“OK, let’s make this the big one for Otway!” – John Otway, spoken intro to Beware Of The Flowers, 1977
The Cambridge Film Festival kicked off last Thursday with Hawking, a moving tribute to a unique and celebrated figure. Last night the organisers were good enough to screen a documentary about someone who in some select circles might be considered equally legendary and inspiring, though in this case it’s not so much for any profound breakthroughs in understanding the nature of our universe as for being a wonderful example of the triumph of unreasonable optimism and a sweetly self-deprecatory confidence over any demonstrable talent. Ladies and gentlemen, after 35 years of scrabbling around trying to recapture a tiny and barely earned spark of success we present Otway the Movie!
John Otway is a singer-songwriter and all-purpose attention-seeking exhibitionist who emerged from Aylesbury in the 1970s at just the right time to catch the attention of record company scouts eager to sign up anything rough-and-ready sounding in the slipstream of punk rock. With his considerably more musically adept partner Wild Willy Barrett he scored a minor hit with the infectiously basic Cor Baby That’s Really Free and secured appearances on Top Of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test (the footage from the latter providing an early recorded instance of Otway’s propensity to sabotage his career through poor judgement and sheer over-enthusiasm: his fall when he attempts to leap onto a stack of amplifiers looks spectacularly painful). Astonishingly Polydor Records had sufficient faith to award him an advance of £250,000, which Otway proceeded to blow as though he was a fully-fledged rockstar – a fancy house in Maida Vale, a vintage Bentley and, most ill-considered of all, the hire of a hundred piece orchestra to play on his next single, a drippy ballad called Geneve, in the hope that it would impress the lusted-after girl who was the subject of the song. The resulting record couldn’t have been contrived better to turn off the young pogoers who bought Really Free and Otway’s career nosedived.
Or did it? You could argue that Otway’s real creativity and imagination didn’t really emerge until he started to understand that he wasn’t ever going to re-establish himself as a successful artist through fair means and that he had enough of a loyal fan base (built up mainly through his exuberantly physical and at times death-defying live performances) to try some highly unorthodox and entertaining capers in an attempt to rig the charts in his favour. These start out with a run of gigs where punters needed not a ticket but a copy of Otway’s current single to gain admittance and a Willy Wonka style special edition pressing of another single whereby three copies were sent out sans vocal and the lucky buyers of these would receive a house visit from Otway so that he could sing it to them live. Gradually the schemes get more elaborate and the fans get more dedicated until in 2002 it pays off: a ruthlessly well-organised internet campaign manages to generate enough sales of the single Bunsen Burner to get it into the Top Ten, despite it not being available at many of the major retailers. One fan interviewed in the film admits to buying 45 copies – I myself bought three, having followed Otway on and off since about 1991, when the band I was in at the time supported him at a pub gig. I remember watching his triumphant return to Top Of The Pops and literally choking back tears!
Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure documents all this and much more besides with the help of many of Otway’s collaborators, managers and minders, all of whom display a nice line in eye-rolling resignation at their charge’s constant stream of ludicrously over-optimistic plans, and a really impressive assembly of archive footage (it seems he’s organised enough to have retained and archived pretty much every piece of film and video that he’s ever appeared on). It’s a brilliant, funny, heart-warming film that displays a very English love of the underdog and the eccentric with not a hint of self-pity or bitterness. Otway himself is present throughout, gleefully describing his hair-brained schemes which these days it seems come to fruition more often than they don’t (hire the London Palladium for a party to celebrate the success of a single that doesn’t even exist yet? Why not? Get a conductor, an arranger and a full orchestra in for a concert in the Albert Hall despite not being musical enough to understand when to start singing? What could possibly go wrong?) He’s a dreamer but a very likeable one and it’s brilliant that he’s around to show us the power of positive thinking, even if that power isn’t necessarily harnessed terribly sensibly (witness his shenanigans with a theremin, or his serial microphone-abuse).
Otway himself turns up to introduce this screening and he’s as excited and puppy-doggish as ever. Brilliantly, he’s arranged for two and a half seconds of the film to be made available as a little flip-book that you can run through with your thumb to animate! After the film he and his director Steve Barker take questions from a friendly and responsive audience – sessions like this can feel a bit awkward but this one’s a hoot, with plenty of good-humoured jokes being made at Otway’s expense. Finally, the great man straps on his guitar and we’re treated to both Beware Of The Flowers and, somewhat unexpectedly, the ill-starred Geneve. It may just be the good vibe in the room but just for once this last song sounds rather lovely and touching. Next stop: Otway the Musical.