John Otway: 'Enthusiasm and misplaced belief can get you far'

The self-styled Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure has another project on the go: his own movie. Chris Stevenson meets John Otway

The Rock and Rock Hall of Fame is replete with the names of music's heroes: Hendrix, Lennon, Presley. The name John Otway is conspicuous by its absence. His heroism is of a different stripe. He is not just a failure; he is a heroic failure. In truth there are few with a greater claim to the throne of Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure.

Sure, he has tasted success: his star flickered briefly in 1977. A hit single, a record deal and Pete Townshend in the producer's chair – and then one flop after another. Decades of gigging earned him a cult following loyal to the last breath. Their numbers swelled until, in 1998, they helped him sell out the Royal Albert Hall and rewarded him with a Top 10 single, "Bunsen Burner", in 2002. Then came the bite of reality: an aborted world tour and a bill for £100,000, more of which later.

At 59, even as he contemplates his latest project, a film based on his career, he harbours no illusions. "I wanted to be a huge star and I have failed." The diehards in his audience no longer bring their children; now it's the grandkids casting dubious eyes over the lanky bloke on stage. Tonight, fans at Weyfest music festival in Farnham, Surrey, will get the chance to see him, accompanied by his Big Band.

"I still get a kick out of it," he says as he makes tea in his kitchen in Wandsworth, south London. His expressive face creases into a toothy grin befitting his clownish image. "I've wanted to do this since I was nine, which is why I try to invent so many ways of keeping it going."

He is not exaggerating. He has devoted decades to working out ways of staying in the limelight since his appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977, where he fell from an amp and crushed his testicles. Characteristically, he parlayed this trauma into his single "Really Free", a rare assault on the charts with a scramble to No 27. In 1999, the small but loyal Otway army voted one of his lyrics – the B-side from "Really Free", "Beware of the Flowers" – the seventh best of all time in a BBC poll, just behind "Yesterday".

A quarter of a century after his first hit, "Bunsen Burner" clambered to No 9 just in time for his 50th birthday. Then he returned to relative obscurity – until now. The film of his career is set for release in time for his 60th birthday in October 2012.

Otway anticipates "a great disaster movie" taking in his admittedly scant highs and many lows. Ever optimistic, he has already booked the 1,700-seat Odeon Leicester Square in central London for a first screening for fans. The only reason it is not being called a premiere is that the cost to rent the cinema would skyrocket.

His family – partner Karen and 22-year-old daughter Amy – take the ups and downs in their stride. He admits Karen has wearied of repeated references to singles, and until recently her least favourite phrase was "world tour". "The word has now become 'movie', so I may have to be careful," he says.

"When I do these things, I do them because they are entertaining and it is nice to know when they succeed that I have made them entertaining. Enthusiasm and misplaced belief can take you a long way."

These characteristics and the desire to show off underpin all he does. His live shows are full of acrobatics as the gaunt Otway rips open his shirt and hurtles around the stage. At one gig he decided to dive from a 10ft PA tower. After he hit the stage and couldn't feel anything below his neck, his first thought was "there hadn't been a flash, nobody had got it on camera" despite the crowd going wild. When feeling eventually returned Otway tells how he got up "with a large grin plastered over his face" even as part of his brain was thinking how stupid it was.

Enthusiasm and belief aren't always passports to success. The ill-starred world tour in 2006 he now calls "horrible". It involved hiring a jet and a £4,000 fee from each fan. He still regrets paying two deposits on the jet.

In truth, he was never canny with money. When Otway signed to Polydor for £250,000 in 1977, he spent part of his advance on a 1949 Bentley and a chauffeur, believing he was made. He had to sell it when it turned out he was wrong. For next year's film screening he wants to bring it back. "I think it was sold to be a wedding car, and so if it is still there I am going to hire it and turn up at my movie."

While in print this might seem shallow or silly, in person his apparent egomania is tempered with humour and gratitude to his loyal fans. If he can't be the best, then perhaps being the greatest failure is enough. "I was pretty ambitious as a child to want to be a star with the talent I had," he laughs. "But I want to finish what I started and bring the fans along with me."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little