John Otway: Fans with a plan for their man

You're 50 and you want a chart hit. How do you do it? John Otway tells Mary Novakovich the answer

Thanks to the unbeatable combination of Will Young and Gareth Gates, tonight's number one single in the Top 40 is a foregone conclusion. Those same charts which Top of the Pops producer Chris Cowey recently called "dysfunctional" remain awash with manufactured hits from manufactured pop idols. And now an old punk is poised to join them, armed with the sort of fan power which has nothing to do with impressionable tweenie girls.

Twenty-five years ago, John Otway made a respectable dent in the charts with the minor punk anthem "(Cor Baby That's) Really Free". It reached number 27, sold 125,000 copies and convinced Polydor to offer Otway an album deal which exceeded those of the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the Clash. Otway's follow-up attempts, however, were resounding flops and he banished himself to the pub circuit which, despite itself, produced a fanatically dedicated following for the self-proclaimed "rock'n'roll's greatest failure".

As Otway turns 50 this Wednesday, his fans, who in the past have given him such birthday gifts as a theremin and bagpipes, are clubbing together to give him what he avidly wants: a second hit. And Otway, who knows his judgement for picking Top 40 singles is spectacularly rotten, has left it to his fans to choose the song.

"I always had the opinion that if you ask 2,000 people they're likely to come up with a better result than five people sitting round a table," says Otway. "I didn't trust myself to pick the hit but there was nobody else I knew whom I could trust to pick it either."

A CD of 11 songs was sent to about 2,000 people, and the results were announced at a sold-out gig at London's Astoria – overseen by the Electoral Reform Society, no less. The clear winner was "Bunsen Burner", an upbeat track that borrows heavily from the Trammps' "Disco Inferno".

Otway and disco? He has his new collaborator, Barry Upton, to thank for that one. Upton helped to create Steps, but he's been hankering to work with Otway for years. The song itself, though, is almost irrelevant: the fans are so desperate to get their man back in the charts that they've formed a hit squad to do the things a record company would normally do. "They're going to make it a hit without a big corporate media push behind it," says Otway. "They've been given local press and local radio to do, and they're doing a good job for people who don't do that for a living." The fans also sang on the B side, which was recorded at Abbey Road studios. A choir of a thousand packed into the "Beatles' room" to record the backchat that accompanies Otway's romp through "The House of the Rising Sun". They did, however, need strict instructions on how to make advance orders of the single to ensure that record shops, which normally wouldn't carry loads of Otway stock, would have a plentiful supply.

"We're preaching largely to a group of people who haven't bought a single in the past 20 years, and certainly not a CD single," says Otway. "They really don't know how it works. If you're seen to be hyping the charts you're going to get your sales discounted – if you walk in and buy 100 copies, for example. But we're not hyping the charts; this is just the fans going out and buying the hit."

Fan power has already resulted in almost 20,000 advance sales (helped by the fact that the single is available in three versions, all of which are being bought), which puts it at least in the Top 20. And because HMV in Sheffield is opening up specially tonight at midnight for an in-store appearance after an Otway gig, the number of copies sold will send him to number one – at least until Monday afternoon.

Otway is so confident of his return to the charts that he's booked the London Palladium next Sunday for a "Back in the Charts" gig. It's almost sold out.

"It's going to be a big celebration because the fans have worked really hard for it," he says. "It's their record in a way. When they were younger and watching Top of the Pops, the idea of a hit used to have a great deal of romance attached to it. That's been taken away, but just for once this rekindles it for them."

John Otway's 'Bunsen Burner' is out tomorrow on U-Vibe. Details on hithithit.com

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