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John Otway

+ {John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett}

A punk-poet of his generation, English singer-songwriter JOHN OTWAY is master of the quip, always best served up live and in-yer-face. Like some hyperactive kid accompanied by his overbearing uncle, jester John and his sparring partner WILD WILLY BARRETT (on custom guitar and trusty violin) always suggest (no depict) their long antagonistic alliance has not been a walk in the park – more a “deep & meaningless” trip up a “misty mountain”. Pigeonhole OTWAY (and WWB) at your peril, the singer’s facial expressions and bare-faced/bare-chested antics while playing the theremin remind one why the late 70s were such a hoot. BARRETT, meanwhile, delivers his dead-pan humour by utilising a brown wheelie-bin for wah-wah effect, while also sawing into, and hammering at the heart of his spare acoustic guitar. Truly amazing and almost “cor baby” unbelievable, amiable underdog OTWAY is the definition of “Really Free”.
Born 2 October 1952 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, from the age of 9 he always wanted to be a pop/rock star. Growing up with the sounds of The BEATLES and The ROLLING STONES ringing in his ears, the odds were stacked against a solo John O following in his idols’ footsteps, until life-affirming experiences with a BOB DYLAN album and a trip to a fortune teller revealed that one day he would become a star; trouble was, the crystal ball had one stipulation: that it would involve a blond-haired musician! – in the years to come only WILD WILLY BARRETT fitted the bill.
In 1972, after earlier supporting The GROUNDHOGS, John hired a school friend of his older bullying brother. The aforementioned Willy subsequently played on his self-financed kooky bluegrass 45, `Misty Mountain’, apparently cut in a shed! A copy was sent to DJ John Peel, who aired its B-side `Gypsy’ on Radio One; the song duly reached the ears of none other than PETE TOWNSHEND, who offered to produce the song(s) properly.
The limitation of OTWAY on his three chords, while The WHO legend bashed away skilfully at his Gibson, left the novice a little embarrassed, but in awe. The collaboration did bear fruit however, as John was signed to TOWNSHEND’s label at the time, Track Records. OTWAY’s subsequent recording, `Murder Man’, was issued in autumn 1973 (even on M.C.A. in the States!), although its lack of success saw both labels losing interest. OTWAY returned to his day-time job.
In 1975, still desperate to hit the big time, the hairy hillbilly hunk (how else could you describe this man?!) self-financed another TOWNSHEND-produced track, `Louisa On A Horse’. John wrote to nearly 200 record companies at the time but failed to receive so much as a reply, although Track re-issued `Louisa…’ in 1976, credited fortuitously this time as JOHN OTWAY & WILD WILLY BARRETT. The latter had invented an unusual fix-on distortion pedal to beef up their sound on `Racing Cars (Jet Spotter Of The Track)’.
In 1977, punk-rock had taken over, meaning that the duo’s DIY approach and eccentric appearance could get them regular gigs. The pair finally entered Chalk Farm Studios to lay down more tracks for a debut LP, although after its completion, Track Records showed no interest. Undaunted, the irrepressible OTWAY encouraged his parents to re-mortgage their house as a means of financing its release and, in the spring of ‘77, the record finally hit the shops on the pun-intended Extracted imprint. It sold over 2,000 copies within a month and, thankfully, the duo (and John’s parents, obviously!) were rewarded when the mighty Polydor signed them for a 5-figure sum, re-releasing their eponymous gem later that summer.
Containing all of the above and an outstanding version of BOB LIND’s `Cheryl’s Going Home’, the album in question JOHN OTWAY & WILD WILLY BARRETT {*9} wasn’t quite punk, nor was it quite country or folk, in fact it wasn’t quite anything – just “Really Free”. At the tail end of ‘77, Polydor and the pair released their finest 5½ minutes over two sides: the evergreen `Really Free’ and a yet exclusive flip, `Beware Of The Flowers (‘Cause I’m Sure They’re Going To Get You, Yeh!’. Promoted on BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test, highlighting the daft-as-a-brush OTWAY somersaulting into a speaker and knocking out BARRETT’s lead, the double-A side cracked the Top 30 as well as John’s back.
Not for the final time, the pair split for a while, and a solo OTWAY ballad 45, `Geneve’ (actually a song from their debut set), appeared in early ‘78. On some sort of contractual stipulation, OTWAY & BARRETT’s sophomore set, the Top 50 entry DEEP & MEANINGLESS (1978) {*6} was next off the conveyor belt; and it contained former B-side `Beware Of The Flowers’ – a plus on this occasion. Whether croaking or crooning painfully in his own inimitable fashion, John turned his hand to C&W nuggets, `The Alamo’ and a medley of `Riders In The Sky’. How could one fail to raise a smirk, nay a smile, nay a laugh-out-loud to his er… treatment of these standards, although the soft-ish `Josephine’ (a long 7 minutes) or the BONZO DOG Doo-Dah-esque `Oh My Body Is Making Me’, splurged out from the “Canyons of his Mind”.
Polydor Records soon offered John a renewed 6-figure sum, while Willy B’s solo advance for his under-promoted set `Call Of The Wild’ (1979) was only a fraction in comparison. Augmented by Ollie Halsall (guitar), Julian Smedley (fiddle), Morgan Fisher (keyboards), Paul Martinez (bass), Charlie Morgan (drums) and Maggie Ryder (backing vocals), wannabe solo star JOHN OTWAY reeled off a couple of fun-time singles; `Baby’s In The Club’ probably winning over flop LP taster, `Frightened & Scared’. It was no coincidence that BONZOs/RUTLES man NEIL INNES was chosen to co-produce the singer’s solo debut set, WHERE DID I GO RIGHT? (1979) {*5}, but `It’s A Pain’ and the concluding poem `The Highwayman’ couldn’t save it from the bargain bins.
When both parties found solo life tough, OTWAY & BARRETT decided to re-unite as the new decade approached. Novelty classics becoming a speciality for the duo, `Birthday Boy’ and the Top 50 breaker `DK 50/80’ were no exceptions to the rule; think SUICIDE-meets-BUDDY HOLLY – for both. Opening back-to-back on the pair’s eclectic set WAY & BAR (1980) {*6} – if you’d bought the latter you had free entry into a gig! – it was no surprise that self-indulgence and financial lunacy were hand-in-glove on this occasion. Saving the record from another Frisbee throwing competition after the pub shut were, not the baffling inclusion of `Baby’s In The Club’, but the aisle-writhing `Body Talk’ and a seminal re-vamp of BACHARACH & DAVID’s `The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (sung in JAKE THACKRAY aplomb).
While BARRETT finally had a result with garnering a record deal for his long-in-the-can `Krazy Kong Album’ (1980) – cut and re-cut from several years of demos – OTWAY signed on a short-term deal with Stiff Records. The culmination of his time with the independent (and that’s not his re-tread of TOM JONES’ `Green, Green Grass Of Home’), the BARRETT-penned `Headbutts’ single (inspiration from a head-crashing pub-goer) caused controversy that led to the label rejecting the track; then again it could be found cheekily on OTWAY’s own imprint, Stiff Indie.
1982’s punningly-titled ALL BALLS & NO WILLY {*4} – backed by the EUROPEANS – stretched the joke beyond laughs, especially on the embarrassing opening cover of ROY ORBISON’s `In Dreams’. Many of the songs were co-penned with Chris Birkett (from oi! `Too Much Air Not Enough Oxygen’ to the Xmas-y `Middle Of Winter’), but OTWAY’s sprawling sense of humour was now not in demand as alternative comedy stars began to shine through.
After four years in rock’s wilderness in which only the odd single was released, desperation set in when he inspiringly sent a private pressing of the traditional `The New Jerusalem’ to the mighty Warner Brothers, alongside their logo, accompanied by a cheeky 3-figure cheque and a letter stating he’d sign them and not the reverse; they didn’t sue and duly signed him(!), releasing the single officially, as well as the 1987 follow-on 45, `Whoops Apocolypse’ (sic). His tongue-in-cheek had seen no boundaries when the un-politically corrected “John Otway’s Gleatest Hits” compilation was presented as a mock Japanese pressing by Strike Back Records in ’86; his earlier B-side cover of BACHMAN TURNER OVERDRIVE’s stuttering `You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ was never more inappropriate.
OTWAY & BARRETT’s swansong set, THE WIMP & THE WILD (1989) {*6} was greeted with the usual marmite effect of disdain or amusement, while the record itself ranged from “wimp-ish” acoustics from John to stripped-down covers; e.g. The SWEET’s `Blockbuster’ and blues classic `House Of The Rising Sun’ or fuzzed-up introspective punk song, `Last Of The Mohicans’.
Apart from acting in a 1987 episode of Supergran (the children’s TV series), plus on William Tell (as Conrad) and Forever Green (as Martyn), OTWAY was seen in several commercials for companies Toshiba, Bradford & Bingley, Boots, Danepak Bacon (2), MacDonald’s, Irn Bru and Wickes DIY. In 1990, Omnibus Books pressed OTWAY’s hilarious autobiography, Cor Baby, That’s Really Me (sub-titled “Rock And Roll’s Greatest Failure”), which gave the confused reader an insight into the madcap world of the man’s psyche.
The rest of the 90s were basically spent on the fringes of rock music, although albums did appear from time to time. Based on his version of the aforementioned BOB LIND classic, OTWAY’s collaboration with ATTILA (THE STOCKBROKER) on CHERYL – A ROCK OPERA (1991) {*7} was, as stated on the sleeve: “an everyday tale of Satanism, Trainspotting, Drug Abuse and Unrequited Love”.
Inevitably, the obviously-titled UNDER THE COVERS & OVER THE TOP (1992) {*5} was released, featuring the likes of `I Am The Walrus’ (The BEATLES), `Woodstock’ (JONI MITCHELL), and the singles `I Will Survive’ (GLORIA GAYNOR) and `Two Little Boys’ (ROLF HARRIS), among others. On the back of a JOHN OTWAY and the Big Band LIVE! (1994) {*5} set, underlining so many fresh interpretations of his once great songs, 1995’s cornily-titled PREMATURE ADULATION {*5} fell short of expectations.
JOHN OTWAY & THE BIG BAND – with Murray Torkildsen (guitar), Richard Holgarth (guitar, keyboards), Andy Haring (keyboards), Seymour Fluids (bass) and Adam Batterbee (drums) – finalised another cheekily-titled album, THE SET REMAINS THE SAME (2000) {*6}; simply another Ot-way to get your hits across.
Drawing in a crowd of around 4,000 for his birthday gig, 2002 also saw him turn 50. Asked what he wanted for a present, he answered: “a second hit”. A grassroots campaign against the major record stockists by his closest fans chose `Bunsen Burner’ (inspired by his daughter’s chemistry homework and sampling TRAMMPS’ `Disco Inferno’). The rest was history as it strode into the Top 10. Sadly, it took four-five years for the un-accompanying set, BUNSEN BURNER – THE ALBUM (2007) {*5}; in the meantime, OT-AIR: THE ALBUM TO LAUNCH THE WORLD TOUR {*5} was issued in 2005. Then there was the download-single in 2008 with Splodge (he of SPLODGENESSABOUNDS), `No Offence’.
More recently, OTWAY & BARRETT have reactivated their musical partnership; John O having surpassed his landmark 2,000th gig! To coincide with his 60th birthday in 2012, he walked the red carpet as part of the premiere to the Steve Barker-directed feature-length rockumentary, Rock And Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway The Movie. It was received well by fans at the Cannes Film Festival the following May and was shown a month later at Glastonbury. Those wishing to pertain further OTWAY info could do no wrong with his autobiographical sequel, I Did It Otway.
An unlucky 13 years in the making, and on the back of a festive EP in 2014 (`A John Otway Christma5’ led by a variant of “DK 50/80”), JOHN OTWAY AND THE BIG BAND (minus Haring) unleashed another set of unrestrained moments a la MONSERRAT (2017) {*6}. The record was recorded live from Olveston House, Montserrat, the previous October and had duly been endorsed by over 800 backers from an online Kickstarter campaign. One can read the full story of his “mission” by way of songlink.com.
Unusual even for the reunited pair of old fun-loving fogies, a double-LP re-issue/re-imagined package of JOHN OTWAY & WILD WILLY BARRETT {*7} saw light of day again in April 2019. Forty two years since its inception, the home-made disc 2 version kicked against convention; `Racing Cars (Jet Spotter Of The Track)’, `Louisa On A Horse’ and `Really Free’ proving that folk-punk never dies, just balder and greyer…
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Sep2019

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