A few months back I was trawling the net for something to take the edge off the pointy bits of life and stumbled, after nearly a quarter-century of looking, upon someone’s vinyl rip of Frank Sidebottom Salutes The Magic of Freddie Mercury and Queen and Also Kylie Minogue (You Know, Her off Neighbours). I tried to make the family listen to it while we were driving around Wales in the summer, the kids loved it, but Mrs H had views. This song was re-released as a single last Christmas, and reached number 66 in the UK charts. I am fairly confident that it will divide opinion in the Hall, indeed I would be keen to learn whether anyone present will join me in its defence.
Frank Sidebottom was the alter-ego of Chris Sievey, who started his musical career in The Freshies, and moved on to find precious little fame and even less fortune while trying to change the world by wearing an enormous papier mache head and singing his own compositions and idiosyncratic cover versions to the accompaniment of a rinky-tink Casio keyboard in a northern nasal whine.
His persona was that of a rather insular and naive teenager, trying to play music and record in his bedroom or shed while trying not to attract the attention of his Mum, with interruptions and occasional assistance from his ventriloquist puppet Little Frank, comprising a smaller papier mache head and a body cut out of a cardboard box, with neither of them able to move their mouths. Life mainly revolved around his home village of Timperley, and was either “fantastic” or “bobbins” (bobbins of cotton = rotten).
He was a regular at festivals, and would occasionally turn up on TV; he had his own series Frank’s Fantastic Shed Show, which was tucked away in the middle of the night on a regional station, thus ensuring cult status as 99% of his fans would either not have known that it was on, or if they had wouldn’t have been able to watch it without driving to Manchester every week to watch it. The set he was doing around the time he made the Queen and Kylie album was based around Queen medleys, but he usually included a liberal helping of Beatles and Wings songs, and rambling, surreal anecdotes. The more things went wrong, the more the crowd would lap it up. Entirely family friendly, he was adored by kids and adults.
The highpoint of his live career was supporting the boy band Bros at the height of their fame in the late-’80s at Wembley Stadium in front of 55,000 baffled teenage girls, describing the gig later as follows:
“I said ‘Hands up who likes Luke,’ and they all squealed and shrieked. So I said ‘Hands up who likes the other one who looks just like Luke but is called something else,’ and they all shrieked and cheered again. So I said ‘Hands up who likes the two of them Sellotaped together,’ and they all cheered again. And then I said ‘Hands up who’s got Betamax,’ and it all went silent.”
The set he played consisted of his versions of the hits that Bros were going to play later in the evening; the journalist Jon Ronson, who was playing in the band, described leaving the stage and walking past promoter Harvey Goldsmith, standing in the wings practically purple with fury at what he’d just witnessed and curtailed, while Frank cheerfully announced “I think that went well!” as he walked past him.
Chris Sievey died in June last year, aged 54, completely penniless. He had performed as Frank when the money ran out, made brilliantly funny and inventive records which were never promoted and even if you got to hear about them were impossible to buy in shops. When the local news reported that he was destined for a pauper’s funeral some friends set up a Facebook page for Franks Fantastic Funeral and raised £15,000 within 24 hours, increasing to £20,000 by the time the appeal closed a week later, with the surplus going to his family.
Since his death his family and friends have overseen the release of his records in a way which enables people to buy them, and I recently treated myself to the Fantastic Show Biz Box Set, which includes a DVD which our 5-year-old loves and would watch constantly if only Mrs H would let him. The only Frank record I ever saw in a shop (and bought) while he was alive was a 7″ single, “Oh Blimey, It’s Christmas”/”Christmas in Australia” (with the line “Christmas in Australia is different from Christmas here, they have sun and lager, we have snow and beer”). Inevitably there’s no accompanying video, but while looking for one I found this live clip of him as Freddie Mercury doing one of his Queen medleys, accompanied by Little Frank.
If the Fabs are more your bag you may prefer this one. It’s long, though not as long as “Sister Ray,” and much funnier.
There is an appeal running to erect a statue of Frank in Timperley, which would be completely fantastic.