I’m sat on stage pretending to be one of those wanker judges off pop TV, those smug clueless sacks of spuds like Gary Barlow who nod their heads and read autocue jokes about the poor neurotic contestants who will do anything for fame. To my left is Mike Joyce, the ex Smiths drummer, and to my left the fab access Maxine Peake (who played Debbie Curtis in Closer amongst other amazing roles). Me and Mike are shouting our heads off like twats and Maxine is being funny and cool whilst in front of us are four grown men dressed as various versions of Frank Sidebottom fight over pairs of nylon shorts in the contest to see who is best Frank impersonator.
It’s utterly ridiculous and also pure genius and very Frank and you can feel his ghost having a laugh. The last laugh.
There is nothing normal about an evening like this.
It may look like some kind of gig, it may smell like some kind of gig, it may even feel like some kind of gig but within a few minutes you start to feel like you are being immersed in a strange, parallel world of a very British and a particularity very northern sense of humour. A world where everything is bit wonky and magic mushroom surrealism goes hand in hand with a gallows pub humour where strange, off the wall jokes and concepts make complete sense.
This is a world of Half Man Half Biscuit and Bogshed, a world where the normal is subverted and Captain Beefheart occupies the same sort of mega space as Simon Cowell does in the real world that we left behind at the door and sitting there bang smack in the centre is Frank Sidebottom- the original grown man with a papier macho head who was embraced by kids TV and showbiz but was actually a genius piece of theatre and slapstick surrealism from his creator- the late Chris Sievey.
Chris died a couple of years ago and everyone is gathered here to raise money for a Frank Sidebottom statue for his home town of Timperely on the outskirts of Manchester. This, fantastically, iS the same Timperley that John Squire and Ian Brown grew up in, which somehow makes things seem even stranger.
Chris spent a lifetime coming up with great ideas and being a conduit for pure pop culture, he had taken demos down to Apple Records when he was a teenager and nearly got signed by George Harrison before the Beatles imploded and got distracted, his band the Freshies made razor sharp new wave pop and had a mini hit with I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout- which is as about as pure pop as it gets and typical of the generation who had grown up with optimistic rush of classic Beatles and criss crossed it with the buzzsaw rush of Buzzcocks and it sounds great decades later.
He invented computer game ideas when no-ne else was interested in them, he was ignored, patronised and pushed to the side but kept coming back with brilliant ideas and then finally sneaked into showbiz with Frank Sidebottom, who rampaged around those TV studios and radio shows that were previously locked to him and exacted a brilliant revenge by taking the piss at the whole pompous charade whilst they thought he was a cuddly TV entertainer.
It was pure genius and the more you look at what he was doing with Frank the clever it gets- a raiswept northern amalgamation of the surrealism of Buster Keaton and Laurel And Hardy with the grotty run down pubs and clubs of Blackpool cabaret with the rock n roll weirdness of Captain Beefheart and the spit and sawdust of old time music hall with a very modern, very punk, fuck you attitude. Like John Cooper Clarke (who he toured with) there was something very individual and brilliant and cross generational northern about Frank and you could have put him anywhere with his too small suit, his strange fast and bulbous head and that nasal voice and it would have worked.
Tonight is a celebration of his life and a fund raiser for that statue and this gig alone works as some sort of memorial as stories are swopped like the time he play this only gig in America and turned up at customs with a suitcase with a head in it and only a passport in his pocket and no cash and the baffled customs had to ring the legendary Dennis and Lois who were his only friends in New York and the only phone number he had with him to find out who he was before they let him in.
There are bands as well – the Stags play a great, wonky set of sixties surf trash and are actually a great band. They too are quite barking mad despite the efforts of their demure front woman and are like a house band from the League Of Gentleman another great reference point to the skewered comic, weirdness of the evening- Frank could have lived in that village and the Bogshed created world that as not to dismilair of manky mill towns and strange locals years before. It has that that darkly comic strangeness and the Stage have that air about them- they are damp and strange and like a demented cabaret buy also a very tight, very tough sounding punish take on sixties and surf and are actually great.
After they exit the stage we do our judging bit with the Frank impressionists who vary from one who is so drunk he can hardly get off the stage to one who looks so like Frank (!) that it’s quite scary, to another who has a rectangular head and reads a weird poem about Kylie Minogue, it’s brilliantly unsettling, hilarious and plain weird- perfect.
The evening ends with a set from the Freshies who are made up of two of the original members and Frank’s son, Harry, taking some of the vocals. For such a disjointed line up they sound really good and should play few more shows to remind everyone of Chris’s brilliant songwriting. It’s a fitting tribute and quite touching that they end the night with the band because, despite Frank Sidebottoom’s fame and brilliance it must have been the music that was the key to Chris Seivey- the creator of one of the great Manchester punk/pop bands who fell between he cracks he rose up and laughed at everybody with his brilliant comic creation.
As the evening ends with discarded little Frank’s and bulbous heads on the floor and no mention of microbe Frank you are left to wonder just what the statue will actually look like.
I hope they get their statue- it would look totally bizarre in the middle of Timperley- just the way it should.