'The British Lenny Bruce' on a gloomy Leonard Cohen tip
Year of Release: 1972
The British Alternative Comedy boom of the late seventies/ early eighties seemed to explode out of nowhere, but as key figures such as Alexei Sayle have noted, some of the elements were already in place. Out on the folk circuit, keen story-tellers such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrott and Richard Digance delivered observational material a world away from the punchy gagmeisters on the working man's club circuits, and formed an interesting (and increasingly popular) splinter group of their own. This helped shift expectations of what could and could not be accepted by live audiences.
On the working man's club circuit itself, there were also weird outliers, performers such as John Cooper Clarke who understood how to keep their audiences onside while also going in unexpected new directions with their material. John Davidge - aka John Paul Joans - was, however, possibly the biggest fish out of water in these venues; a man who, if the video evidence we have is anything to go by, couldn't have given a fig whether the audience 'got him' or not. Prowling around the stage menacingly while talking about 'wars, IRA and all this nonsense' (according to Bernard Manning), he had long hair and was also prone to hippified musings on love, peace and 'the bomb'. Understandably, while a few young people in the audience appreciated his stance, others didn't enjoy their meal of pie and peas being disrupted with such heavy topics of conversation, and were even openly shocked by his material.
Davidge's left-wing leanings, wild, anarchic behaviour and ghoulish delight at being heckled or dismissed by audiences feels, while rough around the edges, very ahead of its time for the early seventies, and indeed he himself predicted it was the comedy of the future. He openly boasted to a Granada documentary crew: "Audiences are more aware now... and somebody has to provide the new jokes." His forward thinking nature didn't go entirely unnoticed, with Bob Monkhouse enthusiastically praising him as "Britain's answer to Lenny Bruce" and a "brilliantly bitter and hilariously tasteless comedian".
If all this chaos weren't enough to be getting on with, Davidge also managed to become a very minor pop star in the seventies under the name of John Paul Joans, hitting the charts alongside members of 10cc with "The Man From Nazareth". While that track is fondly remembered by some (and, it has to be admitted, derided by others, most notably John Peel) attempts at elongating his musical career failed, and "The Fear Of Love" seems to have been the last throw of the dice.
So badly did this one sell, in fact, that it would seem quite a few comedy writers and bloggers have utterly missed the fact that it even exists. Like most of Davidge's work, it's a thoroughly peculiar and unexpected piece of work. Throughout, the man's deep, gravelly voice muses on his philophobia, while female singers coo and trill in the background. The closest stylistic comparison is probably Leonard Cohen, but it's a little less sophisticated and less slickly produced, and musically veers close to cornball in places. In short, it's not a complete success, but it is another jigsaw piece to add to the man's mysterious and under-documented career.
"Cold Road" on the B-side has a bit more of a groove to it, and fits in with Davidge's whole mystic beatnik act much more successfully. Really, the sides should have been flipped. How many times have I said that, eh?
Sadly, while his musical career just fizzled out in an ordinary manner, Davidge's life as a comic was cruelly cut short on 1st February 1977, when he stepped from a car in Belfast and was struck by a speeding Landrover. He was in Northern Ireland to perform a series of gigs at desolate, underused venues in support of the peace movement, and the injuries he sustained from the incident left him with severe facial and chest injuries, and difficulties with speech and memory from which he has apparently never recovered.
His wife Sheila Davidge approached The Stage newspaper in 1983 to ask for volunteers to talk to him about his sixties and seventies shows to help him piece his memory back together again. From there, the trail goes somewhat cold, and while in the age of the Internet we should be able to get better answers about his present health, rumours persist that Davidge no longer has any wish to be contacted or reminded of his past.
Perhaps all we can really do is watch his fascinating and opinion-dividing act on the Granada documentary "There Was This Fella", which also features him wagging his finger at Bernard Manning and insisting that comedy had to move on from its existing format, noting that music hall acts and gag merchants had "closed down the theatres... and they'll damn well close clubs". Things moved on in the end and the British comedy crisis Davidge feared never materialised, but it seems slightly cruel and unjust that circumstances robbed him of a place amongst the new wave. You could argue that he helped lay the foundations, and indeed even risked his life, for the likes of Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton to pick up the wider acclaim.