John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett in concert in the late ’70s and early ’80s

John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett in concert in the late ’70s and early ’80s
otwaymaxwellsOne of the many good things about the emergence of punk and new wave in the late 70s was that it allowed a series of fresh and, in some cases maverick, artists to break through and kick start their career. Many of the bands and singers who were bracketed in with the scene were not truly punk, but they shared a sense of enthusiasm, passion, energy and craziness with the movement. John Otway, accompanied by his partner in madness, Wild Willy Barrett, was one such act. Otway is one of the most authentic performers I have ever seen. He can’t sing well in any traditional sense of the word, and his stage act was at times, bizarre to say the least. But there was always an honesty about his performance; with Otway what you saw was what you got, and he would always put 110% into a gig. It was a manic performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977 which propelled John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett to success. ottersThe single “Really Free” was popular at the time, and I saw him on several occasions including a gig at Maxwells club in Tynemouth (15th March 1978), Reading Festival (August 1978), The Cooperage Newcastle (16th July 1980) and Sunderland Poly Wearmouth Hall (17th January 1981). I think I may also have seen them asa  support act at the City Hall (perhaps for Madness in late 1980?), but can’t be sure. The gig that sticks in my mind most of all is the performance at Maxwells (note miss-spelling of “Barrett” on the ticket). Maxwells was (it doesn’t exist anymore) a club along the coast in Tynemouth and hosted a few gigs at the time, the most notable being this one, and an appearance by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Otway was on top form that night; simply buzzing, manic and crazy. The place was packed; punk was really starting to take off in the North East, and there was lots of beer being thrown about, and some spitting at the stage. John took it all in his stride; winding us all up between songs and at one point he ran around the venue, chasing a guy who had been spitting at him. otwaypolyMy favourite songs at the time were “Really Free” (of course) and his truly unique and amazing version of Bob Lind’s “Cheryl’s Coming Home”. I must also mention John’s companion, Willy Barrett. He would stand quietly alongside Otway, playing a beat up guitar that looked home-made, a silent foil to John’s madness. The other gig that I’ll mention is the Cooperage concert, which I remember for another reason. By 1980 Otway was looking for another hit record, and devised a cunning plan. At the time only certain selected shops counted towards the charts and although their identity was meant to be kept secret, the record companies worked out where the shops were. Otway decided to do a tour of towns where the shops were, and announced that you were only allowed to come and see the gig (for free) if you bought a copy of the single. It certainly worked; I remember loads of us queuing outside the Cooperage, each of us holding our copy of “DK 50/80”; I still have mine somewhere. otwayprogFrom the programme: “You may have asked yourself on the way to the gig, if you are in your right mind traipsing down the road clutching a single. That I cannot answer, but what you are doing is taking part in something that is unique and will probably be part of rock history.” Indeed; and well said Otters. Also from the programme: “To cut the costs of touring the Otway/Barrett party will be staying in tents on local camp sits, hiring biy scouts for road crew etc.”
otwayThe record managed to reach the lower region of the single charts.
John Otway continues to perform up and down the country and retains a sizable cult following. He has tried a series of stunts over the years; which has seen him hit the charts again with “Bunsen Burner” (he wanted a new hit for his 50th birthday in 2002), play and fill the Albert Hall, and most recently premier “Otway the Movie” at a full red carpet event at the Odeon Leicester Square. The guy’s ingenuity knows no end.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I was at the Maxwells gig – like you I’d seen them on OGWT and I’d bought the Really Free single. My Dad had given us a lift over to the gig on his way to work and was coming back to pick us up. We’d got there early and were right down the front.

    My Dad came back before the gig finished and flashed his Police Warrant card to get in! He said that he looked round the packed hall and when he spotted us he thought we were on stage with the band.

    We however didn’t know he was there until just after Otway had done something obscene with a microphone I happened to look round and spot him standing at the back of the room.

    My first thought was Oh my god we’ll never be allowed to go to a gig ever again!

    Thankfully I was wrong!


  2. Posted by Alec on September 19, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    I first saw Otway at the Millstone in Manchester as part of the Tent Tour and bought DK50/80 to get admission, great B side by the way Homestead on the Range and Long Time since I heard Homestead on the Farm. I’ve seen him on numerous occasions since but sadly have abandoned his gigs as he now thinks he has to do comedy versions of his songs; he may not be a great singer but has written some fabulous songs, His first LP along with Wild Willy of course, is a masterpiece


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