Chris Sievey: The man behind the papier-mâché mask of Frank Sidebottom
Friday 25 June 2010
The Manchester musician and comedian Chris Sievey brought a surreal sense of humour, amazing attention to detail and great fun and dedication to both stages of his career. I first came across him in the late 1970s as a solo artist and the frontman of The Freshies, a punk band who embraced the DIY ethos and released a series of catchy power-pop EPs and singles on Sievey's Razz label.
Eventually, Sievey's unbounded enthusiasm and endearing charm and perseverance won through and MCA licensed "I'm In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk", replaced the Virgin reference with the vague "A Certain..." to appease Richard Branson and the BBC and secure airplay on Mike Read's Radio One Breakfast Show, and The Freshies spent a couple of weeks on the singles charts in February 1981.
In fact, they narrowly missed out on a Top 40 placing and a Top Of The Pops ppearance because a postal strike affected the collection of chart data from the North-west. However, neither the record-shop-themed follow-up "I Can't Get 'Bouncing Babies' by The Teardrop Explodes", nor the anti-war "Wrap Up The Rockets" charted and, after another single on Stiff in 1982 The Freshies broke up.
Sievey had already introduced Frank Sidebottom, a character wearing an over-sized papier-mâché head, as a fan of The Freshies in the video for "Rockets", and developed this oddball comic creation further. His alter ego wore a 1950s-style sharp suit, played the banjo or a Casio keyboard, spoke or sang in a nasal whine and found everything "Fantastic". Ever the optimist, Sidebottom still dreamt of pop stardom.
He name-checked Timperley, the village within the Altrincham area of Greater Manchester where he lived with his mother, at every opportunity, even when adapting Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" – "Is this the real life, or is this just Timperley?" sung with a stuck-on moustache à la Freddie Mercury – the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy In The UK" or "Panic" by The Smiths. He became a fixture of the comedy circuit, a recurrent guest on Mark Radcliffe's Hit The North programme on Radio 5 in 1990, and developed a cult following.
Something of an acquired taste, Sidebottom and his Little Frank puppet sidekick nevertheless proved hugely popular with both children and students. His persona harked back to the days of George Formby but was also the product of a rich Manchester scene which had already seen the emergence of left-of-centre musical acts with a humorous, satirical or poetic bent like Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, the Smirks, Jilted John and John Cooper Clarke. Indeed, Sievey helped nurture the comedic talent of Caroline Aherne, who debuted her Mrs Merton persona on Frank Sidebottom's Radio Timperley, the comedy series he made for Piccadilly Radio, while early incarnations of Sidebottom's Oh Blimey Big Band featured the broadcasters Radcliffe and Marc "Lard" Riley, and were driven by a young upstart called Chris Evans.
Born in 1955 in Ashton-on-Mersey, Sievey was a huge fan of the pop music he would later make gentle fun of, most famously with his take on the Beatles' "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!" for Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, the charity album for Childline, in 1987. He idolised the Fab Four and in 1971 hitchhiked to London with his brother Martin to stage a sit-in at Apple Records in an attempt to secure a deal. They did get to record a session but Apple folded shortly after.
Throughout the rest of the '70s he sent demo tapes to record companies and collected the rejection slips, subsequently publishing them in a booklet packaged with a cassette release, the No-Go Demos, in 1980. He recorded with the drummer Martin Jackson, later of Magazine and Swing Out Sister, and the guitarist Billy Duffy, best known for his work with The Cult, but only began gigging in 1980 when The Freshies settled on a line-up comprising guitarist Barry Spencer, bassist Rick Sarko and former Smirks drummer Mike Doherty, who became his agent when he turned to comedy as Sidebottom, the self-styled Bard of Timperley.
In the mid-1980s, after a spell on the EMI-owned imprint Regal Zonophone – once the home of Formby – he signed to In-Tape Records, the independent label set up by Riley, and also collaborated with him on the satirical comic Oink!, which attempted to mirror the success of Viz and lasted until November 1988. He became a regular on the regional news programme Granada Reports and guested on the Saturday morning children's show No 73. In the early '90s he fronted Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Shed Show which was shown on most of the ITV network, and appeared on the British version of Remote Control, the game show hosted by Anthony H Wilson of Factory Records fame.
Sievey seemed to grow tired of Sidebottom and mothballed the character while he worked on the children's TV shows series Pingu and Bob The Builder at the Altrincham-based Hot Animation company. In 2006, he reappeared on Channel M, the local Manchester TV channel. He exhibited his drawings and animation work at London's Chelsea Space gallery and also presented "An Evening With Frank Sidebottom" at Tate Britain. More recently, he toured with Clarke and had just released a World Cup comedy song entitled "Three Shirts On My Line". He was diagnosed with cancer last month but had been confident of making a recovery.
Paying tribute to Sievey on his Radio 2 show on Monday night, Radcliffe said. "I genuinely believe him to be one of the very few people I met whom I would call a genius. He never became hugely successful – he defined what a cult figure is in many ways. In the North-west he was elevated to cult hero status. Frank Sidebottom was a meticulous comic creation, almost like Hancock. Chris knew every aspect of Frank's world. He knew who his friends were, what he ate for his meals, what his pets were. The character also tapped into this era where everyone wants to be famous without being equipped, either talent-wise or personality-wise, to do it.
"Frank did his Radio Timperley and TV shows from his shed. Doing "Born In Timperley" instead of "Born In The USA", he punctured the grandiose pomposity of pop music while at the same time maintaining that love he had for it. He was also an incredibly gifted and creative artist. Quite often, he would have brilliant ideas and never quite get to the execution of them. In 1983, I remember he brought me a 12in record. One side of it was a computer game called "The Biz" for ZX Spectrum. Everybody said: a computer game, on a disc? Don't be stupid! He was a wonderfully talented bloke. He taught you that life could be viewed slightly differently from how everybody else views it."
Christopher Mark Sievey (Frank Sidebottom), comedian, singer, songwriter, illustrator, animator: born Ashton-on-Mersey 25 August 1955; married (marriage dissolved; three children); died Wythenshawe, Manchester 21 June 2010.
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