There are three John’s that are peculiarly British to my mind. One is the relatively well-known Folk/Fusion Guitarist and songwriter John Martyn; the second is “Punk Poet” John Cooper Clarke; and the third is a lesser known gem, that is John Otway. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to introduce you to these artists, and I hope you appreciate them for the rarities that they are. I shall start with John Otway, the man who made a success out of failure.
If you know of John Otway at all it will almost definitely be for his calamitous performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972 and his most successful song, until very recently, “Really Free.” He is often described (mostly by John himself) as rock’s greatest failure, but I strongly disagree with this prognosis and I am sure that you will agree with me in the end. If my sources are correct John Otway’s parents supported him all the way through his “career,” so much so that they even remortgaged their bungalow to fund his escapades
In 1977, the song “Really Free” got to #27 in the charts, which got him a 5-album deal with Polydor Records. The album featured a Wild Willy Barrett on guitar and was produced by Pete Townsend; suffice to say that the album didn’t do very well. Polydor viewed John as a punk act rather than what he actually is, which you will have to decide for yourself. John still performs live, records and writes books to this day, and seems to have as much energy as he ever did and is loved by his loyal fans more than ever.
His self-deprecating style is what makes him peculiar to Britain as well as the subject matter he sings about and the humor that he brings to his performance. However, his exuberance led to a series of disasters early on in his career that he never would be able to overcome, and I think this is what ultimately put the kybosh on any commercial success he could have had. To truly appreciate what a liability John is must be seen to be believed. Following is the infamous 1972 Whistle Test performance that will make everything clear. Please watch before continuing to read as it is genuinely gut-bustlingly hilarious. How Wild Billy Barrett doesn’t kill him is an act of phenomenal restraint. Enjoy!
As you can see John was as nimble as a giraffe on roller skates, but this chaotic, shambolic, and sincere performance was what endeared him to audiences, and when you look through the “Keystone Rock” performance he was clearly as good as any punk act around, if you ask me.
The next clip for is of John and Wild Billy (again? glutton for punishment) performing what I consider to be one of the finest comedy performances ever! The song is called “Head-butts,” and the strong London accent and euphemisms may be difficult for our American cousins to grasp, but it doesn’t stop you getting on the level of their humor. If you don’t find this funny you may need to see a therapist. Go to the toilet first; you may leak.
I close with a song that I really like; it’s called “Beware of the Flowers.” This is the name taken by John Otway’s motorcycle fan club. (Yes, it’s true. There is a John Otway fan club of motorcyclists called Beware of the Flowers MCC.) Please go on line and check out more of John’s work and let me know what you think of this rare beast that can only be found roaming the British Isles. Rock on Johnny, Rock on.
Next time I will be introducing you to the acidic, bile-ridden, speed-induced prose of the anarchic and unstoppable John Cooper Clarke. Hope you enjoyed this little slice of Britain Townspeople. See you soon.