Friday, 28 April 2017

Ten Acts You Might Not Know Played Wembley

Opened on 28th April 1923 and originally called the British Empire Exhibition Stadium before it was renamed after King George V's favourite Fraggle, Wembley Stadium has long stood as the pinnacle of success in Britain. If you play there you've made it, regardless of whether your sound translates to a giant cavernous auditorium or not (see: every pop act between 1985-1995). But with every great band or all day festival comes support slots where less known and / or rubbish bands can get their moment in the sun.

Here are ten acts you might not know played Wembley Stadium...

August 5th 1972 - Screaming Lord Sutch

Despite a one-off Yes concert in 1969, "The London Rock and Roll Show" was the first big rock gig at Wembley and arguably what opened the floodgates to others. Largely a revival show for a brand of music that in 1972 was barely fifteen years old at the time (the equivalent to modern audiences book tickets to see Steps and The Vengaboys on an arena tour today. Oh.) and featuring some of the biggest names of the time including headliners Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and [DELETED PENDING INQUIRY]. There was plenty of room lower down the bill for less huge acts including Joe Meek's protégée Heinz (backed by a 24 year old Wilko Johnson from the recently formed Dr Feelgood), the live début of Roy Wood's Wizzard and Detroit garage-growlers the MC5 on the cusp of imploding.

Mickey Mouse's appearance (with "Drugs" Fox on saxophone) was sadly cancelled following legal preceedings. 

Fitting nicely in this mix of new and old was Screaming Lord Sutch and The Savages whose horror-tinged stomping was becoming all the rage in the new glam rock environment. Whilst never having anything approaching a real hit, Sutch was a well known face on the music scene at the time and had already stood for his first unsuccessful parliamentary seat way back in 1963 as representative of the National Teenage Party. He was better known by the country as a whole not for his pop but the founding of the Monster Raving Loony Party, a frequent cheering sight on Election night broadcasts. Sutch provided a satirical breath of fresh air in the politically troubled 1980s and his death by his own hand in 1999 aged 58 was a huge loss to fun the world over.

August 31st 1991 - Nine Inch Nails 

Whilst unquestionably a bigger act than the likes of Sutch and several other acts here, Nine Inch Nails were never really a Wembley-troubler until a bizarre support slot appearing between Guns N Roses and boring sub-glam revival metallers Skid Row. The former were by far approaching the peak of their popularity with both "Use Your Illusion" albums (featuring almost two good songs between them) both due for release three weeks later. But Trent Reznor and pals had still yet to break through big, with just one album - 1989's "Pretty Hate Machine" - although single "Head Like A Hole" was on its way to becoming a rock disco staple. The experience was understandably not a thrilling one for Reznor who was quoted in Q Magazine in 2011 as saying "They were some of the worst performances we ever had in front of the most hostile, moronic audiences I've ever experienced. They were there to rock; what they didn't want was some homo-looking dudes playing noisy synths and they made that very clear to us."

June 30th 1984 - Wang Chung

Despite being formed in London, Wang Chung always felt a very American proposition due to their massive success over there (not to mention the ridiculous name) with two top ten hits in the Billboard chart compared to just one Top 40 hit in the UK - "Dance Hall Days" peaking at no.21 in 1984 - the year of their big appearance at Wembley in a day-long concert dubbed imaginatively "The Summer Of 84 Concert". For just £12.50 you could pop along to Wembley and see Nik Kershaw, Kool and the Gang, Paul Young and Tom Robinson's largely forgotten new wave group Sector 27 who just happened to be signed at the time to Rocket Records, the label founded by Elton John, the gig's big headliner. Indeed they could've been the subject of this paragraph but "Wang Chung" is a much funnier name to say. Go on, try it yourself. Told you.

July 13th 1985 - Smith and Jones 

There's little I can say about Live Aid that hasn’t already, although my fascination with it as a event lies much more in the TV coverage than the likes of Bono pulling on women, Adam Ant doing his new single and Freddie Mercury shouting "day-o". Not only was it all linked by the presenters of the BBC's only real music programme of the time "Whistle Test" none of whom had done any real live television before despite being watched by millions of people but the non-pop guests were a real slice of who was hip and / or available at the time. Host Andy Kershaw frequently mentions his panic at not recognising John Hurt during one live interview whereas elsewhere Sting and Phil Collins would be introduced on stage by fellow rock megastar Noel Edmonds. My favourite for sheer comedy reasons would be the bafflingly featureless Radio 1 DJ Andy Peebles introducing Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, taking their life into their own hands as comedy never EVER works during a rock gig (as we'll see more of later) ...except this time when it weirdly does as they introduce the band who unexpectedly became the highlight of the entire show...

June 28th 1997 - Delirious? 

Between 1996 and 2000, regular close oglers of the UK singles chart will have noticed several top 20 hits for a band called Delirious?, baffling many who hadn’t heard of them, either on radio or in music magazines. The answer it turned out was that they were a "Christian band" and thus had a big fanbase but absolutely no street cred whatsoever. Being big enough to play Wembley in 1997 though? Surely not? They were in fact the main musical act at an event called "Champion Of The World" as organiser N. Richards, influenced by Queen at Wembley in 1986 ("singing We Are The Champions. I got this sense it would be great to see places like this filled with Church declaring there is a champion of the world and his name is Jesus"), thought the time was right to fill the stadium with music and prayer. And on that date 45,000 packed in to agree.

June 26th 1982 - Black Uhuru

Outside the work of Bob Marley, The UB40 and of course Judge Dread, few reggae artists have ever reached the heights big enough to play the likes of Wembley Stadium so to learn that Black Uhuru did at the invitation of The Rolling Stones on their "Tattoo You" tour, along with the newly-poppy J.Geils Band (hot off women's tits-enjoying hit "Centerfold"), is a baffling thing to concieve. By that point the band had already released six albums with several reaching the bottom half of the UK Top 40 although its hard to say how many of these lay in the collections of Stones fans waiting for band to belt out all the classic hits and more recent old shite.

June 26th 1999 - 3 Colours Red 

I'll be honest, I always had a not especially hidden appreciation of 3 Colours Red's straight forward pop rock sound although outside the completely unrepresentative "Beautiful Day" you'd be hard pressed to find many who remember them these days.

Founded on the traditional music story basis of a singer (Pete Vučković) and guitarist (Chris McCormack) who largely hated each other, début single "This Is My Hollywood" led to a bidding war won by Creation Records (then at the height of Oasis-mania) on the direct order of head Alan McGee who described them to the press as the "most exciting band since the Sex Pistols" a statement which doomed them from the off. Supporting Aerosmith at the "Toxic Twin Towers Ball" (yeah they probably would avoid that one now...) in June 1999 with The Black Crowes, Stereophonics and Lenny "Crabsticks" Kravitz would be one of their last ever gigs, disbanding that August.

August 19th 1989 - Frank Sidebottom

Beloved by myself and this blog as is probably painfully clear by now, Chris Sievey took his brilliant big-headed banjolele-playing bloke along as a special guest of Bros at their "Bros In 2 Summer" gig at the stadium in between hot acts like  Debbie Gibson, Double Trouble and the Rebel MC. To say it went badly is an understatement with keyboardist and future biographer Jon Ronson later relating to the Guardian  “Frank was asked to support the boy band Bros at Wembley. There were 50,000 people in the crowd. This was a huge stage for Frank – his biggest ever, by about 49,500 people. It was his chance to break through to the mainstream. But instead he chose to perform a series of terrible Bros cover versions for five minutes and was bottled off.” 

From Frank's Com newsletter in earl 1990 proving few fucks were given as per. 

August 19th 2000 - Dum Dums and Toploader 

One of those annoying Trivial Pursuit style questions you might come across is "Who were the last band to play the old Wembley?" which I'll settle happily now for you by telling you its Bon Jovi. But who was the last GOOD band to play Wembley? Undoubtedly the Dum Dums, a hugely fun three piece pop punk outfit who were marketed at the teen pop world and to all intents and purposes feel like a dry run for Busted two years later. Début single "Everything" got a lot of play on Radio 1 and TV in February 2000 but it didn't really translate to record sales and they split in August 2001. As for Toploader, they also breathed oxygen.

June 11th 1988 - The Fat Boys and Chubby Checker 

The "Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute" concert in 1988 was a strange event broadcast as it was during Mandela's continued incarceration then its twenty sixth year. He may have been grateful for that however as Chubby Checker took to the Wembley stage to sing his new version of his popular hit "The Twist (Yo Twist)" with semi-comedy rap group The Fat Boys which was at the time perched at number two in the UK, behind Bros and, the following week, Glenn Madeiros.

Elsewhere on the bill the rule that comedy in an arena doesn't really translate once again raised its head as of all people Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (still eight months away from the first series of "A Bit Of Fry And Laurie" but incredibly popular thanks to appearances on "Saturday Live", "Alfresco" and various forms of Blackadder) were announced by their old pal Lenny Henry to introduce Tracy Chapman. Mic drop outs plagued Fry and despite some great jokes, such as naming the audience Colin and asking the crowd to pose for a photograph for Stephen's mother who doesn't get BBC2.

Any good ones I missed? Did you see Jesus Jones and Jellyfish supporting Inxs? Or Utah Saints supporting U2 on the Zoo TV tour? Perhaps you expected me to mention R*cky G*rv*is dying on his arse spectacularly at Live Earth? Let me know in the comment box below. And before I go, just time to mention Reef's headline gig at the new Wembley on August 7th half time entertainment at the Community Shield game between Manchester City and Manchester United. I wont spoil it by telling you which song they played.

It was "Place Your Hands".



Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Its A Weetabix, Weetabix, Weetabix, Weetabix World

You can just imagine the scene. An office somewhere in England waiting for a representative from Trevor Beattie, one of the UK's leading advertising agencies, who plan to revolutionise the way their breakfast based product is marketed in these all new funky 1980s.

"Hello there. I'm Ian Weetabix. What have you got for us here at Weetabix Ltd, trading under the name Weetabix Food Company and commonly referred to as simply Weetabix?"

"Right, well you know these Weetabix right?"

"I am familiar with our leading, and possibly at this time only, product, yes."

"Well we thought your product would be best promoted by turning some Weetabix...bars?"

"They are probably called that yes. I am not prepared to check."

"OK, well we thought we'd take those and make them into football hooligans and skinheads."

"Excellent. I concieve no problems with this whatsoever. Will there be a girl one?"

"Yes. And a brainy one. He's called Brains."


And so it came to pass that the decade would be dominated by threatening pieces of cereal (initially with the growling faux-East End pipes of Bob Hoskins and later replaced by the no less terrifying Christopher Ellison, better known as Burnside from The Bill) shouting at "titchy breakfasts" and suggesting people instead eat them "If you know what's good for you". It was an incredibly strange angle to take, even with the jaunty sax music and the comic relief character saying "OK!", when the adverts launched in early 1982 but there's no mistaking the popularity of Dunk, Crunch, Brains, Brian and Bixie with kids as they continued to be associated with the advertising right up until 1989.

Assuming you remembered to put the tokens in the envelope, there were countless giveaways and Weetabix would regularly end up chasing every trend going with cassette tapes, break dancing badges, Choose Your Own Adventure books, pop stickers endorsed by 'allowed racist' Mike Read and even a Space Invaders-knock off computer game - "Weetabix Versus The Titchies" - which tied in with a contest to win (read: empty the mounting stockrooms of unsold machines) Atari and Dragon 64 computers. Less exciting but presumably popular with frugal, well-meaning parents was 1988's "Weetabix Wonderworld Atlas" in which the bovver booted biscuit breakfasts explored the globe whilst providing a fun and easy to navigate guide book for the young in these new enlightened post-Girls On Top times...

Yeah, okay so maybe the "don't dress like National stereotypes" messaged hadn't quite reached Weetyworld or wherever the frig they supposedly lived. If only we had a detailed guide to where each character lived...

Glad they got the church on there because I'm sure it was very important to the Weety crew who'd pop along every Sunday to be told they needed to fill up on Jesus is they knew what was good for them by a shouting wheat-based priest. It was quite a neat (wheat) way of explaining map references to a younger audience and not being stuffy like those regular other old atlases was clearly on the minds of the team putting it together. 

Look at the colourful wheat-based man! Compasses are in fact cool and not square and boring like you thought, right!!!?!? This funky artwork representing the gang in their late 80s fashions (the hooligan element now completely eliminated from the advertising) is still a joy to see, cultural insensitivity not withstanding, and its hardly ever heavy-handed in reminding you what product brought you this amazing offer with just 8 tokens...

...Okay, make that 'almost never'. Check out that top on Bixie though, ooft. Strap just slipping off the shoulder like that. IT SHOULDN'T BE ALLOWED. Although compared to what she wears later in the book, this is clearly the better option of the bunch. 

Yes, its authentic and beautifully drawn but did we need the eyes really? Glad they copyrighted that shit anyway. 

Moving onto the maps themselves and they're incredibly well done, easy to follow and timeless in a way which saw this book a constant presence on my shelf for going on the whole of the decade to follow. I mean, why would I replace it? What could possibly date in an atlas!?!?!

Disneyland....Narnia... Its a strange thing to look at countries that simply aren't countries anymore, either through breaking down barriers or unpleasant civil war and genocide. Indeed, it must be hard for a kid to imagine there was a time really not so long ago where Germany was divided by an actual guard-protected wall as was the truth when I was growing up. I remember the celebrations when the wall came down although being nine I couldn't really understand the ramifications it brought. Or the endless footage of David Hasselhoff singing horribly in a keyboard tie that would follow. 

But the times were indeed changing and where once was a football scarf and braces was now crayons and a salmon polo shirt...

Questionable style choices aside, I loved the Weetabix Worldwide Atlas (hence it still being in my house today) and if I ever get on Pointless, I will be studying its pages hard for obscure flags and countries that end in "P", "I" and "S". The following year brought a follow up book - "The Weetabix Illustrated British History Book" - done in much the same style although for some reason I never got that one. Perhaps I had moved on, both in life and cereal, little suspecting that 1989 would be the last year these Titchy-bashing totems of the times were seen on television, giving way the following decade to the still often used “Have you had your Weetabix?" catchphrase. 

Vale Dunk, Crunch, Brains, Brian and Bixie. Remember them this way. 

This article is dedicated to Ian "Dunk" Dunkelfaffer, 1982 - 2014. 
"One of God's better wheat based advertising spokesmen"

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Communication is Paramount: Remembering Mailbox

I see you.

Blinking at me with your two green eyes. Not a trace of blue in there, the part that makes me see you're alive, that connects us. The world is closed off and neither of us can explain why. All I'm left with is your final message, left while I slept, found in the recesses of my phone.

"You may be experiencing issues with your Virgin broadband. An engineer is working on the problem."

I sigh, this is third time in a week its completely died and with a resigned smile I think I'd be better off going back to carrier pigeon. Or maybe semaphore. No wait, I should just go back to using the message boards on Ceefax. Like most men in their thirties, the memory of Ceefax and other Teletext services instantly produces a warm, nostalgic glow in that bit of the brain that responds to old Beano annuals, cassingles and when everyone on television and radio was a dangerous sex offender. If I could get online, I'd probably be looking at the many hundreds of blogs devoted to a love of all things blocky and textual. The bit of pleasure eked out of a Bamboozle quiz, Top 40 chart or the real Turner The Worm being sick when there was nothing on the box but you still wanted to sit there gazing at it anyway.

The sheer existence of Teletext services, just lying there underneath your telly waiting to entertain you, was like the future and the past all happening at once. For me there was a thrill in checking to see if a station had their own text service, especially in the mid 90s satellite era. Most of these were just TV listings and maybe the odd advert but Paramount Channel was always a little different.

Its launch in November 1995 brought to UK screens what a cynic might see as little more than old American sitcoms and drama series Sky One didn't want. Even with an open mind, looking at old Paramount (no Comedy, that would come later) Channel schedules made you wonder who it was aimed at with everything from old episodes of Saturday Night Live, quirky animations like Dr Katz, Ren and Stimpy and The Critic to old stand-up (London Underground, Paramount City) and even a daily slick American celebripackage in the form of "Entertainment Tonight".

It was quirky and while I had no real interest in the drama stuff, it was a godsend for a hungry teenage lad wanting to learn about TV and comedy in particular. I've little idea what those early ratings were like but the later shift to an all comedy line-up proved what was working best and eventually the channel budget would allow for new wraparound segments for the evening programmes with the most famous of these probably being "Mash And Peas",  Lucas and Walliams' painfully funny parodies of various TV tropes (although I always had a soft spot for the admittedly laddish but pleasingly shambolic "Dom 'N' Kirk's Night O'Plenty", a live slot presented by Dominik Diamond and Kirk Ewing with various guests and terrible games.) Being live it was one of the first opportunities viewers had to interact with the channel but hidden just under the signal and waiting for people to hit the "TEXT" button was another place to join in. Page 720: Paramount Mailbox.

Acting much like a message board on an early website, people could ring an answering machine or if they were one of these new cyber whizzers, e-mail in with questions or opinions on recent programmes. Granted, terrestrial services like Ceefax and Oracle had been doing this for years but it was a rarity on a satellite station. And whilst I'd never dream of contacting some big telly behemoth with better things to concentrate on, Paramount felt smaller and more personal. People left messages saying what they did or didn’t like and it felt like they were actually being listened to. On more than one occasion I can recall a programme being suggested as worth picking up being bought in by the station as the mailbox "Ed" (For the majority, a chap called Ant Purvis) passed on the information. There'd also be more general chat about current TV programmes, plus news on stuff happening in American media back when we were perfectly used to waiting six months to see the 'latest' episode of a US series that was already onto its next season.

I became a regular caller under the completely ill-fitting nickname "Doc Vegas" (a reference to a recent video for my favourite band of the time Terrorvision's "Perserverance") though I rarely had anything much to say, it was a huge thrill to see my (fake) name up there on the screen less than 24 hours later. Indeed the daily nature of the service was what made it so much of a community for me, long before the internet made it a bit obsolete, as the same people would write and develop a rapport with the people at Paramount's side. It also felt two way as we'd many a time be able to answer questions they couldn't find the answer to with one long running thread devoted to tracking down a song Ed had half heard and not caught the name of, a situation that reminded me of Phillip Schofield's brief obsession with Petula Clark's "Downtown".

I have absolutely no memory of this at all. 
Elsewhere on Paramount Text there'd be other quirky stuff, such as a repeat run for ORACLE's old text daily soap opera "Park Avenue" (Repeats! On Teletext! Just think about that for a second!), a parody games section called "Hard Drive" which infuriated those not in on the joke, a Shakespearean insult machine (one of those put three words together things now everywhere on Facebook) and some Mailbox regulars got their own "columns" in a section called "48 Hours" which developed from episode guides for American sci-fi shows that hadn’t aired in the UK to something more akin to a blog. I worked incredibly hard on one to send in through the summer of 1996 but ultimately bottled sending it. Dont ask, its long lost.

Unlike the oft-eulogised "Digitiser", my days with the Paramount Mailbox are the ultimate "if you were there" memory of mine and I've yet to meet in person anyone else who used the service. Eventually I stopped using it because of the most arcane reasons - we moved house and the new place had bloody awful Teletext reception on Paramount - but it always holds a special place in my heart for allowing me to start a course towards the pop culture nostalgic gumphus you're reading now. PText would stay in active service until 2004 when it joined the internet it had been largely usurped for (Some has gone, some remains at with the channel itself becoming Comedy Central UK in 2009. Or "The Thing What Has Friends On It" as its more commonly known.

God knows what the Mastermind reference was about...
Looking at some of those old messages I left via the archives on New Mailbox, I don't understand a lot of what that shy fifteen year old kid is yammering about (Apparently once I just played a keyboard demo down the phone) but I do recognise the desire to be heard and interact with people from a safe distance long before I had the opportunity to get on the internet. And maybe one day if this modem ever works again I might get on there again to post this.

Press REVEAL for a punchline.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Boxing Chris Sievey

After the previous post in which I enthused over my love for Chris Sievey and his much adored creation Frank Sidebottom, you might assume I was a mad collector with more money than sense but the above photo represents my entire collection of Frank memorabilia thanks to both a lack of cash (all contributions gratefully welcome!) and my age meaning almost everything major had come out before I'd even seen a glimpse of old pumpkin head on the telly.  I do have one thing you might not do though... 

The above is a box I received in November 2013 as part of my Kickstarter contribution to the long-in-the-works documentary "Being Frank - The Chris Sievey Story" being made by Steve Sullivan. I'm not a massive one for picking higher tiers on crowd-funding sites simply because I'm invariably skint but Chris / Frank is one of my absolute favourite things in the world and along with receiving various CDs and DVDs of Freshies and Sidie stuff, I would also for my contribution get a "limited edition, sealed, I Should Be So Lucky box containing five thingies from Chris Sievey’s archive."

From all reports, Chris was both a hoarder and as evidenced in photos of Frank surrounded by pop culture ephemera (not to mention the set of his Fantastic Shed Show, see below) he would pick up all manner of toys, figures and games which fit into Frank's world of slightly out of time, out of step, pre-interest in girls nonsense and imagination that made him ultimately so beloved. 

With the chance of absolutely anything being in the box, which had been compiled by his brother Martin, I was incredibly excited about what I might find and I wasn't disappointed. Everything was hugely "Chris Sievey" with his obsessions and love of old tat to the fore, plus considerably more than five "thingies". I haven't been through for a while but with him currently on my brain, lets go back through that box together...

And as I assumed there are toys - lots of toys - which may have been in the background of any number of gigs and photo shoots. This was a man who used to bottle old action figures in water for prizes after all. I wonder what an original 1991 pickled Michaelangelo is going for these days...

A closer look at the toys on offer and if anyone can tell me what some of this stuff is, that'd be great! I'm assuming the big white thing is off Yer Original Star Wars as is that little furry chap next to it, although the guns look a bit more S.A.S. than Stormtrooper. There's also that cheeky looking dinosaur and what I believe was one of the ProStars blind bag toys you could get in the late 90s. The base says "Maldini" so my huge football knowledge tells me this is probably Paolo Cesare Maldini, an Italian former professional footballer who played as a left back and central defender for A.C. Milan and the Italy national team. And I just knew that off the top of my head and everything so shut up.

Also representing the world of sport between the pink football rattle, brown felt tip and other Star Wars ship thingy is our old pal Bill Goldberg, fresh from losing to Brock Lesnar in less time than it took to get from the dressing room to the ring, in his old WWE gear. When I first got this box I thought it was Stone Cold Steve Austin having been out of the wrestling fandom for a while and in many ways I'm not sure why I ever returned (but that's mostly during Roman Reigns matches I think that admittedly...) And finally there's an arm which looks a bit Skeletor-ish, possibly from the 00's reboot - anyone got any ideas?

Ah, good old Our Price stickers. Plus imagining Chris Sievey's face when he bought this at the counter thanks to the mid 90s delight in repackaging everything garishly and "CULT". Not one of the bosom enthusiast and cult director's better known films, "Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers" from 1968 is apparently a mixture of crime drama and marital infidelity although this is Russ Meyer so its naturally set in a topless 'go-go' bar.  Here's one of the more low key parts of the movie...

Oh, I guess I should say its NSFW a bit. Mostly the screaming if I'm honest. If you made it through the full eight minutes of that clip, well done. I haven't.

A slide of someone, possibly an older gentleman, admiring some flowers. Slides often played a big part of what Frank's 'lectures' which happened more in the later years when playing smaller venues without a backing band. Whether this is someone from his family, a home movie or just something random picked up from a boot sale will never be known but its a lovely oddity all the same. 

A selection of records available on Rabid Records, run by Tosh Ryan who put a lot of money into the development of Chris, The Freshies and his mad schemes. Chris would do design work for Ryan who had a lucrative side business making and distributing posters. As you can see above, Graham Fellows was to release the original "Jilted John" single there which brought a decent income to the label although the official spin-off supposedly by Gordon The Moron - actually musician and author Bernard Kelly - himself (not to be confused with the dire "Gordon's Not A Moron" knock-off) didn't recreate the success sadly. You can see the video here. Or hear it as a bonus track on the brilliant "True Love Stories" album here.  

"IT IS ONE OF THOSE TRAPS WHAT THEY DO!" A 1994 American Admiral Ackbar action figure that's strangely (for Chris) still in the box. Like most science-fience, Star Wars would become one of his great obsessions with the theme appearing in Frank's "Sci-Fi Medley" and the huge amount of spin-off toys visible in those great promo picture, of which more in a minute. 

This was particularly exciting, a copy of one of Chris' rare solo records from 1977 although it would be later recorded with the band. "Baiser" sounds like nothing like The Freshies brand of buzzsaw-riffing power pop and comes across more like a bit of upbeat Elton John or even Gilbert O'Sullivan. Comparisons can be made both backwards to The Doors' version of "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" and forwards to Scissor Sisters' "Laura" (and by that extension the theme tune to "Thomas The Tank Engine" too.) The B-side is equally radio-friendly pop with the sort-of-ballad "Last".  

"Another Incomplete Razz Record Sleeve" as it says, this is a front cover for the Freshies last proper single before being signed by MCA "No Money" and "Oh Girl", both brilliant buzzing pop numbers that point to the way their songwriting was heading.

Originally appearing on his ambitious double album "5/9/88" the baffling "The Squid Is Correct" was a sketch parodying game shows in which Little Frank takes on "Dave" a Morse Code-communicating pygmy whilst a squid bubbles on incomprehensibly in the background. It was revived I'm assuming as a title for the quiz section in one of Frank's live shows. Whether they also won a trip to Hollywood to write and direct an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" as Little Frank did is another matter. 

This is the biggest mystery of the box to me with what appears to be a section of storyboard although for what is anybody's guess. Unless you know, then tell us! 

One of those ace, top and fantastic shots of Frank in his extremely cluttered room surrounded by pop culture tat, in particular sci-fi stuff and lots and lots of Beatles memorabilia, undoubtedly Sievey's main obsession. Lower down is Little Frank in the same room having a lovely rest. I must get this framed soon as its wonderful. 

(Open the image above in a new tab to see a bigger version.)

Frank returned properly in 2006 after threatening to for a while with this no-budget show for Channel M in which he followed on from his "Fantastic Shed Show" format of bringing in guests, some of whom got it and most of whom just looked terrified. The "Proper Telly Show" was unique however in that its original airing would be in black and white whilst the repeats would be in colour. I used to watch it at my friend Andy's house on Saturday afternoon as I didn't have Sky or live in the Manchester area. Sadly Channel M shut down in 2012 and now there's That's Manchester whose budget makes the original station look like the golden age of Hollywood. This particular flyer references what would be the second run of the series which you can helpfully watch here

Here's a lovely little home made fan mail out promoting all the Freshies pre-MCA output. You can tell Chris did it because the spelling is atrocious but when you're an all rounder in showbiz and pop star like what he was, spelling is for other people to worry about. On the inside...

...a reprint of a Sounds piece written by friend and future biographer Mick Middles

A couple of flyers, including one for a gallery which had a Frank exhibit in February 1999. The inside read as follows: 

"Hello fantastic art fans...Frank Sidebottom here actually... and I hope you will all come and see my... ace,... fantastic... and top mixed multi-media extravaganza art thingy... it has absolutely everything in it including felt tip pen drawings (£1.99 a set); poster paint (bit more expensive) pictures; one oil (you need to be a millionaire); pencils / waxes / charcoals / chalks (dirt cheap); videos / slides (all the time) plus super 8mm (selective days weather permitting); fashion; football memorabilia; sci-fi stuff; private photos and not so private photos; original record sleeves; comic strip artwork; sculptures; posters; badges and a cup! In fact everything from my life in show-biz that I can find... (and a bit more too).

Unfortunately there will be some puppets and their art too... (which is absolutely bobbins!) but little Frank said he'd tell my mum if I didn’t let him in the show.

L.S. Lowry (only joking... its me really ... you know it is... it really is... you know ...)

Frank Sidebottom."

There was also a booklet for something called "Denigration Now" which seemed to be a post-main label, pre-Sidebottom art project illustrating songs in various ways, some of which would end up on a fanclub cassette and possibly a video although tracking anything like that down is a nightmare. 

The collage centre of the booklet which is probably making a big statement but mostly just full of tits. What would Frank's mum say? (Nothing because she is a fictional construct.)

And at the bottom of the box, my certificate from Chris' brother to say that its all legitimately from his house although based on the items I received I don't think that was ever in any doubt. The business card and screw were also in there. An actual screw owned by Chris Sievey! Gosh! 

(open in new window to see full sized)

Did I learn anything about the internal workings of Chris Sievey's mind from all this? God no, people better than me have been trying for years so I haven't the slightest chance but its a fun collection of things that brought him pleasure, however ephemerally, and added into the rich mix of madness that was his musical and television output. Whether he'd want all his stuff giving out to fans all over the world (did anyone else get one of these? I'd love to know and be jealous at what you got!) is a moot point but I'd like to think he'd get a kick of me spending an afternoon going through all this and wondering what the hell it all meant. In the end it probably meant nothing but a good laugh and sometimes thats all you need. Thanks Chris.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Being Frank About Chris: Mr Sidebottom's Early Adventures

When Chris Sievey died aged just 54, it felt like a little bit of air had permanently been taken out of the world - a world increasingly resembling the big fibre glass and paper mâché head of Frank Sidebottom, the character for whom he was best known for playing from 1985 up to his death in June 2010. I say known but few people were ever as private or unseen as Sievey once he began to inhabit the giant bonce of Timperley's favourite son.

When his passing was announced, respects poured in from all corners of the world, tribute concerts were organised, a statue was crowd-funded, many articles was written and a documentary went into production, along with the Sidie-inspired film "Frank" loosely based on author Jon Ronson's time in Frank / Chris' band. Most important of all though was that the majority of the Sidebottom back catalogue was finally given a release with "Fantastic Show Biz Box Set" which compiled many of his independently released EPs and his two full length records "5:9:88" and "13:9:88". All the fan favourites were there - "Christmas Is Really Fantastic", "Guess Who’s Been On Match Of The Day?", "Timperley Sunset", "Mr Custard" etc - but even more excitingly, his very earliest EPs for EMI were released on iTunes and Spotify, much of which sadly isn't as known due to being out of print for decades but deserves to be.

Its easy to forget thanks to Frank's wonderful showbiz-obsessed yet thoroughly suburban life and huge personality, not to mention the rich world of characters he invented around him, but the songs themselves were funny, charming and incredibly original even when he was performing covers which would be the thing which broke Sievey into the big time in the first place. So I'd like to redress that balance with a look and a listen to the very earliest music put out under the Sidebottom moniker. But first: history.

If you've a passing knowledge of Chris Sievey's non-Frank career you may know he used to be in a New Wave pop band called the Freshies who that very nearly 'made it' when they signed a three single deal with MCA Records on the strength of a number of self-released songs on Chris' own label Razz Records, in particular the wonderfully catchy "I'm In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk" which was re-recorded minus the record store name (becoming "A Certain Manchester Megastore") for fear of advertising, although the single sleeve cheekily alluded to its original title with a well-placed Virgin plastic bag.

The single doubles as both a love letter to an unseen record clerk and a "you'll see!" recounting of all the labels that have so far turned him down. From all accounts, the single got reasonable radio play but only peaked at No.54 hampered, according to their best of sleeve notes, by a postal strike meaning the sales figures couldn't be delivered to update the top 40. This revelling in failure looms large in many of Chris Sievey's lyrics, both romantically and professionally. 1980 single "No Money" tellingly starts with the line "My mum and Dad told me / if you're gonna make music / you'd better make money" but ends with handclaps and a general sense that it'll all work out in the end, a mindset that would clearly follow on into his work as Frank Sidebottom.

The two releases that followed "Megastore" were just as good but equally success free. "Wrap Up The Rockets And Gonna Get Better" is a tongue-in-cheek seven minute 'Jim Steinman meets Jim Dale' rock epic (albeit separated onto two sides on the 7 inch) about nuclear war, a subject on many people's minds at the time thanks to the recent election of trigger-happy former movie cowboy Ronald Reagan and icy relations with the USSR. There's none of the doom and gloom of your standard anti-nuke single though with the band - at this point consisting of Sievey, Rick Sarko on bass, drummer (and Frank Sidebottom's future manager) Mike Doherty and Barry Spencer on guitar - sounding magnificent and fully playing up to the Queen-esque pomposity the song deserves with Chris offering the not unreasonable suggestion "If we scrap our defence plans / thats 12 grand each for everybody in the UK / I'd buy a sports car / but I wouldnt go far / just up to Rhyl". 

The final RCA single was equally as left-field taking the form of a romantic ballad of sorts dedicated not to a romantic partner but the frustration of not being able to track down an elusive record. "I Can't Get "Bouncing Babies" By The Teardrop Explodes" referred to the rare second 7" by Julian Cope's then-cult group released on Zoo Records in 1979 and is an oddly touching and sympathetic tale of musical obsession with the traditional chugging buzzsaw guitar replaced by gentle keyboard which wouldn't sound out of place on Radio 2 at the time. A eagle eyed buyer of both songs might assume Sievey eventually got his prize as both the front and back cover of "I Cant Get..." are a parody of "Bouncing Babies" sleeve. Boing boing. Sadly by the time The Freshies' tribute came out, The Teardrop Explodes were breaking through to the top ten whilst Chris and his band were back to indie releases, although they still had a few great singles left in them before they split as a full group such as the bubblegum bounce of "If You Really Love Me, Buy Me a Shirt" and terrific "Dancin' Doctors".

Around the same time, Sievey was also involved with a terrific and yet incredibly obscure collaboration with Graham Fellows who had already tasted fame thanks to "Jilted John" and was a long way off creating versatile singer / songwriter John Shuttleworth. Under the name "Going Red?" and released on Razz Records"Some Boys" was a cheeky, mildly homo-erotic pop advice column from a teen magazine about body cleanliness. Sadly future collaborations were not to be with the two men seemingly falling out permanently. A huge shame because this is a fantastic pop record that would have been a treat to see on BBC Four's TOTP repeats.

After The Freshies, Chris continued to pioneer in his own way with the brilliant if frustratingly hard 1984 band management simulator game "The Biz" (which, ironically, after his earlier issues with "Megastore" was released by Virgin Games with a prize competition to play live with Chris if you could get to number one and several Freshies songs on the other side of the tape, plus an interview with "The Freshies biggest fan". More on that in a moment...)  which had been preceeded a year earlier by some short ZX81 games on the B-side of his solo single "Camouflage", possibly the biggest loss to the charts of all the songs mentioned to far - a bit of synth-sodden power-pop produced by the genuine legend Martin Hannett. The single was even more special by the fact Chris had programmed a "video" to be played along with the song for the B-side and thanks to Ben Soundhog, we can all finally enjoy it as intended (song starts about a minute in) below.

This was far from the first video Sievey had had a hand in though as rudimentary clips appear online for a handful of singles, presumably taken from their home-made "Razzvizz" tapes, now quite hard to track down. Its on one of these releases that clips are linked with appearances from that bloke we heard was "The Freshies' biggest fan". In fact you can see him at the start of this video, you can't miss him...

Yes, the permanently 35 years old Francis Gordon Sidebottom had finally emerged from Chris' brain and largely fully formed, as heard in 1985 when a demo cassette seemingly done to amuse himself and limited to just 250 copies entitled "Frank's Firm Favourites" (featuring what we'd come to know as the unique Sidebottom take on "Every Breath You Take", Bowie's "Five Years", "Bohemian Rhapsody" and as a cheeky nod to his real life identity "Bouncing Babies") started doing the rounds of record companies who were equal parts baffled and amused but was quickly snapped up as part of a three single deal with EMI who allowed Chris / Frank to revive their dormant Regal Zonophone label "on HP through their Xmas Club scheme". Due to his new deal, Sievey would give the remaining "Firm Favourites" demos away with his own album "The Johnny Radar Story", which would be the first release on Chris' new personal record label 11:37, named after the time he was born.

The all new "Frank's Firm Favourites" would ditch the Bowie and Bouncing Babies for new recordings of "Anarchy In The U.K.", "God Save The Queen", "Material Boy" (definitely not GIRL!) and a "Popular Medley" full of recent chart hits, almost all of which have remained well known thus keeping the song fun and fresh for new listeners. Its a hardy miserable bigger who wouldn't crack a smile at Frank's enthusiastic approach to "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" - in Frank's case pronounced "ree-cord", "The War Song, "What Is Love?", "Last Christmas", "Wouldn't It Be Good" and, in particular, the sensitive Frankie Goes To Hollywood ballad "The Power Of Love". Only "Won't You Hold My Hand" by King lets the side down by being totally forgotten by people not in Paul King's immediate family.

For those who've never heard a Frank Sidebottom recording, how best to describe it? Some say outsider art. Others say its tuneless nonsense. But it definitely almost always features Frank, his banjolele and maybe some keyboards plus frequent references to his home town of Timperley, mention living at home with his mum (who was to never know of his showbiz pretensions as "she'd go up the wall and across the ceiling"), things being "fantastic" or "bobbins" and his big finisher line "You know it is. It really is. Thank you." Much like seeing Vic and Bob or Monty Python for the first time, its very easy to forget how different and absolutely odd this act was to a mainstream audience not used to Frank's world. Indeed, I know of several people who were put off by the head alone, which at the start was a even creepier - which could explain why this single ultimately wasn't a hit, despite him promoting it anywhere he could...and yes that is Tony Slattery...

EMI and Frank tried again that November with "Oh Blimey Its Christmas", the first of many festively themed songs by the big headed one tried to enjoy himself despite the fact that "the social have stopped my dole" with mentions for great British traditions such as the "special Radio and TV Times", aunts with bad breath, expensive Christmas cards and erm...drinking a bath full of beer. There's also a mention of an unexplained Christmas tree that Frank needs to replace "following last years incident". Its bouncy and jaunty but most importantly, the first original Sidebottom song to be released following the previous EP's covers. As with that record, there's another medley as Frank and his new puppet sidekick (and subject of all his frustration - a new side to Sidie we hadn't yet seen) Little Frank perform a tribute to Australian culture with snatches of Waltzing Matilda, the theme tune to Skippy and that bloke with the glasses whose in jail now and we don't talk about. The Australian theme is kept running as Frank essays Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime" in honour of the opposite season taking place at the other side of the world.

The 7" single is rounded off with a short knees up version of "Auld Lang Syne", whilst the 12" adds a cover of recent Dream Academy hit "Life In A Northern Town" and another Sidie original "Greengrocer on The Corner" in which we get our first mention of Emerson Lake who would soon become an integral part of the Sidebottom world both on record and at live gigs when played by Piccadilly Radio DJ and friend Mark Radcliffe.

Before getting onto his final EMI single, its worth mentioning Frank's association with "Oink!" a genuinely anarchic, rude and odd comic from Fleetway with a very short shelf-life (just 68 issues over two and a half years) but a huge cult following online, much like Sidie himself. Frank would eventually get his own regular strip, drawn by Sievey, in the comic from issue 16 (see the full page and more here on the great Oink Blog) which would often tie-in with his appearances on Saturday morning TV show "No.73", not to mention his fabulous record releases.

The porcine periodical was the perfect fit for the unique Sidebottom humour which already had one foot in the world of music thanks to the involvement of ex-Fall guitarist and future radio sidekick Marc Riley and issue one eschewed the usual rubbishy free gifts in favour of a flexi disc containing two songs - "The Oink Song" and "Oink Rap". When these inevitably wore out, readers could order a proper 7" vinyl copy which had an all-new B-side "The Oink Get Together Song" in which the comic's characters come together under the baton of none other than Frank (not aided at all by Little Frank) in a neat updating of The Bonzo Dog Band's "The Intro And The Outro". More on them in a second.

Coming to the end of his contract and with no hit in sight, the oft-mentioned stops were pulled out for the final EMI single which would be a tribute to all things science fiction, one of Frank - and Chris' - biggest obsessions, a fact borne out by the cover art which featured a pastiche of sixties comic TV21's logo and Frank drawn as various different TV and film characters including Captain Scarlet, Superman, Mr Spock, Yoda, Tom Baker's Doctor Who and, bang up to date for the period, even a Zeroid from Terrahawks.

On the record itself was Frank's strongest material to date which, depending on the format, featured a cover ("I'm The Urban Spaceman" by The Bonzos, a band whose eccentric behaviour and sideways take on pop music was clearly a huge influence on Sievey) and the now obligatory medley - this time of sci-fi themes, including Star Trek, Stingray, Space 1999 and erm...Bill and Ben. But the package as a whole was sold on an all new track entitled "Oh Supermum", a play on the title Laurie Anderson's extraordinary 1981 hit "O Superman", a convoluted but extremely catchy tale of Frank building a rocket to take on a "naughty alien race" called The Kilvertians have stolen "the vital lard supply" from Emerson Lake's shop.


Filled out on the 12 inch with more new tracks - "Robot Frank" and the superb "Space Is Ace" (which Little Frank thinks is bobbins because Big Frank wont let him go) plus short covers of the "Fireball XL-5" and "Close Encounters" themes, plus Bowie's "Life On Mars", its a wonderful package of funny stuff, gorgeous artwork - there was even a limited edition picture disc of "Batbottom and Bobbins" - and absolute joy, it is an eternal shame it didn't cross over to the charts.

But, while Chris Sievey never would have that one recognisable smash hit, maybe the main product was the concept of Frank himself who was gaining a bigger profile thanks to his appearances on radio and TV. Even after Sievey's death, his DIY "lets put on the show right here!" influence can be seen and heard today all over from YouTube to Bandcamp and his songs will always be sung by a small but devoted audience around the world.

Just don't tell his mum...

If you'd like to hear the music mentioned in this article some of The Freshies' material, both major label and independent, can be found on Cherry Red's 1996 compilation "The Very Very Best Of... Some Long And Short Titles". Its a great set of songs but in desperate need of a remaster and missing quite a few singles in favour of some odd demo bits and B-sides. Some of these turned up in a boxset entitled "The Early Singles" aimed at Japan in 2013 but this remains stupidly expensive and reall it'd be quite nice to just to get it all out there on CD and MP3 please. iTunes // Spotify 

Frank got two best of releases on the same label - "ABC and D" in 1997, which features Frank being reminded by Little Frank throughout about everyone they've ever worked with has got famous (including Caroline Aherne, Chris Evans, Mark and Lard etc.) except them and inevitably "EDF and G" in 2009. This latter release has some of the tracks from the former repeated after a decision to cram more on the first set lead to an experiment in which some songs played through the left channel and others through the right which was a dreadful cacophony for anyone without the ability to split. The aforementioned "Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Showbiz Box Set" is absolutely essential although mastered from the original vinyl as presumably the original tapes are long gone. You can buy it here (its out of print at Cherry Red's site it seems, as are the compilations) or head to Spotify which has pretty much everything from EMI onwards...

...You know it does. It really does. Thank you.