Tim Hughes talks to legendary ‘two hit wonder’, John Otway who has been living the rock & roll dream with an album recorded in the Caribbean
HE once described himself as Rock’s Greatest Failure – but John Otway admits he is now following in the footsteps of pop royalty.
Exactly 40 years after the eccentric punk-rocker scored a Number 27 hit with Really Free in 1977, he is about to launch his new album – his first since Bunsen Burner more than a decade ago. And he recorded it in the playground of many a rich and famous pop star – Montserrat. Well, make that former playground – no one of note has recorded on the paradise isle since the Rolling Stones in 1989. Since then it has been devastated by storms and a huge volcanic eruption, which sent most of the population packing.
“They’ve had a hurricane and a volcano so I thought we’d be the third natural disaster,” he laughs.
He launched a ‘kickstarter’ appeal to fund the album last May Day at Oxford’s Bear pub.
If the fund reached £10,000 he vowed to record in the Essex town of Harlow. If they got to £20,000 then the destination would be Montserrat. If they passed £30,000 then he promised to shell out for grammy award-winning producer Chris Birkitt to produce the album.
He reached almost £35,000 – enough to get him and a band and his long-suffering roadie David ‘Deadly’ Crabtree, from Eynsham, out to Montserrat, and to book Birkitt – best know for Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. They stayed at Beatles producer George Martin’s old place – another ambition for Otway.
John says: “It’s a great album – rocky with a couple of ballads – and we’ll be launching it back at The Bear on May Day this year – which is the actual release date.”
But before then, tomorrow in fact, he will celebrate his success – and Deadly’s birthday – with a party at the roadie’s local: Eynsham’s Newlands Inn.
“However big a rock star you are – even if you’ve been to Montserrat and had a couple of hits – it’s important to look after your roadie,” he says. “They are more important than a lead guitarist, after all you can always replace them. A good roadie is hard to find and Deadly is a good one. He’s lasted longer than any of the others I’ve had. He’s also the only one not to have been hospitalised.”
So what was life like for Deadly and him on Montserrat? “It was brilliant,” he says.
“We found out when the height of the hurricane season was, which was September 12, and went there then. We knew we’d be making a lot of noise and didn’t want to disturb anyone.
“In the event, there were no hurricanes, though we still left our own trail of destruction. We had a lot of beers. There are only 5,000 people left on the island, which is about the size of a nice English village, and there were 50 of us – which is one per cent of the population – and we drank the island out of beer.”
Hailing from Aylesbury, Otway’s career took off during his residency at Oxford’s former Oranges and Lemons pub (now the Angel and Greyhound) in St Clement’s.
“It started in Oxford in 1976 and ’77,” he says. “The Beatles had the Star Club in Hamburg, and we had the Oranges and Lemons, where we learned our craft. I did a whole year there playing every week.”
His career bumped along with a succession of flops. Yet, unperturbed by the lack of commercial success, his fans stayed loyal, following him to watch his dynamic, and occasionally dangerous, stage shows, enlivened by stage dives from speaker stacks and somersaults from his trusty step ladder – which remains a prop to this day.
In 1998, 4,000 people packed the Royal Albert Hall for a show which featured Otway’s first musical outlet, the Aylesbury Youth Orchestra. And when, on his 50th birthday, he set out to shake off the mantle of ‘one hit wonder’ by getting another single into the charts, they rallied round, snapping up multiple copies of his tune Bunsen Burner – a song inspired by his daughter’s chemistry homework and featuring samples from The Trammps’ classic Disco Inferno. The record featured 900 fans on backing vocals.
Fans at the Newlands Inn can expect the same knockabout humour and punk-fuelled pop which sustains him through 150 gigs a year. It will be followed by a tour, including a show at the Arlington Arts Centre, near Newbury, on March 17. The year also sees him celebrating his 65th birthday.
Coming two years after his Cor Baby... I’m 63! tour it will, of course, be called Cor Baby...I’m an OAP!
“I’ll be 65, still leaping off the same step ladder – and still getting away with it!” he laughs.
“I’m not surprised to have got this far though. This is what I had always planned!”
- John Otway plays the Newlands Inn, Eynsham on Friday. Entrance is free.