Contributions - John Dowie – An Arc Of Hives

Stew pens CD sleeve notes for a selction of stuff by Alt Comedy Godfather John Dowie, An Arc Of Hives


‘The most influential stand-up comedian you’ve probably never seen.’ That’s how comedy writer Dave Cohen described John Dowie in a piece for Chortle earlier this year; and it’s hard to disagree.

Born in Birmingham in 1950, Dowie was an alternative comedian before there was a label for such things. Like Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott he came up thought the music scene, but while he was born into the folk clubs, it was punk that was his making.

He mixed poetry and stand-up with tracks performed either solo or with his rock band, Big Girls’ Blouse, and even got a deal with Manchester’s influential Factory Records.

But as alternative comedy – as born in the Comedy Store in 1979 – caught up with his genius, he slowly withdrew from the genre, save for the odd Edinburgh show. It was there in 1991 that he performed Why I Stopped Being A Stand-up Comedian, and he stayed true to his word. He wrote a West End hit with the play Jesus My Boy – a great vehicle for Tom Conti – and went on to write for children, as comedy was left further behind.

There is little tangible proof of his legacy. An excellent book based on his stand-up called Hard To Swallow was published in 1988, beautifully illustrated by Hunt Emerson and, still available second-hand thanks to Amazon Marketplace. But his live video and audio releases are impossible to find, and a few scraps on YouTube is all we have left.

Until now that is. Arc Of Hives is a 21-track collection of his witty music tracks, culled from demos, sampler albums, the odd 7in, and three tracks from his Good Grief show recorded at the Zap Club, Brighton, in 1985 and containing snippets of his stand-up.

It’s a great taster for a genius lost to comedy, riddled with great lines from the surreal to the poignant to the cheesy. In Beer, a story about alcoholism, he laments: ‘I wake up every morning with a stranger. And it’s me.’ And that poetry shares disc space with a silly song entitled It’s Hard To Be An Egg…

Highlights are the sardonic I’m Here To Entertain You, explaining how he will channel his misery into comedy, No More Fucking about middle-aged loss of libido, and Snail Tamer, which directs a powerful punk energy at ridiculous lyrics. And British Tourist, subtitled I Hate The Dutch, was a minor 1977 novelty hit – though not, apparently, in the Netherlands.

Musically, the bite-sized tracks are simple and efficient, just a delivery method for the lines, perhaps close in style to the similarly vintaged John Otway, who’s still performing his self-deprecating rock. Musos might also want to know that guests on An Arc Of Hives include Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, The Smirks and The Poodles – the New-Wavy band that featured Tony De Meur, now known on the comedy circuit as Ronnie Golden.

But for real comedy credentials, you need only note that Stewart Lee wrote sleeve notes for this CD, in which he ponders: ‘If someone were thinking of doing something inc omedy as radical as Dowie did in the Seventies, would they be able to? And if they did, would we even know about it.’

We might not know that much about Dowie today, but this is a welcome step in the right direction. Now if only his stand-up were to be released, too…