I was honing into the songs. Later, when I did a duet with Peggy, she liked it so much we did a video together. I flew out to meet her and I told her that she and Ella Fitgerald were the greatest female interpreters of songs ever, I told her that I had all the albums it was because she did a fantastic job on those great songs. To record with her was a huge highlight of my career.
You seem to not have looked back, you have carried on rather than rely on your back-catalogue, what have you gained from that?
It’s what keeps me in the business. I’ve got nothing against anyone who rests on their back-catalogue, and I’m very proud of my own, but for me the joy is in creating new songs and playing them to people. The only thing against me is age. I have the ideas, I have the drive. I never made a record hoping it was a hit, I just wrote songs and put them out there.
No one said about Alone Again, Naturally that it would be a hit, they said ‘that’s okay’. In retrospect people have said ‘you must have know that would be a hit’ but I didn’t, I’ve heard people say ‘you know when you’ve written a hit’. No, if that were the case it would be a terrifying prospect because for every other song you write you’d be asking ‘why isn’t that feeling there?!’ How depressing would that be?
How did Alone Again (Naturally) come to be written, is there a story behind it?
Only in the sense it’s not based on real-life experiences. If you’re a good lyricist you can deal with a subject that’s not personal to you and be able to write about it in a genuine, sincere way. I had two middles for that song and I had to decide which middle to go with, but that was about it. In those days you’d do three hour sessions to do an A-side and a B-side. We did singles that didn’t go on albums, in those days singles were different to albums.
It came about from a good period, I was living in a bungalow that my then manager Gordon Mills had got for me and I didn’t have to work at the post office anymore. It’s interesting that when Nothing Rhymed came out and was a top ten hit, Gordon asked ‘what’ve you got for the next one?’ I told him I had a rock ‘n’ Roll song called Underneath The Blanket, Go and he was like ‘okay, let’s just do that’. Today, there’d be a boardroom debate on how to cash in on the success of Nothing Rhymed.
You’ve stood up for songwriter’s rights in the past, can you tell me more about that?
All it was, was that in 1967 I signed a five year agreement with April music. In late 1969 when Gordon Mills came along, the head of April music said to me ‘We’re giving writers their own publishing companies but we have another two years with you and we’re not going to let you walk away from the deal right now. So I said to Gordon that when the deal with April is over, I’d like my own company. 1975 came around, I asked and didn’t get it, 1976, I asked and nothing happened. Then I split with Gordon as I wanted to make records with other producers. I then went to see the chairman of the publishing company and he said ‘You’ve broken with Gordon, you don’t get it.’ So that’s what the dispute was about. I walked out of there and I didn’t know what to do, so I called Hal Davison’s son Gary and asked him for help. They put me in touch with some lawyers and from there it opened a can of worms. I wasn’t asking for money, I was asking for a little share in my publishing. That’s what happened. I never saw songs as money, I never saw success as money – I saw it as being in the hit parade and people liking you’re work. Naïve but a good way to be.
What are you working on next?
The next album will be a latin album, based on the Peggy Lee’s Ole ala Lee and Latin ala Lee but I wan’t Brazilian latin, not Miami-based latin. With Gilbertville I went to Nashville and with this one it’s where to go.
Missed part one? Read the first part of this interview here.