When it came to great rock ‘n’ roll swindlers, the Sex Pistols were rank amateurs as hustlers. At least compared to John Otway, a free-style cult-music hero and larking singer from Britain who began his unlikely “rise” to infamy by bruising his testicles on television’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977, and whose latest stunt involves an inspiring documentary film that every rock music romantic needs to see.
Steve Barker’s Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie received its Toronto premiere this week, with another screening on May 25. Mr. Otway, the 61-year-old pride of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, is in the area with his band for a pair of local shows, including tonight’s concert at the Rivoli club. Though billed as a flop, Mr. Otway, an absolutely untrained musician, did score a hit on the British charts in 1977 with Really Free. “Success or failure is relative,” he admits over the phone, his accent not at all elegant. “I’ve always had an self-effacing humour.”
The film surveys Mr. Otway’s up but mostly down career with a lighthearted touch, casting the frontman as upbeat and unsinkable. Unlike 2013’s Good Vibrations (a biopic of Belfast punk-music godfather and pacifist Terri Hooley), there’s little time given to the dark side of failure. We see Mr. Otway buying a vintage Bentley with a record advance in the late 1970s, but we don’t hear about him having to sell it when his career dried up. So, were there despondent moments to Mr. Otway’s life? “When I had the first hit in 1977, I really did think the next one was right around the corner,” he says. “It’s not easy to watch your career go down hill. But, bumping along the bottom, I dug my heels in and built up my fan base.”
His lack of chart success may have been due to a lack of talent, but it was not for a lack of trying. Mr. Otway’s guile is whimsical and, when it comes to music promotion stunts, he’s so far outside the box he can’t even see the package. He was a forerunner when it came to some of the crowd-sourcing ideas that are common today. For example, in 1999, his hardcore fans were responsible for voting an obscure 1978 B-side of his as having the seventh favourite pop lyrics of all time, right behind the Beatles’ Yesterday in a curious poll done by the BBC.
In 2002, Mr Otway managed to score again on the charts. “It took 25 years to get that second hit,” he says. But boy, didn’t it feel great to get it.” No doubt it did, especially because he did it the Ot-way. You see, anyone can succeed without really trying, but to fail with such panache takes genius.
Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie screens May 25, 6:30 p.m., Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., bloorcinema.com or 416-637-3123.
May 24, 8:30 p.m. $20. Rivoli, 334 Queen St. W., 416-596-1908.