Dave Woodhall talks to John Otway, music’s most successful failure.
John Otway should be a big star. Not only because he’s a massive talent but because he’s also one of the most pleasant, genuine and yes, funny, people you could ever meet. Every so often he’ll enter the public consciousness with one of his more extreme ideas, whether it be organising a hit for his fiftieth birthday, 25 years after his first one (hit that is, not birthday) or, less successfully, attempting a world tour that would see him and his fans touring the globe by jumbo jet. The latest project has been Otway – the Movie, an autobiographical documentary released in June. He told us what was behind the idea.
“For thirty years my career has gone from one project to the next. There was my 2000th gig, when I played the Astoria in London, then we thought ‘Why not try the Albert Hall?’ so we campaigned to fill the Albert Hall, after that we thought ‘Let’s try to have another hit’ so we had a long campaign for a hit.
“That was for my fiftieth birthday. A lot of people were asking what I was going to do for my sixtieth; I’ve always had the idea of doing a film and it seemed the perfect project. We knew how many fans there are out there so we knew we had the necessary backing to make a movie.
“For my sixtieth birthday weekend we booked the Odeon, Leicester Square, for the premiere and thought it would be a nice idea if the climax would be to have the fans arriving before the film, walking along the red carpet, and have that as the ending. So while the audience were sitting there watching the movie the footage was still being edited outside so it ended with them actually arriving at the cinema.”
As you’ll have gathered by now, John Otway doesn’t do easy.
“No, things tend to be interesting. Interesting and disastrous are the two words that often come to mind. But we’ve taken the film around fifty cinemas in the UK and it got a four star review in the Guardian. I had a lot of old footage, filmed as far back as 1972 and shot on 16mm film so it’s nice to see that on the big screen.
“My next campaign is to win a BAFTA so we’re now plugging it to the BAFTA members. There’s two it stands a chance of winning – best documentary and best British debut. It hasn’t been released on DVD because once a film is out on DVD it’s ineligible for the BAFTAs and the Oscars so we’re waiting until it’s won them.”
Birthdays loom large in the life of Otway. Not in a normal, cake and cards way though. His fans tend to be a bit more individual in the choice of present they give their man.
“I was one of the first acts to start employing the internet. We had a strong Yahoo group and had a lot of fun with it. There was a suggestion that I would like a theramin for my birthday so they all clubbed together and bought me one. Then coming up to the Millennium there was a poll for the greatest lyrics of the past two thousand years and they canvassed for that.
“The vote came in thick and fast and I found that I’d written the nation’s seventh favourite lyric, Beware of the Flowers. It was higher than Bob Dylan, far far higher than any of his lyrics, and Paul Simon’s. Paul McCartney wrote number six, Yesterday, so we were almost as good as Paul McCartney.”
Otway and his fans were, effectively, pioneers in viral marketing, well before social media and You Tube were even thought of. But the greatest project came in 2002, for his fiftieth birthday. Until then John was best known for his 1977 hit Cor Baby That’s Really Free and tiring of being known as a one-hit wonder.
“After the Millenium project we thought about getting back into the charts. We knew how many copies we needed to sell in the shops so we had an 18 month campaign to have a hit with Bunsen Burner, which reached number nine in the charts.
“It got a few people worried, Woolworth’s particularly because in the UK charts them and the supermarkets had well over half of the retail trade so it should have been impossible to get a top ten record without them stocking it. They were taken aback when it got so high, we complained to the press which normally nobody would have dared to do because then their next record wouldn’t have been stocked, but we only wanted one hit so we could do it.
“We got a lot of press and because of that Woolworth’s started to sponsor the Dr Fox Pepsi charts. They were caught out because they used their own charts which didn’t go on what was being sold, it showed what they wanted to stock. And where are Woolworth’s now, eh?”
Two-hit wonder, film star, potential award winner and writer of one of the nation’s favourite lyrics. Yet you’ve described yourself as rock’n’roll’s greatest failure. How does that square?
“It wasn’t me who come up with that. I’d written my first autobiography and the publishers said ‘Great book, we’ll market you as rock’n’roll’s greatest failure,’ and that was how I had to sell myself, because I was told to, and I found I was actually quite good at it. it was a big breakthrough if you like because for years I’d told people how good I was and they didn’t believe me so when I called myself a failure it got a laugh and more column inches, and people found it more endearing.
“The book made really made my career take off again. Everyone liked the self-effacing approach and because of that there was more of a comedy element in my shows. I wasn’t taking myself so seriously; I’d always had a lot of good comedy there and I started basing my set on that and made myself a lot more popular.”
Do you ever wish you could be taken seriously?
“It’s my own fault. One of the nice things about my career is that every time I’ve wanted to do something I’ve just gone ahead and done it. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a musician I would have promoted myself in a more serious way. I love the sound of laughter and I love making people laugh. In a way I get more pleasure from that than from people congratulating me.”
You can hear Otway talking like this – being more popular than Dylan, winning Oscars and organising his fanbase – and take it as a bit of fun. Then you realise that he means it. Not in a boasting, pompous way but very matter of fact because things happen to John Otway. Some he plans, others spring up and surprise him. He is, truly, a man who treats triumph and disaster just the same, usually because he’s managed to turn a triumph into a disaster and then back into a triumph again. That’s why he’s so blissfully happy – whatever happens in his future will be quintessentially Otway.
“Not many people can feel their career is going in a positive direction when they get to sixty. I love performing. I’ve got a fanbase that’s so good; we get on famously. It’s not just a performance on stage, the night starts well before then and carries on afterwards.
“When I was nine years old I did intend to be an international star and I just haven’t got there yet. The movie is the best advert for that – a lot of people can like it and find it funny so it can become an international hit years after it‘s released. Unlike music, films can still build slowly and suddenly become popular. We’ll keep plugging away.”
John Otway plays the Robin 2, Bilston on Thursday 5th December and the Leamington Assembly on Friday 7th February 2014. www.johnotway.com/gigs.html