Sleevenotes 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 seriesNow 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?

Dave Cohen © John Dowie 2013