Really Free: An Interview With John Otway

Photo: “Otway Conquers the World!” courtesy of the artist

John Otway, born October 2 1952 in Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire,England) has built an impressive and devoted “cult” audience since the 1970s.  At 54, he continues to tour extensively year-round, leaving audiences breathless with his amazing stage antics (leaps, jumps, hurtles) that he performs without missing a beat while he sings. John Otway’s whimsical and self-deprecating sense of humor have been his enduring trademarks since he enjoyed his first hit (‘Really Free’) in 1977.

Otway shot to fame on the back of the 1970s Punk rock scene in the UK, with a now legendary, gymnastic performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test.  In 1977, his sixth single (the half-spoken love song ‘Really Free’) reached number 27 in the UK Singles Chart, earning Otway a five album deal with Polydor Records.  His first album, recorded with fellow Aylesbury native Wild Willy Barrett, was produced by Pete Townshend, but sold few copies.  His follow-up singles fared little better, despite their outrageous promotion.  One of the more imaginative promotional stunts was an offer for Otway to come to a buyer’s house and perform the 1979 single, ‘Frightened and Scared’ if their copy was one of only three copies from which the vocal had been omitted.  Otway and Barrett enjoyed only one other UK chart success: the July 1980 single ‘DK 50-80’ which was a modest #45 hit.  Not discouraged, Otway carried on as a solo act, and despite poor record sales, his fans remained devoted as ever. Otway became a successful live performer, despite having had only two singles make the UK Singles Chart by that time.

His 1990 autobiography “Cor Baby, That’s Really Me” (subtitled Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure) was a brilliant study in self-deprecation.  Within weeks, his book outsold almost all of his albums combined, while his touring continued to draw sizable audiences in the UK and the eastern US.

His fan-driven campaign saw his ‘Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You Yeah’ voted the seventh greatest lyric of all time in a BBC poll.  In 2002, when asked what he wanted most for his 50th birthday, Otway replied “a second hit”. A concerted drive, including a poll (scrutinized by the Electoral Reform Society) to select the track, saw ‘Bunsen Burner’ (with music sampled from the Trammps’ hit song ‘Disco Inferno’) reach number nine in the UK Singles Chart on October 6, earning Otway his second appearance ever on Top Of The Pops.  In order to encourage fans to buy more than one copy each of the single, he released three different versions. The flip-side of “Bunsen Burner” was a cover of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, recorded at Abbey Road Studios and featuring 900 of his fans on backing vocals, each of whom was credited by name on the single’s sleeve.

Otway currently tours with Richard Holgarth, as well as with his Big Band which includes Murray Torkildsen, Seymour, Adam Batterbee and guest keyboard player Barry Upton.  Throughout 2005 and 2006 Otway teamed up with The Hamsters and Wilko Johnson as part of The Mad, the Bad & the Dangerous tour. A DVD of the tour was released in 2007.

A world tour was planned in October 2006, in which Otway, his band and 300 fans were to embark on a world tour with gigs scheduled in Las Vegas, Sydney, Shanghai and Dubai.  Sadly, due to insufficient numbers (150 signed up) the tour was cancelled.  Afterward, Otway rejoined Wild Willy Barrett for a UK tour from August to October 2009.

Today, John Otway continues to tour almost year round to adoring audiences.  He also delivers occasional, tongue in cheek “lectures” on the theme “Making success out of failure”.  In May 2010 the sequel to his autobiography I Did It Otway (also subtitled Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure) was published. The book was designed by John Haxby who has also designed Otway’s album sleeves over the past 15 years.

Taking a well earned break from touring, John sat with this writer in an internet cafe on a sunny beach in Jamaica, staring out over a pristine stretch of blue ocean shore, as he reflected on a career that’s been “really free” to say the very least.

I’ve read that you’ve wanted to be a singer and performer your whole life.

By the time I was just nine years old I already knew I wanted to be a Pop star, but my mum wanted me to have a “proper” job.  All these years later, and I still don’t have a proper job…and it feels good, lol!

My childhood…my school years were a bit rough.  I got picked on a lot, not just by my school mates but the teachers as well!  I got bullied terribly!  I wanted to…I guess I just wanted to show them, prove to those awful people that I was really going to do something, be someone that everyone would know!

Your “physicality” during your performances literally takes my breath away! Have you ever been seriously hurt during a performance?

No hospitalizations yet, but a number of bruises though.

You and “Wild Willy” Barrett were surely one of the most inspired pairings ever to grace the stage. How did you two meet?

It was inevitable.  We both came from Aylesbury, and unfortunately for Willy there’s not a great pool of musicians to pick from there, lol.

As an ardent fan of yours, I really wish you were better known in the States. At this time it seems that in the United States you are only well known in the eastern half. Do you have a “game plan” to conquer the rest of the U.S.?

I did have a game plan to conquer the world, but I’ve gone back to the drawing board.  Ask me again in a few months!

John, without a doubt you are one of the busiest artists I’ve ever seen.  You seem to be on tour almost year round!  Are there any places you haven’t been to yet that you’d like to in the near future?

Most of the rest of the world, apart from the UK.  I did try and do the rest of the world a few years back, but that didn’t work out too well.  I still want to write a book about just how much that didn’t work out well, lol!

I loved your brilliant plans for the Otway World Tour: gather a large group of devoted fans (approximately 300) together and fly with them on a seemingly nonstop world tour, while documenting the whole event on film. Exactly what was it that prevented it from happening?

Possibly it was a bit too ambitious.  It was a 1.1 million pound project and I hadn’t a bean!  We managed to keep the project afloat up until four weeks before we were due to go.  What killed it in the end was Air Tahiti finding an 80k bill they had forgotten.

What was your initial reaction when you found out that you’d been voted as one of the “Lyricists of the Millennium”? Speaking for myself, I enjoy your lyrics a lot more than I do those of Dylan. Yours are a lot more fun!

I knew a few of the fans had been voting for ‘Beware of the Flowers’ as the fans had chosen what to vote for on the fans’ web group. The first I knew about getting voted No. 7 was when I got an e-mail from a fan who had been to the recording of the program. It seemed to be a battle between the Otway fans and Robbie Williams’ fans. My first reaction was to wonder if there would be some kind of press backlash.  As it turned out the press (apart from Q Magazine) were very kind.

I’ve heard different stories on how you came to write the lyrics to ‘Bunsen Burner.’ How did that song come about?

The story about my daughter’s chemistry homework is largely true; I did start work on it for that reason.  I finished it off lyrically when we were looking for material for the hit.

I love the sheer joy in your “Top of the Pops” live performance of ‘Bunsen Burner.’  How did it feel returning to the show after all those years since the last hit (‘Really Free’)? Had the show changed significantly since you were there last?

When I was trying to get the second hit, the thing that mattered most to me was not the chart position, but being back on Top of the Pops.  I just felt that being on that program summed up what a hit was more than anything else. What was strange was that when I did it in 1977 everyone mimed and we did it live. When I returned to the program in 2002 everyone was doing it live and we were miming. Loved it, and in the end we got both a great chart position and Top of the Pops too!

I enjoyed the two promo video compilations of yours that were on “YouTube”. Is that sweet little white-haired lady seen discussing your singing abilities really your mum?  She is adorable! What year was that filmed?

ATV made a documentary about me in 1978 called “Stardustman” because I used to be a dustman in Aylesbury.  They filmed my parents as part of that program.

Are there any plans to gather together a collection of your music videos for sale? So far, I’ve only been able to watch bits of them on the promo videos we discussed earlier.

I‘ve put together a bunch of stuff on DVDR but it’s in PAL form; I can get that to you if you have a machine to play it.

Sounds like a deal, John! Thanks for taking time to chat. I hope to see you in the States again, soon.

You’re very sweet!

“John Otway’s World Tour Promo Video”

“Otway Promo”

“Really Free”

“Bunsen Burner”

“Cheryl’s Going Home”

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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4 Responses to Really Free: An Interview With John Otway

  1. Lucy Duhon says:

    Wow, I had no idea Otway’s first album was produced by PT! (cor baby, that’s) really cool!

    Very nice interview on someone few have heard of. (And I liked his 300-fan tour idea; that’s the way it should be. 😉 )

  2. Shirley Pena Shirley says:

    I totally agree, Lucy!
    I wish that John would take a deep breath and try again for that Otway World Tour!

  3. rd says:

    Very enjoyable interview, thanks!

    I still regret missing out when Otway played in LA, opening for Pere Ubu at The Whisky in 1979. It was a duo with Ollie Halsall. If I knew then…

    • Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, rd!
      Sadly, I too missed that LA
      show at The Whisky in ’79.
      Folks still talk about John’s
      performance that night!

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