Otway The Movie – Broadway Cinema, Thursday August 29.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
He might be known as “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure”, but John Otway has a knack of coming up trumps. Originally booked into one of Broadway’s smaller screening rooms, unexpectedly high advance sales ensured that Thursday’s one-off screening of Otway The Movie – a home-made, fan-funded documentary, charting his chaotic forty-year career in the music business – was bumped up at the last minute, to the biggest room in the house. On learning the news, his audience cheered him to the rafters.
I had been booked to introduce the film, and to talk with the great man on stage after the screening. Upon arrival, I was led into the main bar, where Otway was already holding court with some of his fans – an uncommonly eager and supportive bunch. We shook hands. An awkward conversational pause ensued. “Have you done this sort of thing before?” he asked. Oh, he’s a sharp one.
John stayed at the back of the room for my preamble, which compared and contrasted the resourcefulness of the Otway fan base – they all but invented crowd-funding, many years ago – with the more limited opportunities on offer to the fans of One Direction – who had an opening night of their own to attend, round the corner at Cineworld.
The movie combined plentiful archive footage- Otway has always been a keen documenter of his own life – with classroom scenes, in which the sixty-year old cult hero instructed a bunch of bemused-looking teenagers on how to make it in the music business.
Coming from someone who had to wait 25 years between his first and second hit singles, this might have seemed a bit rich, but Otway is a born survivor, with an unshakeable belief that all will turn out well in the end.
Otway’s second brush with the charts, thanks to a brilliantly orchestrated campaign that took on the vested interests of the music industry and succeeded against all the odds, was explained in detail. Woolworths, who were still a very big deal back in 2002, had refused to stock his second hit, Bunsen Burner, even when it entered the charts at Number Nine. A few years later, as we were cheerfully reminded, the retail chain went bust, in a stroke of divine justice which brought the biggest cheer of the night.
As the lengthy credits rolled, listing the many hundreds of crowd-funding fans by name, John joined me onstage for a chat and an audience Q&A. He had turned down the offer of a table and chairs (“far too serious”) in favour of perching on the edge of the stage. (“That’s more punk rock, isn’t it?”)
Once in front of an audience, the amiably low-key fellow I’d met earlier transformed into the effortlessly hilarious character that we knew and loved. It felt as if he was coming into his own, and becoming more fully himself. Perhaps that would account for his insatiable appetite for performing; after all, it has been a full twenty years since he celebrated his 2000th show.
Knowing what you know now, asked one fan, would you have rather lived the life of the superstar you never became, or has your chequered career enriched you in ways that success never could? “That’s the most stupid question I’ve ever been asked!” Otway replied. “OF COURSE I’d rather have been a superstar! That’s all I ever wanted!”
John’s other great knack is for inspiring his fans to mobilise and campaign on his behalf. For his fiftieth birthday, they gave him a second hit single. For his sixtieth birthday, they gave him a movie: premiered in Leicester Square, taken to the Cannes Film Festival, and soon to be eligible for a BAFTA. And so it was that I found myself, hypnotised by his spell, bravely launching a campaign to get him onto the main stage at Rock City. (“Who’s in?” I yelled. “We are!” they replied.) Well, many stranger things have happened. DHP, please take note.
When all is said and done, perhaps the wisest words lie in the movie’s subtitle. John Otway isn’t rock and roll’s biggest failure, he isn’t its worst failure, and he most certainly isn’t its most hopeless failure. He is far more than that. He is “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure” – and for that, we must salute him.