Tell you what, they don’t make LPs like this anymore; John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett. Released during the fervent vortex that was 1976, some tracks on which were produced by some unknown dude called Pete Townsend*, who also has the cheek to play on a couple of tracks here. The gleeful anarchy and sarcasm of the single ‘Really Free’ saw Otway & Barrett lumped in with the nascent punk movement, but I’d argue their roots were far more whimsical and old school than that, a strain of genuine folk eccentricity.
Given pride of place at the start of Side 2 ‘Really Free’ is a joyous slice of artful/artless nonsense, with a backing that seems as artificial as pink icing. Every bit as punk as Jilted John and Plastic Bertrand, Otway and Barrett took their place in the spiky periphery, helped by all manner of gonzoid performances – the most famous of which saw him fall crotch first into the sharp-end of a speaker cab on live TV. I love this track unreservedly and it’s all down to Otway’s vocals which teeter effortlessly between matter-of-fact, wide-eyed ingénue and sarcastic – no easy trick to pull off this kind of divine idiocy, it’s like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin all wrapped up in 2:59. All together now 1-2-3-4,
Well I wake up in the morning,
Tell me baby what do you see?
I see my true love and she walks up and she kisses me,
I say “Cor baby that’s really free”
But this really isn’t an apt representation of John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett at all. If you asked me to sum up the pervading sounds of the LP I’d witter on and on about chunks of the Incredible String Band (ISB), Dylan and, even, The Fugs all wrapped up in a hunk of folky stuff I’ve yet to identify. I mean take opener ‘Misty Mountain’, it almost packs a folk reggae vibe, an Appalachian bounce and vocals that are pure Aylesbury** via Mike Heron circa The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. It defies all logic and taste to be really great… But not as much as next track ‘Murder Man’, featuring all manner of verbal percussion, beautifully precise guitars and a twisted vocal, wrapped up in more ISB sweetness.
There are plenty of similarly bonkers moments throughout, the sound of two young men with no real idea of the rules of the game, steering whatever course they chose. The very English hoe down on ‘If I Did’ and the revving guitar/cars^ on ‘Racing Cars’, being prime examples, as is the totally insane ‘Louisa On A Horse’, which has a vocal so stylized as to be wholly, brilliantly, unintelligible.
All so far, so funny but what stops this descending into the parodic are the flashes of real feeling that the likes of ‘Bluey Green’ are shot through with; this could be Arlo Gutherie at his sweetest and best. It’s a real heart-wrencher, a veritable gem, stealing in after ‘Really Free’. This is such a young man’s LP, they just can’t resist taking the piss, but every so often they show their chops to stop us pigeon-holing them. If I was going to set up a company I’d call it Bluey Green Inc., I like it that much – even if it was solely involved in manufacturing red things, maybe particularly so. ‘Trying Times’ = ditto.
Best of all to my mind is the barn-storming cover of Bob Lind’s ‘Cheryl’s Going Home’, which is pure wonky Springsteen-on-a-budget from the opening couplet, on in,
The thunder cracks against the night
The dark explodes with a yellow light
I don’t know the original at all, but I love this beyond all description and reason. The overall effect is fabulous, particularly when Otway goes all crackly with emotion towards the end. I’ll probably call my next multi-multi-million pound enterprise Cheryl’s Gone Home Ltd. True story. For the sake of maintaining a positive outlook we’ll ignore the soppy, closing ‘Geneve’.
When I was at university Otway was always touring, I don’t mean often, I mean ALWAYS, right there playing whichever den of iniquity would have him. His story is a brilliant one, I’d recommend you check out his excellent website for a nose around. His story is far too fabulous to go into in too much detail here but I would also really recommend you give the trailer for his movie, the modestly titled, Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure: The Otway Movie a spin too.
If this is the sound of failure, deal me in. They really don’t make LPs like this anymore.
**hometown of both of these gentlemen.
^Definitely pre-dating Montrose by a few years.