Have you ever heard of John Otway? Didn’t think so. That is, unless you were a young (most likely male) teenager living in the UK in the mid- to late-1970s. When unknowns Otway and his sidekick Wild Willy Barratt performed their song ‘Really Free’ on BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977, it catapulted him into stardom overnight – such was the power of television in those days.
The performance – which concluded with Otway crushing his testicles with an amp – mesmerised the show’s more than five million viewers.
That landed Otway a deal with Polydor, who gave him a £250k ($380k) advance. To put this in perspective – The Jam received a £6.5k ($10k) advance, at the time.
The song eventually charted at number 27 on the UK charts, and yet it was his biggest hit. Ortway subsequently spent the next 35 years trying to get back in the charts.
Now, a soon-to-be released documentary called Rock and Roll’s Biggest Failure is charting his, well, failure to reach his goal. Yet his effort could teach today’s artists some valuable lessons.
Firstly, let’s be clear: Otway had no musical talent. Even his mom told the documentary makers: “I don’t know why he chose that career – as you can tell, he clearly can’t sing.” What he did have, however, was an incredible drive and inventiveness – as well as being an intense, unpredictable performer.
So how do you get into the charts if people like your shows but not your records? Otway booked a tour where bringing a copy of his new record got you in for free – in essence, the complete opposite of Prince, who gave away a copy of his album Planet Earth with each ticket purchase to his 2007 concerts in London. Done today, this would bypass the problems encountered by Prince and Jay-Z, as Billboard and the Official Chart Company refused to count their giveaways towards the albums’ chart rankings.
Perhaps this could be an idea for the Rolling Stones, who haven’t set the charts alight for decades, but sell out stadium shows all around the world (of course, the price of the album would have to be bumped up quite a bit).
Another one of Otway’s ingenious ideas was to release a single of which three copies only had the instrumental version of the song. If you were one of the lucky fans who happened to pick up one of those copies, Otway would come and perform the song, along with the instrumental recording, in your living room. (Unfortunately, the musicians’ union put a stop to this idea, insisting that the music had to be re-recorded for any performances.)
Otway soon got dropped by his label, after failing to deliver any more hits. Unrelenting, he decided to release another single on his own. He figured, however, that in order to get played on the big radio stations he’d need to have a major label supporting him.
“It turned out that record plants wouldn’t press a record with the WEA logo on it unless you were actually signed to the label,” Otway reflects in the documentary. “No problem,” he continues, because they would press white labels – all he had to do was print up stickers that looked identical to WEA’s.
He sent copies to all major UK radio stations, along with a press release saying that he had just signed with the label. The stations got on board, and by the time WEA realised what he had done, the label decided to be a good sport – after all, the record had already been played on national radio. They agreed to officially release the single.
These are just some of the creative ideas Otway used to get publicity and attempt to sell records. He also managed to get his song ‘Beware of the Flowers’ ranked number 7 in the BBC’s list of best pop lyrics ever – just below the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ – by using his fan club to incessantly vote over the phone.
Adopted by an act that can actually sing, play and write proper songs, these efforts would surely succeed in their aim. (Though these days, you may want to think twice before putting fake label stickers on records.)
Written while listening to The National.