Liner Note Authors: Dave Cohen; James Nice; Stewart Lee.
Recording information: The Gulbenkian Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (12/05/1985); The Zap Club, Brighton (12/05/1985); The Gulbenkian Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1981); The Zap Club, Brighton (1981); The Gulbenkian Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1982); The Zap Club, Brighton (1982); The Gulbenkian Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1990); The Zap Club, Brighton (1990).
Pulling together a variety of single cuts, one-offs, and general bits and pieces from across the British underground comedian's musical career both on his own and with a variety of collaborators, An Arc of Hives makes a solid case for John Dowie as the kind of skew-whiff but inspired figure that used the emergence of punk as the perfect vehicle for something even more randomly but compellingly entertaining. (Even if "I Don't Want to Be Your Amputee" sounds like a perfect song title for any number of late '70s bands, while the half-minute-long "Mew Wave" might even be more of a perfect parody of punk than early Wire.) As the album kicks off with the mordant complaint of "Acne" and concludes with a slew of live recordings featuring just piano and vocals, aside from the wholly spoken word "Miserable Childhood," it's an imperfect comparison given other older role models such as Ivor Cutler, but there's almost something of Dowie as a northern equivalent of Ian Dury, something wry and wracked and unconventional but also with an ear for fun performances, whether it's the sprightly guitar flourishes on "Idiot," the oompah and music hall of "It's Hard to Be an Egg," or the piano and saxophone musings on "Beer." If there's plenty that is classically of its time and place -- the amount of people outside his generation and country who even remember that "Jim Callaghan" was the prime minister just before Margaret Thatcher doubtless grows smaller by the day -- then some things sound timeless, like the electro-glam of "Love You (Like Hell)." Also, pulling off a recorded piece called "Mime Sketch" and making it work with just the audio -- however implied some of the laughs from the audience are -- as well as having a song with gentle electric piano and banjo balladry sung in a nervous voice called "Naked Noolies in the Moonlight" show that something's up. ~ Ned Raggett