John Otway

Where Did I Go Right?

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John Otway's first solo album, following two shimmering gems with Wild Willy Barrett, is a sad affair indeed, and that despite starting out with at least as much potential as his earlier output insisted. Throughout summer 1978, following the breakup with Barrett, Otway was working with a dynamic new band, highlighted by guitarist Jim Keilt, keyboardist Paul Ward, and bassist Paul Lilley, and caught in ferocious form on that season's "Baby's in the Club" 45. By the new year, however, only drummer Maurice Bacon remained, as Otway surrounded himself instead with session men, recruited former Bonzo Dog Band frontman Neil Innes as overseer, and proceeded to turn in an album that is so stilted, lifeless, and utterly overproduced that, if it wasn't for the vocal quirks, you'd scarcely even recognize the singer. Unfortunately, it was those quirks that undermined any hope this album had of passing itself off to any but the faithful. Instrumentally, Innes delivered a record that was made for tupperware parties and headphone-clad relaxation, the kind of audience that thought Kansas were adventurous and Fleetwood Mac were thoughtful. Faced with the mania of Otway unleashed, however, such an audience would have suffered apoplexy -- or, at least, spilled their fondue in their lap. Neither was the songwriting up to Otway's usual quality. Largely comprising songs written specifically for the album, rather than being drawn from his stockpile of reliable oldies, "Makes Good Music," "What a Woman," and "It's a Pain" were essentially wacky Otway by numbers; "Best Dream," "Waiting," and "Hurting Her More" were heartache by similar rote. Elsewhere, "Blue Eyes of the Belle," a lovely lament perfected with the abandoned band, was stripped of all its original simplicity and emotion in favor of an orchestral gravitas that simply broke the ballad's back. And "Frightened and Scared," though it tried to salvage the proceedings with a maniacal vocal outburst, was itself so short (less than two and a half minutes) that it was gone before you noticed it. It was left to the closing number, an epic arrangement of Alfred Noyes' poem The Highwayman, to save at least the end of the day. A long-standing live favorite, its lyrics alive with all the theatricality that characterized Otway at his abandoned best, and with the band playing hell for leather, it is indeed a worthy successor to any of his past recordings -- so much so that, if the entire album had captured even half the spirit and energy of "The Highwayman," it would have been an absolute triumph. Instead, the LP's title posits a question whose answer is woefully predictable. Where did he go right? He didn't.

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