Gilbert O'Sullivan

By Jeremy Miles

WHEN he first arrived on London's ultra trendy music scene in the late sixties singer songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan caused a minor sensation.

But it had nothing to do with his music. While all around him were floating about in tie-dyes and flares and wearing their hair fashionably long here was one wannabe pop star who definitely didn't look the part.

This English-based Irishman favoured flat caps, braces, flannel trousers and a school tie. The whole ensemble was completed by a short back and sides haircut that made him look more like the Bisto Kid than someone angling to make it onto Top of the Pops.

But his songs had a certain something and, though he would remain defiantly unfashionable, the young Gilbert scored a string of hits ranging from ballads like Nothing Rhymed and Clair through to the indefinable but jaunty Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day.

Nearly 40 years on O'Sullivan, who is promoting a new album A Scruff at Heart, brings his latest UK tour to Lighthouse in Poole tonight.

He chuckles about the early image he created. "It was disliked by everybody in the business," he says. "People thought my manager Gordon Mills must have invented it as a gimmick but the truth is he hated it as much as everyone else.

"I was the one who wanted to do it and I was the one who insisted that if I couldn't get a record deal wearing those clothes then I didn't want a record deal."

He admits that choosing such a radical visual characterisation was probably close to commercial suicide.

And radical it was. "You have to remember that to going around with a pudding basin haircut in 1968 was extremely unusual. Record companies said I should grow my hair and look like James Taylor and to be honest I probably would have been more successful if I had."

Having actively repelled half of his potential market - no student would have been seen dead carrying a Gilbert O'Sullivan album - he carried on regardless.

Salvation was at hand. John Peel and Kenny Everett were supporters and soon the strange boy with the even stranger look was shooting up the charts.

"They didn't care what I looked like. They saw an individual who produced songs that they liked," says O'Sullivan, adding: "Any longevity I've enjoyed with my career has nothing to do with how I looked it's simply that the songs have stood the test of time."

O'Sullivan, who lives with his family in the Channel Islands, says image is no longer important though, he does claim to have long hair these days "cos everyone else has got short hair".

He moved to Jersey, he says, because it was a good place to bring up his children. "There's no problem with overcrowded classes, it's a healthy environment and there are beautiful beaches. Also I don't drive and this is one place where I can actually walk home from the airport if I want."

It's also conducive to work. What's more he's always within easy reach of his hard-working piano tuner, one of his most frequent visitors.

"I enjoy pushing the piano to the limit," he explains. "I see it as a lead instrument and I play it like a drummer. I actually break strings, which is quite unusual for a pianist."

You can hear his raucous piano style on the new album, material from which will make up a significant part of this evening's Lighthouse show.

O'Sullivan will of course be doing the old stuff too and, having reinstated the strings and rhythm section absent from his recent live touring bands, says they're sounding really good.

Inevitably he has made one or two changes. "I found I had lots of material to top and tail, chop and change. I suppose I'm doing cover versions of my own songs."

Gilbert O'Sullivan plays Lighthouse at Poole tonight (November 12).

© Jeremy Miles 2022