John Dowie \ Biography
Influential writer and humorist John Dowie has been acclaimed by some as Britain's first 'alternative comedian' and was an unlikely early signing to Factory Records. Born in Birmingham in 1950, he might have rivalled John Cooper Clarke as a literate punk poet had an EP recorded for Virgin in 1977 outsold God Save the Queen. Feted by Tony Wilson of Factory as a new wave Lenny Bruce, Dowie went on to record with Martin Hannett and Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, before moving on to stage and television work, and finally retiring from stand-up in 1991.
The most influential comic you've never heard of... By Dave Cohen
So who's the most influential stand-up comedian you've probably never seen? Ladies and gentlemen, John Dowie.
I'm not alone in citing John as the finest stand-up of the Eighties and Nineties, bar none. Arthur Smith, Simon Munnery and Barry Cryer are big fans. Addison Creswell, who manages Jack Dee and Michael McIntyre among others, talks regretfully about John as the stand-up he always wanted to sign but never could. And Rory Bremner did everything in his power to bring John to the nation's attention. As well as performing in the sketches, Dowie had a weekly guest spot on Rory's popular mid-80s BBC2 series Now Someone Else.
Any working comedian can instantly reel off five amazing gigs they've ever been at or part of. None of us who were there are likely to forget Jerry Sadowitz's first ever English gig, at the Comedy Store in 1985, five minutes of 2am explosives blowing away everything that had gone before it. And I'll always remember a rain-sodden Glastonbury that same year, when the real threat of violence between 50 comics and a bunch of persistent anarchist hecklers was successfully diffused by, of all men, the people's firestarter Malcolm Hardee.
Those are two of my top five. My other three were all performances by John Dowie. Nothing unusual marked those gigs out, except I'd never laughed harder before, and I haven't since. I'd been performing for a couple of years before I'd seen John's one-man show, there were some good acts on the circuit but John was in a different league to the rest of us. Seeing John live in the 1980s was the nearest equivalent for me to those exciting American stand-up movies I'd caught featuring Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Steve Martin, only now I was in the room to witness it.
I had long been a committed Dowist. My obsessive fan worship began in my teens when a friend played me his single hit, British Tourist, in 1977. The following year I bought the EP A Factory Sample featuring three more of his comic songs, which I recently discovered is now worth hundreds of pounds, since it also contains early recordings by Joy Division. But I'm not selling, I still occasionally listen to the delightful Acne.
I first saw John live at the Bristol Locarno, where he was appearing on a bill that included XTC and Nico. These bizarre music show combinations were not uncommon in the late 1970s. Around that time I also saw Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, an anarchic comic band that John was also occasionally involved with - once headlining supported by Blondie, and a year later with The Police at the bottom of the bill.
John began performing in 1969, and became a popular presence on the Birmingham music and poetry scenes, as well as an accomplished actor. But it was punk that first established John beyond the Midlands. John played piano, although his songs essentially consisted of gags that sometimes rhymed, and he didn't so much sing as deliver the lines with his finest stand-up skills. John's comedy was all about pain. He suffered, and you could tell that he suffered, so that we could laugh. Of the current crop of stand-ups who may never have seen him perform, I'd say Russell Kane and Simon Amstell are closest to carrying on his tradition.
But just because his material was often bleak and painful didn't limit his audience. Like the TV comedy shows of Galton and Simpson, and Clement and Le Frenais, the humour was dark but the appeal was universal. I remember my gran, after listening to an Edinburgh radio show John and I had both appeared in, failing to recall a single thing I'd said on the show, which I put down to her old age and failing memory. At which point she told me how much she had enjoyed the 'funny Birmingham man', and proceeded to quote his whole act back at me.
So why did John never become a comedy superstar? One of the main problems Dowie faced was that he was difficult to label. Alternative comedy was supposedly born in May 1979 at the Comedy Store, and that's as fair a date as any to cite. But John was already established on the music circuit by then, even though his act was based far more on comedy. He was never a part of that small group that completely transformed British comedy - Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. If he had begun performing at the Comedy Store when they did, I don't doubt for a moment that he would have become an important part of that scene. Instead he was playing on Factory bills with Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
For such a brilliant comedian, in terms of his career John had terrible timing. His performing peaked around the mid Eighties, and there was really no-one else around who came within a mile of him. But during that period, when John was the only solo comic worth seeing, several other acts like Paul Merton, Harry Enfield, Jo Brand and Jack Dee were learning their craft by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the expanding comedy circuit.
At the same time, John was running out of places to perform his one-man show. Apart from the Edinburgh Festival, which he had already stormed the Fringe many times, there was no established circuit for solo comedy shows. So John began performing 20 minute slots on bills with other comics. It must have been hard for someone so used to having the room to himself having to share a bill, perform for less time, and see comics not yet in his league but with greater experience of playing those rooms, doing as well as him.
In 1991 John performed his last stand-up show, entitled Why I Stopped Being A Stand-Up Comedian. The show (yes, of course I saw it - once a nerd always a nerd) still managed to be funny, although he was becoming more comfortable with the poetry, which had always suited much of his melancholic material.
John has, as far as I know, never stopped writing. In the late Nineties he created a remarkable one-man show, Jesus My Boy, which transferred to the West End where it was performed by Tom Conti. By the end of an all too short run it was playing to packed houses, and I'm amazed it didn't run for longer. And his children's storybook Dogman, also became a successful Edinburgh play, directed by Victor Spinetti.
The last time I saw John perform was ten years ago, in a back-to-back show with Neil Innes, another music/comedy hero, my perfect wet dream of a double bill. There were maybe 15 or 20 of us at the Canal Cafe Theatre, watching two brilliant great performers, talent undimmed by age.
So why mention John now? No particular reason, I just thought with all these lists and labels and programmes about stand-up comedy it was time to bring his name to a wider audience. Although now I think of it, the last time I saw John was 2002, the time before that 1991, so mathematically maybe I can help push for a 2013 comeback?
The Other JD on Factory
Born in Birmingham in 1950, John Dowie made his professional debut in September 1969, performing songs, poems and sketches at the Midlands Arts Centre, on a bill shared with Tea & Symphony, Locomotive and Mick Farren and the Deviants. Stepping outside this somewhat hippy-ish enclave, Dowie then secured a slot with Black Sabbath at Solihull Civic Centre. 'I had to ask them if they could move their gigantic speakers. Ozzy said, we'll move them outside if you like. What a gentleman! Where is he now?'
For the next five years, by his own account: 'Wrote more poems, songs and sketches. Performed wherever possible - folk clubs, universities, colleges, arts centres, music venues, etc. Constantly performing comedy to audiences who seek other form of entertainment. Act in debut of David Edgar's Blood Sports. Meet and collaborate with fringe theatre groups The General Will, John Bull Puncture Repair Kit, and Hull Truck. Make debut performance at 1972 Edinburgh Festival and then invited to Holland where lose virginity and gain sexual disease at the same time. Swipe me.'
Thus empowered, in 1975 Dowie formed comedy/rock band Big Girl's Blouse and spent the next two years gigging around Britain and Europe, with London dates at the Hope & Anchor, Speakeasy, Dingwalls and Marquee, along with the ICA and the Bush Theatre. However, soon after witnessing a Sex Pistols gig at Birmingham Barbarella's in 1976, Dowie shed his Blouse, concluding that there was only room for one comedy rock band at any one time. 'John Cooper Clarke was the punk voice of poetry. If I had more talent and a bigger brain I would have been the punk voice of comedy. But then, comedy wasn't really what the punk audience wanted - even though Johnny Rotten was coming up with some very funny stuff.'
The following year Dowie toured with fellow musical comedian Victoria Wood, including a run at the ICA in London. 'One of our intervals marked the debut gig by Adam and the Ants,' he recalls. 'They'd been banned from performing in the precious coffee bar.' Himself co-opted as an unlikely punk, a solo demo saw Dowie offered a deal by Virgin, who issued a six track EP called Another Close Shave in September 1977. Dowie produced the EP himself, masquerading as Sid Snot: 'They said if I sold 5,000 copies I could make an album. But then I got a Dear John phone call from Simon Draper on behalf of Richard Branson. Who was subsequently knighted. But not for that reason.'
A limited edition pressed in pink dayglo vinyl failed to secure a hit, although lead track British Tourist (I Hate the Dutch) picked up airplay as a novelty number - so often the fate of musical comedy - and caused something of a stir in the Netherlands. This brief notoriety saw Dowie invited to appear on Revolver, the short-lived ATV punk and new wave show co-hosted by Peter Cook, as well as So It Goes on Granada TV. Meanwhile Dowie moved from Birmingham to Bacup when his then wife took a teaching post in nearby Rochdale. 'An inconsequential little Lancashire town,' winces Dowie, who swiftly and savagely lampooned Bacup in song. 'I didn't realise places like that existed. It resembled the surface of the moon. It's a centre of mushy peas, inbreeding and clog-dancing. And not in that order.'
At least this unhappy relocation brought Dowie into closer contact with Mancunian comedy/rock ensemble Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, with whom he would tour as official support three times. On the last of these, at the close of 1978, the opening band were an obscure trio called The Police. 'I followed them every night for about thirteen nights with nary a murmur of disapproval from the audience. Two weeks later they were world famous and Tommy Cooper, doing a support at their request, was booed off. Don't get me started on the fickle nature of rock audiences and their Pavlovian responses. Oh. You have.'
Dowie first met Tony Wilson in 1976 when the broadcaster visited Birmingham to catch Big Girl's Blouse at Birmingham Rep, which led to an invitation to perform tracks from the Virgin EP on the second series of So It Goes. Dowie also appeared at the Russell Club in Hulme (aka The Factory) on several occasions: 'Not many laughs, but plenty of gob. I recall one punter so enjoying my act he treated me to a pint of lager. In the face.'
Later in 1978 Wilson decided to reconfigure the club as a record label, and set about producing a double 7-inch EP, A Factory Sample. Designed by Peter Saville, this now iconic release (Fac 2) featured bold post-punk music by Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and The Durutti Column - and three loony tunes by John Dowie. 'I think Tony Wilson had a side going spare because they only had three bands. He asked if I had any tracks. Unfortunately for him, I did. They were produced at Cargo by C.P. Lee of the Albertos, with Bruce Mitchell on drums and Ged Green and Simon White on guitars. Chris Lee and I were good friends for a while but then we had a falling out. As lovers often will. I'm told he's written about that session in his book, When We Were Thin. I don't know, I haven't read it.'
Dowie played on several Factory package dates in the north of England, as well as the label's London showcases at the Acklam Hall in May 1979, and the Moonlight Club in April 1980. At the latter show Dowie was backed by Jef Daw, late of Tea & Symphony. Though there was less spittle than at the Factory, an NME review by Neil Norman highlighted the difficulties inherent in performing comedy to a rock audience: 'With the looks of a recalcitrant civil servant, this one-time confederate of C.P. Lee performed extracts from his latest creation, Life After Death Before Breakfast, to the occasional backing of an acoustic guitar. Once dubbed outrageous due to his 'tasteless' material, he came across with the diluted vitriol of Betjeman and McGough, though the audience - who seemed to absorb everything with indiscriminate facility - singularly failed to provide the astringent feedback he needed to maintain comic tension.'
In truth, Dowie's witty poetry and comic operas about death shared little in common with the rest of the Factory roster, whose enduring musical legacy owes more to the A&R talent of Rob Gretton. Instead, Wilson thought Dowie a fascinating personality, and perhaps imagined an English version of Lenny Bruce on Factory. In this context it's worth noting that in 1980 Wilson wanted to issue a spoken-word album by Charles Bukowski, though this ambition went unfulfilled. Indeed inefficiency and straightened finances at the label meant that the release Dowie's own single, It's Hard To Be An Egg, would be endlessly delayed.
In the meantime, Dowie moved to London and resumed his solo comedy career, coincident with rise of so-called self-styled "alternative comedy'. Of this period he says now: 'I still did a few music gigs as support to that lovely and now, alas, somewhat forgotten band The Smirks. But I was moving more and more towards solo shows, plus I now had the confidence to hammer out something awful on the piano while adding appropriately awful vocals. One of my favourite ever reviews said something like, John Dowie can neither sing nor play the piano. He insists on doing both and we all leave the theatre whistling his tunes.'
The single It's Hard To Be An Egg was recorded with producers Martin Hannett and Steve Hopkins (aka The Invisible Girls) at Strawberry Studios in Stockport at the beginning of 1980. 'The mix and most of the music was done after I'd gone back to London, as if I were dead. What's the obverse of a tribute?' However the release was delayed until May 1981. Pressed on white vinyl with a yolk-orange label, and a single white feather glued to the clear plastic sleeve, Wilson talked up Fac 19 as 'Factory's first major assault on Radio Two', and excused the interminable delay as an 'Easter single tactic.' Neither ploy worked - Factory even managed to miss Easter - and the record sold poorly even to devotees of the famous label. 'I don't know how many were pressed. I do remember Tony moaning that he had a vast pile of them in a warehouse somewhere.'
The flipside, Mime Sketch, was a live recording from Newcastle, mis-titled Mind Sketch on the label. 'That annoyed me for years! And poor Alan Erasmus had to go to a market and get a lot of chicken feathers, then painstakingly stick them on the records, one feather at a time. I bet he knew exactly how many were pressed.'
If nothing else, the advent of alternative comedy at least saw Dowie better understood by the culture. 'Dowie has developed a brand of humour that's unique,' enthused Time Out in 1988, 'at least in comparison with his British counterparts, in that there's no way that slightly manic, always unpredictable, genuinely funny figure out there on the stage is just putting on an act. Many comedians draw on personal experiences. Dowie is entirely himself. It's an approach that's more dangerous, fascinating to behold, and capable at times of misfiring very badly. Dowie himself admits he's been guilty in the past of putting audiences on edge right from the start "by getting up there and rabbiting on about something that's just happened to piss me off". When he's unhappy in any way, it tends to show.'
Although Dowie recorded further demos with members of the Albertos, Smirks and Fabulous Poodles, the Eighties saw him gravitate more toward stage, radio and television work. He abandoned stand-up comedy as long ago as 1991, bowing out - appropriately enough - with Why I Stopped Being a Stand-Up Comedian. Fortunately several mementos of his stand-up days remain: Dowie, a video cassette of a Edinburgh Fringe performance in 1983, issued by Factory (Fact 89) with cover art by Ralph Steadman, and Good Grief, a live album recorded at the Zap Club in Brighton, issued (almost secretly) by The Independent Label in 1987. There's also Hard to Swallow, a book of comedy routines published in 1988 by Knockabout Comics, and illustrated by Hunt Emerson. Thanks to YouTube several vintage Dowie TV clips are easily accessible, with more to follow.
Stewart Lee on John Dowie
I am a stand-up comedian. I am eighteen years younger than John Dowie. I never saw him perform stand-up. As a teenager, I bought a copy of his book, Hard To Swallow, a collection of his "abandoned comedy routines" illustrated by the underground cartoonist Hunt Emerson; I had seen him on TV occasionally, doing slots in shows as a guest of people he was clearly better than; I had a strange half memory of him doing punky sneery stuff on one of those late night Seventies rock shows, So It Goes or Revolver. I knew he was a significant figure. But I never saw him perform stand-up.
I could have seen John Dowie do stand-up, of a sort, at my fourth Edinburgh Fringe, in 1990, when he performed a one man show called Why I Stopped Being a Stand-Up Comedian, but I didn't go. I don't know why. The title was strange. It made me think of Captain Oates, leaving Captain Scott's arctic tent to die with the words "I'm just going outside. I may be some time", and perhaps hoping someone would stop him. But no-one stopped John Dowie. He had performed Alternative Comedy before it even had a name, was tired of it by the time the tropes he'd established became commonplace, and then he just sort of slipped away.
Ten years later, I was drinking late one night in the courtyard of the Pleasance Theatre in the year 1999, my thirteenth Edinburgh Fringe, when the comedian Simon Munnery arrived, looking pleased with himself, like a gun dog bringing back a pheasant, or a family cat that comes in a drops a dead rat on the carpet. He had found John Dowie, the pheasant/dead rat of Alternative Comedy, and he was nearby, right now, drinking, and ready to receive our tributes.
We got to know Dowie that summer. It was interesting to talk to him about how it all began, and what it was all for. The great sage would have been all of 49 then, five years older than I am now, but he dealt graciously with us. He came to see my show and offered no advice other than that I should wear proper shiny shoes in future, and not trainers. In the last few years I have come to see that he was right, but it seemed strange advice to receive from the punk era stand-up who has also once opened for Black Sabbath.
Having kids seemed to have shifted Dowie's priorities. He was writing children's shows now, and poems, and plays, and seemed to want to say things that were unambiguously positive. He was sucked into the unpaid charity benefit circuit that all our gang seemed to be on all the time, but would never be drawn to perform his old stuff, offering instead neat, philosophical haikus that made everything else on the bill look rather bitter and bleak. I saw him do a one-off performance, in a Fitzrovian cellar, of his theatre piece about Joseph, made famous by Tom Conti, Jesus My Boy. It was brilliant, funny, moving, and told you more about the real John Dowie than any amount of drinking sessions. In the guise of the cuckolded carpenter, he really opened up.
We had Dowie round for New Year's Eve once. He seemed angry about something and, I think, absented himself before he turned nasty. I went to his flat a few times, and he greeted me with a wave from a fifth story window. It made me think of the Philip Dick story, The Man in the High Castle. Each time I went there Dowie had less stuff. In the end he had reduced his possessions to five basic food groups; records by Bob Dylan and Moondog; books by William Blake and the aforementioned Dick; and some Batman comics. It was as if he was preparing to depart. And pretty soon he did. No-one in our gang knew where he'd gone, but we knew he could now carry everything he ever wanted in a backpack, and he'd bought a bike.
Years passed. In 2011 I tracked Dowie down to ask him to appear in At Last! The 1981 Show, a celebration of Alternative Comedy's first wave that I was curating for the Royal Festival Hall. Needless to say, he would have nothing of it, and would not give anything away, either, about his then current whereabouts.
I am glad this CD document exists. The punk era music tracks are perfect period pieces, sort of Dada Cabaret/pub rock fusion, Tristan Tzara fronting Doctor Feelgood; Mime Sketch reminds me of similarly atmospheric field recordings by Ted Chippington and Lenny Bruce; it seems even funnier to a comedy-literate listener because you feel the material is way too good for the response it's getting, and it's great to hear such nakedly honest archive. And knowing Dowie, a little, hearing the hilarious but awkwardly confrontational I'm Here To Entertain You, or No More Fucking's visceral fear of the physical world, with hindsight, it seems obvious why Dowie was eventually to choose a brighter path. No more would Dowie spit out the bleak rhyming couplet that began, "If I had any sense I'd nail my penis to the floor." Instead he wrote Dogman, for children, the story of an alien Dog who ends up running a lighthouse that appears, the more I read it to my own children, to be a kind of autobiography.
There's a political dimension to this collection too. Dowie came from a time very different to our own; where there was a degree of social mobility that is now greatly reduced; where places like Birmingham's Arts Lab funded and developed art they felt was worthwhile in of itself, rather than as a route to the loot; where punk and the hippy era's DIY ethics propelled singular talents like Dowie's forward; and where a viable Fringe circuit encouraged risk taking. If someone were thinking of doing something in comedy as radical as Dowie did in the '70s, would they be able to, and if they did, would we even know about it?