The Dowland Brothers

Up to the late fifties, the Bournemouth suburb of Winton boasted three cinemas. Towards the top end of Winton at the crossroads called the banks (so called because there used to be banks on two of the corners) there was the Continental. Once a cosy family picture house, in the late sixties it adopted a policy of screening movies of dubious content such as The Reluctant Nudist, Erotic Nightmare and Swedish Love Games which hastened its closure in 1989, by which time it was known locally as the ‘flea pit’ (it is now the Buffalo Bar). Travelling down the high street towards Moordown and opposite Castle Road, was the Ritz. Originally opened in 1927 as the Victoria, it became the Ritz after a refurbishment in 1950. The seven hundred seat auditorium also hosted ‘Starlight Evenings’ showcasing local entertainers and singers on a Thursday night, plus the occasional talent nights when anybody could get up and have a go. The cinema closed in 1959 after screening its final film Whodunnit, a comedy starring Benny Hill, who coincidentally lived in Winton during the war after being evacuated from Southampton.

Finally, two hundred yards down the road and opposite St John’s church, was the biggest and most impressive of the three, the Moderne. The opening night occurred on 11th October 1935 with screenings of Music in the Air starring Gloria Swanson and John Boles and Denis O’Neil in Barnacle Bill. Designed by local architect Edward G. de Wilde Holding in an art deco style, the cinema seated 1,500 film fans and included a café in the balcony foyer plus an ice cream parlour. The state-of-the-art cinema was one of the first in Bournemouth to install Cinemascope with a four track stereo sound system. It was also home to the Saturday morning matinee and skiffle competitions, where the Dowland brothers beat off a ragbag of strummers, thumpers and scrapers to win the ‘Moderne Trophy Cup’ in front of a crowd of boisterous teenagers and inquisitive adults.

The Moderne Cinema in Winton, the scene of the Dowlands success winnig a skiffle competition

Gordon Leslie Dowland was born on 4th November 1938 and his younger brother, David Charles, followed just over two years later on 11th December 1940. The family originally lived in Wimborne, but moved to Curzon Road in Springbourne, Bournemouth when the brothers were school age, where they attended Stourfield Secondary Modern School in Cranleigh Road. Both the boys excelled in art and graphics and when they left, set up a commercial art and design business which they ran from their own Admen Studios.

The Dowlands family home in Curzon Road, Springbourne (Photograph John Cherry)

The brothers also liked to sing and inspired by Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Duncan, they formed their own skiffle group, The Blue Earth River Boys. Gradually they expanded their repertoire of American folk and blues tunes to include close harmony country songs made famous by brother acts the Louvin’s and their favourites, the Everly’s. Then the army intervened. Gordon received his call-up papers for National Service in 1958 and for the next eighteen months endured a regime of endless square bashing, grueling physical work outs, kit inspections and much verbal abuse from loud-mouthed sergeants at the home of the British army in Aldershot, Hampshire. As the town was only seventy miles from Bournemouth, give or take a mile or two, the pair managed to keep their act ticking over, albeit with a very reduced workload. Luckily for David, conscription was phased out in 1959 and he avoided the call-up.

The Blue Earth River Boys (Photograph courtesy of Al Kirtley)

On Gordon’s discharge, they signed with promoter Reg Calvert’s Bandbox agency in Southampton, where they became part of his extensive troupe of artists. Run along similar lines to the successful Larry Parnes agency in London, Reg’s acts were strictly second division with even more wacky names. The brothers insisted on keeping the family name, but the majority of Reg’s acts were allocated splendid pseudonyms such as Danny Storm, Eddie Sex, Buddy Britton, Baby Bubbly, Ricky Fever, Rod Ace and Colin Angel. The groups and singers would travel around the ballrooms, Legion and village halls of southern England either in their own right or, as support to stars such as Billy Fury, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Eden Kane, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages and Ricky Valance. Reg’s ‘Fabulous Rocking Jiving Big Beat Shows’ became hugely popular in the fallow years between the initial seismic burst of rock ‘n’ roll and the birth of the Beat Boom.

The Dowlands profile received a boost with a performance in the final heats of the Southern Television talent show Home Grown, where they finished in the top three and a brief appearance on the Sunday afternoon TV show, Southern Affairs. The exposure bumped them up the pecking order on Calvert’s ‘Big Beat Shows’ where their paths crossed with Roy Phillips, a guitarist from Parkstone, whose trio, The Royal Blue Rockers with Barry Southgate on bass and Johnny Hammond on drums, backed the brothers and Reg’s other duos and solo singers. As their popularity blossomed, the brothers and Roy’s combo combined forces and became The Dowland Brothers and the Drovers.

Joe Meek at the back in-between Gordon and David in the dark jumpers, Roy Phillips in a stripy jumper seated with his guitar (Photograph courtesy of David St. John)

During 1961 David and Gordon attended a ‘Battle of the Bands’ at the ice rink in Westover Road intending to cast an eye over the competition. They came away impressed with the rhythm section of the eventual winners, Johnny King and the Raiders. A couple of months later, their bassist and drummer left, and Peter and Michael Giles became available when their current group, Dave Anthony and the Rebels, disbanded with the defection of their guitarist Al Kirtley to the first incarnation of the Zoot Money Big Roll Band. With Roy Phillips still on guitar sandwiched between two sets of brothers, the smartly suited and booted fivesome played their first date together in November 1961.

The Dowlands and Giles
The Dowlands and the Soundtracks, Left to Right: Roy Phillips, Gordon Dowland, David Dowland, Michael Giles & Peter Giles

As the group became a well drilled unit, the brothers were keen to commit their songs to tape. Initially Reg suggested they should record a number of the best known Everly Brothers songs and strike a deal with the Embassy label distributed through Woolworths, as a way of getting noticed. However, the brothers had bigger plans and wanted to record their own songs. Ever helpful and keen to propel his boys up the pop ladder, Calvert organised an audition for his acts that weren’t out on tour, plus the Dowland and Drovers, at his Bandbox headquarters in St. Mary’s for the London-based independent record producer Joe Meek. The night proved to be a disappointment for all Reg’s acts apart from the Dowlands, who caught Joe’s ear and signed them up to his RGM Sounds production company.

Producer Joe Meek with posters of some of his artists on the wall behind him, circa 1963

Meek, a maverick in the recording industry, ran a studio above Shenton’s leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Road in North London. His operation was funded by Wilfred Alonzo ‘Major’ Banks, a board member of Saga Records and importer of artificial Christmas trees. Joe’s portfolio of artistes included Tom Jones, Danny Rivers, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Mike Berry and the Outlaws, Mike Sarne, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, Freddie Starr, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers and Heinz Burt, amongst a host of others. During his career, he masterminded twenty five top forty hits and had three number one’s bookended by John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me” in 1961 and The Honeycombs “Have I The Right” in 1964. However, his biggest success came in 1962 with “Telstar” by The Tornados, a chart topper in the UK, America and seventeen other countries.

Poster for the 2009 film based on the life of Joe Meek Telstar

The 2009 Nick Moran directed movie, Telstar, gives a tragicomic insight into the life of Meek, as he grapples with the Heath Robinson equipment crammed into his poky flat cum studio. It follows Joe, (an excellent performance from Con O’Neill), through his successes, homosexual liaisons and eventual downfall. Plagued by paranoia, depression, amphetamine addiction and an unhealthy interest in the occult, he finally snapped on 3rd February 1967 when he blasted his landlady, Violet Shenton, with a shotgun owned by Heinz Burt, before turning the gun on himself. A true innovator, he pioneered the direct injection of instruments into a mixing desk instead of microphone placement around the room, the liberal use of reverb, echo and compression and the use of distortion and tape manipulation to create the sounds he heard in his head. He was way ahead of the game. In a time when engineers still wore white lab coats and stuck rigidly to the rules, Joe wasn’t afraid to break them to achieve the desired effect.

dowlands
David and Gordon in Joe Meeks studio in Holloway Road circa 1962 (Photograph courtesy of David St John)

In this Fred Karno’s environment, The Dowlands and the newly named Soundtracks, (Joe’s idea) travelled up to London at weekends and humped their equipment up the two flights of stairs to his makeshift studio. A typical session would see the band crowded into the soundproofed front room and if strings or backing singers were needed, they would squeeze into the bathroom taking full advantage of the acoustic qualities provided by the tiled walls. Out of the chaos came their first three, reverb drenched singles on the Oriole label, “Little Sue” (August 1962), “Big Big Fella” (November 1962) and “Break Ups” (April 1963). All the songs, apart from one B side, were originals written by either one, or both of the brothers, an unusual occurrence as producers tended to foist material onto their artists in the belief they knew best. Despite appearances on BBC radio shows Parade of the Pops and The Talent Spot, record sales were mediocre, although as a live act they were in high demand. Travelling within a hundred-mile radius of their home and working mostly at the weekends because of their art and design business, a glance at their itinerary reveals gigs at the British Legion Hall in New Milton, Salisbury City Hall, the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis, the Cinema Grand Frome, the Esso Recreation Club Fawley, the Civic Hall Exeter, the Royal Pier Southampton and further shows in Yeovil, Folkestone, Woking, Bridgewater and Farnborough, as well as dates closer to home at the Bure Club, Royal Ballrooms and Downstairs Club.

In the spring of 1963 Joe persuaded Roy Phillips to leave the Soundtracks and join him as his in-house guitarist on Meek productions. To fill the gap Alan (Bowery) Barry stepped in from Johnny and the Giants. Six months later the Giles brothers also quit as they had tired of the outmoded material, their replacements were bassist Mike Piggott from Dave La Kaz and the G Men and returning drummer Johnny Hammond who had been on an extended sabbatical. They made their debuts at the Rondo Ballroom in Leicester on 21st September. 

The Giles brothers weren’t the only ones trying to play catch up, as the Dowlands reluctantly took on board the glaring fact that their sound had become dated. A new and exciting sound emanating from Liverpool spurred them into a change of direction and it was the leading exponents of the ‘Mersey Sound’ that provided them with their one and only hit. The Fab Four’s second album, With the Beatles, encased in an iconic black and white sleeve shot at the Palace Court Hotel in Westover Road by Robert Freeman, contained “All My Loving”, a catchy song that had gathered plenty of radio play but hadn’t gained a release as a single, apart from in Canada where unsurprisingly it made number one. The upbeat Lennon / McCartney ditty was prime material for a cover version and the Dowlands, seeing its potential, recorded a straight copy of the original and rushed released it into the shops in December in a bid to catch the lucrative Christmas market. After receiving a honk (a miss) as opposed to a ping (a hit) from David Jacobs on Juke Box Jury, “All My Loving” broke into the Hit Parade climbing to number thirty three in January 1964, before disappearing after a seven-week run. The record also gained a release in Sweden and Belgium and became their only single to be picked up in America where it came out on the short lived Tollie label. Tollie was a subsidiary of Vee Jay Records which distributed two Beatles singles in America, before Capitol Records realised they were missing out on the gravy train and muscled in on the action.

Before they hit on the idea of “All My Loving”, the brothers had recorded one of their own songs as their next single called “Lucky Johnny”. A number of copies were pressed up and released, but were soon withdrawn after they plumped for The Beatles song instead, making it highly collectable, particularly among the Joe Meek collecting fraternity. Years later, a copy with a misprinted label called, “Lonely Johnny”, turned up at a record dealers, which really got the Meek fans buzzing. It is certainly the Dowlands rarest record and the most obscure on the Oriole label, but even more importantly, one of the most sought after records produced by Joe Meek, which makes it almost priceless.

dowlands & meek
David & Gordon with Joe Meek in his Holloway Road studio (Photograph courtesy of David St John)

Having minor chart success brought with it the promise of TV work and invitations to join the package tour merry-go-round. However, a disagreement between Joe Meek and Reg Calvert left them out in the cold. As the pair wrangled over whether to sign them up with promoter Peter Walsh’s Bobby Vee and Dusty Springfield tour or Robert Stigwood’s John Leyton and Rolling Stones trek, appearances on Thank Your Lucky Stars, Ready Steady Go and The Five O’clock Club were turned down because of possible clashes over dates. Eventually, the promoters lost patience with the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and pulled the plug on both deals, leaving the brothers with nothing. The impetus gained was now lost, although locally they were still popular with Pat Davis, as she started up a fan club out of her home in Zamek Close, Bear Cross.

In a failed bid to keep up the momentum, they returned to Holloway Road and recorded a limp version of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” (May 1964), followed by a passable take on Bacharach and David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (June 1964), which lost out to a top twenty version by the Merseybeats. Their final attempt at a hit was another cracking tune from the pen of Bacharach and David called “Don’t Make Me Over” (May 1965). It appeared on the larger Columbia imprint as Oriole had been swallowed up by the large American conglomerate. The record boasted a full orchestral accompaniment conducted by Dusty Springfield’s arranger Ivor Raymonde, but Meek had to meddle and sped the tape up a whole tone which made them sound like the Chipmunks. The Swinging Blue Jeans took a superior version of the same song into the top forty in January 1966.

Eventually Joe lost interest and directed his focus elsewhere, mainly in trying to make Heinz Burt a star, leaving the brothers to fend for themselves. They auditioned for Decca but were told in no uncertain terms that their style of music had passed. They also changed to another Southampton agent, Len Canham who ran Avenue Artists, after Calvert moved his operations north to Rugby. But the writing was on the wall. For their last year together, bassist Gordon Haskell came in for Mike Piggott and Southampton drummer Chris Warman joined from The Lonely Ones taking over from Johnny Hammond, but by then the musical landscape had changed beyond all recognition and the inevitable came to pass towards the end of 1966. Gordon retired from performing altogether diverting his energy into their art and design business, as did David, only he kept his musical career going sporadically through the years by joining Chris Coope, Barry Vacher and Roger Deacon-Smith in one of Bournemouth’s favourite bands of the eighties, Hippo, where he replaced the outgoing guitarist Keith Collins. Latterly he was in the club band Echoes with former Elias Hulk drummer Bernie James and one of his old bass players Mike Piggot and then the Men from Uncle, a band he formed with his nephews even though he was well over retirement age.

The Dowlands (5)
The Dowlands and the Soundtracks circa 1965, Left to Right: Mike Piggott, Alan Barry, David Dowland, Gordon Dowland & Chris Warman 

Listening to the Dowlands now, they sound dated, which is to be expected nearly sixty years later. Their singles are not helped by Meek’s habit of overloading his recordings with reverb and echo, plus speeding up the tapes supposedly to give the songs a sense of urgency and excitement, the practice doesn’t do the Dowlands any favours at all. In most cases it was detrimental, as they ended up sounding like the kids pig puppets Pinky and Perky. No amount of complaining by the brothers made the slightest bit of difference to Joe, as the records were pressed and presented as a fait accompli. To hear a comparison, listen to the CD, The Dowlands: All My Loving, on the Diamond label, as it contains the original and tweaked versions of their last three singles, the contrast is striking and sometimes almost laughable. You can see they had a point, especially on the superior “Don’t Make Me Over”, one of their finest recordings.

All My Loving The Dowlands 1998
The Dowlands Discography
Singles

Little Sue c/w Julie: Oriole (CB 1748) 1962

Big Big Fella c/w Don’t Ever Change: Oriole (CB 1781) 1962

Break Ups c/w A Love Like Ours: Oriole (CB 1815) 1963

Lucky Johnny c/w Do You Have to Make Me Blue: Oriole (CB 1892) 1963

All My Loving c/w Hey Sally: Oriole (CB 1897) 1963

All My Loving c/w Hey Sally: SweDisc (SWES 1023) 1963 Swedish release

All My Loving c/w Hey Sally: Show (SH 1071) 1963 Belgium release

All My Loving c/w Hey Sally: Tollie (9002) 1964 American release

I Walk the Line c/w Happy Endings: Oriole (CB 1926) 1964

Wishin’ and Hopin’ c/w You Will Regret It: Oriole (CB 1947) 1964

Don’t Make Me Over c/w Someone Must Be Feeling Sad: Columbia (DB 7547) 1965

Album

The Dowlands: All My Loving: Diamond Records (GEM CD 026) 1998 CD compilation

Compilations featuring The Dowlands and the Soundtracks

Joe Meek – The Alchemist of Pop: Castle Music (CMEDD 496) 2002 A 2 x CD compilation of Meek recordings featuring “All My Loving”

They Were Wrong!: Joe’s Boys Vol. 1: Castle Music (CMQDD 1457) 2007 A 2 x CD compilation of Meek recordings featuring “Little Sue”, “Big Big Fella” & “Breakups”

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