Frank Sidebottom RIP

Frank Sidebottom

There can have been few funnier sites 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 put 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 its 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.
Dead.
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 the ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’ bus trip.
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 indie of thing.
He released loads of cassettes of his songs with half of Manchester’s musicians passed 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 just too far ahead of everyone else 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 buy 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!
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.
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.

37 Responses to Frank Sidebottom RIP

  1. Gareth Jones says:

    I got home from work this evening to discover two friends had written on my facebook wall to inform me about Frank’s death. Then I Googled and read everything I could fine. I couldn’t believe his cancer battle was lost so soon.

    I met Chris twice a couple of years ago after booking him for a couple of gigs in Bath and Bristol. He was a quiet, gentle guy and had the best rider an artist has ever requested – a big bottle of sparkling water and a packet of Twiglets!

    I was probably one of only a few promoters who actually got to see him without his head on (he wouldn’t even reveal his identity to the sound engineer or the support bands!!). I feel lucky I got to meet the man himself.

    His brother Martin lived near Bath and turned up to the Bath gig with a football table game which Frank gave away in his raffle. The staff at the venue had never seen anything quite like it.

    I was due to book him again in the Autumn. On May 14th he wrote on my myspace page saying a gig in October should be fine. Alas, that wasn’t to be.

    I grew up watching Frank on No.73, Motormouth and What’s Up Doc, buying Oink! comic and all his records and I always got excited when a new edition of his free fanclub “Com” newsletters dropped through my letterbox. And I even had a friend in Manchester who sent me cassettes of ‘Radio Timperley’ and ‘Frank’s World’ shows he’d recorded off Piccadilly Radio for me!

    Thanks for sharing these stories and info John. And R.I.P. Frank. I’m sure Heaven will be just as fantastic as Timperley. You know it will, it really will.

  2. John

    Fantastic piece here. Well done.

    You’re dead right about his comic prescience, Without Frank Sidebottom they’d be no career for Harry Hill and there would literally have never been a Mrs Merton (for she was his invention).

    In 1985 as a 19yr old I won a competition to be on a Freshies/Chris Sievey record. I travelled up to Manchester from the midlands and was just awestruck to find myself in the same room as The Freshies (Only later did I twig that I’d also spent the day with Martin Hannett). Meeting Frank though was the stand-out event. I had never encountered anything like him – and never would again. The whole thing was a brilliant experience and I still have the slab of vinyl and record sleeve where my name is credited with ‘Backing Vocals, Handclaps etc.’ on Something’s Burning.

    Over the next few years, Frank Sidebottom was a constant theme in my student life. Kindred spirits were quick to identify – if they knew who the bloke on your t-shirt was they’d be sound and the regular newsletters he sent were a delight packed with loving detail about the exotic town of Timperley.
    During that time, everytime I paid to see Frank play a gig, Chris would make time to have a quick chat about music and football. One time in London’s Mean Fiddler he introduced me to his ‘new mate’ Midge Ure who to this day remains the most famous person I’ve ever told to F-Off.

    I’ve lived in Manchester since 1994 but never got to know Chris or Frank as neighbours. Today I’ve realised that’s never going to happen.

    Apparently “In the biz, you get to meet all the top people” I was never in the biz but I did meet Chris Sievey and he was a really top person!

  3. […] (John Robb’s tribute is well worth a read, as is ex-Oh Blimey Big Band-er Jon Ronson’s article for the Guardian of 2006, video of the Variety Is Back gig does exist, I shall try to dig it out.) […]

  4. Adam Adshead says:

    Great blog John, really sad news. Nice comment too Gareth.

    Let’s get him to number 1 eh? How fitting would that be?

  5. maz says:

    Wonderful blog, John. Not coming from the Manchester area i hadn’t really been aware of him…although i have heard of him and recognise Frank Sidebottom. Feel so sad to have missed out, he sounds so talented and funny. Will be looking out for his music and TV stuff now though. Another one of these fabulous Mancs who are way ahead of their time? Thank you for writing about him.

  6. Phil Planet says:

    I worked with Chris/Frank? and the Freshies in the early eighties, a great bloke, master of self promotion and a very funny guy, he brought loads of hilarity into many peoples lives both young and old, another great Manc leaves the stage, he will be missed by many.

    Phil Platt

  7. CharlieSnow says:

    The Facebook campaign and Twitter campaingn are linking up. I started the Twitter one. We are collecting followers and then will decide on a song to buy.”Three Shirts on my Line” is not on itunes. “Panic” looks like a good idea but we will need to contact Marr and Morrissey to get them to hand over the royalties for charity. Or we could just let them keep the cash, but that would not really be in the spirit of Frank. We already have over 3000 followers.

  8. Jim Stringer says:

    Nice piece, John. It is a sad day. ‘Frank’ made me laugh a lot over the years. I met him (complete with head) at a record signing for the ‘Timperley’ EP about 20 years ago. I went on my lunch hour from work expecting a bit of a queue and was the only person there. He charged me an extra 20p for his autograph and wrote that on the album sleeve next to his autograph.

    If I remember half correctly, Chris Sievey’s computer game was actually a programme for the ZX81 that came on the b-side of his single ‘Camouflage’. You had to record the beeps and squeaks of the programme onto cassette, then load it into your computer. Then you had to to play the single and hit the ‘run’ button – the images on the screen then moved in time to the music. Bearing in mind that this was 1981-ish, it was a stroke of genius.

    As for Frank, I played his stuff to lots of people – most of whom thought both he and I were barking. But I always found it hilarious.

    RIP you big daft sod. I hope you’re up there now and that space is, indeed, ace.

  9. […] Rhodri on The Guardian blog and John Robb on his […]

  10. egrommet says:

    Having moved out of Manchester over 20 years ago I lost track of what Frank was up to, but he forever made me smile from the days of Radio Timperley and seeing him on the telly.

    Even to this day if someone says “you know it is” I feel the urge to hold my nose and turn my NE Manchester twang into an Alty one and add “It really is, thank you”.

    No more Big Frank, Little Frank or Frank the Ameoba – very sad. I was even a big fan of BatBottom and Bobbins – which me and a mate from Stockport used to do to confuse the hell out of everyone when we were studying (drinking really) in Swansea.

    RIP Chris and Frank – and thanks for all those years of smiles and laughs.

    And cheers for the post John – a touching tribute to a legend.

  11. missed already.

    shouldn’t that be “a head of his time”?

  12. Phil says:

    Great read John. I always loved Frank when I was a kid and skyplussed his test cards off channel M. Thank God I taped them before I had to change my faulty box. Maybe little Frank will get his house on the Old Kent Road now.
    RIP FRank

    • johnrobb77 says:

      The bickering with little frank was genius…what was amazing about frank was that when you interviewed him you believed that he was a real person!

  13. Miles says:

    Nice piece John.
    If you’re in The Stonemason’s tonight have a drink on me.

  14. […] Timperley) Anarchy in Timperley Queen Medley Frank Sidebottom puts his three shirts on victory Chris Sievey, the early years. And here’s his early hit as The Freshies with ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On A […]

  15. Mike Barnett says:

    Robbo, a great piece, you’ve captured the harmless anarchy and pastiche that was Frank Sidebottom perfectly. Ronno’s piece in the Guardian pissed off Chris quite a bit as I recall, but then if there was ever a Manchester bandwagon to jump on, Ronno invariably had a ticket.

    When I left City Life in February 1988 (I came back a year later) the staff gave me the best leaving present imaginable, a PA from the man himself and a priceless 10-inch Sidie, which I still have.

    Like many Manchester journalists I interviewed Chris/Frank him on a number of occasions (he was also the first Moonchester, Man City’s mascot), and they were unforgettable afternoons. They really were.

    • johnrobb77 says:

      Barno … Great to hear from you…I beaver saw the piece you refer to but I’m sure ronno’s intentions were honorable.

      I think there should be a big commemoration of frank to celebrate his life, he was more than just a comic

  16. djfairborne77 says:

    Sad news about Frank & I hope the Facebook campaign is a success & give him the big posthumous hit that he deserves. I bought myself & a friend a Frank mouse-mat last year & last night was looking at it and shed a tear or two. He’s probably up there in Heaven now making the angels laugh with his amusing cover versions, such as Kylie’s ”I Should Be So Lucky”! R.I.P Frank.

  17. […] Frank Sidebottom RIP Frank Sidebottom There can have been few funnier sites than a middle aged man with a bulbous papier mache head arguing […] […]

  18. Ash says:

    Fantastic frank, you know he was, he really was.

  19. Dave says:

    Good article John – I’d forgotten about Amoeba Frank.

    I saw Big Frank for the first time about 20 years in the St Helens Citadel when he had a Roger Milla puppet for the 1990 World Cup.

    I love those deliberately shambolic acts like Frank, John Shuttleworth and Ted Chippington. They can do anything and I’d find ‘em funny.

    RIP Frank

  20. horrid chronic illness in this north westerly region – again and again.

  21. thans for great sharing

  22. Fred Smith says:

    Impressive blog and some good follow up comments. Keep it up guys.

  23. S.S. says:

    The above information is of great value and a very hard work had been done according to me, i appreciate it, keep it up.

  24. little_frank says:

    Help get the The Ace Fantastic Top Semi Professional Showbiz Entertainer…Frank Sidebottom in the charts this Sunday. Buy his brilliant digital download single ‘Guess Who’s Been On Match Of The Day’ today!!!

    Here is the iTunes link: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/guess-whos-been-on-match-day/id380182595

    Here is the Amazon MP3 link for those who don’t own an ipod:

    We thank you!

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