Otway, rock's great failure, embarks on a world tour with his fans

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The Independent Culture

How does rock'n' roll's self-styled greatest failure finally get to live the dream of global superstardom? With a small but fervently loyal following in the UK, 53-year-old John Otway's desire to bestride the world stage appeared a distant hope. Until that is he struck on a very simple idea - take the audience with you.

After conceiving the notion one morning in bed, the singer- songwriter best remembered for his 1977 number 27 hit "Cor Baby That's Really Free", hired a jet and set about rounding up enough fans to fill it.

Today he will pay a £60,000 deposit on the Airbus A-320 which he hopes will take him and 300 of his most loyal followers on an eight-stop world tour. Departing from Liverpool's John Lennon international airport in October after a gig the previous night at the Cavern, they will cross the Atlantic for a date in New York. From there the plane will shuttle them across country to Las Vegas for a night on the Strip followed by Tahiti, Sydney, Ningbo, China, and Dubai.

While no venues have been announced, the singer is looking at small halls within the Carnegie Hall complex and the Sydney Opera House, the foyer of Madison Square Garden, and possibly even Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The odyssey aboard "Ot-Air" will last two weeks and cost £4,000, £7,000 in business class. "There is no problem filling the seats," the singer said yesterday. "My original thought was that it would be like booking a coach and adding a few noughts on the end of the bill."

But the venture is not without its risks. The final cost could be in excess of £1m. An earlier plan to charter a Boeing 767 hit turbulence when Hurricane Katrina sent the cost of aviation fuel spiralling - adding £200,000 to the final cost.

But Otway is not like other here-today, gone-tomorrow performers. With 30 years in the business, his eccentric stage act is almost permanently on the road. He first came to national attention with Wild Willy Barrett. Two self-confessed folkies, they somehow rode the wave of punk, and the performance of "Headbutt" on The Old Grey Whistle Test in which Otway repeatedly nutted the microphone, has become legend.

Otway signed a five-album deal with Polydor Records on the back of it. Despite being produced by The Who's Pete Townshend, the first album did not fare well, even with Otway's offer to come to the houses of those who had bought one of the small number of LPs pressed without the vocal track and sing it live for them. And it was to be a quarter of a century before he was to trouble the charts again.

Asked what he would like for his 50th birthday, he said another hit record. A ballot of his fans, overseen by the Electoral Commission, followed and "Bunsen Burner" was chosen. The song was written to help his daughter with her chemistry homework - she is now studying the subject to A level, he said proudly. The singer recruited 1,000 backing vocalists from his extensive database of fans to perform on the single's B-side, recorded at Abbey Road, ensuring a spike in sales. So confident was he of success that he booked the London Palladium for a celebration concert on chart night.

The following week, Otway was back on Top of the Pops. In 1999 he pressed his block vote into action again, coming seventh in the BBC Millennium Poll as the greatest lyricist of the last 2000 years, ahead of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

Lorraine and Jason Briggs are among the singer's most loyal fans. Having first caught him live in their home town of Devizes, Wiltshire in 1992, they are planning to be aboard Ot-Air. The trip will be only their second holiday abroad since going on honeymoon 12 years ago. "We will save up the money by living off a tin of baked beans," said Mrs Briggs.

As well as being the first world tour of its kind, Otway plans to set a number of other records. He will attempt to play the longest guitar solo ever, noodling away as the plane crosses the international date line. A concert in the emerging Chinese megacity of Ningbo, population nine million, promises to be the first to be played by an international artist in the metropolis, home to a factory owned by Otway's amplifier maker, Carlsbro.

Three decades in rock has not always been plain sailing. With record sales and royalties proving rare coin, the singer has been reliant on the proceeds of touring and his autobiography - subtitled Rock 'n' Roll's Greatest Failure. But he has always enjoyed a drink with his fans after the show and continues his death-defying amplifier-scaling antics despite the risk of serious injury. "I hit a really low point in 1988 and nearly ended up being a dustman. This is like a phoenix rising from the ashes," he said.

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