John Otway: "I haven’t lived a sensible moment in the last forty years"

A shot of John Otway live

Alongside guitarist Wild Willy Barrett, John Otway found overnight stardom with his 1977 hit Really Free, and has stubbornly refused to go away ever since. The singer, who still often works in cahoots with Barrett, now has a new solo album, Montserrat, his first for more than a decade. It was recorded on the titular Caribbean island following a Kickstarter campaign. His second choice of location was Harlow.

Montserrat is the first album made on the island since the Rolling Stones recorded Steel Wheels there in 1989. What gave you the idea?

I watched a documentary on George Martin, and I had a song called Dancing With Ghosts that I thought was apt as the place had been hurricaned and volcanoed. So why not go there and be a third natural disaster? The Kickstarter thing made it more appealing than just doing an album in somebody’s shed.

That Kickstarter campaign generated forty thousand pounds in just a month. Our photo shows you playing a gig in a bar for fans who paid to travel over to Montserrat.

There were about fifty of them. We were met at the airport by the prime minister, and the island’s governor invited us all to a reception. Even before he died, George Martin said he liked the idea of somebody going back to Montserrat to work again. The environment really focused everybody to the task in hand, especially when you’ve a producer [Chris Birkett] who woke up each day in Sir George’s bed.

The album’s song Real Tears From Both Eyes relates to how, appearing on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977, and watched by millions of viewers, you leapt on to a tower of amplifiers, with catastrophic results.

That moment changed my career. I haven’t lived a sensible moment in the last forty years.

That tumble helped to make Really Free a Top 30 hit. You had arrived.

Yeah. We’d been doing okay on the pub-rock circuit, and then we went on television. At the next gig there was a queue of five hundred around the block, and within three weeks we were on Top Of The Pops.

It would take a further twenty-five years to repeat the feat, when Bunsen Burner made the Top Ten thanks to a fan-driven campaign for your fiftieth birthday. Did you ever lose faith?

I don’t really think I did. And we squeezed into the last period of time when the hit singles chart really mattered. People don’t actually know what’s in the charts any more, do they?

We had planned to ask about the possibility of a third hit anytime soon, but it doesn’t sound like you can be arsed?

If I did get back there, would people even know? In terms of my career there are more important things to me than chart positions.

Which of your other wizard wheezes remain unfulfilled? A gig on the moon, maybe?

Well, Bunsen Burner was a campaign for my fiftieth birthday, and the movie [Rock And Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway The Movie] was for my sixtieth. I hope it will be Otway The Musical for my seventieth. This year it’s my Cor Baby I’m An OAP year, so there’s still time to go.

You wear that mantle of ‘rock’s greatest failure’ with unusual pride.

I loved it when the publishers gave me that name [it was also the title of a book]. In entertainment terms, I believe that when you weigh up the successes and the banana skins, the slip-ups are always more interesting. Howling great cock-ups are great fun. I love to glorify those things.

Otway and his Big Band are touring now.

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.