In his fourth decade of charmingly madcap music-making, the irrepressible nutter of Aylesbury (40 miles northwest of London) shows no signs of slowing down. In willful disregard of commercial realities and without evident concern for anything else that might be transpiring in the world of popular music, Otway continues to follow his own eccentric muse with touching (or is that touched?) dedication. Unpredictable, ingenious, inconsistent, unselfconscious, emotionally unguarded, totally reckless about public displays of foolishness and enormously lovable, Otway is capable of dizzying quality and style swings. Cor Baby, That’s Really Me!, a spectacular 21-track retrospective issued in conjunction with an autobiography of the same name, has stomping Ot-rock classics like “Really Free” and “Beware of the Flowers ‘Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You Yeh,” sentimental ballads (“Geneve” comes shmeared in Richard Harris-style orchestration), Pete Townshend-produced British bluegrass (“Misty Mountain”), tender love missives (“Montreal,” “Middle of Winter”), self-abusive stupidity (“Headbutts”) and folk songs (“Jerusalem”). There are also a bunch of rarities: the staggering orchestral version of “Geneve,” a live version of “Racing Cars” from a ’77 promo LP and an unreleased 1972 version of “Misty Mountain” produced by Townshend.
You may as well head straight for the retrospectives, since there’s little pattern for rule-of-thumb judgment of the original albums in his catalogue. The most consistent records are the first Otway and Barrett album (produced, in part, by Pete Townshend) and Way & Bar (or the related but not identical Deep Thought). Where Did I Go Right? boasts “The Highwayman” and the poignant “Frightened and Scared,” as well as the guitar playing of Ollie Halsall and keyboardist Morgan Fisher; All Balls & No Willy has such tender romantic odes as “Montreal” and “Middle of the Winter.”
Gone With the Bin is a neat if incomplete summation of Otway’s haphazard repertoire, drawn (with the exception of “I Did It Otway,” a Barrett guitar instrumental in which someone — hmm, wonder who? — methodically destroys the instrument on mic) from the duo’s first three albums and Where Did I Go Right? Gleatest Hits (the title is a cheap Japanese dialect joke) trundles out favorites (“Really Free,” “Headbutts,” “Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You, Yeah” and “Green Green Grass of Home”), other fine LP tracks (“Middle of Winter,” “Montreal”) and an uproarious version of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” from a 1982 B-side. The six-song I Did It Otway EP mixes the A-sides from Otway’s first three Stiff singles (“Green Green Grass of Home,” “Turning Point” and the hysterical “Headbutts”) with three LP tracks: “Running From the Law” (from Deep and Meaningless), “The Highwayman” and “I Did It Otway.” The expanded Canadian equivalent (in a red, rather than green, cover) of I Did It Otway adds two tracks from the first album, one from the second and “Makes Good Music” from Where Did I Go Right?
After years of successfully avoiding Otway (and releasing solo records now and again), Barrett was cajoled into an abortive 1987 reunion that lasted long enough to record part of an album that was to be called The Wimp and the Wild. (What actually surfaced was a single, “The Last of the Mohicans,” which was included on Cor Baby, That’s Really Me!.)
In a mind-boggling leap of conceptual invention, Otway and performance poet Attila the Stockbroker (John Baine) managed to spring an entire theatrical entertainment from “Cheryl’s Goin’ Home,” the 1965 Bob Lind B-side that has been in Otway’s repertoire from the very start of his career. Creating a convoluted and calamitous saga of star-crossed romance, railroad fetishists and randy goats told from conflicting perspectives in narration (Attila) and song (Otway), the pair staged Cheryl in England and then recorded it. Owing more to Attila’s wickedly peevish rhymes than Otway’s fairly functional songs, Cheryl: A Rock Opera is a hysterical slash of radio-play silliness (à la Frank Sidebottom) about a gullible sap in love with a drug-addicted prostitute who finds yuppie success as a Conservative Party direct-mail marketing executive. (Or something like that.) A couple of nasal rap interludes (by “MC Trainspotter and the Platform 2 Live Crew”) are intrusively cloddish, but otherwise Cheryl is in the running as this generation’s truly off-Broadway Tommy.
Although Otway has always made good if irreverent use of other people’s songs — “Green Green Grass of Home” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” are among his best numbers ever — he chose a whole new batch for Under the Covers and Over the Top. (OK, he had already cut “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” but that’s the only one, and it didn’t have a simultaneous translation into German the first time.) Recorded with various accompanists, the album includes ludicrously sincere but laughable (per) versions, more spoken than sung, of “I Am the Walrus,” “Woodstock,” “I Will Survive” (done Bob Dylan-style), Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” (live) and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” rendered in a Scottish brogue against a three-dozen member brass band. Big fun. (Just for the record, Sidebottom was the first oddball to think of mating Serge Gainsbourg’s sexy “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus” and “Wild Thing.”)
Recorded in London with the grandly named Big Band (a standard electric rock quartet, natch), Live! is relatively straightforward, a career-spanner of originals and covers (“House of the Rising Sun” is a new one) given earnest treatment. The scanty measure of inter-song remarks is a minor disappointment, but the skillful rock energy and Otway’s sheepdog appeal make the music enough by itself.