Text © Robert Barry Francos
© 1980, FFanzeen; introductory comments © RBF, 2010
Images from the Internet
The following interview with British musician John Otway was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #6, in 1980. It was conducted by RBF.
In celebrating the release of John Otway’s second book, I Did It Otway (2010), which is reviewed in the blog directly below this one, I have pulled out my old interview with the man from 1980.
Interviewing and meeting England’s John Otway was another bonus from my association with publicist Janis Schacht. To be honest, I never heard of him until she passed him along to me, first in the form of his Deep Thought album, recorded with then hetero soul-mate and usual collaborator “Wild” Willy Barrett, whose split was imminent. Since none of his previous music had been released in the United States, this one by Stiff Records was a compilation of some of his earlier material, mixed with some new recordings.
It’s kind of hard to describe Otway’s style of music, except to say that is reminiscent of Boston, Massachusetts’s Willie Alexander. Both men have a distinctive and yet somewhat similar vocalization and arrangement style that is non-status quo, with variously elongating and contracting vowels, while playing with pitch, tone, and timing. They also both have been known to take covers and totally transform them into their own (Alexander with “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” Otway with “Cheryl’s Going Home,” for example). Unfortunately, the one thing they both have most in common is that they both never really rose above a cult level in North America, though both were signed to major labels at one point in their career (and both have a stronger fan base in Europe).
Taking Alan Albramowitz with me to the Ritz on the night he was to play, we talked to him after the soundcheck. He is an affable man whose humor is strong both on and off the stage.
Issue 6, Year-end 1980
John Otway, out of Alyesbury, England, has had three tours in the United States. The first two times, the response was only fair, due mainly to his previous recordings being on private labels, or only available in England. The States knew very little of him. This time around, he appeared with an album called Deep Thought, just out on Stiff Records. It is a wonderful release which has covers of Bob “Elusive Butterfly” Lind’s “Cheryl’s Coming Home” and Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
After a tempestuous childhood of torment and fear, Otway struck out of Alyesbury to seek life as a performer – the wilder the better. He and childhood friend/musician Wild Willy Barrett started recording their own material and was later helped by Pete Townshend’s production wizardry on two of their songs, “Louisa On A Horse” and “Murder Man” (both of which appear on Deep Thought).
When he left home, he was an unknown, and more or less the town joke of Alyesbury. Not having the capital to go it alone, he worked as a dustbin man – or garbage collector – where he would sing in the streets as the cans rattled. Once again, he was not taken seriously. The change came when his mum and dad mortgaged their home to pay of his first recording. He has since paid them back and come back a town hero, putting Alyesbury on the musical map, after many a tour and a documentary film based on his stage appearances.
Alan Abramowitz and I caught up with him at the Ritz, September 16, 1980, backstage before his set, as he rolled his own (tobacco) cigarettes.
FFanzeen: Why does it seem that so many rock’n’rollers have had trouble as a kid?
John Otway: I think it sort of gives you a fighting start. It seems that all the kids that have had it easy in school, and always good in sports and things, always end up in the most boring, downbeat jobs in the world. The kids I knew who had problems, they all did something interesting – they had to go find themselves interesting jobs.
FF: Why did you have such problems?
Otway: I don’t know. I think it was a number of things. One was the way I looked. I was always a bit gamy, which didn’t help. I had a bit of a speech impediment, and they used to call me smelly and things. I remember when I was about 14, suddenly everything changed; everything that had been a complete disadvantage suddenly started to be an advantage. Instead of finding it to be a disadvantage to be rack and ruins, I started finding it to be an advantage, because people knew you ... and so I was probably playing on being even more smelly. Looking even more gamy. Dressing in a sort of way that would attract attention.
FF: In what way did this effect your view of music?
Otway: It made me an exhibitionist. The big show. It essentially came out on stage in terms of playing songs straight and then, if there was something I could do that would get a bit more applause or shock and get a better reaction, then I’d do it – like ripping my shirt off and crawling across the stage – bursting into tears. Everything. At that time I was doing a lot of folk clubs and things and, well, it may have been acceptable in a rock medium to sort of run around the stage and sort of terrorize the audience; in folk clubs, that certainly wasn’t the case. Then, what I had was just an acoustic guitar, which I couldn't even tune.
FF: What tunes did you play?
Otway: I started off playing a lot of Dylan songs. I ended up generally writing because to find something I actually found comfortable with, I found easiest to write, rather than search out something to do. As far as writing is concerned, that didn’t come about through a necessity of finding something to perform, it was more of a desire to actually write songs.
FF: This is digressing a bit, but in the bio that Stiff gave out, it says you did “dangerous athletic feats,” which got me curious. Care to clarify?
Otway: When I was ... 13 or 14, I started doing things like picking fights with the biggest kid in the school. I’d really make a mess of me and my face, and do it to attract huge audiences. Especially to advertise the fact that, even if you pick a fight with a huge bully, you could clear the whole school playground, who would come to see you. They’d come just to see you get completely paddled. Things like downing a bottle of ink in one, you know, you could sort of guarantee an audience of at least 200 just to see you do it. Then I was into things, like really dangerous stunts on canal bridges over solid concrete, sort of 50 or 60 feet in the air. Just that sort of thing – completely stupid things. I was a compete showoff. A couple of tours ago, I was taking 10-foot scaffolding towers around and doing tightrope walks. It was a relief that I didn’t carry on doing that because I thought, “With the next tour you’d have to take 15 foot scaffolding towers and the next 20 and then, one day, you actually are going to kill yourself, so ...”
FF: What musical instrument did you pick up when you played in your school orchestra?
Otway: Violin, really. I studied classical violin for seven years. I was awful at it. I was in the orchestra for a little while. I’d just make sure that I was bowing in the same direction as the orchestra and the bow was a quarter-inch from the strings. I use it a bit on stage now, but my style of violin playing goes more for what it looks like than what it sounds like.
FF: And guitar.
Otway: My guitar playing is basically straight chords. The way I play, there’s really nothing to it, but my violin playing is really quite good – when it’s in tune.
FF: How did you get together with Wild Willy Barrett?
Otway: Well, we both came from the same town. Willy lived about 150 yards from me. In terms of ambition, I think we were the two most ambitious people in town. Willy, being a great musician, started playing (guitar) when he was four. He was sort of the musical hero – I mean, everybody in town admired the way he played – me, the complete joke. The reason we got together is, I just think Willy sort of admired what I did and I admired what Willy did. We just sort of found something we enjoyed doing – meanwhile I was writing as well. He was always into being a producer and arranging stuff. Being such a small town, you just stared working with people you know.
FF: Aylesbury is about 25 miles out of London?
Otway: About 50. It’s got a little club called Friars. It’s a good club.
FF: I know it was obviously for the money, but why did you become a garbage collector?
Otway: The reason why I did it – I don’t know, I hated all the other jobs I tried. It took me six years to actually make a living out of performing. I hated office work. I also fancied that it was good for my career. I started off with the idea of being a loo attendant. I always thought it would be great later on to say that I was a lavat’ry attendant for two years. Convenient job.
FF: Sort of “from the toilet to the toilet.”
Otway: The jokes were endless, but I couldn’t do it to my parents. I mean, you can just imagine people going up to my mum and saying, “Oh, what what’s John doing now?” “Oh, he’s working at lavat’ries ... He’s working at the loos.” A garbage collector is sort of an acceptable step for me, and I thought my parents could live with that. Also, it was a handy job since it finished about two in the afternoon. That way I could get a basic gig anywhere in the country.
FF: And you could sing in the streets.
Otway: Actually, I wrote about three songs when I was working the dustbins. Walking up to collect the garbage. It was sort of a standard joke on the cart that I sang all the time.
FF: The first album you did, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett , was on a private label. How well did it sell?
Otway: We didn’t really go for that long. It was sold for about two weeks. Because it was selling well, Polydor took it up. We made a deal with them and they took over the record as it stood. We were over at Track Records just before that, and they put out our single, “Louisa On a Horse.” We wanted to do an album and we kept arguing about who would produce it. Eventually we borrowed some money and went into a studio and put it out on our own. We took the album to Track Records and they heard it and fired us on the spot. And so we called our label Extracked. And Track went bust about six months later, which was quite good.
FF: How did you get hold of Pete Townshend?
Otway: Long time before that ... in the early ‘70s, I did a few demos with Willy. And a couple of them turned out really good. It was just ... with one overdub. I pressed around 500 records because I’d always found records easier to deal with than tapes to send them around and sell them in the shops, get your money back and things. Pete Townshend got hold of one through a friend of Willy’s. He just sort of got in touch and said, would we like him to produce a few tracks for us, and so we said “Yes.” A week later, we were in the studio ... The interesting thing is that I was not a Who fan at all before I worked with Townshend. In fact, a friend of mine who was a huge Who fan, was sort of fanatical about it. I was always having big arguments with him, saying that the Who were just a back-up band. I always hated the Mods and I still do. I was sort of horrified when it came out that Townshend was working with us. But it was good in a way because ... he wasn’t like a big hero and I could really appreciate what he did working with us in the studio, because he’s ridiculously talented. He’s got great ears as well. As a producer, he was an exceptionally hard-working professional. I came out with bloody more admiration than not liking him before.
FF: It’s kind of strange that one of the tracks he did, “Louisa On a Horse,” sounds almost country and western.
Otway: That’s because both me and Willy came out of folk clubs, really, rather than rock music. I did that largely because the best places to go to is folk clubs so you can take your guitar and do a few songs. Willy was doing folk clubs, as well as bluegrass stuff ... “Murder Man” and “Louisa On a Horse” are based on country stuff. We just picked up electric guitars (four years ago). We were playing in England at some New Wave clubs, playing sort of punk versions of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with electric banjo. Sort of this really aggressive country music. All the punks used to love it – pogo to it. Especially when this punk thing started, a lot of people took themselves (too) seriously.
FF: And they still do.
Otway: This is great, that they’ve sort of picked out this niche ...
FF: Do you find it strange to come in to the New Wave from the folk side rather than the rock side?
Otway: I suppose it is because, essentially, I have no great love for rock’n’roll. There’s quite a bit I like, but there’s not general love for it. My love was performance in that particular style of music.
FF: I guess that’s why the media call you a “pop” star rather than a “rock’n’roll” star.
Otway: I prefer to be a pop star because when I was a kid about nine, I decided what I was going to do. We (made) heroes of people like Cliff Richards and stuff. Little nine-year-old kids. Well, I basically set out the rules for my life that I was going to be famous. I took pictures of my hero and he was what I wanted to be like. It was my first ambition, and you never sort of lose that. I wanted to be a pop star ...
FF: Was “Cor Baby That’s Really Free” released in the United States?
Otway: No, the only thing that was released in America before the Stiffs, MCA released one of the Townshend things, around ’73. I don’t think it got any sort of push or anything. MCA released “Murder Man.”
FF: On Stiff’s Deep Thought album, it was just called “Really Free.”
Otway: In England it was “Really Free” as well. In the package, they put “Cor Baby That’s Really Free.”
FF: How were you approached to do your TV documentary, The Dustbin Man?
Otway: The director came backstage once. He was looking at the club ‘cause he was gonna do a documentary on the club and I was on that night. I explained that I did a free concert every year (in Alyesbury) and this year I was doing one in the market square.
FF: 1,500 people showed up.
Otway: Yeah. He just really liked the idea of the sort of local guy who comes up in this home town and sort of comes back to conquer it. He closed down all the roads in the center of the town and takes over for a day. I sort of explained that I was doing that.
FF: So it turned out instead of him doing a documentary about a club ...
Otway: It ended up being a documentary about ...
FF: About you.
FF: Great. How did it go over?
Otway: It was really good. I thought it was a really good documentary just because most documentaries of rock music or rock musicians tend to sort of have a lot of backstage footage. They tend not to deal with an everyday sort of (subject) or probe too much apart from the music, where our documentary wasn’t really about the music, it was more about a person. Whether that person be good or bad, I thought it was an honest look at what I was doing.
FF: Do you know if it’s going to be released in the United States?
Otway: I hope so ... Something this great should make it.
FF: Totally objective, I’m sure. [laughs]
Otway: I might be a little biased. (My comment on the film) is praising the director more than it’s praising me.
FF: That’s film. What about video?
Otway: I want to do some work with it. I really feel the rock industry is dying and I think it’s seen its best days and I do think more visual art forms will (be used) in the next couple of years.
FF: Do you have any videos of the songs you’ve already done?
Otway: No, but I sort of intend to try and get the record company to get in the habit of making a video very time I record a song.
FF: I’d love to see one for “D.K.50/80” (from Deep Thought).
Otway: It was (released as a) 45 in England just before we came a-ways.
FF: The background vocal is, my guess, backwards and speeded up.
Otway: Well, it’s backwards, but not speeded up. It’s two girls from a band called Sausage. They had had a song called “K.D. 80/50.” It’s quite a rude song, but we just use the chorus, which isn’t too rude. When you play the turntable backwards, it goes “K.D. 80/50 / You’re so nifty / K.D. 80/50 / You’re so nifty / Tie her up / Tie her down / Turn her over / Turn her ‘round.” The first verse of that song went “Big tits, bondage and belts / You name it, anything else.”
FF: I figured out just about the entire second stanza of “D.K. 50/80.” About Cinderella ...
Otway: “Cinde / Cinde / Rella / Rella / Type her / Type her / Letter/Letter ... invite all your sister to the dance / You would like to go / But still you never get the chance.”
FF: Do you do that song live?
Otway: No, I haven’t done it this tour. We did a tour in England to promote the single and we did it. We had Willy singing backwards.
FF: Is Willy with you this tour?
Otway: No. He’s getting more and more into production. He’s starting his own record label, which is good ‘cause he’s really happy doing that.
FF: Will he still be backing you at all?
Otway: Yeah, I really like working with Willy ... the first time we split , it showed us the position where if I just wanted to do something or wanted to do something together, we can do it and if we want to do it on our own we can do it on our own. We’re not into any intention of working together, which is good ‘cause we can work together when we want to.
FF: How was the reaction to your last two tours across the United States?
Otway: It was good. It was hard to do it without a record deal; we only just got the Stiff deal. I mean, things like, the first time we played Minneapolis, we played to 15 people. The second time we played, around 100, 150 to 200 people turned out. I mean, it’s working, but it’s the slow way to doing it.
FF: The promotion for this tour (monikered “In Your Livingroom”) was excellent. An EP of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” without vocal tracks stuck in with regular ones and whomever picked it, you sang it to them in their living room.
Otway: A ridiculous idea.
FF: It’s ridiculous but I think it’s an ingenious one. A twelve year old kid won it?
Otway: Yeah. That’s why I’m on the news tonight on Channel 7 [ABC-TV]. The 11 o’clock news tonight. We were all crammed with this kid in his room. It was great.
FF: There is a very sharp sense of humor to your music. Why is humor so important in rock’n’roll (e.g., Dictators, Deaf School, The Quick, John Entwhistle)?
Otway: Humor is very important to me. It’s such as good weapon because you could be so much more aggressive, so much more biting. You can get a point so much more if there’s an element of humor on it, because humor can be that much more tragic than something serious can be.
FF: Do you think there’s more humor in British music because of the Music Hall tradition?
Otway: Yeah, I think so. There is sort of a tradition going right back. The humor is different from American humor as well ... One of my favorite people is, like, [Monty Python’s John] Cleese. He’s higher in my esteem than rock stars. He’s just so bloody funny. Sometimes it’s so bloody cutting as well. I mean, it’s not just because you laugh at him, sometimes it really hurts ... I picked humor because I couldn’t stand being on stage and not getting a standing ovation. I was also the sort of person that people laughed at anyway. I capitalized on it.
FF: On Deep Thought, you have one side of new songs, one of old.
Otway: We did it to keep this album separate from the last three [John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, Deep and Meaningless, and Way/Bar]. But also, the next album will be put out on Stiff on both sides of the Atlantic. This album is largely to keep this side of the Atlantic up to date with England.
FF: The album won’t be released in England?
Otway: No. Maybe at some stage [I’ll] do a double album which basically covers the rest of the material that was released over there.
FF: Are you going to do a live album?
Otway: People keep asking and I keep thinking, maybe, maybe not. I got an idea of doing a double album with a studio album and throwing in a live album ... The live act is essentially me. So much of it is visual, like knocking mikes together and things. If you don’t know they’re two mikes knocked together at this particular point, it sounds like a bang.
FF: While that’s up, do you think people come to see you for the theater, or ...
Otway: People sort of try to make that part of me a comedian, but as I said, to me it’s a veritable weapon as well. Things that are funniest to me are sometimes the saddest, as well. I don't just think in terms of straight comedy at all ‘cause I can’t tell a joke.
FF: I know you like to roll off the stage, but you wouldn’t do that here, would you [the stage of the Ritz is more than five feet off the dance floor – ed.]?
Otway: Just before I came here, I just dived from the stage – seven feet into the air – and I dived as if I were diving into water. Just sort of threw out my hands and rolled over. I really crippled my back for the next three days. I was limping. I couldn’t sit down, couldn’t lie down. It was horrible.
FF: Then I really doubt if you’ll try it tonight.
Otway: I don’t know. I’m sort of one of these people that never learns. You always say, “No, of course not” and then when it comes to a performance, you always feel you can do anything. You’re completely fearless. There’s been a couple of times I’ve really, really crippled up because you hit the same part of your body every night and so you got this great bloody red bruise there. It really hurts. It’s been hurting all day, and you go on stage and somehow you do it again, in exactly the same place. You don’t think about it and then you walk off the stage and it suddenly hurts.
FF: It’s the excitement, the adrenaline ...
Otway: Yeah, the adrenaline.
Alan: I was looking through a copy of People while on line at a supermarket and you were in there.
Otway: Oh yeah, I saw that. That’s the one where they showed the supermarket and things like that. The camera showed the disbelief in their faces.
Alan: They praised you well.
Otway: I was quite shocked. I’ve been quite lucky. With all this press on it, it took a really long time before the really negative stuff started coming. Of course, occasionally – I think NME (New Musical Express) reviewed the first album in one word: “Tragic.” And that was the review.
FF: Do you realize you are one of the few people who use those papers to roll tobacco?
Otway: I always feel guilty if I buy cigarette papers over here. And trying to get tobacco is a joke. We’ll I’m going back [to England] tomorrow.
FF: This is the end swing of your tour, then.
Alan: How much tape is left?
Otway: I think in half the interviews I’ve done on this tour the tape machine hasn’t worked.
FF: This is one of the few times it has.
Otway: My luck must be turning.