Rock ‘n’ roll dreams can come true – just ask John Otway

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Monday night at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and John Otway is headbutting the microphone stand. Repeatedly.

It’s the finale of a show that was impossible not to love thanks entirely to the endearing. almost child-like enthusiasm radiated by the 70-year old; a man who dreamed of being a pop star at the age of nine, and is still living the dream with a huge smile on his face.

I came late to the Otway story, via his documentary, Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie, on Netflix. As ‘failures’ go, he’s packed a heck of a lot into 50 years of gigging and recording, and embarked on adventures that would be the envy of any wild-eyed innocent starting out in the business.

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Otway was a one-hit wonder for 25 years with his song Really Free. His appearance with the long suffering Wild Willy Barrett on The Old Grey Whistle Test ended in painful disaster that rather set the tone for his career - check it out on YouTube – until he triumphed again in 2002 with the pastiche disco track, Bunsen Burner.

John Otway on stage (Pic: Cath Ruane)John Otway on stage (Pic: Cath Ruane)
John Otway on stage (Pic: Cath Ruane)

But with a fanbase happy to put their shoulder to the wheel for his adventures, however daft they may sound, Otway has achieved more than most and turned failure into a success story.

He’s packed out the Albert Hall with little more than sheer will power, and saw one of his songs voted the nation’s seventh favourite lyric of all-time, beating even Bob Dylan, the man who inspired him as a nipper. He also took a 1000-strong army of fans to sing Abbey Road, thus setting a new record for the biggest choir ever at the iconic studio, and he saw his film premiere in Leicester Square where the letters spelling out ‘Odeon’ were replaced with O-T-W-A-Y.

At the heart of his career is a remarkably self deprecating approach which simply endears him to fans, old and new. He’s still that nine-year old wannabe rock star at heart.

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I first saw him playing live in a launderette in Durham that doubles as a gig venue at night, and for his Voodoo Rooms gig, some folk had travelled up from London just to join in with the call outs that are part of a show that saw him do Gloria Gaynor’s anthem I Will Survive in the style of Bob Dylan, and then Bachman Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet with Attila the Stockbroker repeating each line in German. Why? Well, why not.

Everyone should see Otway at least once in their life. He’s testament to belief in following your dreams – aiming for the stars and seeing what can happen can you take folk along for the journey, and if you can't do that in the music business then where can you? In fact, it should be a motto for all of our lives.

I played guitar as a kid and gave up. Still regret it to this day. I doubt I had enough talent, ambition or drive to go any further than strumming a few chords in a school band, but it would have cool to have tried. Alas, as I head into my sixties, there really isn’t much call for someone who only knows the chord structure to the House of The Rising Sun.

I guess my rock ‘n’ roll dreams will remain just that. Dreams.