Frank Sidebottom RIP: An Obituary By John Robb

John Robb pays his respects to the papier-mâché alter-ego of comedian and musician Chris Sievey

It’s hard to believe that Frank Sidebottom is dead. He seemed too surreal, too childlike, too cartoon strip to be bothered with tedious, boring stuff like dying. But it’s true: Frank is no more because his creator Chris Sievey died of complications caused by cancer on June 21st.

Of course we must not mix the two of them up. There is no truth in the scurrilous rumour that Chris Sievey was Frank Sidebottom. I interviewed the pair of them on the phone for The North Will Rise Again, my oral history of Manchester book, and after about an hour of brilliant stuff from Chris I asked him about Frank, figuring he must know something about the nasally comic genius.

The phone went click.


A few minutes later the phone rang and, oddly, it was Frank, coincidentally ringing to sort out an interview. Where Chris was full of funny stories from the fringes of the music scene, Frank was plain weird and hilarious, like a psychotic child running amok in showbiz and using his humour to tear apart the stupidity of that world that had snubbed him for so long.

His tales of Timperley – the Manchester suburb where Ian Brown and John Squire had lived in their youth – were brilliantly skewed piss-takes of the mundanity of the rainy day. I was once in a TV studio and watched him do this utterly mental, but utterly brilliant, musical set in Timperley with a pick up band of lunatics in cheap suits. It was like the One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest bus trip.

The bizarre tension when you confused the pair of them was something that unwitting journalists had often mentioned, and I wasn’t the only one with this experience.

Sievey hated talking about Frank.

There seemed to be some sort of rivalry between the two of them. Altrincham obviously wasn’t big enough for the pair of them, or maybe they were the same person.

Now we will never know.

Chris Sievey had been on the Manchester scene for years. In 1969, as a 14 year old, he travelled to London and wandered into Apple records busking his songs to the later day Beatles. George Harrison loved the songs, but nothing happened as the Beatles were in meltdown at the time.

He was referred to Tony Visconti, who would have done something but was too busy producing ‘Ride A White Swan’. Not disappointed, Sievey returned to Manchester, where he set up his own indie label way before anyone else had thought about doing that kind of thing.

He released loads of cassettes of his songs, and half of Manchester’s musicians passed through his ranks, including a very youthful Billy Duffy from his pre-Cult days, along with future members of Simply Red.

Sievey did the publicity for Rabid records in Manchester; he was also produced by Martin Hannet very early on and did some artwork for John Cooper Clarke. He was already a key figure on the fringes of the scene, with his wild imagination and brilliant pop mind just too far ahead of everyone else plodding along in his wake. In pop, though, there are no awards for being great or first, and Sievey was eternally frustrated.

His band, The Freshies, were perfect pop-punk whose sole semi hit ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk’ got to number 54 in the charts in February 1981 and was lined up for a Top Of the Pops appearance. Sievey was denied his dream opportunity when there was a BBC technicians strike – the story of his life.

The single is nowhere near their best song. His cassettes, which I have a bunch of, were stuffed full of great songs. Classic melodic pop-punk, the kind of stuff that sells millions these days but, back then, was too pop for punk and too punk for pop.

He even invented a very early computer game, but no-one know what he was going on about. Yet again, he was too far ahead. His fervent pop mind was a good decade in advance of everyone else: he also invented board games, songs, musical ideas, schemes and scams before eventually he invented Frank Sidebottom, his curious alter ego whose papier-mâché head, shabby suit and nasal twang were a perfect vehicle for a series of bizarre and weird gags that were dark, strange and utterly hilarious.

Sidebottom was always around, one of those off-the-wall characters that fitted in perfectly on TV shows, at gigs and in recent years touring with John Cooper Clarke, in one of those double bills of genius weirdness that are increasingly rare to find in world where fake comic "oooh I’m a bit mad me" replaces genuine genius eccentricity.

We heard about his cancer a couple of months ago, which was shocking, and were cheered by his never-ending gigs that continued and his Tweets that dared to take the piss out of his illness – including joking about his papier-mâché head losing its hair!

Two weeks ago Frank Sidebottom popped up at Bruce Mitchell’s (Durutti Column drummer and real Manchester legend) 70th birthday party at the Manchester town hall. He looked as fresh faced as ever with those big round eyes, showing little sign of the cruel disease. To be honest, Frank had remained unchanged since he burst onto the showbiz scene a quarter of century ago.

He even did a gig in my local pub the Salutation about a week ago. Funny as fuck to the end.

Manchester mourns another legend.

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