Accidental Hero

This year is John Otway’s sixtieth birthday and he’s marking the occasion with a fan-funded film about his life, complete with glitzy London premier. There aren’t many people who could pull off such a coup d’ego and still retain their everyman credentials but anyone who is familiar with Otway knows the man is a law unto himself.

I’ve seen Otway perform many times over the years (indeed I have even had the honour of sharing the stage with him) and his set rarely changes: same songs, stunts and banter – one might affectionately label his trademark mania as being “reliably unpredictable”. Repetition does not matter to me though. I’ve seen Hamlet many times too and that doesn’t change much either.

The Shakespeare comparison may seem flippant but Otway’s reinvention of himself at the end of the 1980s as “Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure” was a masterstroke of both modern tragedy and marketing. The first part of his autobiography “Cor Baby That’s Really Me” (published in 1990) outsold pretty much all his records put together. It seemed that, though Otway was never more than a runner-up in the music business, he could nevertheless spin his bronze medal into gold.

I was at a strange musical cross-roads when I first heard Otway’s music. I was sixteen and my experience of concerts up to that point was as limited as it was mixed: The Lightning Seeds at Porsmouth Guildhall, Billy Bragg playing Woody Guthrie at the Wedgewood Rooms, Yehudi Menuhin at the Menton Classical Music Festival plus a handful of stage musicals. In my bedroom I was mostly listening to Jimi Hendrix (though I was not a guitar player myself at that age) and was soon to immerse myself in the indie scene that, at the time, seemed dominated by Chemical Underground Records (Mogwai, Arab Strap, Delgados – a particular favourite of John Peel in those days). I could have ended up anywhere.

But I ended up being an Otway fan. Watching this skinny lunatic vault off a step-ladder, dislodge a cloud of plaster from the ceiling and repeatedly headbutt the microphone changed the way I looked at live performance and set the bar very high for all the bands I was to watch subsequently. He turned fifty a few years later and, when asked what he wanted as a birthday present he said “another hit” (his only one thus far had been “Cor Baby That’s Really Free” in 1977 – the seminal year of Punk, Star Wars and the record-breaking Christmas Number 1 “Mull of Kintyre” by Wings). I was one of those that bought Otway’s “Bunsen Burner” (several copies in my case) as part of the now historic campaign to get him this second hit. It worked – number 9 in the UK singles chart – years before social networking sites like Facebook made similar things happen for acts like Rage Against The Machine.

The affinity he has with his fanbase tempts me to suggest that John Otway is a precursor to the current crop of independent musicians – something of an anonymous Moses parting the Red Sea while no one is watching (before being swept off by a rogue wave). I’d like to say that Otway is to the facebook and twitter generation what Buddy Holly was to early Rock & Roll.

It is, however, difficult to make these arguments convincing when so many people don’t even know who he is.

And yet I’m going to make the argument anyway.

Otway’s strange mix of punk and folk makes him the perfect trailblazer, full to bursting with the delicious contradictions of both. He was signed to Polydor and yet became a hero of DIY; he all but gave up on pop music then found success in a kind of self-reflexive post-celebrity live act; he used a relatively small (yet loyal) fanbase as the engine for a never-ending tour that has made him the original sustainable independent artist of the modern music industry. He spoke of “The Hit” as a joke before X-Factor made it a joke and his portrayal of the Nearly-Rockstar preemptively mocked everything our modern celebrity circus has thrown at us. Otway is the blueprint to the current alternative live circuit. He got to know his fans when other people were just trying to sell them stuff. He realised earlier than everyone else that the walls of the music industry were made from a two-way membrane – it was not simply a relationship between product and consumer, it was a partnership.

The big difference between musicians like me and musicians like Otway (other than the fact that the latter is apparently indestructible) is that he was doing this long before the industry started to crumble. Now everyone is desperately trying to catch up.

You’re probably familiar with at least a handful of the numerous tacky websites that have sprung up recently whereby people vote for their mate’s band to get on some questionable digital TV show or play some 11am slot at a music festival. They promise a short cut where there is none whilst encouraging bands to treat their fanbase as financiers from the get-go, ultimately leaving both artists and audiences feeling cheap and used. Vote for my band… please!

Now look at Otway a decade earlier: his fans all got together and voted “Beware Of The Flowers Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeah” as the 7th greatest Rock lyric of all time (just for a laugh). That was in a BBC TV poll. That is the power of the network and it happened long before facebook, twitter and myspace were even invented – before their inventors had even left school in fact!

Do you know how he does it? He enters the stage via the audience and leaves it via the bar. By the end everyone in the room is his friend.

All the energy of punk, all the honesty of folk, all the stagecraft of Rock and all the naivete of pop with none of the cynicism of “the industry”. These are the reasons why John Otway is the only artist I’ve ever called a hero

FIRST PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2010, UPDATED MAY 2012

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