Born March 25, 1942
Cult figures are an acquired taste. Prompting hysterical hero-worship on the one hand, yet total mystification as to what all the fuss is about on the other, they leave few indifferent. But ultimately love them or loathe them, one can't help but find them curiously fascinating. And fewer come more fascinating than Richard O'Brien...
For someone who has been hailed the 'godfather' of the greatest cult phenomenon of all time, Richard O'Brien remains remarkably composed about his extraordinary status. "ROCKY is a piece of trivia that's appealed to a lot of people and given them a lot of pleasure. I guess you could say I'm proud to have done that. The nicest thing about it though is that now I can call anybody up, tell them who I am, and get a few minutes of their time."
Such an unusually modest, almost self-depracating outlook seems strangely at odds with the egotistical stance we've come to expect of cult figures. Nevertheless, be it by default or design, it is O'Brien's very atypically which has kept him so buoyant in a business that is a veritable minefield of casualties.
Born Richard Smith in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire - the youngest of four children, young Rick's aberrant course began in 1952, when his father - a clerk for the borough council - shipped the family out to rural Tauranga in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty to take up sheep farming.
"Flit was rather like living in the mid-west of America," O'Brien muses, recalling his remote childhood existence, "though contrary to popular opinion, we had all the latest music and films. The music was especially good as we got American originals while England, spawned all those terrible '50s copies."
Indeed the fanciful, faraway worlds conjured up on celluloid and vinyl provided temporary sanctuary for the youngster whose mild manner, academic mediocrity and slight build rendered him the butt of cruel juvenile taunting.
"I felt a disaster," he admits of his schooling. "And I hated the competition, any sort of competition." Opting out of the educational rat-race at 15, he reluctantly went on - more through familial duty than choice - to study a 3-year dairy farming course before veering off in search of his true vocation. "I was without direction," he reflects, "nothing to look forward to, no dreams, just a callow youth at one of those roundabouts in life."
When trial spells as a barber and trainee glazier, however, still failed to satisfy his yen for a more colourful existence, O'Brien headed back to Blighty and the impending psychedelia of London. There, after aimlessly drifting through a series of jobs driving builder's trucks, he convinced a stunt agency to exploit his natural skills as a horse-rider, adopted (for Equity purposes) his grandfather's surname, and unwittingly migrated into the outer orbits of a profession that would ultimately prove his raison d'etre.
Life on the stunt-line, in fact, was fine for a while. It "paid £30 a day, which was a lot better then driving lorries" and the O'Brien CV even started to accumulate an impressive list of film credits - CARRY ON COWBOY and CASINO ROYALE to name but two. In time, however, merely being on the periphery was not enough. His subliminal ambitions had been aroused. He wanted a bigger slice of the action. He wanted to be an actor.
With a goal at last to aim for, he promptly set about reaching it. Evening classes in 'method' acting were financed by a day-job as a Kilburn dustman and every other waking hour was spent doing the rounds of London's theatreland in search of bit parts or backstage work in any production that would have him.
"The great thing about the '60s was that you didn't have to go to RADA to get anywhere," he says of his self-styled apprenticeship.
Indeed innate talent and sheer determination were the only qualifications needed, for after gaining a modicum of actual performing experience with assorted experimental fringe theatre groups, he promptly entered the mainstream as an ASM 'cum understudy for the mid-'60s blockbuster ROBERT & ELIZABETH. And since then his career has largely was continued to toe the musical line.
As a performer - widely acclaimed for his vocal versatility - he has notched up a healthy quota of stage credits - GULLIVERS TRAVELS (1968), HAIR (1970/1), JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1972), TOOTH OF CRIME (1974), EASTWOOD HO! (1981), LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986), and THE NEWS (1986) amongst them. He even popped up on one of Alex Harvey s novel projects - a recorded history of THE LOCHNESS MONSTER (1977).
But it is perhaps for his work in more creative capacities that he has gained greater notoriety. Songwriting - particularly rock n'roll in the mould of his idols, Buddy Holly and Otis Redding - has, in fact, always been O'Brien's overriding passion. THUNDEROCK, the first endeavor to flow from his pen was written during his teens and throughout the 60s he casually co-wrote material with Liverpudlian Arthur Kelly - a bass-playing associate of George Harrison's. One idea (a potential theme tune for the movie CARRY ON COWBOY) actually made it to the acetate stage (before being jettisoned by the unimpressed film producers); others were simply stockpiled pending a suitable outlet.
Indeed, O'Brien readily admits that ROCKY HORROR - far from being premeditated - was itself "an excuse to use up some of the songs I'd written already which had never been performed." He is, ergo, quite genuinely bemused by both the hoo-ha the piece has generated and its staying power.
"I count my blessings every day as far as ROCKY is concerned," he says. "We think its peaked and it just goes on and on!"
He has, of course, tried to analyze the secret of the show's success and, like many others, believes that its immediate appeal boils down to a mix of "Sex, rock n'roll and gothic horror; not a bad threesome". But its ongoing popularity? That, he feels, is a more complex, open-ended issue.
"I think I invested it with my psyche and that subliminally it feeds the audience psyche. It has a hypnotic hold, like a fairy tale invested with psychological tremors 'Daddy, won't you tell me the story again?'. You never tire of hearing the fairy story as a child and that's why you never tire of ROCKY."
One suspects that quietly O'Brien is rather glad we don't, for it is ROCKY HORROR'S continuing fame and fortune which has largely allowed him to pursue his musical penchant.
Indeed, one immediate boon in the wake of the show's success was a recording contract with Epic, which allowed him to air more material from his song cache. Under the moniker of Kimi & Ritz, he and then wife, Kimi Wong (an actress whom he'd met and married during his HAIR days) released two singles on the label. The first - issued in the December of '73 and dominated by a typically slushy seasonal duet MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY - is of particular interest to ROCKY HORROR collectors insofar as the B-side carries an early mono, Kimi-solo version of EDDIE, the song belatedly added to the musical's score and first officially heard on the ORC album as EDDIE'S TEDDY. The same disc, albeit with a slightly different A-side mix ( D.J. Version ) was re-issued in November 74 and swiftly followed 3 months later by the breath-takingly titled I WAS IN LOVE WITH DANNY BUT THE CROWD WAS IN LOVE WITH DEAN - a nifty rock-country ditty with a catchy hoe-down riff.
Both 45s, like ROCKY HORROR before them, immediately betray O'Brien's lyrical dexterity and tendency towards a minimalist style - the constant repetition of chords interspersed with subtle changes in tone and tempo. It is a bewitching combination which, once ROCKY HORROR started globe-trotting, he - in collaboration with Richard Hartley - set about exploiting. The fruits of their efforts, however, met with mixed success. Whilst two Australian ventures - THE STRIPPER (1982), a stage musical adaptation of the Carter Brown American gangland thriller, and THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE (1982), a film soundtrack to which the pair contributed 3 songs (NAME YOUR POISON, EVIL MIDNIGHT and the themetune CAPTAIN Invincible) - elicited a positive response, two British stage shows - T.ZEE (1976), a futuristic send up of the Tarzan legend, and DISASTER (1978), a melodramatic tale of impending collision between two giant icebergs and a Caribbean island - were both harshly panned. Certainly here in the U.K. O'Brien's post-ROCKY HORROR creativity has tended to suffer as a result of the Media's preoccupation with trying to draw parallels. True - the fact that he has stuck to much the same basic formula (i.e. parody wrapped up in contemporary tunes) has doubtless compounded the dilemma. But perhaps what really prompts this comparative tendency is the critics obvious inability to pidgeon-hole him. The offbeat manner in which he marries punchy melodies and witty lyrics to obscure imagery makes it extremely difficult for them to hammer the end-product into any one box.
His compositions in fact always seem contradictory. Though superficially masquerading as bizarre out n'out pieces they - structurally-speaking - fall well-within accepted time-honored parameters. And it is this strange coupling of the conventional and unconventional which makes O'Brien and his works appear so perplexing. They are at once very young and very old, very progressive and very antiquated, very risqué and very safe. They cannot fail to appeal. They cannot fail to offend.
Trapped then in a time warp of the Media's making where everything he does seems unlikely to be judged on its own merit O'Brien has unsurprisingly dropped full-scale musical composition over more recent years in favor of lesser-related projects (eg. THE CRYSTAL MAZE, THE INK THIEF). There has nevertheless been no let-up in his songwriting activities. Like most popular composers - inhabiting that strange twilight zone between amateurism and expertise - the man is a musical pack-rat, salting away new tunes in the hope that one day - as in ROCKY HORROR's case - they will eventually come in handy. Most remain on the backburner but some do occasionally get aired at London clubs, ROCKY HORROR conventions and the like where he makes impromptu appearances under the guise of the demonic Mephistopheles Smith. Indeed it is a one-man show he is continually refining. "It'll be in two distinct halves; the first half will be the backing singers doing some rock- n-roll songs I've written, then the second half I arrive and they fade into the background as I take over their lives. It's something that has alot of mileage in it." Well if ROCKY HORROR is anything to go by!
Profile by Karen B. Faulkner, 1994
Richard O'Brien was a out of work actor when he wrote the musical THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. He has performed in the British companies of HAIR and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Since ROCKY HORROR he wrote and performed in the plays DISASTER and T-ZEE in London and he wrote the movie SHOCK TREATMENT, which was the 1981 unsuccessful follow-up to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (which is also now a cult favorite). His film credits include JUBILEE, FLASH GORDON and REVOLUTION.
Interestingly enough, he came into a second wave of celebrity when he became the host of the British TV game show THE CRYSTAL MAZE which was a top-rated show for many years. Now Richard enjoys being a TV star and has become a triple threat as a performer, writer and director. He owns the rights to the play THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and oversees the many productions worldwide and always has time for the fans attending various RHPS conventions and charity events.
For more info on Richard O'Brien, go to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).