Golden oldie is still making waves

He took a 17-year break from music, now Billy Ocean is enjoying being back on the road. He talks fame, family and Boyzone with Ed Power

BILLY OCEAN’S eyes light up at the memory. “What a coup it was — to have the biggest movie stars in the world fly over and star in your video,” says the veteran soul singer “Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito… they didn’t come any more important than that.”

In 1985, the three A-listers jetted to Britain to appear in the promo to Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going. For pampered celebs, it must have been a surreal experience. Rather than a glamorous sound stage, the video was shot in an abandoned music venue in inner London. The temperature frequently hovered around zero.

“It was the Academy in Brixton and it was extremely cold. In the finished film you can see people’s breaths. That’s how freezing it was. They didn’t complain once. Danny DeVito was a very funny guy. All of them were extremely professional.”

Not everyone was as enamoured by the presence of Hollywood royalty. A protest by Britain’s musicians’ union resulted in the video being banned by the BBC. The offence? DeVito plays — or at least mimes — saxophone.

“He wasn’t a member of the union, and somebody took offence,” sighs Ocean. “That’s the way of things. You can always find an excuse to be negative.”

When The Going Gets Tough was the theme to that year’s summer blockbuster, The Jewel of the Nile. It has arguably outlived the movie. Not only did it give Ocean his biggest hit and first US number one, it has been covered innumerable times, most memorably by Boyzone.

“They are good singers, good performers,” says Ocean. “For them to pick my song was a great compliment — I’d love for them to do more of my material.”

Not every reading of the tune has been as accomplished. It has become a staple of reality TV, meaning it’s been murdered more than a few times on primetime. Ocean is sanguine.

“If anyone is doing my song it’s a compliment to me. Not every version is going to be as nice as the Boyzone version. I see it as a form of recognition. There isn’t really any more to it than that. You can’t get too hung up on these things.”

Though he was born in Trinidad, Ocean grew up in London and regards himself as British. He was the first black British artist to top the US charts. Twenty eight years later, he continues to be amazed at this.

“It’s astonishing, isn’t it,” he says. “It’s like selling sand to the Arabs. I thank the Lord for my success. I think the secret has been that I’ve never copied anybody. I’ve always learned from other people, I never take from them directly.”

Ocean racked up further smashes, including Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car; Love Zone and Caribbean Queen. However, after more than a decade of consistent success, he disappeared from view in the ’90s. His kids were growing up and he preferred to spend time with them rather than touring the world. He’s never regretted the decision.

“I took 17 years off,” he says. “I hadn’t meant for it to be so long. At first I was thinking, ‘Oh, what do I do with myself?’. I got involved in property. I built a studio on Grenada, some properties in Brixton. It was nice. My hours were my own. I look back on it as a very happy phase in my life.”

He was already married and a father when fame and wealth came. A stable home life helped him cope with the pressure.

“Having an existence outside your profession was useful,” he says. “I was a married man. I had kids. Music wasn’t the whole world for me. And besides, at the time I was having the hits, it wasn’t necessarily easy to see it. These things can be quite subtle. It’s only afterwards that you recognise it for what it is.”

Ocean returned to live music in 2007. He adores playing his classic songs, describing it as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to fans.

“It’s about going out to meet your audience, letting them see you are truly flesh and blood,” he says. “It’s almost as if you are acknowledging them for all the support over the years.”

* Billy Ocean plays INEC Killarney tonight, Theatre Royal Castlebar, Sunday, and National Concert Hall Dublin, Monday.

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