Cor Baby that’s a PhD!
That’ll be Dr Otway if you please as so called ‘Rock’s greatest failure’ is granted a doctorate!
Just months after performing his 5,000th gig to an adoring Shepherd’s Bush Empire crowd, unique singer songwriter John Otway has been awarded an Honorary PhD in Music by Oxford Brookes University.
Otway, best known to many for his first hit ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’ said ‘I’m really thrilled to be awarded this totally unexpected honour, especially as I failed all my A levels as I decided to concentrate on preparing for my burgeoning career as a rock star. To get this from Oxford Brookes 50 years later shows I did the right thing. And I did have some further education in Oxford in the 1970s – my learning was at a pub in St Clements, The Oranges and Lemons performing my embryonic act there over 50 times in 12 months. In that short time I went from playing to 20 people in the pub to having a hit record. I haven’t done a sensible days work since! Now this doctorate puts me on the same level as other celebrity Doctors such as Brian Cox, Angela Merkel, Brian May, Kermit the Frog and Geri Halliwell.’
In announcing the honour Gavin Barber, Deputy Director, Academic and Student Administration at Oxford Brookes, said: ‘Oxford Brookes is proud to be awarding an Honorary Degree to John in recognition of his international musical and cultural contribution over five decades. As a champion of live music and an active supporter of grass-roots venues, and of course a legendary performer, John’s commitment, generosity, talent, and dedication embody the values and attributes that we seek to encourage and develop in all of our students”.
When his first autobiography came out the publishers decided to market Otway as ‘Rock n’ Roll’s Greatest Failure’ for his innate ability to make bizarre career moves, often plucking defeat from the very jaws of success.
The title has stuck yet he has actually enjoyed a 50-year career in the music industry with successes that are the envy of many wannabes. Since playing his first gig in his hometown of Aylesbury in 1972 he has built a sizeable cult following of amazingly loyal and adoring fans through his ceaseless touring, surreal sense of humour and a self-deprecating underdog persona.
He first achieved micro-stardom with a memorable (and very painful – ask him) 1977 appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test leading to his first hit record. In 2002, a mere 25 years later, he had another hit when ‘Bunsen Burner’ entered the Top Ten.
As well as his brace of hits (more UK hit singles than Led Zeppelin note), he has had 15 album releases (more than Ed Sheeran) including six with on-off, on-off again-on partner Wild Willy Barrett. He has sold out The Royal Albert Hall and headlined the London Palladium (neither of which David Bowie achieved). His self-made biopic Otway the Movie: The Story of Rock n Roll’s Greatest Failure premiered in Leicester Square, was shown at Cannes, voted 2nd best film of 2013 by Guardian readers and is still popular on Netflix. Two volumes of his autobiography have been published (precisely two more than Mick Jagger has managed).
Otway’s song ‘Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You Yeah’ was voted the seventh greatest lyric of all time in a 1999 BBC poll – higher than anything by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Bee Gees or Leonard Cohen.
As an actor he has appeared in TV’s Super Gran, William Tell, Heartbeat and others including a certain brand’s ‘Secret Lemonade Drinker’ commercials.
Never happier than when performing, during lockdown he performed 9 shows from his sitting room via Facebook, each attracting over 10,000 views. But it is his legendary live shows, that have kept the fans coming and this micro-star shining for half a century. He celebrated his 5,000th in April and as of 1 September is up to 5,041 with many more booked to the end of the year and beyond.
From the age of 9, John Otway knew he wanted to be a pop star. But even at that young age, having listened to his sister’s Beatles and Stones records, he knew he would never be able to do what they do. However, when his sister got the latest Bob Dylan album, he knew there was a place for him and he set about learning how to play guitar.
Otway had to wait until 1977 and the rise of punk before his dream of fame and fortune would finally become a reality. Having caught the eye of the producers of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, Otway’s performance on that show would grab the attention of the watching audience. Otway, ever the showman, decided to jump on to the amplifier of his colleague during a performance of Bob Lind’s Cheryl’s Going Home. (Un)fortunately for Otway, he misjudged his leap and sent Wild Willy Barrett’s amplifier tumbling as he crashed down straddling the box under the amp.
The full force of the impact was absorbed by the most tender part of his body, but in doing this one simple act of recklessness and his wanton disregard for his own safety, Otway was the talk of everyone who watched that evening’s programme.
Not only did he see a surge in his audiences, sales of Otway’s sixth single, the half spoken love song Really Free increased dramatically and reached number 27 in the UK Singles Chart. An appearance on the BBC’s flagship music programme Top of the Pops, where Otway & Barrett were introduced by Elton John later, Otway was finally a star. It would however, be his greatest success for some time.
Despite numerous attempts to get back into the charts, Otway would have to wait 25 years for his next taste of chart success. In the intervening years, Otway would become an actor; write an autobiography (Cor Baby That’s Really Me: Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure); perform sold out shows at London’s Astoria and Royal Albert Hall; make regular appearances at both Glastonbury and Edinburgh Festivals; and write the nation’s seventh favourite lyric of all-time (beating Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in the process).
In 2002, Otway achieved what he desired the most – a second hit. A concerted publicity campaign saw Otway reach number 9 with the disco pastiche Bunsen Burner and a second appearance on Top of the Pops. Despite this success, a planned world tour collapsed, but Otway continued to gig extensively around the UK either with his band, as a duo with Wild Willy Barrett or solo. A follow-up autobiography was penned in 2010 and titled: I Did It Otway: Regrets I’ve Had a Few.
To celebrate his 60th birthday in 2012, Otway produced his debut movie titled Otway the Movie: The Story of Rock n Roll’s Greatest Failure. A screening for producers was held at London’s Leicester Square with the final scenes from the movie filmed on the red carpet and edited into the film as the audience were watching. The film was then taken to Cannes Film Festival and a 50-date tour of cinemas in both the UK and North America. It was subsequently voted the 2nd best film of the year in a poll of its readers conducted by The Guardian newspaper.Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Otway took his band to the Caribbean island of Montserrat to record a new album. The album would be the first to be recorded on the island by an international artist since The Rolling Stones recorded Steel Wheels in 1989. Produced by Grammy-award winner Chris Birkett and recorded at Olveston House – the former home of Sir George Martin, it was released to critical acclaim in May 2017.