John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett – Cor Baby That’s Really Free24th November 2022 · 1970s, 1977, Music
John Otway is one of those great English eccentrics this country occasionally produces, like Vivian Stanshall and Syd Barrett. In a career spanning half a century he’s had just two hit singles, 25 years apart. This is the first of them, with his musical partner Wild Willy Barrett.
Despite their long hair, a musical style tending towards folk and country, and their comparatively advanced age – the duo had begun recording in 1971 – Otway and Barrett’s chaotic live performances found an enthusiastic following among punks.
This was due not only to Otway’s DIY musical approach and – let’s be fair – negligible talent, but also to his anarchic onstage antics, in which knockabout comedy and dangerous self-harm were uneasy bedfellows.
Making a memorable debut on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977, Otway vaulted on to a PA tower and overbalanced, bringing down the speaker stack during the second number, Cheryl’s Going Home.
He escaped injury when landing painfully on the sharp corner of a bass cabinet only because, as The Independent faithfully reported, “the impact was cushioned by his testicles.”
Typically, it didn’t put him off his stride for more than a fleeting second, though Barrett – whose virtuosic guitar playing on Really Free is an even bigger surprise – looks distinctly unimpressed.
The duo had put out their first single, an affecting countr ballad called Gypsy, back in 1972, with Pete Townshend producing and playing guitar on it; five years later they crept into the Top 30 with this mostly spoken song, Cor Baby That’s Really Free.
It earned Otway a five-album deal with Polydor, who may have mistakenly thought they were signing the next Sex Pistols rather than another Jilted John.
The first of those albums, which opens with the curiously appealing country-reggae fusion Misty Mountain, disappeared without trace; the next, by which time Otway was a solo artist, came with an unusual promotional gimmick – three copies were released without the vocal track… but with an offer for Otway to come and sing it in the buyer’s home.
Despite no noticeable improvement in his modest musical proficiency, but a definite knack for a good tune – the lavishly orchestrated Geneve, from that first solo album, is as beautiful a ballad as you’ll ever hear – Otway has continued to thrive through his ingenuous and almost childlike vocal delivery and engagingly bonkers personality, publishing two autobiographies, Cor Baby That’s Really Me and I Did It Otway, the first of which sold more than all his records combined.
He has used ingenious promotional gimmicks with varying degrees of success. On one tour he refused to admit anyone to his gigs unless they had a copy of his latest single, resulting in full houses because the single cost less than the price of a concert ticket.
We’ll skip lightly over his guest appearance playing violin on a Rolf Harris album in the mid-Nineties and move forward to 2012 when he marked his 60th birthday by booking a West End cinema to premiere a fan-funded film of his life titled Rock And Roll;’s Greatest Failure: Otway The Movie.
In April 2022 he played the 5,000th gig of his career, performing both this song and its equally marvellous B-side, a punk parody called Beware Of The Flowers (‘Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeah).