One of the odder, and arguably unexpected, sidelines of the music scene in the late-Seventies was the emergence of the punk and new-wave novelty artist.
Perhaps it was the humour in much of new-wave music, perhaps it was the fact that punk’s fondness for seven-inch singles and EPs (as well as cheap, easily made records) meant that any maverick with a funny idea could come to the fore. Artists as diverse as John Dowie (whose Jim Callaghan remains the weirdest reggae record ever) to Jilted John (whose eponymous single was a massive UK hit) were able to make their own daft version of punk.
And in the Eighties, there was still scope for silliness. Ted Chippington, a comic beloved of Stewart Lee, became a cult figure. John Shuttleworth, created by Graham Fellows of Jilted John fame, crossed over to radio. But the greatest, and oddest, of them all was Frank Sidebottom.
Frank stood out from the crowd. Maybe it was his massive papier-mâché head. Maybe it was his nasal Mancunian accent, which sounded as if he had a clothes peg on his nose. Or maybe it was the fact that all the songs he sang and played on his ukulele ended with the words “You know it is/ It really is”. Frank was like some mutant post-punk George Formby. He claimed to be 35 and living with his mum. He had a sidekick, a miniature version of himself, called Little Frank. Little Frank seemed to infuriate Frank, possibly because he had power over no one else at all.
Within weeks of signing to EMI in 1985, Frank was a national sensation, at least in the then-still influential rock press. Music journalists loved his reworkings of classic songs such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Anarchy in the UK. He even appeared on the NME’s Sgt Pepper Knew My Father charity album, on which the best track isn’t Wet Wet Wet’s number-one rendering of With A Little Help From My Friends, it’s Frank’s grandiose stagger through Being For The Benefit of Mister Kite).
But Frank had a secret. He wasn’t really called Frank Sidebottom. He didn’t live with his mum, he wasn’t 35 and he didn’t have a papier-mâché head. He was Chris Sievey, a veteran of the Manchester music scene, whose band, The Freshies, had recorded several great singles, most famously the brilliant anthem I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-Out Desk. Previously, Sievey had been known for his ability to combine a good tune with a humorous lyric, but this was something different. He’d created Frank solely as a character to promote a computer game, The Biz, which he’d written for the ZX Spectrum. Sometimes, however, creations can take on a life of their own.
As an NME writer, I was lucky enough to interview Frank in 1985 when his Frank’s Firm Favourites EP came out on the EMI subsidiary Regal Zonophone (revived specially for Frank and then later for another Mancunian comic genius, Morrissey). I met him at EMI’s headquarters in Manchester Square and we spent a pleasant, if bizarre, hour talking about a range of topics. Then we went outside with the photographer, and Frank, instead of posing, undertook spontaneous interviews with passers-by. Nobody seemed too fazed about being interrogated by a man with a huge papier-mâché head.
After the interview, I was packing up when a man came up to me and said, “Hello, David, how was that?” I was puzzled by this stranger accosting me until I noticed that his nose was bright red, exactly as if it had spent the last couple of hours with a clothes peg attached to it. The odd thing – and I’ve interviewed plenty of people in and out of character, be they actors, comics or musicians – was there was nothing about Chris that suggested he might also be Frank. Frank Sidebottom was a fully formed and arguably independent creation.
Over the next few years, I followed Frank’s, or rather Chris’s, career with interest. I was at the Royal Opera House when Frank gatecrashed a press conference for the release of the 1992 Olympic theme song Barcelona, a duet between Montserrat Caballe and Frank’s musical hero Freddie Mercury. Frank interrogated Freddie at length, and Freddie took it well, despite Frank’s apparent conviction that Freddie’s surname was pronounced Mer-CURIE, to rhyme with “her fury”.
After that, Frank continued to pop up in various places. There was Frank’s own TV series, Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show, apparently broadcast from Frank’s mum’s garden, which also featured Frank’s regular guest, his neighbour, Mrs Merton (Caroline Aherne), who went on to greater fame in later years. There was a comic strip for Viz rival Oink! And there were radio series, records, tours, TV appearances, and gigs (Frank’s backing group, the Oh Blimey Big Band, now featured on keyboards a young Jon Ronson, more of whom later).
Frank Sidebottom had become part of our culture, and he was both laughed at and loved – for once the novelty had worn off, something else remained. Frank was a character, full of impotent rage, puffed up with pride at his own achievements, determined against the odds to become an entertainer. But, above all, he was a child, with a child’s sense of self-worth and irrational bouts of joy and anger.
Over the years, Sievey evolved his character into something more complex than the ukulele-playing big head of the early years. He also saw several of his collaborators – Aherne, Ronson, even his drivers Mark Radcliffe and Chris Evans – achieve greater success than he had, while his own career stayed pretty much the same.
Then in 2010, Chris Sievey was diagnosed with cancer. Since his death the same year, something extraordinary, if not entirely unexpected has happened. Frank has achieved his dreams of fame and respect. There is a statue of him in Timperley, his soi-disant home. And insanely but appropriately, there is an award-winning biopic, loosely based on a Jon Ronson article (which later became the basis of a book). In Frank, Michael Fassbender plays a fictionalised version of the character, wearing a new version of the papier-maché head throughout.
Ronson’s book, Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie, is an affectionate and heartfelt retelling of their time together. (I saw Jon deliver a talk about it at the Laugharne Festival, a talk made even more memorable when it was followed by a short set from the Oh Blimey Big Band, with keyboards by Ronson and vocals by Chris Sievey’s son Harry). Meanwhile, there is also an authorised biography, Frank Sidebottom Out of his Head by Mick Middles, and a new documentary about Sievey out this week from the studio behind Amy, the Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse film.
Frank Sidebottom’s place in history, then, seems secure. For a one-off character designed to promote a video game, Frank may well outlive us all. And whether you see him as a cultural phenomenon, an extraordinary novelty act, or – as I do – one of the funniest and most enduring oddballs of all time, that can only be a good thing.
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is out in cinemas now