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Although his first single, “Gypsy”/”Misty Mountain” was released in 1972, Otway shot to fame on the back of punk rock and a gymnastic performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. His sixth single, the half-spoken love song “Really Free” reached number 27 in the UK Singles Chart in 1977. It would be his greatest success for some time and consequently is still easy to track down on the second-hand market. Much scarcer is the picture cover which was only present on a small proportion of the singles. Rarer still, and almost impossible to find, is the advertising sleeve, a die-cut thin paper sleeve printed with an advert for the debut album, snippets of newspaper and magazine reviews and a cut-out “Really Free” body sticker. The song earned him a five album deal with Polydor Records, who viewed him as a punk rather than merely an eccentric. His first album, recorded with Wild Willy Barrett, was produced by Pete Townshend but sold only fitfully. The follow-up singles fared no better despite some imaginative promotion, which included an offer for Otway to come to a buyer’s house and perform the 1979 single, “Frightened And Scared”, if their copy was one of only three copies from which the vocal had been omitted. Otway’s and Barrett’s only other UK chart success came in July 1980 with “DK 50-80”, a modest No. 45 hit.
When Otway turned solo, his audience remained loyal despite poor record sales, and perhaps because of the possibility of physical injury during renditions of songs such as “Headbutts”. In the mid 80s, he often appeared on Vivian and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall’s showboat, the Old Profanity Showboat, in Bristol’s Floating Harbour.
His 1990 autobiography, Cor Baby, That’s Really Me (subtitled Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure) was a study in self-deprecation, and his touring continued to sustain him. In the 1990s, he toured as “Headbutts and Halibuts”, with Attila the Stockbroker with whom he wrote a surreal rock opera called Cheryl. In 1992 Otway appeared at GuilFest. In 1993 he was able to draw 2,500 fans to a gig in London and, in 1998, 4,000 celebrated his birthday with him at the Royal Albert Hall, coinciding with the release of Premature Adulation, his first album of new material for over ten years.
By then, Otway had realised he could use his fanbase, who were in on the joke, to engage in minor publicity stunts. A grassroots campaign saw his “Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You Yeah” voted the seventh greatest lyric of all time in a BBC poll. In 2002, when asked what he wanted for his 50th birthday, he requested “a second hit”. A concerted drive, including a poll (scrutinised by the Electoral Reform Society) to select the track, saw “Bunsen Burner” — with music sampled from the Trammps song “Disco Inferno” and lyrics devised to help his daughter with her chemistry homework – reach number nine in the UK Singles Chart on 6 October, and earned Otway an appearance on Top of the Pops, BBC Television’s flagship popular music programme. To encourage fans to buy more than one copy each of the single, he released three different versions. The flip-side of “Bunsen Burner – The Hit Mix” was a cover of “The House of the Rising Sun” recorded at Abbey Road Studios and featuring 900 of his fans on backing vocals, each of whom was credited by name on the single’s sleeve. Thanks to this second hit he has now been able to release his Greatest Hits album. Commenting on the fact that the title of this album is now in the plural, Otway said that he was very proud of it, having “finally got it (the ‘s’) on the right side of Hit”.
Performing in the Cabaret Tent at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival
Buoyed by the success of the hit campaign, Otway planned an ambitious world tour in October 2006. Otway proposed hiring his own jet to take his band, and 300 of his fans, to some of the most prestigious venues in the world, including Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House. Despite over 150 fans signing up, the tour was cancelled as the costs of the plane spiralled.
Otway is still touring in various formats. In 2009, he was re-united with Wild Willy Barrett for a UK tour, the duo now perform together regularly and even recorded a new album in 2011 called 40-Odd Years of Otway and Barrett consisting of re-workings of old songs and a new, previously unrecorded song “The Snowflake Effect”. Otway also tours as a solo act; as a duo with Richard Holgarth; and often with his Big Band which includes Murray Torkildsen, Seymour, Adam Batterbee and guest keyboard player Barry Upton.
Otway on the red carpet for Otway the Movie.
In October 2012, to celebrate his 60th birthday, Otway booked the Odeon Leicester Square to show the documentary of his life. Titled Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie, the screening saw cinematic history made with the final scenes of the movie being filmed from the red carpet on the morning of the film. The film was funded by fans becoming producers who, as with the Hit campaign, were all individually credited in the movie credits. Following the success of the producers’ premiere, 2013 saw Otway take the completed movie to the Cannes Film Festival. Ever resourceful and still with an eye for a publicity stunt, Otway and 100 of his fans (who donned Otway masks and dressed up in Otway’s traditional black jeans and white shirt) travelled down the Promenade de la Croisette to the red carpet. The film also had it theatrical release at Glastonbury Festival in June 2013, before going on a national cinema tour in the summer.
Otway now has a motorcycle club of fans called Beware of the Flowers MCC.
He delivers occasional (humorous) lectures on the theme, “Making success out of failure”, and the sequel to his autobiography, I Did It Otway (subtitled Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure) was published in May 2010. The book was designed by John Haxby who has also designed Otway’s album sleeves over the past 15 years.