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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

40 ODD OF ANOTHER KIND: Otway and Barret hit Cardiff

In 1977, Polydor released ’20 of Another Kind’, a sampler of the then new phenomenon of punk rock – or new wave at it was then sometimes acceptable to be called. Hidden amongst bands like 999, the Lurkers and Sham 69 were two tracks by a gangly misfit known as John Otway and his then sidekick Wild Willy Barret.

The two tracks were the A and B side of the single ‘Really Free’ and ‘Beware of the Flowers cos I’m Sure they’re Gonna Get You’. This single sky rocketed into the charts, back in the days when the charts meant something, to the giddy height of number 27.

Although this was a punk compilation, Otway and Barret were hardly from the classic punk mould – although the spirit of rebelliousness, originality and rule breaking seeped from every chord. The single had ‘novelty record’ or even ‘one hit wonder’ written all over it and it was clear this was not going to be a ‘band’ that would last – or was it?

Punk rock came and went. Then we had post punk, mod and ska revivals, rave, grunge, brit pop, jungle, big beat and all manner of music trends that came and went, scrubbing the decks of the good ship rock and roll clean before setting out on their own voyage. Yet through all of this the unlikely pop star that was Otway clung on to the mast and weathered all musical storms that were thrown his way. He has never given up and has been touring constantly – although the name of the bloke that stands next to him on stage has changed several times.

Never quite equalling that early chart promise he steadily built up a cult following that eventually decided to give him a second hit for his 50th birthday by all appearing on one of his singles singing backing vocals and then getting their families to go out and buy it – thus hyping it into the charts.

Tonight, 34 years after that first hit and 40 years since his first gig, he is back with his old partner in crime, Wild Willy, and touring the nation once more.

As we enter Cardiff’s Globe, we find them both, not quite propping up the bar – but very close to it. After a quick introduction we head backstage for a chat bout the mad mad world that is Otway. We talk of crazy publicity stunts - like going around peoples houses to perform his single Frightened and Scared, getting his fans to vote his lyrics as the seventh best lyric of all time, and an attempt to tour the world taking his whole fan club with him in a chartered jumbo jet.

(Interview to be uploaded to Iguana website shortly).

After some more bar propping up and dealing with autograph hunters, he and Willy eventually take to the stage to entertain the gathered masses.

It is difficult to classify an Otway show. Part pop concert, part comedy show, part cabaret act – the whole thing just rips up the rule book and takes the audience on a death defying thrill ride.

The return of the prodigal Wily makes for a special vibe. He is the ying to Otway’s yang; his dry cynicism and lack of respect for Otway’s genius is matched only by Otway’s own self depreciation; his rack of many instruments, including balalaikas, banjos, guitars, fiddle, bagpipes and a wheelie bin, make up for Otway’s acoustic guitar and a Theremin; his nonchalant take everything in his stride attitude counters Otway’s undiminished child like enthusiasm and his mastery of any instrument he cares to pick up nicely compliments Otway’s – erm – enthusiasm.

The on stage rapport between them is pure comedy gold, Willy’s straight man bouncing off Otway’s court jester. It is such a good match it is difficult to comprehend how Otway has managed without him – although it has to be said he managed quite well – hence the cult following.

Tonight Barret manages to impress with fret board trickery, amaze with playing guitar and bagpipes at the same time and amuse with sawing a guitar in half and smashing it with a hammer – while still playing it (even Hendrix had to stop playing his guitar down when destroying it). Oh, and there was the wheelie bin thing – but I don’t want to spoil it for when you go to see them.

Of course Willy is only half the act. Despite the self depreciation and jolly japery, Otway is something of a lyrical genius - who else could come up with “Natasha you're a smasher but you're working for Russia" - and despite the comic approach to everything, what he does with the Theremin is actually very clever. You don’t get to fill the Albert Hall if you are crap as he makes himself out to be – which he aint.

There have been books, rock operas (Cheryl) and fan club trips to Dunkirk. What next? Otway the movie (we kid you not). Watch this space.

*Please note, no microphones were headbutted in the making of this blog

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