I’ve been trying to explain to some fellow Uni students why the death of Frank Sidebottom really matters. Most of them turn off after the opening “so this bloke wore a papier mache head and was the funniest act you’ve ever seen…” gambit. They ask why? What was the point? If he’s so famous, why have I never heard of him – and why was he still playing half-empty pubs?
The back story needs explaining and then immediately forgetting: Chris Sievey, a resident of suburban Manchester, created the character of Frank Sidebottom in the mid-80s. Frank was a dreaming teenage boy who lived with his mum and wrote ‘fantastic’ pop songs that mysteriously ended up being stolen and taken to the top of the charts by other, far more successful musicians. A variety of characters, including Caroline Aherne’s Mrs. Merton and Little Frank, were on hand to help with his burgeoning career in fantastic show business.
About as good as it gets. One of the Happy Mondays and David Soul join Frank to cover The Fall. Who else could get away with this?
Chris was utterly committed to his character. The head never came off in public and the cheeky, doomed Frank was fully integrated in the culture of Manchester. While Frank chaotic presence was became an accepted part of the region’s fabric, Chris Sievey himself was a non-entity and all interviews were done in-character.
One of my favourite Frank memories was walking down Deansgate during last year’s Manchester International Festival. Frank was standing in the window of Debenhams, painting in his characteristic style. Acrylics were flying around this expensively designed windowspace, splashing on the flat screen TVs and only six of us were watching. But almost every person that walked past looked up, commented something like “eh, it’s Frank Sidebottom!” and headed on with a smile on their face. The show went on in style before Frank legged it as fast as possible.
– A pleasingly bizarre tribute on Radio 2 news
There are other occasions. I twice held my birthday party at his irregular gigs at York City FC’s social club, enjoying some of the funniest nights of my life as this bona-fide comic genius put everything into performing for a half-full bar. His terrible covers of the eighties pop canon, the half-time raffle (“fantastic tickets only 99p”) and crowd involvement were funnier that anything I’d ever seen. Sure, it was knowing and post-modern but he was no smug comedian – he got a crowd of football fans to throw away their inhibitions, jump up and start ‘dancing like a horse‘. Frank really cared about putting on a fantastic show. The jokes were always the same but they never got old.
Why? Who cares.
And that’s got nothing on the wonders of the afternoon spent taking Frank’s “Magical Timperley Tour” on an open top bus around his home town. Cath Aubergine’s fantastic tribute has more on one of the most memorable days of my life.
If you don’t know Frank then there’s better places to start than here. Jon Ronson’s brilliant introduction gives you a sense of the chaos. This video is a fairly good start and a YouTube search will give you hours of fantastic material. There’ll be a lot more written in the next few days, talking of his uniqueness and the campaign to get one of his songs into the charts.
Chris, at a loose end, sketched the character of Frank, recorded a terrible version of Anarchy in the UK with Casio accompaniment, and sent it around the major record labels with a covering letter that began: “Dear X, I’m thinking of getting into showbusiness. Do you have any pamphlets?”
Someone at EMI found this funny enough to invite him in. He arrived, dressed as Frank, and as he walked in the A&R man asked: “Have you been in showbusiness for long?”
Frank looked at his watch and replied: “10 seconds.”
Chris had other strings to his bow. He worked as animator, producing an award-winning episode of Pingu and had a brush with fame in early 80s band ‘The Freshies’ – the Frank character was originally invented to be their ‘Number One fan’. I first came across him after a music teacher convinced my friend to cover their near-hit “I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk” at a school concert.
The rest of the audience was a stunned. But to my mind it was was the funniest thing I’d seen, completely out of place amongst the earnest singer-songwriters and classical musicians. I tried to track down the song but instead found a ZX Spectrum game that Sievey had coded after leaving the band. Entitled ‘The Biz’ it was a simulation of the music business in the mid-80s, full of horrendously bad humour and massive coding errors. I loved it and spent most of my GCSE revision time trying to hype imaginary bands to the top of the charts via John Peel sessions before losing it all in a sour deal with EMI and being reduced to playing the Oxford Apollo.
He was way ahead of the curve, trying to beat technology by combining music with computer games. The original format required you to record the b-side of a cassette single onto the Spectrum which, assuming the various blips and beeps had transferred into the memory, would then allow this twisted game to be played.
I can’t think of a better tribute than digging out a copy – click here to play it online. There’s also a rare interview with Chris ‘as himself’ available online, talking about the game and an amusing look at the weird background to its development.
But for now, adios Frank. You really were fantastic.