Oi! Otway

PUBLISHED: 15:17 05 March 2008 | UPDATED: 17:13 16 August 2010

SINCE his first single, the warped half-spoken love song Really Free, reached number 27 in the charts in 1977 cult musician

SINCE his first single, the warped half-spoken love song Really Free, reached number 27 in the charts in 1977 cult musician John Otway has been tirelessly peddling his unique brand of surreal comedy rock and roll to a modestly sized but dedicated group of hardcore fans, writes Jason Goodyer.

For the uninitiated Otway performances can be unsettling events. Seeing a willowy, wild-eyed fifty-something rabidly flail around with a bizarre bendy double-necked guitar while half-speaking, half-singing ditty's about head butting and chemistry equipment may not be everyone's cup of tea. But while he jokes about being rock and roll's greatest failure his career has outlived those of the majority of his contemporaries and he is still performing in venues all over the country.

The younger generation may remember Otway for his out-of-the-blue top ten hit Bunsen Burner, his off-kilter take on The Trammps' Disco Inferno released in 2002. Staggeringly the record reached number nine in charts but it seems the 56-year-old was one of the few who expected the record to be a success.

"It surprised a lot of people but we actually put together an 18 month campaign for me to have a hit for my 50th birthday," he explains, "the fans voted for what the hit should be in advance because I'd picked the last 22 and they had all been flops.

"It was wonderful because it changed me from someone who was a one hit wonder to someone with a chart career spanning a quarter of a century."

The high chart position of the record led to an appearance on Top of the Pops where he found an unlikely drinking buddy.

"It was great because I thought nobody would recognise me because I was this old guy that had a hit in 1977 but as I was walking up to the studio this voice shouted 'Oi! Otway!' and it was Damien from Badly Drawn Boy. I've always been impressed with him for that.

"I spent most of the time in the bar talking to him. He's obviously loads younger than me but we did feel we came from the same musical era as opposed to this drum and bass lot."

Despite the success of the record Otway was again cast in his familiar role as the outsider when a number of shops and supermarkets refused to stock his record.

"They do their demographics really well. They basically know what's going to go into the top ten because they have one central buyer for the UK and if he takes a certain record then it gets into 70 per cent of the market place which is the main supermarkets and Woolworths and shops like that. It's a self fulfilling prophecy almost.

"What they don't expect is for someone to spend 18 months on a campaign with 1000 avid fans who will find the record and pre-order it in enough stock to break down their system. It was all jolly good fun."

Later in the year Otway is taking some time off from his relentless touring schedule and teaming up with Doctor Feelgood guitarist Wilco Johnson for a one-off show at The Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford.

"I'm taking time off specifically in order to work with Wilco. I've known him for years. He started a bit before I did but when I did the Royal Albert Hall show in 1998 he offered to come and be a special guest for that and quite a few of the big gigs I've done he has come and helped me out. He's been a real good mate.

"When I had hair people said we looked alike but the guitar playing at gigs gives it away. Wilco is a little better. We have done a few numbers together in the past so hopefully at the Mick Jagger centre we'll work on that. I'm going to get on stage and play theremin at some stage. I'm almost as good on theremin as Wilco is on guitar."

* John Otway and Wilco Johnson perform at the Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford on May 17. Box office: 01322 291 100.

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