Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

RIP Chris Sievey/Frank Sidebottom

Posted in comics, computing, music by Andrew Hickey on June 22, 2010

A few years ago, my friend Tilt and I were, for reasons we shall not go into right now, watching an old episode of The Wheeltappers And Shunter’s Social Club, when Freddie Garrity of Freddie & The Dreamers came on. I mentioned how I’d been shocked that, when he died, a powerpop mailing list I was on had dozens of posts, mostly from Americans, about how upset people were – far more than I would have predicted, and far more than had been when plenty of more ‘important’ figures died. And Tilt replied “Yes, but remember that people *expect* tortured geniuses to die, and don’t really mind. But they get upset when a smiley man who makes them laugh with a silly dance dies.”

The musician, comedian, cartoonist, record company owner, animator and computer programmer Chris Sievey died on Monday night, and with him died his most famous creation Frank Sidebottom.

If you were a kid in the eighties, you knew Frank Sidebottom from his appearances on Number 73, but Sidebottom was far more than just a children’s entertainer. Along with his puppet sidekick/antagonist Little Frank, the man with the giant papier-mache head had dreams of pop stardom, mixing his own songs (“Space is ace”, “Christmas Is Really Fantastic”) with cover versions of classic hits given a new twist (“Panic! In The Streets Of Timperley”, “Anarchy In Timperley”, “Timperley Sunset”, “Born In Timperley”) and indie or ‘underground’ classics (the Beefheart cover Mirror Man, Mirror Puppet/Give Me That Harp Little Frank, or covers of The Fall).

While his act was more-or-less stolen by Graham Fellows for his character John Shuttleworth, and Caroline Aherne took a character he created as a Radio Timperley sidekick, Mrs Merton, to her own TV show, Frank Sidebottom was far more original than the low-rent Alan-Bennetisms of those two, combining that basic Northerner-trying-to-be-a-star-despite-lack-of-both-talent-and-self-awareness thing with an altogether more surreal worldview, especially in his interactions with Little Frank.

You can see this especially in his brief career as a comic character, in the children’s comic OINK!, in a strip written and drawn by Frank himself. The great Lew Stringer, one of the other OINK! contributors, writes about his work on the comic here.

Little Frank Goes On A Date

Little Frank Goes On A Date (Click For Fantastic Fullness)

I must admit to not having paid a *huge* amount of attention to Sidebottom’s work over the years – just being delighted when his big papier-mache head would turn up unexpectedly, whether it be on Channel M (the Manchester local TV channel) presenting his Proper Telly Show In Black & White (so you don’t have to turn the colour down) or as a presenter on local TV news.

I only discovered a few months ago, in fact, that Sidebottom was originally created as a side-project. He was meant to be the biggest fan of Chris Sievey’s band The Freshies, who did some genuinely fantastic punk-pop songs, of which probably the best was the minor hit I’m In Love With The Girl From The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk (presented here in the slightly-rerecorded version with Virgin replaced with Certain):

I should have realised the link earlier, really – the combination of songs about mundane incidents and buying records ( I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes) and spaceships (Let’s Go Space City) with lo-fi production values and simple three-chord melodies clearly points the way to Sidebottom’s later career.

And not only was Sievey/Sidebottom a musician and comedian, he was also a pioneer in multimedia. He wrote two computer games – The Biz (a game about becoming a rock star) and Flying Train (in which you have to put a train together before flying it to the moon to view a supernova) – for the ZX81, both of which were released on tape along with Freshies songs.They can be played online – flying train and The Biz – if you have a Java browser plugin.

Sievey also worked as a stop-motion animator, not only working a day job at HOT animation (who produce among other things Pingu and Bob The Builder) but making his own animated film, Franksworld:

Frank Sidebottom kept going right to the end – he was tweeting in character mere hours before Sievey died, and his Twitter stream was where we could hear about the progress of the bobbins cancer that he seemed convinced he was going to beat, though one of his last tweets was about how he was ‘still feeling very poorly’. Only last week he premiered his World Cup anthem Three Shirts On My Line.

I’ve heard from a couple of people that in real life Chris Sievey wasn’t a particularly nice man ‘in real life’ (whatever that is). Be that as it may, Frank Sidebottom was a silly man who made us laugh with his silly songs, and it is absolute bobbins that he’s dead. You know it is. It really is.

Hitler Moustache

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2009

Richard Herring

Richard Herring

Richard Herring is probably my favourite comedian of the moment. He has his flaws – a glibly Dawkinsite attitude to religion (which is at least excusable in a comedian, who has to take an extreme position to be funny) and an occasional tendency to monkey whimsy, but while his erstwhile double-act partner Stewart Lee has been getting critical and popular acclaim for shows which are good, but ultimately a bit facile, Herring has over the last few years done a series of shows which have either been genuinely innovative (the formally astonishing Someone Likes Yoghurt andMenage a Un are especial favourites of mine) or have managed to be quite touching while still being hilarious (Oh Fuck, I’m Forty and The Headmaster’s Son).

So I was looking forward to Herring’s new show, but at the same time apprehensive. The conceit of the show is simply that Herring decided he wanted to ‘reclaim’ the Hitler moustache for comedy, giving it back to Charlie Chaplin, because for it to be associated with Hitler meant that Hitler had won a tiny victory. So he was going to grow a toothbrush moustache and see what the reaction would be.

To my mind, this was a regressive idea – Herring was one of the first of the many comedians who have recently done shows or written books about themselves trying to do impossible feats, and this seemed similar to the kind of thing he did in his earlier show The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace, except that this time he was not being driven by the total breakdown of his life that had precipitated the earlier show. I thought that at best he would be just ‘satirising racism like some kind of Rory Bremners’ (as Herring himself would put it) and at worst it would be a Danny Wallace-esque ‘look at me being wacky’ show.

And to be honest, I suspect that Herring originally saw the show that way himself – possibly as something light after the emotionally draining show he did last year. He references Hercules Terrace in the first half of the show, and the (free) programme for the show – created before he wrote the script, when he only had the concept – doesn’t touch on much of the subject matter of the show, being a mixture of old blog posts and bits about his podcast with Andrew Collins.

The first half of the show, in fact, seems to fit that kind of show rather well. It’s loosely themed around Hitler and racism, and has some great lines on the subject (saying that if only everyone saw themselves as racists did, there’d be no more wars – India and Pakistan would say “Why are we fighting? I’m a Paki, you’re a Paki!”) it goes off on tangents about subjects like Madeline McCann, Michael Jackson, and just funny lines – “I don’t know the meaning of the word hubris. Which is unfortunate, as I’m entering a ‘define the meaning of the word hubris’ contest, straight after the show. I think I’ll win anyway, though.”

It was funny, and contained a lot of strong material, but was seemingly unfocused and more about getting individual laughs than having a strong through-line. That’s often the case with Herring’s shows though – his first halves often seem flabby, but often the less-impressive stuff from the first half is setting things up for very delayed punchlines later on, and his second halves are usually phenomenal.

In the case of this show, there was a natural break, as Herring had planned to wear the moustache for two periods – a short trial one, after which he shaved for some family commitments, followed by a longer one for the show’s run at Edinburgh and subsequent tour.

The day he shaved down to the moustache the second time was the day the results of the European elections were announced, and this triggers a total change of tone in the second half, which starts with him almost screaming at the audience “This was all your fault. Statistically, at least half of you didn’t vote, because oh dear boo hoo the politicians bought duck moats so they’re all the same. Really? They’re all exactly the same? There are TWENTY FUCKING NAMES ON THAT PAPER and there’s not ONE of them you’d prefer to the Nazis? You don’t think ‘maybe we should give the Greens a chance’? It’s YOUR fault the BNP got in YOU UTTER FUCKING CUNTS! And no, I’m not joking.” Before going on to talk about those who fought in the Spanish CIvil War for democracy and freedom, and comparing them to those who can’t even be bothered to walk to their local primary school.

As you can imagine, I was very much in agreement with this routine, given that this was almost word for word what I wrote on the day the results were announced, and I clapped, very loudly, for what felt like minutes (but was probably just seconds) on my own before a handful of others joined in. Herring went on to demolish people who spoil their ballot paper, as well as the idea of no-platforming these absurd, disgusting individuals.

And from this (rather preachy, but by God *SOMEONE* needs to be saying this stuff, without any caveats about ‘well, you can understand them…’) the second half of the show was hilariously funny (at times I laughed so much my vision went blurry through choking) and managed to take some of the formally clever stuff he’d done in earlier shows and make it about something more than just being itself. One routine, where he argues with himself, is very similar to the end of Menage A Un (and has a punchline from Someone Likes Yoghurt), but it takes on added resonance as he’s comparing his own use of the word ‘Paki’ (quoted earlier) to Carol Thatcher referring to a black man as a ‘golliwog’, and trying to work out how one can be justified and the other can’t, deconstructing the show and the argument itself.

The show turns into one of the all too few truly robust defences of liberal democracy (lower-case – Herring supports the Greens rather than us, but nobody’s perfect) I’ve heard recently that don’t come with either mealy-mouthed caveats or with threats to bomb anyone who isn’t as tolerant as us. One would *hope* that in 2009 basic ideas like democracy being better than fascism and racism being bad wouldn’t *need* defending, but unfortunately they do, and Herring does as good a job as could be hoped for.

And at the end he gives Chaplin the credit he’s due, for sticking his neck out and making The Great DIctator (and in the process ties in the Michael Jackson material by saying of Chaplin “Yes, he was a bit of a paedophile, but he was talented and he’s dead, so it doesn’t matter, as we’ve recently learned”) by reading out a chunk of Chaplin’s big speech from that film. I’ve never been a huge fan of Chaplin (rating him far below the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton – I regard him as the Woody Allen of pre-war cinema, in many ways), but that speech still resonates today.

This may not be Herring’s funniest show (I think that’s still Menage A Un) but it’s probably his best, and certainly his most necessary. Go and see it if you can, and if not buy the DVD when it comes out next year (Herring’s shows get released by Go Faster Stripe usually just after he starts touring the next show – his last one, The Headmaster’s Son, should be out soon). It’s well worth it.

Heil Herring!

Guide To My Blogroll – The Home Stretch

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 18, 2009

And so we’re on to the last chunk of my guide to my blogroll. Remember, as always, just because I leave something out doesn’t mean I’m not reading it or it’s not good – there are at least 50 other blogs I read regularly that deserve to be there, and the choice of the ones linked here is more or less arbitrary…

Penny Red is the blog of Laurie Penny, a feminist socialist journalist, and one of the better political writers on the left.

Pop Underground is a group blog, involving some people I know online and some I don’t know at all, devoted to powerpop.

Quaequam Blog! is the blog of James Graham, who you may have seen here in comments. James is a Liberal Democrat and comic fan in approximately that order, and he tends to be on the ‘social liberal’ side of the party (roughly those who lean more towards redistribution than towards libertarianism, to overgeneralise enormously).

qwghlm is the political blog of Chris Applegate, who is interested in tech and civil liberties issues but who hasn’t posted for a couple of months (I’ve been saying that rather a lot in these, unfortunately – however, at least two of my blogroll have restarted blogging since I started doing these, so there’s hope…)

RAB writes well about comics, and his own life, and about stuff. He’s another one though who doesn’t post enough at the moment (once a month or so, recently) but when he does, it’s excellent. I’d say more about his blog, but he doesn’t post enough right now – post more, RAB!

Reinstate Karen Reissmann is the blog for the now-ended (settled out-of-court) campaign to reinstate Karen Reissmann, a nurse who worked for my former employers, the Manchester Mental Health NHS Trust, but cared more about treating patients than about the ego of the head of the trust, and was sacked for it. No new posts will be going on that blog, but it’s linked here both as a reminder to myself of how grateful I am not to be doing that job any more, and of the fact that there are things worth fighting for.

Richard Herring is my current favourite stand-up comedian (those who only remember him from his double act a decade or so ago, he’s doing very different stuff now, playing with the form in ways that almost no-one else is capable of). He’s also blogged every day for six years, and some of the posts are hilarious.

See Below is a group comics blog featuring Leonard Pierce and Matt Rossi, both linked in the last of these, plus several other people (the mainstay of the blog is the wonderful cartoonist ‘Calamity’ Jon Morris). Recent highlights include Rossi’s disgusted review of the Watchmen film, Pierce’s skewering of another Watchmen review, by James Lileks, and Morris’ ‘Spider-Man Gets His Butt Whupped Week’ – a week of pictures of Spiderman getting beaten by his villains.

Fred ‘Slacktivist’ Clark is a USian evangelical Christian, and also a left/liberal activist. He’s a wonderful writer, and unlike most American Christians-who-go-on-about-being-Christian appears to have actually read the bits of the Bible where Jesus says things about caring for your fellow man. As well as regular posts on politics and religion, he also has spent the last five years going methodically, page-by-page and sometimes line-by-line, through the Left Behind series of books (he’s done one thousand-plus-word post every week for five years and he’s still at the beginning of the second book), pointing out every way in which the books are morally, ethically and theologically repugnant, and showing how the writers’ utter lack of basic literacy ties in with their equal lack of basic human empathy and the shallowness of their world view. One of my very favourite bloggers.

Supervillain is Sean Witzke, who writes very long discursive essays about comics and film (and occasionally music) about once a week, and the rest of the time posts short bits – YouTube videos, found images and so on. Sean has a fantastic mind, making the kind of associations between topics I try to make myself (but I suspect more successfully) and also has a better eye than I do – the pictures he chooses make his blog one of the few that’s often visually interesting.

Tez Burke is someone I know in about five different ways independently (he’s friendly with friends of my wife, he works with a friend of mine as a DJ, he’s a Lib Dem associate of Mat Bowles and Jennie RIgg, and so on…). A Yorkshireman with a beard almost as big as mine, he writes about Lib Dem politics, Prog Rock and Half Man Half Biscuit.

The Factual Opinion is one of the few group-blogs that has a distinct personality, so that even though there are several distinctive writers there (Sean Witzke writes for them as well as his own blog, for example) it feels more like a magazine with an editorial line than a disjointed collection of posts – helped by regular features such as “Economist Versus Idiot” (a weekly analysis of that week’s Economist), The Virgin Read (a comics review slot by Nina Stone, a non-comic-reader) and regular comics, music and TV review slots. By nature of the multi-writer, multi-topic form, it’s patchier than some of these links, but when it’s good it’s very, very good, and the hit rate is surprisingly high.

The People’s Republic Of Mortimer is Alix Mortimer, probably the best writer (as in putting words together in pleasing combinations) blogging for the Lib Dems, although once again (all together now) she’s not posted much for a while (something about trying to have a social life or earn a living or just do stuff that isn’t in front of a computer or some such nonsense… I don’t know… don’t these people know how boring it gets not having new stuff go into my Google Reader all the time?)

The Savage Critics is a group comics blog. There are a lot of writers for it ranging from at worst OK (naming no names) to at best Jog (the best writer on comics there is right now) and Abhay Khosla (whose flamboyantly profane language and frequent diversions conceal a sharp and original mind), with most of them being pretty good.

The Tearoom Of Despair is the blog of Bob Temuka, who deserves to be better known among comics bloggers – his writing is very much of a piece with the Mindless Ones, Sean Witzke and Vibrational Match – there’s almost a movement there or something. He writes great, long, thought-provoking posts, and also loves Doctor Who.

The Universe Of Discourse is an irregularly-updated blog on computer science, statistics and general stuff. I added it to the blogroll when I realised that every single post I enjoyed on the Planet Perl aggregator was coming from the same site. Posts there range from an expression of annoyance at the phrase ‘known to man’, to discussions of whether the word wank disproves a theory in linguistics, to explanations of some arcane programming structure stuff. Well worth reading even if you’re not interested in computers qua computers.

Trousers Of Time is my wife Holly, who has only posted two things on her new blog, but they’re both worth reading – and if you do, she’ll post more…

Vibrational Match is another idiosyncratic mostly-comics blog, which has just restarted after a long absence (to which we all say huzzah). David’s recent posts include a fantastic review of Synedoche, New York (which I can’t believe I missed in the cinema – I’m a fool), a discussion of the similarities between Sleater-Kinney and Jack Kirby, and a ‘transmission from Planet X’ that’s a summary of Grant Morrison’s recent work as written by Borges. I feel like I’m selling him (and some of these other people) short here, but he’s *well* worth reading.

And Wouldn’t It Be Scarier? is Andy, a Lib Dem blogger and Doctor Who fan who (you all know this by now) hasn’t updated in ages but who had a lot of good stuff to say when he did (mostly on internal party matters/electoral stuff, but very worthwhile for those, like me, who are interested in that).

So… where is everybody? When I said, a month ago, that I’d do this blogroll thing, everyone was merrily posting away, and now that I’m doing it half of them have vanished. Is there some sort of bizarre virus that only attacks people with opinions on different voting methods or more than one Patrick Troughton story on DVD? If it weren’t for the fact that Andrew Rilstone and David (Vibrational Match) have both started blogging again since I started this I’d be very depressed right now…

A Guide To My Blogroll Part 2 – L – M

Posted in comics, Doctor Who, linkblogging, politics by Andrew Hickey on August 9, 2009

Again, as I said before, but for those just coming in, who I link in my blogroll on the right is very much an arbitrary thing – everything linked there is something I think is good, but not everything I think is good is linked there. With that in mind, on we go…

Leonard Pierce is one of the funniest writers I know. An online acquaintance of mine, he’s a freelance writer and humourist who writes for, amongst others, The Onion AV Club, and is also one of the vanishingly small number of people who’s ever commissioned me to write a piece for publication somewhere other than this blog. He writes about comics and general pop-culture things, from an anarchist perspective, but seems astonishingly knowledgeable about everything from postmodern critical theory to hip-hop and death metal (his most recent post, a potted biography of Niccolo Macchiavelli in the style of the theme from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, gives a pretty good idea of what he’s like).

Liberal Democrat Voice is an unofficial Liberal Democrat party groupblog, with a handful of regular contributors and a few irregular ones. Always worth reading if you want a brief idea of what the general feeling among the party is about UK current events.

Love And Liberty is the blog of Alex Wilcock, who writes extremely well about both Liberalism and Doctor Who – his How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal is justly famous both among Who fans and Lib Dems, and was an essay I admired before I really got involved in either group.

Lucid Frenzy, Jr is Gavin Burrows, a frequent commenter here who I first got to know in the comments to Andrew Rilstone’s blog. He writes about cultural stuff – recent posts include a review of a June Tabor gig, an extended appreciation of the Fleischer Superman cartoons, a discussion of ‘the slag-off song’ in punk, a discussion of the character of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, and several Spotify playlists. His stuff is generally longer, thoughtful review pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in the Observer or Saturday Guardian arts sections, except that he doesn’t exude the insufferable Burchillian smugness of most contributors to those periodicals, so you can read a full piece by him without wanting to kill him and/or yourself.

Marc Singer unfortunately hasn’t blogged for six months or so, but when he did he was one of the very best comics bloggers out there, and also wrote well about The Wire. Part of the reason he’s on a long-term hiatus from blogging is that he’s writing a book on Grant Morrison, and I suspect, given the quality of his writing on the subject, that it will be the definitive critical word on the subject.

Mark Evanier is a writer who’s done a huge amount of work in TV animation (he created Scrappy Doo and the Dungeons & Dragons TV show, and wrote a big chunk of the Garfield TV series, among other works) and comics (he writes the dialogue for Groo, and worked with Jack Kirby as an assistant on the Fourth World comics). He’s an expert on old comics and old comedy – especially people in both fields from about the 1940s to the 1970s. He writes a lot about the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, maintains a Jack Kirby FAQ, and generally seems to have at least a few anecdotes about everyone we think of as ancient legendary figures.

Mark Steel and Mark Thomas are both hard-left-wing (Steel is a Trotskyist, Thomas non-aligned but tending towards anarchism) political comedians and activists. Both sites are excellent (and in fact run by the same people), but Steel’s ‘blog’ is updated far more than Thomas’, as it always includes the text of his weekly Independent column. Both men also actually manage to be very funny even when dealing with extremely serious or complex political matters.

Mat Bowles should write more. The fiance of Jennie Rigg, mentioned in the last of these blogroll posts, he’s someone who doesn’t just shoot his mouth off like I do but who actually has some idea what he’s talking about, especially when it comes to political theory.

Matt Rossi hasn’t really blogged in several years (he’s been suffering writers’ block) but I leave the link to his blog here because the stuff he did write was so astoundingly good, be it his alternative-history stuff, where he’d just let his imagination create conspiratorial or magical links between obscure historical events, or his writing on comics (which is what got me back into the medium) or his autobiographical stuff. He’s an absolutely astonishing writer, both in terms of ideas and in terms of prose style. He’s also one of a very few people who was there to help me at a time when I needed it, and helped me more than he can know. He’s probably forgotten that, but I haven’t, and I hope he starts writing more again soon.

Millennium Dome, Elephant is a fluffy, grey, little stuffed elephant who lives with his two daddies Alex (of Love & Liberty, linked above) and Richard, and who, like them, is a Liberal Democrat who likes Doctor Who a lot. For the comics fans among you, imagine a Lib Dem/Whofan equivalent of Bully The Little Stuffed Bull, but funnier – I’ve literally cried with laughter at some of the politics posts.

And The Mindless Ones are my favourite comics group blog, one of a vanishingly small group among the comics blogosphere who know the difference between irreverence and ‘snark’, and who can actually write (and draw in the case of their two fantastic weekly single-panel comics). As a group their taste and approach to comics intersects with mine so much that I’ve more than once scrapped an already-written post on a comic because they’ve written something almost fingerprint-identical and posted it first. Where someone like Jog is undoubtedly the leading thinker in terms of online comics criticism, the Mindless Ones site is where the action is, where you’ll find the most *exciting* comics criticism (as well as lots of pictures of superhero pants).

Linkblogging for 03/12/08

Posted in comics, linkblogging, science by Andrew Hickey on December 3, 2008

Sorry for the lack of content the last few days – still getting over the dreaded lurgy, and I’ve been unable to do anything much more intellectually taxing than stare at a blank wall and go ‘bleh’. Normal posts will resume some time over the next few days, and I *will* do those Batman posts I started talking about on Sunday.

(Incidentally, the search terms by which people are finding this blog get ever more disturbing. Someone came here yesterday looking for ‘Timmy Mallet adult fanfic’. I may have to go and wash myself…)

A very comics-oriented list of links today – most of the political things have died down since Obama was elected…

Tim O’Neill continues his very long look at The Death Of Superman and its context in the early-90s comic industry.

David at Vibrational Match is talking about Jack Kirby’s The Eternals so he can talk about Grant Morrison’s The Filth. Very much my kind of post.

That Christopher Bird still hasn’t been made Legion writer baffles me…

Richard Herring has a good blog post on Bill Hicks.

And Cosmic Variance have a post about projects to find Dyson spheres.

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