Jan 242012

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.


  24 Responses to “Three Very British Johns, Part 1: John Otway, Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory?”

  1. I didn’t know he went back so far. I first heard of Otway through his work with Johnny Japes and His Jesticles on this little number:


  2. I’d never heard of the guy but that OGWT clip is spazz-tastic. Hard to believe that it was ’72. It seems like it was about 6 or 7 years ahead of its time.

  3. Happiness Stan

    Nice piece, Deek. As well as being a national treasure, Otway’s also one of the nicest blokes in rock.

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    And why have I never heard John Otway’s name being mentioned as one of the “godfathers of punk rock”?

  5. hrrundivbakshi

    And can I just say that the artist with the most English-sounding name in all or rock history is Colin Ivor Moulding?

  6. diskojoe

    That “Cheryl’s Going Home” OGWT clip reminds me of Dick Shawn’s performance of “Love Power” in the Producers. Also, I think I remember “Head Butts” was actually played on Dr. Demento back in the day.

  7. Deek Langoustine

    Dick Shawn, what a class acr. have you seen Evil Roy Slade Diskojoe?

  8. diskojoe

    No, I haven’t, Deek. Also, I’m awaiting your John Cooper Clark thingie since he has a connection w/a Friend of this Hall.

  9. misterioso

    Huh. In slightly more pretentious circles this might be termed “outsider art.” I would call it “really stupid,” yet at the same time that OGWT clip isn’t dull. Though it is too long. I also have a super vague recollection of that “Head Butts” song–was it covered by some punk band in the 80s?

    Seriously, though, he and Kid Rock should get together.

  10. Interesting stuff — the ’72 clip does sound like some of the minimalist rock out today.

    That last number Beware Of The Flowers reminds of a bit of Tonio K. — who really wasn’t punk, but vented loud and fast in some of his songs.

  11. Happiness Stan

    Probably because before punk happened only about a dozen people had heard of him. Forty years later about two dozen people know about him, and even though we are all quite obsessive in our adoration of the mighty Otway, particularly in the respect of his live set, which has remained almost unchanged since I first saw him in about 1980, which we all knew word for word more than twenty years ago, describing Otway as the Godfather of anything other than his own unique style of highly entertaining stupidity might be over-egging it rather.

    I believe I posted a link to him doing “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” a few months back, which I don’t have time to check for as I have a five-year-old asking me questions about whether God lives on a cloud and if so what kind, and my head is about to explode.

  12. Happiness Stan

    adopts pince nez, Ivor is generally a gaelic name, mainly associated with Wales, although popular also in Scotland. Originally the name was from the Norse, I believe. You’d better watch out or someone will set a dragon on you, boyo!

  13. misterioso

    FYI, God does live on a cloud.

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    The only previous time I had heard John Otway was his cover of “I am the Walrus” on a Beatles cover compilation, “Revolution No. 9.”


    I think he shares some similarity to Frank Sidebottom, don’t you think?

  15. My wife has a habit of singing Otway’s ’81 single “Head Butts” to one of our cats, who is fond of giving same.

  16. jeangray

    I think you jus’ insulted Otway & Sidebottom.

  17. jeangray

    “Love Power” is da bomb!

  18. Deek Langoustine

    it will be finished by friday my friend

  19. Deek Langoustine

    why’s that, what would they have in common?

  20. Deek Langoustine

    Im Welsh

  21. Happiness Stan

    Whereabouts? We had a great holiday in Wales last year, and are intending to come back again in June.

  22. Happiness Stan

    I think that both owe some debt to the great Tommy Cooper, I don’t know if he’s at all known in the US, who was a magician primarily popular because his tricks rarely worked as expected. There are loads of clips on youtube, this one made me chuckle

  23. Deek Langoustine

    Headbutts is blood hilarious!

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