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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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ArtsMusic & Mayhem

Music & Mayhem

Still celebrating their ‘Half a Sentry’ tour, John Otway talks to Fergus Byrne about antics, impact and entertaining

Now on something like his 5,200th live performance, John Otway no longer does somersaults while playing his guitar. Neither does he jump off scaffolding or nearby ladders. His antics on stage are legendary ever since a memorable performance at the band’s debut on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977 when he fell off a speaker stack. As one newspaper reported, he only survived because “the impact was cushioned by his testicles”.


But times have changed, and like most of his fans he has had to deal with the physical challenges that come with aging. He happily remembers doing acrobatics on the Somersaults at 60 tour and at the Cor Baby I’m an OAP gig, but he says that not gigging in lockdown slowed him down physically. ‘The thing is’ he says, ‘you just go to do a somersault while you’re playing guitar and if you’ve stiffened up, you’re really likely to hurt yourself. It only sort of worked if you were completely relaxed about it.’ He liked to do handstands and walking on the ceiling—if it was a low enough ceiling. ‘But there came a point when I just didn’t have enough strength to hold the weight of my body’ he says. He would crumble onto the stage and quickly realised ‘it looked a bit pathetic.’


However, he does still rip apart his signature white shirt in mid song. Something that for a man past seventy—although perfectly in character for John Otway—is still quite brave.


Outside of his reputation for thoroughly enjoying being an entertainer, Otway is also known for his unique and often humorous songwriting style. His songs offer witty, irreverent, and often autobiographical lyrics that have always combined clever wordplay with catchy melodies. Along with Wild Willy Barrett he has had two hits Cor Baby that’s Really Free in 1977 and then 25 years later, after a huge effort from his fans, Bunsen Burner in 2002.


But one of the most endearing qualities about John Otway has always been his somewhat childlike passion to be a star, something that he decided when he was very young. That passion, coupled with a natural warmth and what some might unkindly call a ‘modicum’ of talent, has led to a huge loyal fan base that have willed him on and helped him continue to record and tour. They have helped him crowdfund many of his projects, including helping to make a movie about his life which he called Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie.


He holds regular conventions for his fans, even organizing for 100 of them to fly to Montserrat in the Caribbean to record his last album, simply titled Montserrat, in 2017.


Although he admits that fans that come to the Otway and Barrett gigs are a little older than those that come to his ‘John Otway and The Big Band’ concerts, he is surprised to have seen a few new faces in recent years. The film being shown on Netflix has reached people that would normally not have an artist like John Otway on their radar. ‘People just stumbled across the movie’ he says ‘and that sort of gave me a little bit of a career boost.’


But Wild Willy Barrett is very capable of applying his own twist on things when it comes to their fans. Not a man to ever miss the opportunity to display deadpan humor, Barrett was widely misinterpreted when he once announced to the audience: ‘you will probably never see us again’. He later explained that he was referring to the age of the audience and their likely demise, or perhaps inability to come to a show, rather than an end to his and Otway’s performances together.


Barrett is known for his exceptional musicianship and versatility as a multi-instrumentalist. A skilled guitarist and harmonica player he can seamlessly blend different musical genres and styles in his performances.


His versatility has always been a highlight of the Otway and Barrett shows. It was not unusual for him to utilise a nearby bit of wire to replace a broken guitar string or change instruments during a solo if one instrument malfunctioned. There were also times when he looked as though he would rather strangle Otway than play with him.


Although their biggest hit, the Pete Townshend produced, Cor Baby That’s Really Free, became a bit of an anthem when it was released back in the day, there are many memorable non-hits that feature in their show. But while the songs remain the same (or at least similar), some things have had to change. When I last spoke to Wild Willy Barrett he told me he doesn’t beat John Otway’s head against the microphone for percussive effect on their song Headbutts any more. He muttered something about Otway getting old and how it wasn’t good for his health.


Otway is not a huge fan of the writing process, songs just mill around his head and there have been times where he cringes when he hears some of his lyrics, often coughing loudly to drown out the words if a particular song is playing somewhere. After telling me that his fans can’t really cope with more than one album every ten years, I asked him if he ever harbored thoughts of retirement. ‘Somebody did mention retirement the other day’ he answered, ‘but my reply to them was “if you know someone who went down the pub every night, would you say to them, when are you going to retire from going down the pub?”’ Singing and entertaining is his life. He cites stopping during lockdown to elaborate. ‘You had to stop for a little bit. I realised I just missed going out a couple of times a week with people buying me beers and telling me what a good bloke I was!’


But thankfully the show goes on. Despite the years, Otway and Barrett still make an effort to produce a good evening’s entertainment. So hang on to your hats and be prepared for anything from bare-chested theremin playing to wah wah wheelie bin when they come to the Merlin Theatre in Frome on Saturday April 6th and The Phoenix Art Centre in Exeter on April 7th as part of the 50th anniversary tour—or ‘50 and a bit now’ as John says.


You’re guaranteed an amazing if not irreverent performance as they present renditions of their only hits and of course some of the 40 odd near misses.


As always, this may be the last chance to catch the mismatched dynamic duo and their magnificent mix of music and mayhem, so why take the chance of missing it?

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