What: John Otway in concert, with guests the Belleregards.
It was 1989 when John Otway, then more than a decade into a farcically unsuccessful music career, embraced the status of “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure.”
Otway had just written a memoir, titled Cor, Baby, That’s Me Up There! and the subtitle staked the claim to the greatest failure in rock.
“There’s a certain amount of truth in it, (with) my career having gone so badly,” he says, over the phone from the Cannes Film Festival in France, where he is flogging his documentary film. “I thought it would be quite amusing to write a rock book and instead of complaining about the management and record companies, (be) more self-effacing.”
The book tour was a revelation. “I had to promote myself as rock and roll’s greatest failure, which was a lot more interesting and a lot more enjoyable than what I’d been doing for years and years, trying to tell people I was, you know, a rock star.”
In England in the 1970s, young, kinetic John Otway knew he would be a rock star, and in 1977 it seemed to happening — though in eccentric, hapless fashion.
Otway, who plays Zaphod Beeblebrox in Ottawa May 26, had a hit with his song Really Free, though his big break came on the British TV show The Old Grey Whistle Stop. Otway and longtime collaborator Wild Willy Barrett were introduced with this: “Very simply, they’re crazy.” More than five million people watched Otway leap onto an amp, then slip and land squarely upon his crown jewels. On live television.
Well, whatever works. They were booked on the TV show Top of the Pops, introduced by a young Elton John. Then Polydor Records gave Otway and Barrett a contract and advance of 250,000 pounds — more than $1 million CDN today. So Otway did what any self-respecting “pop star” would do: he moved into a posh flat and bought himself a Bentley, though he had no driver’s licence.
(He also, somewhere among this, married a woman from Ottawa, and spent time here.)
His memoir and the 2012 documentary, Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway The Movie, describe an endless series of gaffes, missteps and dubious decisions. New songs — such as Schnot, or Beware of the Flowers (“Cos I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You Yeah”) failed to chart, so Otway hit upon the notion of “living room concerts.” Three copies of his new album were released without vocals, and if you got one Otway would come to your house to sing the vocals live. As one promoter, familiar with Otway’s wild stage presence, says in the film, “the last thing you wanted was John in your living room.”
Meanwhile, Otway and Barrett broke up repeatedly and badly at the worst possible moments, and publicly humiliated one another. On stage, Barrett repeatedly head butted Otway into a mic, cutting his forehead. Otway released an album without Wild Willy and titled it, All Balls and No Willy.
It all seemed insane and hopeless, but Otway persevered and by 2000 he was gaining traction. His fans were growing in number and were almost unbelievably dedicated. In 2002, during Britain’s annual hysteria over which song will be No. 1 at Christmas, Otway’s fans bought enough copies to push his new single — a mashup of his song Bunson Burner and the ’70s dance hit Disco Inferno — to No. 9 on the charts.
“The idea of having a big hit 25 years after your last one not only appealed to my sense of humour, it appealed to (the fans’) as well,” Otway says, and laughs, which he does frequently.
His fans buy him birthday gifts every year, including, a decade or so ago, a theremin, the spooky instrument used in every sci-fi or cheesy horror soundtrack. Otway, ever a surprise, has become very good at playing his theremin, and will bring it on this tour.
“It’s the best instrument to play with. You just wave at it and it makes these extraordinary noises.” Rather like Otway himself, then.
Here’s the best testament to Otway’s fans: 20 of them from around Britain are, at their own expense, accompanying him to Canada and attending all three shows in Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto. It makes one wonder about the title of Otway’s 1979 album, Where Did I Go Right? It’s hard to say, but somewhere along the way, he did.Tags: concert, film, movie, music, release, television, tour, tv