You may remember John Otway from his 1974 number 27 single “Really Free” and his 2002 number 9 single “Bunsen Burner”. If you haven’t, it’s because in between these moderate successes, Otway’s career was a process of lurching from disaster to disaster that has earned him the title of rock and roll’s biggest failure. One could be forgiven for thinking that title would go to one of the rock stars who choked on their own vomit, but in comparison to Otway’s career those rockers are runaway champions.
Archive footage shows his mother and friends admitting his lack of musical talent, so it’s his personality, and his outrageous live performances, that have made him the loved figure he is today.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the film introduced by Otway himself, whose infectious energy was evident from the start. His upbeat enthusiasm is the reason for his incredibly loyal fan group that are completely responsible for the successes he has enjoyed over the last decade. He was thrilled at the turnout, with his documentary taking Diana‘s place in the biggest auditorium. That’s right, John Otway is more popular than Princess Diana. And what’s she achieved in the last ten years?
This documentary looks at Otway’s career, from his breakout performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, where he fell off an amp landed on his crotch, to his first big single, through his subsequent commercial flops until his 2002 comeback. The human embodiment of turning a frown upside down, Otway has an incredible gift for converting failure into success, commercialising his status as a walking disaster and managing to maintain a public profile sufficient to have successful gigs at the Royal Albert Hall, a second single and now a movie. He’s a paragon of perseverance, a picture of persistence.
He invented the big public involvement campaign pre-Rage Against the Machine. The process that led to his 2002 “50th Birthday” hit involved him taking on the music industry as an outsider not liked by the big labels. That it reached number 9 without being stocked by Woolworths or any of the supermarkets was phenomenal. And where’s Woolworths now? Otway outlasts them all.
My co-goblin Dan always says the sign of a good documentary is one that’s interesting even if you had no prior knowledge of, or even interest in, the topic, and this is without a doubt true here. This time yesterday I’d never heard of John Otway. Now I own a flickbook of his appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. He told the audience, “We need a theatrical release to be eligible for the BAFTAs so we can’t release it on DVD yet, but you can take home 2.5 seconds in this flickbook. It’s only a couple of quid.” Ever the entrepreneur.
To sum up Otway’s career I look to that other very funny rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap where David, following the banning of their sexist album cover, says “It’s such a fine line between stupid, and uh … Yeah, and clever.” For Otway no idea is too outlandish or absurd to attempt, which is both the reason for his success and failure. An audience member asked him what his future plans were. He replied “an Otway musical” to much laughter. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.