It was 40 years ago today….John Otway

Coming from a small city city myself I’m always drawn to bands and artists who appear, as if by magic, from somewhere that a bit different and remote. A sense of physical remoteness often lends a certain individuality to their music that’s sometimes lacking in those bands that spring from the big cities. Growing up in a small town means there’s not much to copy and this was very much the case in the days before YouTube. I always hoped that Norwich could have produced something of note, I suspect that if had had ever achieved this it would have been something a bit quirky.

Mark E Smith was an individual of course but although I kind of admired him, he didn’t really speak to me, he was from the North. But, show me an individual from somewhere that’s leafy and has a bit of history and I’m going to be interested.

I’ve never been to Aylesbury but I’ve always thought it must be quite nice, it has given it’s name to a breed of ducks and it is located in Buckinghamshire which has got to be a bit posh. The only band of any note with anything to do with the town are Marillion. I can relate to that, Norwich was full of people like Marillion and it show a certain resolve to form a prog rock band at the end of the 70’s which seemed to be the last thing that anyone wanted.

The other musical export from Buckinghamshire’s county town was John Otway. Otway had been around for about 5 years, starting off in slightly eccentric country rock and had become progressively eccentric and extrovert. He had teamed up with another of the town’s musicians Wild Willy Barrett (Roger to his mum). Barrett was a bit older, one of those guys who can play just about anything, offer to repair your banjo and then sell you a bit of hash. He looked like a hippie but there seemed to be little that was idealist about him, he tagged onto Otway, providing some much needed musical input but preferred to stay well away from the crazyness. On stage he looked like a man doing his job but not particularly enjoying it.

In comparison Otway had no filter, what you saw was what you got. In many respects he was the British Jonathan Richman. Otway wrote simple songs but had a unique world-view, he also wanted to entertain.

To a certain extent his career was build around one song ‘ Really Free’ was Otway’s ‘Roadrunner’, we had never heard anything quite like this before, it was funny without really being obvious (mind you, I rather enjoyed Joe Dolce’s ‘Shutupa Your Face’ a few years later). Otway and Barrett’s first album was produced by Pete Townsend and he did a pretty good job of it. Polydor, a record company mentally unbalanced  by the shock waves of punk decided that Otway was going to be the next big thing and offered him a ridiculous sum of money to record five albums for them.

By this point the duo had made their greatest contribution to music, namely an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Here they are introduced by Bob Harris with one of the best live television performances ever !

By this point Otway had huge appeal, he clearly was not a punk but he appealed to the rest of us who weren’t punks either but had kind of got fed up with Jazz Rock.

And so when it was announced in early 1978 that Otway would be commencing a tour which would include the University of East Anglia there was no doubt that myself and my new friends from college would be going. None of us were punks, I suspect we took our flares and greatcoats and sat cross legged while we watched the great man do his work.

To my shame I cant remember a huge amount about the gig. By this time Barrett and Otway had split I think, hence his forthcoming record entitled ‘All Balls and no Willy’. With almost unlimited record company money, he had a full band of hired hands and put on a pretty slick show. The thing that struck me most was he played an electric guitar with a rear fitting that slotted onto an robust looking belt. This meant Otway could not only remove his instrument instantly but he could also perform gymnastics such as somersaults while playing. What a great idea I thought why does no one else do that, 40 years later the idea still hasn’t caught on.

Polydor never really recouped their money as Otway failed to follow up with any hits. Yet again though this is another example of the power of punk. Otway suddenly had a following. After slogging away since 1972 he had to wait until the audience was ready, post Pistols we were all a bit more liberal minded about what actually constituted a musical performance. Although the hits had gone Otway maintained a core following. Through New Romantic, House and Techno, Ottway continued to perform. There were enough people in on the joke to indulge him in the odd publicity stunt and eventually after a concerted effort he got his 50th birthday wish another ‘hit’ when ‘Bunsen’ Burner’ reached number 6 in the charts. There’s been a book and a film and although he’s now eligible for his pension Otway keeps his brand going, he recently played a room above my local, it’s not the University of East Anglia but I am reliably informed he pack the place.

And he still hasn’t fully exploited the Otway guitar belt!

This entry was posted in memories of 70s, rock music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s