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
Sunday 04 September 2011
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."
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