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.
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.