IN 1986, Billy Ocean was king of the world. He had sold more than 20 million records and made history as the first black Briton to achieve a US number one, with cheesy masterpiece ‘When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going’.
And then, at the height of it all, Ocean walked away. He had come to understand there were more important things in life than wealth and the approving shrieks of strangers.
“It reached a point where I was drifting further and further from my family,” says the 66-year-old in a Caribbean lilt retained from his Trinidadian childhood. “I needed a break and I took a break. Not a lot of people would have been brave enough to do that. But it was a very good thing for me as I got to be around for my kids. There is great joy in that.”
Ocean has just released a greatest hits album, complemented with a second disc of cover versions. He is in a very different place today than at the height of his career. Back then, he was obsessed with success. Now he is simply grateful for the opportunities life has presented.
“You were motivated by desire to do well, you were motivated by the success you had already enjoyed. To be in England, and told you have have a number one in America. You can’t imagine how much that meant to me.
However, acclaim in America would be his ultimate undoing. Being a star in Britain was one thing. Success in the United States was something else entirely. He found himself away from home for endless weeks and concluded that his career was at too high a price.
“In the end I perhaps became TOO successful. It got too much for me. I’m envious of bands. You’ve got a bunch of guys who can share the responsibilities. As a solo artist life can be very isolating.”
Ocean was born in Trinidad, where his father was a popular local musician. When he was ten, the family moved to Brixton in London and he regards himself as British.
He returned to music a decade ago and while his profile is considerably lower than at the height of his popularity, he is enjoying his music as much as ever. That is clear from the new double LP, wherein he tackles Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ and Sinatra’s ‘It Was A Very Good Year’.
“I’m loving it. The sets are good. The audience seem to like it. I do all the hits obviously. But I change things around every night, just to give it a twist. “
Of all his accomplishments, he takes special pride in helping rejuvenate Brixton, which had fallen on hard times as his career took off.
Today a live successful venue, Brixton Academy was a mouldering shed when Ocean chose is as the location for the video ‘When The Going Gets Tough’. A huge MTV hit, the promo famously featured three of the biggest movie stars of the era: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, who had starred in the tie-in movie Jewel on the Nile (though there were difficulties as the local crew caught wind that the actors were not members of the Musician’s Union).
“It was uplifting for me and for the community to be able to do that,” says Ocean. “We literally brought the Academy back to life — we raised the dead.”
We have to ask — what was his opinion of Boyzone’s 1999 cover of said tune? “It was fantastic because it gave me another number one. I had a number one with it for a month, the Boyzone for three weeks. It was great. I actually met Ronan later in New Zealand. We sang ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ together. He was wonderful — a very lovely young man.”
- Here You Are: The Best Of Billy Ocean is out now.