09 November 2020
Cor Baby, That’s Really Me! and I Did It Otway and Otway The Movie, all by John Otway
Although I normally review only books, I’m including a movie in this collation because it’s a turn-up for the books.
These autobiographies are immensely enjoyable, and I think that’s because they have a wider range than the sublime to the ridiculous; more like a selfie taken with panorama mode while skating.
Otway was a one-hit wonder for many years, in between Really Free reaching the UK singles chart in 1977 and Bunsen Burner getting there in 2002. The latter resulted from a request to his fans to give him another hit single as his 50th birthday present. Oh yeah, if you have a major ambition with the odds stacked against you, just ask to achieve it as a birthday present. Why didn’t I think of that? Of course, it wasn’t that simple. On the contrary, pulling it off needed an amazing amount of time, effort, and shenanigans. That particular story is covered in the second book and the movie. The cast of characters includes the fans, the band, the Electoral Reform Society and various people sympathetic to the cause, along with John himself.
The famous incident on The Old Grey Whistle Test is covered in the first book and the movie. You know, when he leaped onto Wild Willy Barrett’s amplifier and then slipped, with one leg going one side of the amplifier and the other leg going the other side, resulting in him landing on his private parts and the sound being cut off until a rapid-response person plugged the apparatus back in (the amplifier, not the private parts). So he was the architect of his own downfall in this particular incident. But the show went on and there was an upside, namely, the duo being catapulted to stardom, albeit briefly.
These are just two of many tales of Otway’s ups and downs in terms of career, finances, and personal life (though there’s nothing too personal). Do all the downers make him “rock and roll’s greatest failure”, as he reluctantly allowed himself to be branded for the purpose of getting the first book published? Well, it seems to me that some of the bad patches were due to his own wildly over-optimistic exploits whereas others were due to bad luck, e.g. a Musicians’ Union strike leading to cancellation of Top of the Pops in a week where he reasonably expected to get a second appearance on it. In any case, one must remember that chart success isn’t the sole measure of success. Surely the loyalty of his fans over a period of decades and his ability to fill venues ranging from pubs to the Royal Albert Hall also count.
Both books are written by the man himself but in the third person. I was initially discombobulated by this but soon got over it. The first book goes up to 1988, the second one to 2006. The movie covers some of the same ground as the books but also more: footage from live performances going back to the early days; TV appearances; publicity stunts; interviews; and a visit to his old school to teach pupils how to become a pop star.
The movie is more entertaining than the books, though the books give detail on things that were happening behind the scenes. The movie seems like a more professional production, though the “tell it like it is” style of writing works well in context — the context being the autobiography of a self-deprecating zany person. For example, take this introduction to the 26-page appendix in the second book: “I was told that quite a bit of what I had composed did not help the narrative flow — some of this was corrected by the addition or subtraction of various punctuation marks, but other large swathes of text had to be removed. However, I have been allowed to place them in the following appendix.”
Even if you are not a John Otway fan or have never heard of him or only vaguely remember him, you might nonetheless enjoy one or more of the offbeat autobiographies of a talented songwriter who is occasionally literally offbeat in performance.
Declaration of interests: