It’s January 2019, a couple of months before the live music world ground to a halt because of a miniscule virus. A sweat drenched John Otway has left the stage of the 120 capacity SX Bar, Brentwood, after his third encore, ending the latest of his 5,000 odd gigs performed up and down the UK constantly for the best part of fifty years. He’s now greeting his faithful fans, shaking hands, getting hugged, selling records and books and exchanging memories. Despite a two-hour gig in a sweat-box of a room and officially being an OAP, Otway is still bouncing around enthusiastically like a teenager on whizz. The venue was packed. The easiest gig I have ever promoted and definitely one of the most fun. At 67, it’s clear John Otway has lost none of his charismatic appeal.
John Otway decided he wanted to be a pop star at the age of 9. He released his first single in 1972 but it was five years later when he suddenly shot to fame, riding the wave of the punk explosion, all the while looking more like a beatnik geography teacher than Johnny Rotten. His own parents declared his career choice strange because “he’d never actually shown any talent for singing”. Nonetheless his song-writing and onstage antics had caught the attention of the industry and his pop-star career beckoned largely on the back of a 1977 performance on legendary BBC2 music show The Old Grey Whistle Test (along with Wild Willy Barrett) of his single Really Free and a cover of a Bob Lind* song Cheryl’s Going Home.
Otway’s typically ebullient performance included a series of forward rolls climaxing in an ill-advised leap on to Barrett’s Yamaha combo (itself sitting atop a wooden box) which collapsed, landing Otway straddling the amp with his most tender body part. Typically, and somewhat tearfully, he carried on.
Top 40 success followed with the single (actually his sixth) Really Free/Beware of the Flowers (cos I’m sure they’re gonna get you yeah) reaching 27 in the UK chart in December 1977, prompting an appearance on Top of the Pops (he was introduced by Elton John no less).
If you need proof of Otway’s ability to endear himself to the British public it came in 1999 when (“B” side) Beware of the Flowers was voted seventh best lyric of all time in a BBC poll. Such is the loyalty of John’s fan base that he had been able to motivate them to vote in sufficient numbers to attain a position ahead of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and, erm Robbie Williams.
The previous year and through similarly astute marketing tactics he had sold out the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate his 50th Birthday. No mean feat for man who calls himself “rock n roll’s greatest failure”.
Otway didn’t bother the charts again until October 2002, when inexplicably he reached a lofty number 9 with Bunsen Burner, meriting a second appearance on TOTP, a full 25 years after the first.
What the success of Bunsen Burner really demonstrated was the affection and loyalty of the army of dedicated fans Otway had collected over decades of touring the UK’s small venues and pubs. And some very smart marketing. John had invited fans to select the song he was to release, revealing the choice at a special gig. Making them co-conspirators in the plan for a second hit was a masterstroke as his legions bought sufficient copies to take the single not only into the chart but into the top ten.
2010 saw the publication of I did it Otway his first autobiography. Two years later 2012 John celebrated his 60th Birthday by producing a film of his life, Otway the Movie – The Story of Rock n Roll’s Greatest Failure. If you haven’t seen it, you probably should. There are lessons for any aspiring musician in the art of self-promotion.
The self-effacing “failure” tag has followed Otway throughout his career and it’s true he has had some misfortune. But maybe it’s a pointer to where the man’s true talent lies. Everyone loves a failure. The guy who tries, fails but gets back up again. Behind this facade is a very smart guy. Some say genius, who works incredibly hard, writes a good tune, often with genuinely poetic, insightful lyrics but who has an instinct for self-promotion which is second to none. He might not have reached the heady heights of some of his contemporaries but he has endured. He’s lasted longer than most. He’s achieved notoriety and affection most musicians only dream of and he’s still going. Planning his next hit. Plotting his next musical adventure. And you’re all invited along for the ride.
Otway’s live set is as much comedy as it is music, relying heavily on audience participation. A mix of Otway classic original songs and stylised covers which over the years he has made his own. The audience are in on every joke. Laughing in the right places in Blockbuster, hitting all their cues for their well-rehearsed responses in House of the Rising Sun (a version of which was on the B-side of Bunsen Burner, recorded at Abbey Road and featuring a choir of Otway fans on bv’s). It’s hard to imagine what the uninitiated would make of this? The audience are as much part of the act as Willy Barrett was (and occasionally still is) or any of his loyal road managers who play his deadpan stooge night after sweaty night.
This year (2021) an old band mate of mine and longstanding Otway fan turned 50. I messaged John on Facebook and asked if he would be kind enough to record a short video to wish my pal happy birthday. He did, of course. John values his fans. He knows the part they play in allowing him to continue to be a pop star.
Back at my little venue in 2019 after the gig was done. His gear packed away in the car, ready for another night in another town. John came over to tell me how much fun he’d had. I suspect he has fun at every gig, such is the love of his fans. I offered my hand to shake, he looked me in the eye, let’s have a hug he said. We hugged.
John Otway, pop star of the people, music industry legend, and a genuinely good bloke.
* Bob Lind was an American singer songwriter best known for his hit Elusive Butterfly.
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