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John Otway and the Big Band John Otway and the Big Band
Album: Montserrat
Label: Red Bowler
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.johnotway.com/

“OK – let's make this the big one for Otway....”

This has been the magnificent John Otway's refrain almost from the day he was first unleashed upon an unsuspecting music public in the mid-1970s. The self-styled “rock'n'roll's greatest failure” had a serious yen for the big time, which was fatally allied to a talent for self-destruction. Relatively successful in partnership with Wild Willy Barrett, with the release of their first self-titled album, produced by Pete Townshend, and with the single “Really Free” which caught the punk Zeitgeist, despite being produced by a long-haired loony and a bearded old hippy, Otway took his (and Willy's) first royalty cheque, and splurged it on an orchestral backing for their follow-up single, a lovelorn paean to a Swiss girl called Lisa, for whom long-distance lust was boiling in his nether-regions. Needless to say, the single flopped dismally in commercial, critical and romantic terms (it had been a lovely sparsely arranged closer to the album): Otway remained single, and even Wild Willy left him, so displeased was he at the lack of consultation. They were reunited again for a tour of the UK during which they (or at least their roadies) stayed in tents (“The Tent Tour”), which was where I first saw them in Oughtons, Dumfries back in 1980 or thereabouts. It was sheer, exuberant chaos, Otway being head-butted into the microphone by Willy, stripping to the waist to display very little muscle, and generally having a great time along with the audience. Despite this, and a career move advertising R. White's lemonade on TV, Otway's musical career remained steadfastly anti-climactic, until fan-power gave him a further hit in 2002 (for his 50th birthday), enabling him to release his longed-for greatest hits album!

Fan-power is also behind “Montserrat”, funded through crowd-sourced money, which sent John and his Big Band to the Caribbean island, beloved of the jet-set in the 70s, but more recently devastated by natural disaster. And it's a cracker! There are some hilarious, tender and down-right silly moments on it, and in general it proves that there's life in the old loony yet.

From “Dancing With Ghosts”, using fiddle and theremin to good effect (and rhyming “Pirates of the Caribbean” equally effectively), through “Seagulls on Speed”, which must deserve a Grammy for best use of a seagull sample, there is a verve, pace and energy to these relatively silly songs, which fully deserves our admiration. Otway has always had the ability to mix sentiment with arch humour, and whilst he clearly has one eyebrow cocked to his audience, the songs also tug at our sympathy. The core band of Richard Holgarth on guitar and keys, Murray Torkildsen on guitar, Seymour on bass and Adam Batterbee on guitar, not only got a great trip out of this recording, they combine to give Otway some seriously good backing. The styles range from post-punk to glam-ish. On “Real Tears From Both Eyes” Otway pulls off his old trick of stretching meter across rock standard to produce a song which could only be his (and incidentally recounting his very public disaster on the Old Grey Whistle Test). “I Shouldn't Be Doing This” crashes across the speakers, Otway's Oxfordshire tones to the fore, reminiscent of his early performance on Bob Lind's “Cheryl's Going Home”, and featuring glorious twin guitar reminiscent of Thin Lizzy (I kid you not!).

“Five Kisses” indulges Otway's nostalgia over a fast guitar riff which could have been released in 1978. “Already Missing You” slows things down somewhat with a jazzy feel and piano backing, and was co-written with producer (and former Otway guitarist) Chris Birkett over a 35 year period! “Jenny” is a cheerfully amoral tale of an ugly duckling which fittingly enough given the recording venue features steel drums, courtesy of Katy Thomas. The Torkildsen-penned “Toronto” refers to Otway's observation of Toronto as a doom-laden stop on tour, one no doubt shared by Keith Richards and Lemmy. It fairly surges along on a man-sized guitar riff and cow-bell. “Somewhere Else To Go” is another sentimental venture, and proves Otway hasn't lost the knack for a genuinely appealing persona in song, whilst “There's A War Going On” aims at a white soul style under his Aylesbury burr.

The closer “The Conductor's Waltz” is a tribute to Otway's former conductor from Aylesbury Youth Orchestra in the 1960s, Tony Freeth, and is a genuinely affecting warm-hearted vote of thanks for kick-starting his interest in music, which swells dramatically under violin and synthesised orchestra to bring this Caribbean venture to an end. Lovely!

This is Otway's first album of original material for ten years. His live gigs are a riot, whether on his own or with band, and I have to admit to being very pleasantly surprised that this more or less matches up to them. The boy done good.

Harry Thomson