The legendary Frank Sidebottom leaves a bobbins Timperley legacy after passing away this week
When I was growing up, I watched comics like Les Dawson and Eric Morecambe on TV make millions laugh through the art of 'understatement'. Small failures were turned into belly-laughs and tearful hysterics, little things like messing up a piano-piece but gamely soldiering on. Tommy Cooper cocked up magic-trick after magic-trick, yet the audience begged for more. In a similar vein, I was lucky enough to see the inimitably clumsy, yet easily forgiven, Frank Sidebottom just a couple of months ago, as support to the marvellous John Cooper Clarke at the Bloomsbury Theatre.
Calling Frank a 'support act' didn't work because he was a unique performer, not least because of his rather unsettling appearance and his belief that his failure to string three chords together on his tinny electronic-piano could be a road to success. After all, a man dressed in an ill-fitting suit with an out-sized papier-mache head with huge staring eyes, a high-pitched voice that sounded like it was spoken through a kazoo and a wonky mouth, wasn't an obvious recipe for laughs back in the early 80s. But it was. Another hilarious Northerner, a sort-of John Shuttleworth on medication if you like, he must surely have been an influence on Peter Kay's wonderful "Pheonix Nights".
Chris Sievey, Frank's creator and performer 'under the head', initially began entertaining with The Freshies, a harmless punk-pop outfit who gained attention with a charming little ditty called "I'm In Love With The Girl On a Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk". Radio stations baulked at the original title, with 'A Certain' being used to replace the word 'Virgin' (the retail chain weren't over-keen for it to be used either). He followed this up with the single, "I Can't Get 'Bouncing Babies', by The Teardrop Explodes" in 1981, took a punt on two more EPs, before unleashing his comical creation onto the world.
Eventually enrolling 'Little Frank' (an often badly assembled cardboard standee of Frank himself), Sievey took his Frank Sidebottom character all over the UK including student nights and festivals, as well as releasing hilariously 'basic' renditions of Queen, Abba, Kylie and, most famously for me, The Fall's "Hit The North", a feature of many live appearances. Watching him persuade a London audience to sing-along to that song was an irony missed by a few, relished by many.
Subtle nuances and gentle parody never hurt anyone and his surrealism, cover-versions, audience-participation and crap props were all part of the make-up. Even when John Peel played his crazy songs, often devoted to his beloved Manchester-suburb Timperley, it was still something you laughed at. You could safely take your kids along to his shows - he scared more adults I think. His recorded legacy, although huge, is largely out of print but I can recommend the "A,B,C & D" collection released a few years back.
Cheers Frank. You were proper bobbins.
Chris Sievey passed away from cancer, aged just 54.