Frank Sidebottom: The man behind the papier mâché mask
Working for the comedian and singer Frank Sidebottom was an education and an oddly profound experience, recalls a one-time member of his backing band
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Tuesday 22 April 2014
On any other stage, with any other performer, it would have been excruciatingly embarrassing, almost nightmarish. The song we were playing had ground to a halt, and the singer's attempts to count the band back in were going spectacularly awry. "One, two, three, oh! – no, look, it's one, two, three, four, and then you come in. OK?"
Yes, I mumbled, from behind my keyboard. "Right – one, two, three, four, FIVE." Oh, boy. This was almost an act of spontaneous self-sabotage on his part. "It's one, two, three, four, five, then I say 'oh', and then you come in, OK?" We nodded. He then turned to the audience and shouted a triumphant "Thank you!" having decided to end the song there rather than take it any further. The crowd cheered the glorious ineptitude of this bizarre figure, marching back and forth while sporting a huge papier-mâché head. It's what they had paid to witness, after all: the haphazard but strangely compelling world of Frank Sidebottom.
Frank, for those unfamiliar with his work, was a comedic creation of the mid-1980s whose ceaseless ambition for fame stood in stark contrast to both his musical talent and the mundanity of everyday life in his home town of Timperley: shopping for his mum, going to watch Altrincham FC and constructing puppet shows in his bedroom.
Completely free of cynicism, unrelentingly positive and hilariously self-absorbed, Frank plundered a rich seam of British absurdity that on a good night could fill venues with the sound of helpless laughter, and on a bad one provoke outright hostility. Naturally, Frank would react to either of these with the same carefree ebullience. A well-forged alliance of primitive punk rock aesthetic and Phoenix Nights-style variety show, Frank Sidebottom's act was pantomime for my generation: when he sang "Guess who's been on Match Of The Day?" we all knew we had to sing back "You have, in your big shorts". Yes, I know, it's hard to explain. Bear with me.
Frank's creator and the man beneath the papier mâché head, Chris Sievey, died in June 2010 while recovering from cancer treatment. A few weeks earlier, Frank had performed his last London show underneath a pub on Highbury Corner with me and three friends, the London unit of his ever-changing Oh Blimey Big Band.
Rhodri Marsden (bottom left) with Frank Sidebottom and The Oh Blimey Big Band members in 2008 The gig had been hastily arranged at the last minute and was poorly attended; perhaps 30 people were watching as we lurched our way through cover versions of songs such as "All The Young Dudes" and "We Are The Champions" with no rehearsal whatsoever. Over the years, we'd come to understand that this lack of rehearsal wasn't important; if Frank demanded that we do something, we just did it. Backstage, before he put the head on and transformed into Frank, Chris would smile reassuringly at us. "It'll be fine, lads," he said. "It'll be fine." And we knew that everything would be OK. We were safe in his hands.
Jon, a character in the imminently released film Frank, finds himself making a similar leap of faith. A fresh-faced young man who dreams of playing in a band, he unexpectedly finds himself asked to fill in on keyboards for a touring American group whose eccentric singer, played by Michael Fassbender, wears a papier-mâché head. There's no rehearsal, he's told, just turn up at 9.15pm and play. Disconcerted by this breach of musical protocol, Jon nevertheless edges his way nervously onstage at the appointed time and is amazed and delighted to find himself participating in the production of a truly glorious noise, while Frank, evidently a born star, gyrates in the flashing lights.
For a moment, Jon is transported – but the glory is short-lived. Technical issues curtail the set and the band members scream at each other in fury as Frank glumly walks off. That would never have happened during a Frank Sidebottom show, but, as co-writer Jon Ronson has continually had to point out to people who seem furious that Fassbender doesn't speak in a squeaky Mancunian accent, the film isn't about Frank Sidebottom; it's a film about the way that the creativity and adventurous spirit of someone such as Frank can profoundly affect the lives of those around him.
Ronson played keyboards for Frank Sidebottom some 15 years prior to my own comparatively brief stint in the Oh Blimey Big Band. This coincided with the commercial zenith of Frank's career, when support slots with Bros and Gary Glitter placed him in front of thousands of people who almost certainly didn't "get it", and probably never would. But Chris Sievey wasn't particularly bothered, and by association, nor was Frank; the permanently bemused expression on the papier-mâché head was a beguiling front for an emancipatory crusade against commercial interests.
This unique and wilfully obtuse character pandered to no one and yet somehow, for a while at least, managed to eke out a meagre living. For a young man such as Ronson, with huge ambition and an achingly cool record collection, this must have been akin to a utopian dream, and it's not surprising that he was seduced by it. His fictionalised account of being in a band led by an erratic visionary will strike a chord with anyone who has ever played in a struggling group, travelled absurd distances in a Transit van to perform to virtually no one, gone hungry to afford to record an album, and always retained a misguided belief that success is just around the corner.
"You're just going to have to go with this," says a fellow band member to Jon, played in the film by Domhnall Gleeson, when he voices disquiet about the band's approach and Frank's unusual behaviour. (Unlike Chris Sievey, Michael Fassbender's Frank never removes his head and indeed showers with it covered in a large plastic bag.) But Jon is soon persuaded by the "sense of free expression" afforded to him by being involved. All traditional rules of music making are thrown out of the window, and the band end up stuck in a remote house for months on end, experiencing abuse, hunger and mind-bending musical experiments.
This has direct parallels with stories that surround the American musician Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, and the creation of his most famous and extraordinary album, Trout Mask Replica. Members of Beefheart's band have since given detailed accounts of the oppressive, almost cult-like atmosphere in the house where they lived and worked, but there's also the sense that the trauma was almost accepted as necessary in order to be involved in something that extraordinary. And so it is with the character of Jon, who ends up giving more of himself to the project than he ever envisaged.
Playing in a band with the real Frank Sidebottom was, in contrast to the film, entirely free of trauma. It was an education, an oddly profound experience that made you realise that the normal way of doing things can be painfully dull, and creating something wonderful often requires a bit of bravery and a certain amount of rank stupidity. By actively rebelling against preparation and proficiency and making the decision to go onstage with little idea of what would happen next, Frank made certain that the unlikely would happen. Not for him the daily rehash of a slick show that had been practised to within an inch of its life; indeed, as Ronson recounts in an ebook accompanying the film, the one occasion when Frank Sidebottom attempted such a thing ended badly. The fans hated it and felt betrayed; what they wanted was spontaneous creativity and unpredictable behaviour. Sievey learned from this, restoring Frank to the bumbling, slightly useless character we'd come to know and love.
Before Sievey died, he mentioned to us in the dressing room before a show that there were two film projects under way that were related to Timperley's most famous son. "There's one about Frank, and one based on Frank," he said. Both those films are set to appear in the next few months; Ronson's Frank is released in cinemas on 9 May, followed by a feature-length documentary directed by Steve Sullivan, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, featuring interviews with friends, family and former band members. The latter was funded by a highly successful online appeal, as was the statue of Frank Sidebottom that now stands proudly in Timperley, as were Sievey's funeral expenses back in 2010 (he always spent everything he earned on creating new projects). The tens of thousands of pounds that has been raised since his death is palpable proof of the enormous affection in which Frank is held by those of a certain age; they may not always have shown up to his gigs, but they never forgot that he once provided them with a euphoric escape route from grim reality.
"I want to be Frank," says one of Jon's bandmates near the beginning of the film, with a wistful look on his face. Few of us have the capability to be Frank. But trying to be Frank, even just a little bit, can be supremely liberating. Everyone should try it.
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