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.


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