News that John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett have been touring again rolls back the years!
I’ve got vivid memories of them appearing on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977. Halfway through the OGWT set, Otway, actually the ‘wild one’, jumped onto Barrett’s amp. He misjudged things and knocked it over, temporarily cutting off the sound. Barrett didn’t appear best pleased!
The demented energy that characterises their performances had me hooked straightaway.
It all feels like a bygone age…
They released their debut album, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, in 1976. It’s an eclectic set of recordings made over the preceding five years. And spans a curious mix of country, folk and pub rock. But this fails to do it justice. The best songs are simply sublime. And are delivered in an utterly unique style.
“Really Free” is one of the stand-out tracks. And helped establish their reputation. The raw power still resonates with me,
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"
What’s not to like?!
But the marvellous “Cheryl’s Going Home” is my favourite cut. It was written by West Coast folk-rock musician Bob Lind. Lind’s wistful delivery, underpinned by the lush orchestration of Jack Nitzsche, has been replaced by the haunting and, at times, manic delivery of Otway.
From the opening vocals, complemented by the searing guitar of Barrett, you know you’re in for something special,
The thunder cracks against the night
The dark explodes with yellow light
The railroad sign is flashing bright
The people stare but I don't care
My flesh is cold against my bones
My Cheryl's going home.
Watch them performing "Really Free" and “Cheryl’s Going Home” in all their crazed splendour!
This still brings out the goose bumps.
They had to wait until the rise of punk to secure proper recognition. But the duo has developed a well-deserved live following over the years, not least because of the interaction between Barrett’s deadpan stage presence and Otway’s anarchic behaviour.
Both artists went on to release a series of records over the years, individually and collectively. But it’s their debut album that really stands out.
Commercial success may have been elusive. But they are a genuine one-off. And the British music scene is all the better for it.