Sleevenotes by James Nice

closeshaverear

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 saame 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.'

Ahem.

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.

James Nice


j.dowie@icloud.com © John Dowie 2013