by Amy Hanson
The story of John Otway, as his own Web site and recent releases triumphantly broadcast, is one of courageous failure — he describes himself as rock’s greatest loser and, across a madcap 40 years, he has gone out of his way to justify that name with a string of genuinely inspired and genuinely lunatic songs and gestures. The first decade of his career, however, was lived out beneath a very different ambition; a belief that he really could make it that was apparently justified when the single “Cor Baby, That’s Really Free,” became a U.K. Top 30 hit in 1977.
“Beatback!” is the story of that decade, tracing Otway’s career — with and without his ubiquitous partner Wild Willy Barrett — from a school concert in 1969 through to his first American tour in 1979. It’s a period that Otway himself documented in his autobiography “Cor Baby, That’s Really Me.” The difference is, author Dave Thompson got in there first. His introduction explains how, as a teenaged fan, he spent several months interviewing everybody associated with Otway up to that point for what he imagined would be a best-selling biography — Otway wasn’t the only person to have faith in his music, it seems! The book was written, was apparently rejected by every publisher in the land, and was then tucked away for the next three decades, before being reborn as one of the most oddly entertaining rock books in years.
Formulated as a heavily annotated discography, but littered with anecdote, interview and insanity, “Beatback!” is a wild ride through fantasy and ambition. Rare records and recordings heap up — anybody whose knowledge of Otway’s 1970s catalog is confined to three LPs and the attendant singles will be staggered by how much other music is out there on privately released cassette tapes, self-financed test pressings, personal demos and forgotten bootlegs. The fact that this was also the period during which Otway’s songwriting talents were at an all-time high only makes the tale more fascinating, while Thompson’s coverage of Barrett’s solo work will likewise send you rushing to the Internet in search of unknown vinyl. Musical history has relegated Otway to the status of a virtual footnote. “Beatback!” tells us how huge he could have been.
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