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Downliners Sect

Of the many R&B-influenced acts that popped up on the British rock scene in the 1960s, few were as raw and elemental as the Downliners Sect, and fewer still possessed their sense of humor. Led by guitarist and singer Don Craine, the Sect played stripped-down, energetic rock with a tough, bluesy edge, while Craine and his bandmates indulged their taste for offbeat humor and non-sequitur lyrics. The group also had an unusual visual trademark in the deerstalker hats that Craine and his bandmates wore on-stage. The 2002 compilation Sectuality is the definitive intro to the group, featuring their three original albums in full, and 1998's Dangerous Ground was a reunion effort that showed they hadn't lost their stride a few decades on. The Downliners Sect formed in 1962 in the London suburb of Twickenham. Mick O’Donnell, a singer and guitarist with a taste for early rock & roll and Chicago blues, started a band called the Downliners, taking the name from the Jerry Lee Lewis tune, "Down the Line." The band gigged regionally and managed to book a tour of France, but their European adventure didn't go well and the band split up after returning home. Undaunted, O'Donnell and drummer Johnny Sutton were determined to try again, and began searching for new bandmates. They found a drummer who was interested named Keith Evans; Evans was enthusiastic enough about the Downliners that when O'Donnell and Sutton suggested he switch to bass, he agreed. With the addition of a lead guitarist named Melvin, the band had a full lineup, and they changed their name to the Downliners Sect to give them a distinctive twist. Some other name changes also took place; O'Donnell adopted the stage name Don Craine, and Keith Evans changed his handle to Keith Grant. Melvin's tenure as lead guitarist was brief, and Terry Gibson, previously with the Hoods, soon took his place. Before long, the Downliners Sect were playing London nightspots and developed a reputation as an R&B act as strong as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. As their fame grew, record companies came calling, and to stir up interest, the Sect released a four-song EP, At Nite in Gt. Newport Street, recorded live at London's Studio 51 club. Though only 400 copies were pressed, one made its way to a pirate radio station in Sweden, where it was soon give regular airplay. Another was heard by the A&R staff of the British Columbia label, who offered the Downliners Sect a record deal. By the time they signed their contract, the group had added a fifth member, harmonica player Ray Sone. The Downliners Sect's debut single featured a Jimmy Reed cover on the A-side, "Baby What's Wrong," while the flipside was a band original, "Be a Sect Maniac." It was followed by a full-length album, 1964's The Sect, which included piano work from session musician John Paul Jones, who would join Led Zeppelin at the end of the decade. Later in the year, they recorded a version of the Coasters' "Little Egypt," which appeared on a single with another self-referential original, "Sect Appeal," on the B-side. "Little Egypt" was only modestly successful in the U.K. and sank like a rock when it was issued in the United States, but the single became a hit in Sweden in 1965, where underground play of the live EP had whet the local appetite for their no-frills sound. "Little Egypt'' rose to the Top Five of the Swedish charts, and the Sect were hailed as heroes when they booked a Scandinavian tour, which included appearances on national television and a concert that attracted 10,000 fans. (The Swedish gigs introduced a new harmonica player, Pip Harvey, who was recruited after Ray Sone was fired for missing too many gigs.) Despite their popularity in Sweden, the Sect were not selling many records in the U.K., and for their second album, 1965's The Country Sect, they cut a handful of country & western tunes, long before country-rock had won an audience. The band also alienated guardians of good taste with the 1965 EP The Sect Sing Sick Songs, which featured four darkly humorous songs about death. The EP was banned from BBC airplay and compromised the group's relationship with the nation's biggest broadcaster. The Downliners Sect were back in familiar territory on 1966's The Rock Sect's In, which included "Why Don't You Smile Now," written by Lou Reed and John Cale prior to the formation of the Velvet Underground. The LP also saw the Sect reduced to a quartet after Pip Harvey abruptly left the act. The album didn't change the Sect's fortunes in the U.K., and Terry Gibson and Johnny Sutton quit the band; to fulfill their contract, Craine and Grant cut one more single for Columbia, "The Cost of Living," with session players filling in on guitar and drums. 1967 saw the debut of Don Craine's New Downliners Sect, with Craine and Grant joined by guitarist Bob Taylor, keyboard man Matthew Fisher, and drummer Kevin Flanagan. The new edition of the group added psychedelic touches to their formula, but Matthew Fisher only lasted a few months before he left to join Procol Harum, making the switch in time to play the iconic organ lines on "A Whiter Shade of Pale." A new keyboard player, Barry Cooper, took over from Fisher, but after one single came and went with little notice, Craine quit his band in late 1967. The Sect continued with Grant as leader, but they enjoyed little success, and finally split in 1969. The rise of the British pub rock movement and the success of rough-and-tumble blues-rockers Dr. Feelgood sparked a renewed interest in the Downliners Sect, which led to Charly Records reissuing their three LPs. In 1976, Don Craine, Keith Grant, Terry Gibson, and Johnny Sutton reunited the Downliners Sect for live work, with Paul Tiller on harmonica. The Sect cut a reunion album in 1979, Showbiz, and recordings of live dates from 1980 concerts in England and Norway were compiled for the 1986 album Live. A second studio album, Savage Return, was issued in 1994, and 1998's Dangerous Ground introduced a new lineup of the band, with Craine and Grant accompanied by Del Dwyer (guitar), Alan Brooks (drums), and Paul Martin (harmonica). Meanwhile, U.K. garage punk hero Billy Childish had been a longtime fan of the Downliners Sect, issuing a collection of classic sides, The Birth of Suave, on his own Hangman label in 1991. The mutual admiration society of Billy Childish and Don Craine led to the offshoot band Thee Headcoats Sect, with Craine and Grant playing alongside Childish's group Thee Headcoats. Thee Headcoats Sect cut two albums for Hangman, 1996's Deerstalking Men and 1999's Ready Sect Go! 2000's Burning Snow documented a Downliners Sect concert in Sweden that same year, and 2007's Chinese Whispers was a studio project that included a new harmonica player, John O'Leary. The Downliners Sect continued to tour the U.K. and Europe on a regular basis, and Craine became a regular columnist for the respected vintage rock magazine Ugly Things. Don Craine died on February 24, 2022 at the age of 76; the Downliners Sect soldiered on with Keith Grant as leader.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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