Cor baby that’s really meat free. John Otway does, what only John Otway can do, in South London’s number one vegan record shop pub – thing
The phrase ‘one off’ can be overused. But John Otway truly is unique, peerless and – a one off.
He’s not really punk rock, but timing is everything. He was just hitting his stride on his journey to become a pop star when punk rock exploded. His anarchic first single ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’ captured the punk rock zietgeist and propelled him into the hit parade – not to mention The Old Grey Whistle Test. His acceptance by the punk rock fraternity is confirmed by his appearance on 1979’s legendary ‘Twenty of Another Kind’ compilation.
What happened next is well documented in his two brilliant autobiographies and ‘Otway the Movie’. At some point along the line he decided to embrace his lack of success as a pop star and promote himself as ‘Rock’s Greatest Failure’. A genius move that has led to him becoming something of a cult on the live circuit.
He split from his original partner, Wild Willy Barrett, quite early in his career, although they still do the odd gig together. He has played with a host of partners over the years. When I booked him to play Blackwood Miners’ Institute in 1995 for a Peppermint Iguana gig, he was accompanied by Richard Holgarth from Eddie and the Hotrods (amongst others). Fortunately, Richard has also done some sound engineering, because I had foolishly assumed that when I hired the in-house PA it would come with an engineer. Richard did the sound for the support band and then taught me how to do sound for Otway. It’s not complicated.
No PA issues tonight, John is playing The Sound Lounge in Sutton. It is an amazing little intimate venue. It combines a vegan restaurant with a vinyl record shop and a music venue. If that doesn’t tick enough boxes for you, according to their website the venue is carbon neutral.
We arrive early. Stupidly early. We had planned on a full day Christmas shopping in Sutton before hand. Sutton high street is thriving, I can’t really knock it, but it’s no different to Cardiff, Bristol or Plymouth high streets. Thus we find ourselves sat at two upcycled school desks right in front of the stage.
We order ourselves two delicious vegan pizzas and I get stuck into some delicious cider served in wicked Music Venue Trust pint glasses.
When the doors are about to open for the gig we just tick our names off the list and stay where we are. The restaurant seating and tables remained in place and the bar area filled up with people standing at the back with beers in hand.
Eventually Otway hits the stage, solo tonight – other than his able assistant Deadly The Roadie.
As usual, he kicks off with his hit, ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’, for those in the crowd that did not realise Otway was a pop star. It is then followed up by the b side, which sold just as many copies, ‘Beware of the Flowers, I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeah’, which apparently was voted seventh best lyrics ever in a poll in 1999. (Not the first, or last, time his fan club hyped him into a chart.)
We then get John playing a bewildering array of instruments, including a hinged double neck guitar, a theramin, a strap on drum machine, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, a fuzz box, sampler, a coat hanger and thing that makes Otway sound like Norman Collier.
To the uninitiated, the set looks remarkably like cabaret, rather than the set of a pop star, but he is kind enough to regularly remind us that his is a pop star and, if you pay attention – although he is not really one of the best lyricists in the world – there is a beauty to what he writes that goes beyond the jolly japery that is presented at the live show.
He takes a break after forty-five minutes to have an interlude drink and sell some merch (yep, he is DIY and grassroots enough to staff his own merch stall), he returns to the stage and throws some cover versions, including an Osmonds cover with Otway on Theramin, a Bob Dylan cover with Deadly the Roadie on harmonica, an Animals cover with the audience on heckling and a Wild Willy Barrett cover with a baby doll on headbutts.
Forty-five years on from his first hit, he is still selling out gigs. Okay, quite small gigs but he does sell them out. And no matter where in the country he plays, the audience know when to heckle and still laugh at gags that he has told a thousand time, because – you know what – they are still funny.
One hundred and fifty miles away, mates are sharing post on social media, about another band that were around in 1977, that have had considerably more hits that Otway and are playing in the seven and a half thousand capacity Cardiff International Arena – the Cure. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind, I’m having the most fun.
The man is quite simply – a legend.