John Otway, one of the UK's most eccentric singer-songwriters, is heading to Gibraltar tomorrow (Saturday) to perform a concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his group -The Big Band.
Known as the 'pub poet', the singer made his mark performing alongside virtuoso folk musician Wild Willy Barrett on the Old Grey Whistle Test television programme in 1977, and has since built a cult following through extensive touring as a solo artist and with his band. The 71-year-old musician's live shows are celebrated for his surreal sense of humour and his self-deprecating underdog persona, and it has been his extensive touring and his love of publicity stunts that have afforded him a huge, dedicated fanbase.
He has performed to sellout audiences at London's Royal Albert Hall and the O2 Arena, recorded in the world-famous Abbey Road Studios, and his movie premiered at the Odeon in Leicester Square. He has also had two hit records in the British charts, and has received an PhD in Music from the Oxford Brookes University, but his career has not been plain sailing.
SUR in English caught up with the cult singer prior to his concert in Gibraltar to talk about his fitful career.
–You have been active since the early '70s, but how did your commercial career materialise?
We signed a deal with Polydor records in '77, who released Really Free as a single, and this is when I did the Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops. We actually wanted to sign with Stiff Records because they were trendier, so Polydor kept upping the money to keep us there. It got ridiculous.
How much was the advance?
It was huge. I got 125,000 pounds, which was crazy at that time, especially when you consider that Polydor signed The Jam at the same time for just 7,000 pounds.
Did you feel like you had made it?
1977 was a big year. I would wake up in the morning thinking, wow, life is great, I've had a hit. I even brought a Bentley, although I couldn't drive.
You started out performing with Wild Willy Barrett: do you still keep in touch?
Yes, absolutely. We are actually doing a tour together next year called half a century. It will be 50 years since we did our first show together.
You still have a huge fanbase. How have you managed to maintain this?
This is something I instinctively did from the outset. I always felt that the entertainment didn't start when you went on stage. I like to include the audience in my career and take them on a bit of an adventure, so they have always been a big part of it. There are about 100 fans flying over for the gig in Gibraltar.
Does the title 'rock and roll's greatest failure' bother you?
No. When my career hit a real low point, I thought it would be good to write a book about how I was the architect of my own downfall. A friend said that writing about all my cock-ups would sell millions: as I am very good at self-effacing humour, I went ahead with the book. Writing about success is a far lot harder to make interesting: banana skins are a lot more entertaining.
I got a major book publishing deal, and it was they who decided to promote me as rock and roll's greatest failure.
Did you ever consider quitting?
No, not at all. The only job I did for any length of time was working as a dustman. I always wanted to be a rock star, and the threat of returning to the dust carts kept me going.
You celebrated your birthday in 1998 with a concert at the Albert Hall: How did this come about?
I did my 2,000th gig at the London Astoria in 1993, which holds 2,000 people. I realised that the Albert Hall could hold twice as many people, so I thought with the extra push, we could fill that also. It was another thing to tick off my bucket list.
Who came up with the idea for Otway: The Movie?
We had a big campaign to get back in the charts for my 50th birthday, which produced my second hit. I decided to do something even bigger for my 60th.
I have always kept archive footage of my gigs because I thought they would be important somewhere down the line. We premiered the film at the Odeon in Leicester Square, which was amazing.
What was it like to record in Abbey Road?
It was incredible. We decided to use 1,000 fans doing harmony on our version of The House of the Rising Sun, and we needed somewhere like Abbey Road to fit them all in. We did it in three sessions. It was astonishing the way people treated the studio like a sacred building. Some of the greatest music has been recorded in this building, like Ernie, The Fastest Milkman in The West.
You planned an ambitious world tour in October 2006: what happened to this project?
I thought it would work, but it didn't. I, or more so, the investors, lost around 50,000 pounds because we decided to hire our own jet to take the band and the fans around the world. The idea didn't work and we lost the deposit for the jet. This was an 'ouch'.
Do you still have ambitions, or goals for your musical career?
I am actually a much more boring person than Otway. I still want him to do entertaining things, and the world tour will be one of them, although I'll not be hiring a plane this time. I don't think I'll ever do anything like that again.
When you look back at what you have achieved over the last 50 years, do you really consider yourself a failure?
I must admit I'm finding it harder and harder to live up to this label. I still try to get away with it, but I think being rock and roll's greatest failure has still got a bit of mileage left in it. No one else has ever handled that tag, so I think Ill keep it up for a while longer.
Are you looking forward to playing in Gibraltar?
Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons we chose Gibraltar was because Brexit has caused so many problems with work permits. We wanted to do somewhere in the Mediterranean and someone suggested Gibraltar, which solved all those issues.
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