Frank Sidebottom was lovably selfish….eternally 13 going-on-35 and lost in a kind of naiveté that most of us abandoned before our fourteenth birthday. We could still glimpse that state of youthful wonderment, though, through the DIY showbiz antics of Frank.
Chris Sievey, Frank’s creator, was an entirely different person. A huge and gloriously mischievous talent locked in mild - mannered intelligence. A genuine artist, too, whose impish muse caused him to surge this way and that, creating Frank along the way…but many other things.
I first encountered Chris in 1978. Fronting his off-kilter power pop band, The Freshies, he was clad in pink corduroy, playing a pink guitar through pink painted amplification. The occasion was a low-key Tuesday evening gig at Oldham’s rugged Boundary pub. Even the songs seemed to evoke a pinkish huge…a set full of gently ironic pop songs, soft riffs covering a raft of ideas. Within the monochrome vision of post-punk Manchester, discovering The Freshies was like chancing upon an untouched tin of water colours. A refreshing kaleidoscope of possibility. Writing the gig up for Sounds magazine – and many Freshies gigs and singles that following – I attempted to fully convey my enthusiasm. It didn’t entirely work. The people at Sounds didn’t quite grasp such open-hearted talent. In truth, the same reaction came from most of Manchester. It was only the free-spirited Tosh Ryan at Rabid Records, a man refreshingly unchallenged by the cloying ‘hipness’ of the city, who poured energy, time, space and money into Sievey’s restless muse. But, at the eventual close of play, just one minor and quirky hit single – ‘I’m In Love with the Girl from the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk’ – all the wider world would really know about the shifting sands of The Freshies output. (Might be nice to revisit the ‘Best of…” now, in the wake).
Throughout all this I am proud to declare closeness to Chris Sievey. In the early years we would spend numerous New Year’s Eves together, plotting some kind of attack. It never quite happened. But his company, his talent were endlessly inspiring. At the time he lived in a flat in Timperley – where else? - with his wife and two children. He has skilfully transformed the kid’s room into a Beatles circa ‘Yellow Submarine extravaganza. Obsessed by ‘the Fabs’, he also plotted Beatles books in dizzying detail. He would have made a biographer blessed with serenity and strength…had that confounded muse not kept tugging him in myriad directions.
Even The Freshies – still one of my favourite bands of all time, by the way – became a fluctuating affair, with drummers and guitarists, unable to cope with the wit, perception and aloofness of Sievey's muse. It was, I admit, untameable.
There was one constant. That impish aesthetic. Asked to produce a nuclear protest single, for example, Sievey arrived with the completed ‘Wrap up the Rockets’. A gloriously juvenile hymn to nuclear disarmament and a precursor to the naiveté synonymous with Frank.
There was something else…and I have never heard this voiced. There is pastel-coloured warmth to his native Altrincham, the Manchester suburb that – even in its current state of trendification – always seemed to stretch from the harder fringes of the city towards rural Cheshire. This environment always suited and inspired Chris Sievey in a similar way that, say, Prestwich, inspired and became a part of Mark E. Smith. There IS weight to that comparison. I introduced the two artists to each other during my own wedding ceremony on, significantly it seems, the night that Ian Curtis died. Incredibly, they hit it off. Never did two people seem quite the antithesis of each other…and yet strangely similar. Mark, I know, sensed this and, in later years, always spoke fondly of Chris….and of Frank.
Before the inglorious implosion of all the possibilities within The Freshies, Chris had designed and sold a rock biz computer game, devised an incredibly elaborate ‘wind-up’ designed to gather record company attention (it failed) and countless wheezes, scams and schemes.
And then came Frank!
Aghhh yes. Frank!
As far as I am aware – and I have heard reports that Frank existed, if only in Chris’ imagination, in pre-Freshies days – Frank was unearthed as the number one, make-shift fan of The Freshies. On the band’s promo radio tour for ‘Chain store’, Frank would turn up at radio stations to lugubriously harangue radio station receptionists and creative controllers alike, his personality building – literally, day by day, until two separate entities became one reality. Chris and Frank…Frank and Chris. Kinda the same…kinda different.
1985 was a big breakthrough year for Frank, his identity cementing itself on the Manchester underground, performing at The International Club, The Hacienda and endless university dates. In addition, we published his self-drawn Frank’s Firm Page in the glossy Muze Magazine. Only those lost in a maddening haze of political correctness, failed to appreciated the joke. One would see him in the studio of Piccadilly Radio, performing wildly in front of his ‘Cor Blimey Big Band, which included Mark Radcliffe – in character as greengrocer Mr Emerson Lake – on drums. Frank’s World was in the early stage of creation. A friend of his wife’s, Caroline Aherne, adopted the persona of Frank’s imaginary neighbour, Mrs Merton. Just another star taking an inspiration and a first step from the ferocious mind of Frank…or was it the mind of Chris? Soon things became slightly clouded. Then the cloud thickened.
The career of Frank Sidebottom is simply unprecedented. A household name…maybe not? But his immense three-decade career would turn him into – I strongly suggest – the greatest northern cult-comic hero of the age. Sadly, that is a claim that will continue to strengthen as time continues to pass. Immortality for Frank. Not so, for my friend, Chris.
I have too many memories to impart here. Wandering in ’85, through Timperley with Frank, enjoying the fond acceptance of the locals. “HI Frank, how are you today?” said the newsagent, in complete acknowledgement of a man in a papier-mache head.
Years later, along with Cheshire journalist Chris Ewan, taking Chris Sievey into the heart of Cheshire…watching him transform into Frank and bewitch the shoppers and office workers of Alderley Edge….seeing Frank launch into a all fronts blazing attack on a hapless Santa Claus at Alton Towers….endlessly parading in big shorted football parody, leaping onto any trend that came his way. Frank, Frank, relentless Frank.
There is a one touching story of a letter-day Chris Sievey taking a new girlfriend to see Oasis at Maine Road. Although the girl was unversed in matters Frank, her interest was aroused when Liam Gallagher perceptively dedicated ‘Rock’n’Roll Star’ to “Frank Sidebottom”, Quite right, Liam.
I saw Chris…and Frank, on two occasions within the past two weeks. Firstly at a Sidebottom gig at Warrington’s Pyramid Arts Centre. Frank suitably buoyant onstage…but back in the darkness of backstage, Chris seemed rather more distant, sitting, smoking by the open window; frail but warm and full of hope. His cancer had become the news and the Warrington audience had seemed strangely passive. I admit that it was an odd gig and not and as relentlessly side-splitting as a similar set in the same venue three years previously.
Two days later I briefly spoke with Chris once again. This was at a lavish celebration of septuagenarian Manchester music legends, Bruce Mitchell (of Factory Durutti Column et al) and, more tellingly, his old mentor, Tosh Ryan. Chris drifted past me with a wink, and vanished into the crowd of ageing Manchester musical illuminate. That. Too, seemed fitting and slightly ghostly.
Yesterday, I received four press releases telling of impending adventures of Frank Sidebottom. However, all day I felt heavy with visions of Frank and his cardboard Nemeses, Little Frank. I was tearful before the news hit my computer screen.
Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. Two became one.
Together then, Chris and Frank, I again state, as one of the greatest, warmest and most inspiring Manchester super-showbiz’ talents of the past fifty years.
Legendary in the truest sense.
You now he was, he really was.