John Otway: The world is not enough
With his manic on-stage antics and self-styled 'incompetent' musicianship, John Otway has forged an unlikely pop career spanning 30 years. Now the former dustman is inviting diehard fans to join him on his most audacious venture yet: a global tour by private passenger jet.
Sunday 20 August 2006
"There's a bit of a snag," John Otway tells me, "with Sydney Opera House."
"When you say snag..."
"Well, the thing is..." The musician glances through the kitchen window, into the small garden of his terraced house in Wandsworth, south London. "We thought we'd booked their Studio room - that's one of the smaller halls in the complex. But what we seem to have booked isn't the Studio room so much as the, er..."
"Right. The Studio room," Otway continues, "holds one plane load."
"And the Opera Theatre?"
"I believe that's more like seven."
Otway, 53, is still best known for his 1977 hit, "Really Free". "I thought it was just a rung," he complained, during the barren years that followed his number 27 single. "I never imagined it could be the whole ladder."
The "Otway World Tour" is without doubt the most audacious venture in the recent history of popular music. It's true, of course, that other performers - people such as Elton John and Elvis Costello - are endlessly crossing time zones between performances, but both of those artists have a more significant global following than Otway, whose warm-up for the autumn excursion began at the Grey Horse in Kingston upon Thames.
The trip will offer residents of China the first opportunity to see the former dustman from Aylesbury play live in their country.
"We're performing at Ningbo," he tells me. "That's just south of Shanghai."
"How many people live there?"
"Around a million."
"And how many of those have heard of you?"
"I can't tell you exactly," the singer says. "I would guess possibly none." But this, as Otway points out, is no more than a detail. He is taking his audience with him, on his own plane, chartered from Air Tahiti, repainted in the livery of Ot-Air. The Airbus 340 will carry 260 members of his (omega) maniacally faithful hardcore following. Tickets cost £3,995 for the two-week trip - not an unreasonable figure, when you consider it includes hotel accommodation and a performance from Otway every other night. At the time of writing, 56 seats remain unsold. The first show is at the Cavern Club, Liverpool on 27 October, after which the party proceeds to New York and Las Vegas before visiting China, Polynesia and Dubai.
"They say 'speculate to accumulate'," I suggest to Otway. "You've certainly mastered the first part."
"I was lying in bed last year," says the singer, who lives with his partner Karen and their 17-year-old daughter Amy, "thinking how I'd always wanted to do a world tour. I considered doing it acoustically - backpacking, with a ticket from Trailfinders. Then it occurred to me that I could charter my own plane. Moments later I started to picture the place names on the T-shirts. Once ideas of this kind have entered your head, it's terrible. I was on Ask Jeeves the same afternoon, checking the price of a plane."
"€1m [around £675,000] for the fortnight."
"Do you wake up at night in a cold sweat?"
"Erm... yes. The whole thing is scary. But we will do it."
Curiously for a man who has never concealed his lust for fame, Otway, off-stage, is diffident, considerate and unmistakably a decent person. An intense, highly intelligent man, he was an outstanding physics student who couldn't spell or add up. At one point he launches into an aside about the possible impact of quantum theory on future definitions of human consciousness. There's still enough ungainliness in his physical movements to see how he acquired his reputation as an idiot savant and to explain how some of his teachers suggested he might prosper at a "special" school.
In a business where performers traditionally exaggerate their ability, Otway - a gifted songwriter who is capable of captivating and deranged live performance - has repeatedly disparaged his own work and hyped himself as "Rock'n'Roll's Greatest Failure". His 1990 autobiography, Cor Baby, That's Really Me!, was advertised with slogans such as: "Bad records!" and "Rank incompetence!" He describes "Geneve", the acoustic love song which he chose, against advice, as the follow-up to the eccentric punk anthem "Really Free", as "a song that crescendos to the sort of peak Beethoven used to appreciate when he was deaf".
A former protégé of Pete Townshend and John Peel, Otway has been denigrating himself in this way for years, defining his failure by the fact that he's managed only two chart singles in three decades. He had his second success, "Bunsen Burner", in 2002, after he told his network of supporters that he would like another hit as his 50th birthday present. "Bunsen Burner" reached number nine, after 10,000 co-conspirators ordered the single at stores around the UK.
"We approached it like a military operation," he says. "The avid Otway fan had spent 18 months training for the week of release. He or she would be sitting at home in, let's say, Worcester. They'd see on the internet: stock in Nottingham. Then they'd drive north, buy the lot, and file the message: Nottingham cleared.
"The 'Greatest Failure' thing had been going really well until then," Otway recalls. "Most people like failures a lot. They see some performers on stage, crowing about how rich they are, and understandably it fills them with feelings of inadequacy and rage. I make them feel good. But then the second hit went to the head. I started to think - right. I've cracked the UK. But I have neglected significant areas of the rest of the overseas market." The world tour has inspired a CD, also named Ot-Air, released earlier this year, and the voyage will be the subject of a documentary, Otway - The Movie. The designated film crew - who currently make Monkey Business, a reality show that charts the intimate lives of a community of chimpanzees in Dorset - are, Otway assures me, consummate professionals, eager to expand their portfolio by collaborating with the higher primates.
This tour may be their boldest adventure to date, but the track record of Otway and his ingenious supporters is impeccable. They hired, and sold out, the London Palladium, more than a year before "Bunsen Burner" was released and held a party there to celebrate its triumph. In October 1998, Otway filled the Royal Albert Hall, having booked the 5,000-seat venue two years in advance. In 2000, when the BBC ran a poll to find the greatest song lyrics from the last two millennia, Otway's "Beware of the Flowers (Cause I'm Sure They're Gonna Get You Yeh)" came in at number seven, ahead of work by Bob Dylan, Jerome Kern and Robert Burns.
"I was narrowly pipped for the number six spot," he tells me, "by the Lennon/McCartney song 'Yesterday'."
I have to declare an interest at this point. As a fan, I've watched Otway many times, right from the start of his career, when he played with his then collaborator Wild Willy Barrett at venues such as The Oranges and Lemons, a small pub in Oxford. I believed then that he was destined for major fame; Polydor thought so too: in 1977, they gave him a three-year deal worth, in total, around £250,000, which equates to just under £2m in today's terms. At around the same time, they signed The Jam for £10,000.
In those days, Otway approached the stage with the masochistic exhibitionism of the bullied schoolboy who'd drunk bottles of ink and hung off bridges by his ankles, while his tormentors laughed and girls screamed at him to stop. Wild Willy (né Roger) Barrett, also from Aylesbury, and a man with whom he has maintained an intermittent and volatile partnership, was and is a guitar virtuoso. Otway could barely play, but with his white shirt torn open, scattering buttons into the crowd, he would run along a scaffolding pole 10 feet above the stage, singing lines such as: "Look out Princes Risborough - I'm back."
He still wears his trademark white shirt and black trousers when performing, though these days he looks less like a delinquent and more like a chemistry professor whose class have spiked his Earl Grey with Rohypnol. "I do believe," I tell him, "you were and are one of the greatest live performers I have ever seen."
"So do I." He laughs, but not in a way that suggests he disagrees. "What I was doing back then was dangerous, because I was blackmailing the audience into paying attention: saying that, if you don't watch closely, something really horrendous is going to happen."
"Did you ever fall off the scaffolding pole?" "No. Because I could see the sharpened points of the cymbals below."
"Really Free" entered the charts after a historic appearance on BBC2's Old Grey Whistle Test, during which Otway vaulted on to a PA tower and overbalanced. He brought down the speaker stack but fractured no bones when he landed on the sharp corner of a bass cabinet, as the impact was cushioned by his testicles.
"It was a relief to me when punk started," he says, "with its reckless behaviour and musical incompetence. Because that was what I'd been doing for years. Suddenly I fitted in. The trouble was that eventually even the punks learnt how to play."
John Otway's curious mixture of wit, poetry and acrobatics was never well-suited to the rigid categorisation that colours the thinking of major British labels. Had Otway been born in France, as Jonathan Rendall observed in this newspaper some years ago, he would never have had to work at being a legend.(omega)
It's patently absurd, I suggest to the singer, to judge his career by counting the hit singles he's had. By that criterion, Randy Newman and Little Richard are failures as well.
"Well, all of that was essentially a device," says Otway, who occasionally delivers a public lecture on "Making the Most of Failure and Coping With Success". "Everything I have achieved in the past 12 years has been campaign-based."
The second track on Bunsen Burner, "House of the Rising Sun", features 900 fans on backing vocals. "They're all credited on the CD," he says. "So we knew they'd all buy a copy - probably several." Otway's ironic interpretation of the Animals' best-known hit is so extraordinary that the first time I saw him do it live, I couldn't quite believe what was happening. But his fondness for playing the clown has obscured the quality of the songwriting on his best albums such as Premature Adulation, a wonderful CD released, largely unnoticed, in 1995.
Like much of his work, that album was deeply nostalgic: he
wrote much of his best work while moping in a tent pitched outside a girlfriend's house. The more that you talk to Otway, the more you realise that the impetus behind his whole career has been a desire for revenge - on the boys who tormented him, and the girls who abandoned him. After Paula Yates stood him up, following their one date in Oxford, he famously told the late broadcaster: "That's your last chance to go out with a rock star."
When he got his huge advance from Polydor, Otway, who can't drive, bought a 1949 Bentley and hired a chauffeur. The Airbus, the movie, and the Sydney Opera House incident are just the latest instalments in a history of celebrity as a form of payback.
His childhood humiliations in Aylesbury are never far from his mind. One of his most recent recordings, "A413 Revisited", definitively repudiates the theory that Americans have a monopoly on great road songs, and that English place names such as Amersham, Missenden and Wendover will automatically sound ridiculous in pop lyrics. "There's a reunion at the Grange County Secondary School," Otway sings, "Where there's a bunch of us/Thrown together at a formative age/We couldn't pass our 11-plus/A strange lesson, at the age of 11/To find that life's not chance / And if at first you don't succeed/ You've already been a failure once".
He says that the proudest moment of his life was the first "Otfest", a free concert in Aylesbury Market Square in 1978, when 4,000 people came to watch him. The bullies and the ex-girlfriends were all there. The performance was filmed for a television documentary, Stardustman. And that, you can see him thinking, showed them.
"How do you feel about showing me Aylesbury?"
"OK," says Otway, who adds, in a line you couldn't imagine coming from some other figures in the music industry, for instance Lou Reed: "but I'll have to drop in and see my mum."
A couple of days later we're sitting on the 12.27 out of Marylebone, bound for Otway's home town. In the meantime, I've had the chance to talk to Chris France, who has brokered most of the artist's successful ventures. France, who spoke to me from his villa in Cannes, began by promoting bands such as the Clash, and made his fortune during the dance-remix boom of the mid- 1980s. He established the Music of Life company, which has released the work of such varied artists as Norman Cook, British rapper Derek B and Rolf Harris.
"I was recruited to the World Tour project earlier this year," says France. "Reserving an airliner involves advance payments in excess of £100,000. Several of us are in this to the tune of five figures. We do have to sell the remaining tickets to break even, but I have absolutely no doubt that we will. This tour will be heavily covered by media companies in every country it visits." France, who is seeking sponsors, is negotiating with a well-known drinks company and a multinational telecom corporation, who he says are interested in setting up podcasts between the Otway community "which, if you include lapsed fans, numbers almost 100,000". The entrepreneur was recruited "when it became clear that the cottage industry that is Otway wasn't quite geared to handle an undertaking of this size".
"I am," says the singer, "absolutely terrible with money."
When our train stops at Great Missenden, Otway points out the office he worked in for six months as a booking clerk. "It involved two of the things I'm worst at: responsibility and arithmetic." He was happier, he says, in his two years on the dustbins.
"My mum," he adds, "is still hoping I'll get a proper job."
Otway's late father was an ambulance driver. Of his four sisters, three are nurses, one's a social worker. His mother Pat, who serves us tea in her living-room, was a special-needs teacher. It's as well for Otway that he was raised in a family so thoroughly committed to nurturing the underdog.
"As a child, his physical co-ordination was poor," Pat Otway recalls. "So was his speaking and writing. I remember one (omega) person saying: 'This boy is just a spastic. He shouldn't be at our school.'" Otway listens, good-naturedly.
"But I told them - we'll just have to work on the things John can do and accept the things he can't. So we had his shoes built up and he had help with his speech. There may be people who never stopped thinking he was daft, but in the end, being daft has been his living." Mrs Otway fetches two bags full of laundered stage shirts - at 86, she still sews back the ripped-off buttons.
"Would you have stood out, if I'd seen you as a child?" I ask Otway, after we've left.
"I think so. I had enough oddities that people tended to shun me. If you were odd," he adds, "there was no refuge."
"He was awkward and he always looked dirty," according to one school contemporary. "You couldn't understand a word he said and he had one of those unfortunate faces you just want to hit." In the words of former teacher Tom Redman, Otway was: "A very scruffy person. Very scruffy indeed. His dress. His hair. Very ungainly. Very scruffy."
"And yet," I suggest to the singer, "your childhood experiences can't totally have destroyed your self-belief."
"Certain things would point to that," he says. "Such as the jet."
He failed all his A-levels and took three attempts to pass English O-level - and yet, from the very start of his career, Otway had a naïve, intuitive gift for finding the poetic in the everyday.
"I Can't Complain" is one of his earliest songs, one of many about a 16-year-old girl who abandoned him and moved to Switzerland. "I looked in my atlas," Otway sings, "to see where you were/I saw St Julien, you were very near there/I went to the travel agent to find out the fare/She said it's 57 by train/And 107 by air." It goes on: "My friends all talk about the same things/I'm sure they don't know what true loving is/When I kissed you honey I saw all the things/Like stars and lights and rainbows' ends." I can't believe he didn't include this on his Greatest Hits.
"I would have," he replies, "but there's one line, elsewhere in that song, that niggles me every time I hear it." The offending rhyme is one that Bob Dylan was happy to use in "Desolation Row". Otway's attitude to his back catalogue is hardly that of a man who considers his work to be a joke, or can actually be comfortable with certain headlines the red-tops have inflicted on him, notably: "What A Prat I Am".
He was still selling tickets at Great Missenden, in the early 1970s, when Pete Townshend heard his work. The Who guitarist arranged, produced and played on four tracks from the 1977 album John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. [Townshend was attending an Otway concert in London when he instigated the fracas with the Sex Pistols' drummer Paul Cook, that famously inspired the song "Who Are You?"]
"Pete Townshend was incredibly generous towards us," says Otway. "He took us in, and showed us how to make a record. Mick Jagger was at the recording. I began to think it might be safe to leave British Rail."
Around this time, John Otway went to consult a clairvoyant in Weymouth. "I was certain she would say: 'A glittering showbusiness career awaits you,' he recalls. "'Involving mass hysteria, stadium concerts and airports.' What she actually said was: 'You have a blue van.'"
"Yes. Then she said it again: 'You have a blue van. And it will not be lucky for you.' I bumped into her later, in the street. She said: 'I was serious about that van.' In the end, I got Willy to paint it pink."
We meet Wild Willy Barrett at the Bell Hotel, in Aylesbury Market Square. The two musicians' close yet complex relationship inspired the song "Headbutts": after live performances of this piece, Otway, who takes what you might call a supporting role, has left the stage bruised and bleeding.
I've met the two together once before - when I was a teenager, after a Manchester concert in the mid 1970s. Otway says he can remember that night because, as Willy drove him back to London afterwards, he put him out of the car at the Northampton turn-off on the M1, and told him to hitch the rest of the way. "It was the day before my birthday. I didn't get back home till 10 in the morning."
In 1978, the guitarist failed to appear for a gig. "I wasn't feeling well," Barrett explained. "And the World Cup was on."
"I had to fire him," Otway recalls. "He quite liked that."
Barrett now performs with his partner Mary in a group called Sleeping Dogz. He has a perverse indifference to fame and lives on a barge with his Rottweiler.
Over drinks at the Bell, Otway asks Barrett to join him for a second Aylesbury OtFest, to be held in the market square next Sunday. The guitarist agrees. But he won't join Steve Harley, Glenn Tilbrook and other guests on the world tour. "What about just playing Central Park?" asks Otway. "I don't like America," the guitarist replies. "I don't like that culture."
"The thing about Otway," Barrett tells me, with the singer standing at his side, "is that he is a romantic. He wrote all these songs about this one girl who would hardly let him kiss her, even though she was shagging everybody else in Buckinghamshire."
"I didn't know that," I tell Barrett.
"Neither did I," says Otway, "until now."
Accounts vary as to how Otway managed to dispose of the Polydor money quite so fast as he did. The singer says his mistake was to retain musicians on generous wages. Chris France is more expansive. "He moved into this Georgian house in Maida Vale and started buying art. He'd got so much money that he just lost the plot. I told him: 'Otway, you have disappeared up your own arse.' Fortunately, he has re-emerged."
Struggling by the mid-1980s, Otway began to evolve into the proactive, anti-corporate phenomenon he is today. When Polydor dropped him, pointing out that he owed them money, Otway - noticing the label had made losses that year - played a Polydor benefit concert, enthusiastically supported by its rivals. Unable to find anyone else who'd sign him, he issued a single bearing the WEA label, which he'd copied, then customised, using a cheap printer. Warners, faced with the choice of suing Otway or recognising the single as their own, agreed to distribute it.
That last insolent gesture, Otway says, "left me in what is known as the Barge Pole Position. No record company would touch me with one." The singer, who appears in an episode of The Young Ones, sought to further his career in television drama. His best opportunity came in 1986, when he appeared with Robert Morley in an adaptation of William Tell. The show was pulled before Otway's episode was transmitted, because of fears that it might encourage inappropriate use of the crossbow.
"I stopped acting," says Otway, "because I was no good at it."
"Absolute nonsense," says Ros Hubbard, queen of British casting directors who, as well as hiring Otway, cast Alan Bleasdale's Jake's Progress and Linehan and Mathews' Father Ted. "He was marvellous. He has great talent."
Cor Baby, That's Really Me! ended with the singer at the lowest point of his life, in the late-1980s. He'd split up with his wife, Patrice Stinson, a graphic designer he'd met while touring Canada. He was struggling to survive in a first-floor London flat with no roof. France was living downstairs: "warm, dry, and drinking fine wines, with framed gold records on his walls".
Otway was rescued by his current partner, Karen, an artist, then living in Peckham. The singer, as she explains, "turned up on my doorstep. He'd always looked as if he needed looking after, but this time I was actually worried."
The last months with Patrice, Otway says, with a look that discourages further discussion, were "very dark".
"But you seem to be in a very stable place now."
"I am," he replies, "but I am not the source of that stability."
We're joined in the Bell by Otway's film crew, Andrew Sutton and Claudia Riccio. I confess to having harboured certain preconceptions about these producers, given their simian apprenticeship, but they turn out to be smart, funny and totally in sympathy with a project Sutton envisages as being "The real Spinal Tap". "Having worked with apes is not necessarily a handicap," the filmmaker says. "The cameras we use with apes have LCD screens which you can reverse, so that chimpanzees can watch themselves as they're being filmed. They become so utterly engrossed in their own image they lose all awareness of the camera. Rock musicians behave in much the same way."
Only those who dare to fail greatly, Robert Kennedy said, can ever achieve greatly, and boldness has never been a problem for Otway. The Sydney Opera House question can be resolved, he tells me, with the help of sponsors and local radio stations, and by dispensing free tickets for schoolchildren.
For the last night of the tour, the singer has booked into the most luxurious hotel in Dubai - why?
"Two reasons," says the musician. "First, it will allow me to look down from my balcony at the more modest accommodation which will be occupied by my band. Second, it's the ideal venue for the end-of-tour party for the most extraordinary rock'n'roll tour in history."
Rarely can there have been a more critical moment in any artist's career. Every potentially lucrative aspect of Otway's life over the next few years - the film rights, the planned sequel to his autobiography, the sponsorship deals, the chart position of the Ot-Air album - depends on this tour working, and working well.
"I read a novel recently," I tell Otway, "in which a once- successful man, whose career has imploded, is approached by a sympathetic stranger. 'All you need to change your life,' the stranger says, 'is one good idea.'
"'That's right,' the victim says. 'Or one really bad one.'
"Are you sure," I ask Otway, "that you know which kind this is?"
"Absolutely," he says. "This project is an uplifting statement. I live in a terraced house in south London. The World Tour says that things are possible, and it's not just down to how well you are regarded by the corporate world. It's down to how badly you want something. I believe - I know - that my best work is about to happen.
"If you don't believe me..." He smiles, tilts his head slightly, and then articulates perhaps the most daunting syllable I've heard all year: "Come."
John Otway plays the Market Square, Aylesbury, next Sunday (27 August) and at Liverpool's Cavern Club on 27 October. The Otway World Tour 2006 departs from Liverpool the next day (28 October) with dates in New York, Las Vegas, Tahiti, Sydney, Ningbo and Dubai. For details go to www.johnotway.com. The 'Ot-Air' album is out now
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