There can have been few funnier sights than a middle aged man with a bulbous papier mache head arguing with a small puppet version of himself before treading on a microbe version of himself. Not only hilarious but also skewed and weirdly surreal.
Frank Sidebottom was one of the last of a breed- operating outside the rules and with a mind so brilliant that its restless genius was never appreciated. He puts most modern comedians to shame.
And now he is no more.
It’s hard to believe that Frank Sidebottom is dead.
He seemed too surreal, too childlike, too cartoon strip to be bothered with tedious, boring stuff like dying. But it’s true. Frank is no more, because his creator Chris Sievey died of complications cause by cancer on June 21st.
Of course we must not mix the two of them up.
There is no truth in the scurrilous rumour that Chris Sievey was Frank Sidebottom.
I interviewed the pair of them on the phone for my ‘North Will Rise Again’ oral history of Manchester book and after about an hour of brilliant stuff from Chris I asked him about Frank, figuring he must know something about the nasally comic genius.
The phone went click.
A few minutes later the phone rang and oddly it was Frank on the phone, coincidentally ringing to sort out an interview. Where Chris was full of funny stories from the fringes of the music scene, Frank was plain weird and hilarious- like a psychotic child running amok in showbiz and, through his humour, tearing apart the stupidity of that showbiz world that had snubbed him for so long.
His tales of Timperley- the Manchester suburb where Ian Brown and John Squire had lived in their youth- were brilliantly skewed pisstakes of the mundanity of the rainy day. I was once in a TV studio and watched him do this utterly mental but utterly brilliant musical set in Timperley with a pick up band of lunatics in cheap suits- it was like watching the ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ bus trip. But weirder.
The bizarre tension when you confused the pair of them was something that unwitting journalists had often mentioned and I wasn’t the only one with this experience.
Sievey hated talking about Frank.
There seemed to be some sort of rivalry between the two of them. Altrincham obviously wasn’t big enough for the pair of them or maybe they were the same person.
Now we will never know.
Chris Sievey had been on the Manchester scene for years. In 1969, as a 14 year old , after playing in teenage bands he had travelled to London and wandered into Apple records busking his songs to the later day Beatles. The George Formby loving George Harrison loved the songs but nothing happened as the Beatles were in meltdown at the time.
He was referred to Tony Visconti who would have done something but was too busy producing ‘Ride A White Swan’. Not disappointed, Sievey returned to Manchester, where he set up his own indie label way before anyone else had thought about doing that sort of thing.
He released loads of cassettes of his songs, with half of Manchester’s musicians passing through his ranks- including a very youthful Billy Duffy from before his Cult days and future Simply Red members.
Sievey did the publicity for Rabid records in Manchester, was produced by Martin Hannet very early on and did some artwork for John Cooper Clarke. He was already a key figure on the fringes of the scene with his wild imagination and brilliant pop mind was just too far ahead of everyone else who were plodding along in his wake. In pop, though, there are no awards for being great or first and Sievey was eternally frustrated.
His band, the Freshies, were perfect pop punk whose sole semi hit ‘”I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk”’ Got to number 54 in the charts in February 1981 and was lined up for a Top Of the Pops appearance. Sievey was denied his dream opportunity when there was BBC technician’s strike- the story of his life.
The single, is nowhere near their best song. His cassettes which I have a bunch of, were stuffed full of great songs. Classic melodic pop-punk- the kind of stuff that sells millions these days but was too pop for punk and too punk for pop in those stuffy, regimented days.
He even invented a very early computer game but no-one know what he was going on about- yet again too far ahead. His fervent pop mind was a good decade ahead of everyone else- also inventing board games, songs, musical ideas, schemes and scams before eventually he invented Frank Sidebottom- his curious alter ego whose papier mache head, shabby suit and nasally twang were a perfect vehicle for a series of bizarre weird gags that were dark, strange and utterly hilarious.
Sidebottom was always around, one of those off the wall characters that fitted in perfectly on TV shows, at gigs and in recent years touring with John Cooper Clarke in one of those double bills of genius weirdness that are increasingly rare to find in world were fake comic ‘oooh I’m a bit mad’ replaces genuine genius eccentricity.
We heard about his cancer a couple of months ago which was shock and were cheered by his never-ending gigs that continued and his Tweets that dared to take the piss out of the mean disease- joking about his papier mache head losing its hair!
there is a great story that Denis and Lois- New York’s oldest and coolest hipster couple tell about the time they brought Frank over to gig in the Big Apple. They got a call from the customs about this strange man who has a suicase with nothing in it but a giant paper head and who didn’t know where he was going and only had one phone number which was there’s because they were putting his gig on that night.
He played the gig to 5 people and flew home the next day. Frank didn’t care for America. Timperley was big enough for him.
Two weeks ago Frank Sidebottom popped up at Bruce Mitchell’s (Durutti Column genius drummer and real Manchester legend) 70th birthday party at the Manchester town hall- looking as fresh faced as ever with those big round eyes showing little sign of the cruel disease. To be honest Frank had remained unchanged since he burst onto the showbiz scene a quarter of centaury ago. Papier mache doesn’t age and neither does comic genius.
He even did a gig in my local pub the Salutation about a week ago. Funny as fuck to the end.
Manchester mourns another legend.