Welcome to a day devoted to someone whose work was somehow indefinable yet would often touch the giddy heights of greatness. Please give it up for the one, the only, Frank Sidebottom.
Christopher Mark Sievey (25 August 1955 – 21 June 2010) was an English musician and comedian known for fronting the band The Freshies in the late 1970s and early 1980s and for his comic persona Frank Sidebottom from 1984 onwards.
Sievey, under the guise of Sidebottom, made regular appearances on North West television throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, even becoming a reporter for Granada Reports. More recently he had presented Frank Sidebottom’s Proper Telly Show in B/W for the Manchester-based television station Channel M. Throughout his career, Sidebottom made appearances on radio stations such as Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio and on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 5, alongside Mark and Lard.
The character was instantly recognisable by his large spheroidal head, styled like an early Max Fleischer cartoon. This was initially made from papier-mâché, but later rebuilt out of fibreglass.
Frank, usually dressed in a 1950s-style sharp suit, was portrayed as an aspiring pop star from the small town of Timperley near Altrincham, Greater Manchester. His character was cheerfully optimistic, enthusiastic, and seemingly oblivious to his own failings. Although supposedly 35 years old (the age always attributed to Frank irrespective of the passage of time), he still lived at home with his mother, to whom he made frequent references. His mother was apparently unaware of her son’s popularity. Frank sometimes had a sidekick in the form of “Little Frank”, a hand puppet who was otherwise a perfect copy of Frank.
He reached cult status in the late 1980s/early 1990s thanks to extensively touring the country. Performances were often varied from straightforward stand-up comedy and featured novelty components such as tombola, and a lot of crowd interaction. Sometimes the show also included lectures. Contrasting against the alternative comedians of the time, Frank Sidebottom’s comedy was family-friendly, if a little bizarre for some.
Sievey was diagnosed with cancer in May 2010, and died at Wythenshawe Hospital on 21 June 2010 at the age of 54 after collapsing at his home in Hale, Greater Manchester. After it was reported that Sievey had died virtually penniless and was facing a pauper’s funeral provided by state grants, a grassroots movement on various social networking websites raised £6,500 in a matter of hours. The appeal closed on Monday 28 June with a final balance of £21,631.55 from 1,632 separate donations.
Frank is, of course, just that: an invention, an artistic, musical and comedic outlet for the man who dwelled underneath the hardened paper and paste. Chris Sievey was the unnamed narrator to Frank Sidebottom’s Tyler Durden, a man who slept very little to achieve more, who cared not for money but for what he could make, and whom he could make happy. Mostly himself. Though sharing one body, Frank and Chris were always seen as two completely different people, even by those who knew them best. Frank’s former manager, bandmate and roadie, Dave Arnold, played bass in Frank’s band for some time before his first meeting with Chris: “Frank made you suspend all belief,” he says. “Even after I saw the transformation, it was still Frank.”
Sievey was an immersive performer so committed to his act that it took on a life of its own – he made all his props and artwork by hand, and even worked on animated shows such as Pingu and Bob the Builder during his times away from Frank’s head to keep his creative juices flowing in any way he could. But he was at his happiest when reaching for that showbusiness star in his ill-fitting suit and disproportional mask, and his output was matched by his disregard for it. Arnold describes him as the “ultimate punk” in that he gave most things away for free or destroyed them (knowing he himself would have to remake everything). In his column in the anarchic comic Oink!, Sidebottom would publish his home phone number for people to ring him whenever they wanted; a free chat with a man who just loved to perform. Even at the height of his popularity during the late 80s, Frank would hire out his services to come to your house to entertain and in turn be entertained by whoever hired (£35 Manchester area only, an extra £2.11 if you wanted Little Frank as well). “He would stay for an hour or so, but if the conversation was good, i.e. space, then he would stay for longer,” discovered Sullivan after finding one of the old newsletters Sidebottom would hand-write and send to fans.
What got you started?
Getting a packet of pound-shop felt-tip pens in a Christmas stocking. I used them to draw pictures of the American civil war.
What was your big breakthrough?
Winning £8 worth of art materials in a competition at school. I did a picture of Scotland, with some trees and a lake. The next thing I knew, I had an exhibition at Stockport art gallery.
Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?
Pink felt-tip pens. When I do self-portraits, I wear a pink tie. So I’m always running out of pink.
What one song would feature on the soundtrack to your life?
Guess Who’s Been on Match of the Day? I wrote it after I went on Match of the Day. I document my life in music.
Are you fashionable?
Have you done anything cultural lately?
I’m preparing to go on The Culture Show on BBC2 to talk about surrealism. It’s like the Blackpool Hall of Mirrors, but in paintings.
Do you suffer for your art?
Yes, when my mum tells me to tidy up and go to bed at half-past 10. But sometimes I climb down the drainpipe and carry on downstairs. I’m a rebel.
What’s your favourite film?
Dr Who and the Daleks. TheDaleks are the best design of the 20th century.
What’s the greatest threat to art today?
The Germans coming back and stealing it all, and then burning it.
What advice would you give a young artist just starting out?
Get some paper and pens. And forget the beret and the attic. You can do art just as well in a shed.
Is the internet a good thing for art?
Yes, because it tells people about it, but art doesn’t look as good on a screen: you’ve got to see it up close. None of my artworks have frames, so people can touch them.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Peter Blake’s cut-outs for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover. I’d line them up in my living room to look like I had loads of mates.
Complete this sentence: At heart I’m just a frustrated …
In the movie of your life, who plays you?
I don’t know. Film4 is making one and they haven’t cast it yet.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My mum told me to get a proper job. I ignored her.
Born: Timperley, Greater Manchester, 1972
Career: The comic creation of artist/ musician Chris Sievey, Frank released his debut EP, Frank’s Firm Favourites, in 1985. His drawings, models and animations are on show at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, London (020-7514 6000).
High point: “Supporting Bros at Wembley in front of 56,000 Bros-ettes. They didn’t know who I was, but I won them over.”
Low point: “Performing in front of 56,000 Bros-ettes who didn’t know who I was.”
Interview by Laura Barnett
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 it’s true: Frank is no more because his creator Chris Sievey died of complications caused 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 The North Will Rise Again, my 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, 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 using his humour to tear apart the stupidity of that 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 piss-takes 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.
Sievey did the publicity for Rabid records in Manchester; he was also 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 a BBC technicians 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, back then, was too pop for punk and too punk for pop.
He even invented a very early computer game, but no-one know what he was going on about. Yet again, he was too far ahead. His fervent pop mind was a good decade in advance of everyone else: he also invented board games, songs, musical ideas, schemes and scams before eventually he invented Frank Sidebottom, his curious alter ego whose papier-mâché head, shabby suit and nasal twang were a perfect vehicle for a series of bizarre and weird gags that were dark, strange and utterly hilarious.
We heard about his cancer a couple of months ago, which was shocking, and were cheered by his never-ending gigs that continued and his Tweets that dared to take the piss out of his illness – including joking about his papier-mâché head losing its hair!
Two weeks ago Frank Sidebottom popped up at Bruce Mitchell’s (Durutti Column drummer and real Manchester legend) 70th birthday party at the Manchester town hall. He looked 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 century 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.
Sometimes life’s poetry and pathos can be embodied by the most unlikeliest of things. Such was the case with Chris Sievey’s masterful comic creation Frank Sidebottom. So complete was Sievey’s command of the character that, on hearing the news on Monday of his death at the age of 54, I couldn’t help but think of poor Little Frank; what will become of him?
Sievey’s perennially daft boy-man with the oversized papier-maché head was so likeable and witty that a part of you really wanted him to be real. That desire to suspend disbelief and inhabit Frank’s world of garden sheds and tea with his mum was testament to Sievey’s considerable comic talent.
I didn’t know Sievey, but I did meet him once without his Frank head. He was recording something for a radio show I was working on. He put a clip on his nose – the sort you’d use for diving, I think – and for some reason I found that most simple of props fascinating. It was obvious really, but I guess I’d never thought about how or why Frank’s voice was the way it was – it was just the voice he’d been ‘born’ with, the voice you’d expect a head such as his to emit.
Again, you can only put that down to Sievey’s skill as a character comedian; as unlikely as it may sound, what he did was a kind of method acting, more Marlon Brando than Mike Yarwood. Sievey was, of course, renowned for only being interviewed in character when talking about Frank.
So, there I was, listening to Frank while what I could see was a very ordinary, scruffy-looking bloke in jeans and a T-shirt who’d obviously popped for a pint on his way to the studio (it was early evening). I can’t remember what Frank was saying, but I do remember smiling a lot.
But Frank Sidebottom – by accident or design – was able to do more than just make you laugh. By the sheer ludicrousness of what Sievey did, he managed to bring the po-faced down a peg or two as well, to cut through the way that so much that is really pretty trivial in our culture is treated far too seriously. When he parodied the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK as Anarchy In Timperley it was hilarious, not just because the notion of anarchy in a sedate, middle-class village in Cheshire is inherently comic, but because it also made you realize that the original was rather silly as well.
And so it is with Three Shirts On My Line, his just released World Cup charity record which takes Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Ian Broudie’s Three Lions and wrings some humour out of an event and a sport that has a habit of thinking rather too highly of itself. Yet at the same time it feels like a celebration of being a perpetually disappointed England fan. Fantastic.
“The song just rolled off my tongue, faster than a fast-speed washing machine,” Frank told the Manchester Evening News to launch the record. “I asked my mum where my England shirts were and she said that she had washed them. I looked outside and there were three shirts on the line. I thought, that is a brilliant idea for a song. Thirty-five years of dirt washed out by my mum.”
There’s a Facebook campaign been set up to try and get the song to number one during the World Cup as a tribute to Sievey. The same group is also raising funds for his funeral; Sievey died virtually penniless and his family were struggling to raise the cash to give him the kind of send off he deserves. A substantial amount has already been raised.
Not that anyone can say that Sievey leaves nothing behind. There’s all those witty songs, all those YouTube clips, all that laughter and silliness. We’ll miss you, Frank. And Little Frank too.
In the summer 0f 2010 I conducted what was, to my knowledge, the last ever interview that Frank ever gave. This appeared in our art zine Yuck ‘n Yum:
A singular presence on the stand-up comedy and cabaret circuit, Frank Sidebottom can rightly be called an institution. His act takes in popular Manchester standards (his rendition of Love Will Tear Us Apart really is quite something), some traditional showbiz patter and also puppetry with his cardboard alter ego Little Frank, all performed by a man with a giant spherical papier-mâché head. Once seen, Frank will surely not be forgotten by anyone in a hurry. Emerging around the late eighties/ early nineties Madchester music scene, he spent many years appearing on regional TV and treading the boards at northern comedy gigs. After making something of a comeback around the turn of the 21st century, Frank has recently performed in a few art spaces such as Tate Britain to great acclaim and a viewing of his routine by some as a form of outsider- performance art. In May this year Frank shocked his fans with the “bobbins news” that he has cancer, but this he has borne with characteristic valour. A self-portrait titled ‘me as me after chemotherapy’ was posted on eBay, raising £480 for Cancer Research, and in an exclusive Yuck ‘n Yum interview we learned all about the world according to Frank Sidebottom:
During your fantastic showbusiness career you have performed at the CHELSEA art space and even at Tate Britain. Do you consider yourself an artist?
************ anyone can be for as little as a pound !!! that’s how much my felt-tip pens cost from the pound shop !
This year you’ll be playing shows across the world. Is there any place that you’re looking forward to the most?
*** new york is ace,… but then so is the isle of man !
In June you’ll appear at Glasgow’s Puppet Cabaret festival. What can your audience expect?
**************** a medium rate of semi-professional puppetry,… as long as little frank (my ventrilloquist puppet) doesn’t ruin it !
Do you ever argue with Little Frank when you’re both on tour?
*** don’t be swept along,… he’s only cardboard !
Who is your favourite artist?
*** myself,… and paul macca and billy childish are quite good at painting too !
Are you planning any more TV appearances in the future?
***** i’m planning loads,… it’s just a case of if the telly companies are planning that too !
We all know how much you’re looking forward to the world cup, but who do you think will win?
**** in the ideal world,… it would be “timperley bigshorts f.c.” (my sunday football team… but it will probably be 10 men from somewhere else !
During your long glittering showbusiness career what do you think have been the high points?
**** meeting the queen was o.k.,.. and supporting bros at wembley in front of 54,000 was quite good too !
Who would be your dream special guest on Timperley TV?
**** ringo ,… (only joking !!! i mean paul!)
Yuck ‘n Yum will be holding a karaoke contest for artists in September. What is your ultimate karaoke tune?
“see you later crocodile” (in swahilli)
Many thanks and all the best… Ben Robinson, Yuck ‘n Yum
and a big thank you to you ,.. and all at yuck ‘n yum
THE END… you know it is, it really is.
p.s. Here’s a cool guest-curated goodie from my former, murdered blog. Check it. See you personally on Saturday.