Yesterday’s December luncheon at the Bull’s Head in Barnes for old music biz liggers like myself offered a surprise opportunity to catch up with my old friend John Otway, the self-styled least successful rock star on the planet. It was John’s self-depreciating sense of humour that persuaded me in 1990 to publish his autobiography Cor Baby, That’s Really Me, with a tag line on the top of the front cover that read ‘Rock And Roll’s Greatest Failure’.
John sent his manuscript to Omnibus Press and after falling about laughing I shared it with our sales manager Frank Warren who was up for it too. After all, the good ship Omnibus had published several hundred books on rock and pop stars which in every instance were sold on the premise that the subject of the book was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now, here was a performer who cheerfully admitted that he wasn’t much good, that his records were pretty awful and that his entire career had been one long display of rank incompetence. Now he had written an autobiography that doubled as a manual on how not to succeed in the world of rock.
Demonstrating cautious interest, we invited John to come into the office for a meeting and he turned out to be just as funny as his book – but I think we sensed more than that. John was a genuinely lovely man, warm, friendly and as unselfconscious as it was possible to be in a world where narcissism is often the sharpest arrow in a rock star’s quiver. John was also sincere in the same kind of way that a new born puppy is sincere, as if he simply didn’t know how to be insincere – and that endeared him to Frank and I as much as anything else. In a nutshell, we identified with a plucky loser and wanted to help him. I guess we also thought that working with him on his book was bound to be fun.
John in the 1970s, at the height of his fame.
So we published the book and in order to promote it John came to one of our biannual sales conferences at the Bull Inn at Fairford in Gloucestershire. He brought his guitar, too, and after dinner entertained the sales reps, the first and only time a musician had come to one of these gatherings. All the reps were charmed by John’s droll performance and I have no doubt that this spurred them on to pitch John’s book into as many shops as they could. It wasn’t a big hit – no one expected it to be – but it earned back its printing costs and made a small profit. Thereafter John proved to be its best customer, buying more and more stock and selling them at his gigs, which he still does.
And that might have been the end of it were it not for the fact that the next time I bumped into John was at Sheen International School (now The Richmond Park Academy) in East Sheen. It turned out that John’s daughter Amy was a pupil there, as was our daughter Olivia. So here we were together again, at the end of term assembly, mulling over the prospects of another book by John, this one entitled I Did It Otway with a catch-line ‘Regrets, I’ve Had A Lot’, which – cannily – John published himself this time around but Omnibus agreed to distribute for him.
And that was that until yesterday when I failed at first to recognise the tall bloke with the extremely high forehead who arrived a bit late and took a seat at an adjoining table. I kept staring at him and thinking to myself that I knew him, but it wasn’t until our hostess Lesley-Ann Jones introduced the guests of honour that the penny dropped. Bugger me, I thought, he’s lost all his hair but it’s my old pal John. So over I went and renewed a slightly odd friendship that went from book publishing to the education of our daughters.
John didn’t try to sell me another book but, later, he did perform. Taking his cue from Pete Townshend, who produced his first single back in 1977, John was and remains a vigorous performer – he’s been known to windmill enthusiastically, if rashly – so no one would blame the stoic Rab Noakes if he swallowed hard and gritted his teeth when John shouldered Rab’s much-loved and quite elderly Gibson J45 acoustic guitar to entertain the already well-watered crowd at the Bull’s Head. It was an audience of peers who, perhaps, have a tad more critical perception than the loyal fans who pack out most of John’s gigs but as soon as he hit the chorus of ‘Beware Of The Flowers’, the whole place was with him, laughing away, even Rab. At the end of the song the place erupted, inspiring John to follow this up with a few lines from his second biggest hit (no. 27 in December, 1977) ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’, whereupon he wisely brought his brief performance to a close instead of giving us his uniquely tearful rendition of ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’.
John brings down the house at Barnes yesterday.
Only a true star knows the value of leaving the audience wanting more. Rab’s guitar was undamaged and a true star left the stage with the applause ringing in his ears.