Singer-songwriter John Otway has, over the last 50 years, amassed a dedicated and loyal following through extensive tours showcasing his unique sense of humour and particularly English brand of rock n’ roll eccentricity.
A young Otway was entranced by the explosion of the music scene in the 1960s – incessantly spinning the Beatles and the Rolling Stones records his sister had bought.
Thoroughly inspired, he charted a course toward emulating his idols, although the young lad was unsure whether he would be able to do what they did so seemingly effortlessly. Enter Bob Dylan and immediately the nine-year-old Otway knew he’d found his niche – simple songs, simple melodies and idiosyncratic lyrics. Otway picked up a guitar and immediately started throwing chords.
Creating a lasting impression on The Old Grey Whistle Test
As the music scene evolved from pop through to progressive and glam rock it was only with the radical rise of punk that Otway’s dreams would begin to take shape. A national audience would witness an unforgettable and eye-watering moment as Otway took his particular brand of surreal punk-infused quirkiness to the stage on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977.
Otway, with characteristic over-the-top exuberance leapt on top of guitarist Wild Willy Barrett’s amplifier whilst performing a souped up and Otway-fied version of Bob Lind’s Cheryl’s Going Home. The audience watched agape as Otway misjudged the leap, sent Wild Willy’s amplifier spinning and, inadvertently, straddled the stage box underneath.
Gravity always wins.
The shock of the impact was absorbed painfully by the most delicate parts of his anatomy, but this one dynamic spectacle of recklessness – combined with an almost Jackass-like disregard for safety – supercharged the flustered Otway’s career and launched it sky-high.
Ahead of his tour I chatted to this endearing one-off of an artist about his career to date.
Otway on Otway
Over the fifty years you and Wild Willy Barrett have been performing together, what has been one of the most memorable highlights?
“It has to be that performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test – it was watched by over five million people which resulted in the single (Cor Baby) That’s Really Free going up in the singles chart. There has not really been what I would call a sensible day in my life since then.”
What was it like appearing on Top of the Pops?
“It was great as I had watched the programme for years before we appeared on it. Once you were on there it seemed to be confirmation that you were a bona fide pop star. We met so many different acts too such as The Boomtown Rats and Crystal Gayle – the American country singer who musically was at the complete opposite spectrum to what we were doing.”
Your current tour visits Yorkshire, how has the reaction from the audience been?
“The further north you go from London the more responsive the audience and that is true in Yorkshire, we have played some really good gigs in Yorkshire and we both look forward to coming back.
“We always liked to play The Duchess of York in Leeds – that was always a great venue, unfortunately the place has closed down. We need these small venues to thrive as they are the launching pad of many an artist’s career.”
Does your music take you to other parts of the world?
“It does – we went to New Zealand earlier this year. This was something that was always on the cards for the last fifty years. Unfortunately, cyclone Gabrielle arrived there at the same time! Two of the concerts ended up getting cancelled but have been rescheduled for November.
“The reaction though to the songs was overwhelming and was something I was not expecting, there are a lot of ex-pats out there who came along to the shows.”
Did you miss touring during the pandemic?
“I hated the lockdowns we all had to endure. I went from playing over a hundred gigs a year to nothing so I started doing a Saturday night live show on the internet, I wrote a script each week and even sold a t-shirt for the event.”
All in good spirit
How many concerts do you think you have played over your career?
“I have kept a record and have a total of over 500 concerts I have played. The plan was to do a big show for the 500th in London but then Covid came along and put a stop to the celebratory show taking place.”
What would you say to anyone who is undecided about coming to one of your current shows?
“You will have a great night, Wild Willy Barrett is a great musician, we might take the mickey out of one another though it is all in a good spirit and everyone will witness a very entertaining show – we hope to see you there!”
John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett play the following Yorkshire concerts:
16 June – The Courthouse, Otley
23 July – Pax in the Park, Sheffield
21 October – The New Adelphi, Hull (John Otway only)
For a full list of dates visit John Otway‘s official site