John Otway plays every year at Glastonbury in the Cabaret tent, but no one ever goes to see him. He had a novelty hit single called ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’ in the late ’70s and has reputedly been living off that in a rather sad manner ever since. This makes him a somewhat unappealing prospect.
However, in the interests of science I decided this year that John Otway must be seen. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon I joined those taking shelter inside and caught most of his act. It turned out that he was surprisingly entertaining. The music is not so good, but he has a very engaging stage manner and for someone who has enjoyed so little success he is very good at working the audience.
His act is essentially a comedic one, albeit based around musical performance. He was accompanied by another guy on guitar, who looked like an escapee from A.R.E. Weapons, but he played guitar himself on most tracks, and used on a variety of gimmicks to keep us amused. One of these was his trick of folding a coathanger so that it became a hands-free microphone holder. More striking was when he wheeled on a theremin and strapped some kind of beatbox onto himself, so that he was able to dance and make music simultanaeously. Truly this man is a genius. He also had a great comedy roadie who had to keep running onstage to re-connect mikes and stuff, especially when Otway was using the coathanger microphone. The roadie was so funny to watch that I am still wondering whether he was part of the act and his interventions scripted.
The actual music was less important. I’m not sure if I caught the Hit, and a lot of the tunes performed were covers – e.g. ‘Delilah’ and ‘Two Little Boys’. Apparently the former of these was released as a single in the relatively recent past, and charted (albeit peaking at number 192), so Otway is now entitled to release a greatest hitS compilation. I always find ‘Two Little Boys’ strangely affecting – I mean, I know it is a mawkishly sentimental song for small children, but a lot of its themes touch my heart. When listening to it I always imagine some poor fuck on a battlefield somewhere waiting to die beside his dead horse, and then he is saved by his childhood friend. Hurrah. Also, the whole thing of sticking close to your childhood friends (something none of us ever do) is a great source of regret and guilty nostalgia.
Otway finished with ‘Cheryl’ – wasn’t this the song he released after ‘Cor Baby’, the track that no one bought, thereby dooming him to a career as a figure of fun rather than a proper musical artist? I found myself thinking that it is actually quite a good tune. Perhaps in an alternate universe John Otway is primarily famous as a songwriter and not as that surprisingly funny guy who always plays the Cabaret Tent at Glastonbury.
The Dirty Vicar