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Madness that will be missed

Music journalist and author Mick Middles remembers his good friend Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, who died yesterday

Published on June 26th 2010.


Madness that will be missed
 

FRANK Sidebottom was lovably selfish….eternally 13 going-on-35 and lost in a kind of naiveté that most of us abandoned before our fourteenth birthday. We could still glimpse that state of youthful wonderment, though, through his daft DIY showbiz antics.

His immense three-decade career would turn him into – I strongly suggest – the greatest northern cult-comic hero of the age. Sadly, that's a claim that will continue to strengthen. Immortality for Frank. Not so for my friend Chris

Chris Sievey, Frank’s creator, was an entirely different person. A huge and gloriously mischievous talent locked in mild-mannered intelligence. A genuine artist, too, whose impish muse caused him to surge this way and that, creating Frank along the way…but many other things.

I first encountered Chris in 1978. Fronting his off-kilter power-pop band, The Freshies, he was clad in pink corduroy, playing a pink guitar through pink painted amplification. The occasion was a low-key Tuesday evening gig at Oldham’s rugged Boundary pub where even the songs seemed to evoke a pinkish hue: a set full of gently ironic pop songs - soft riffs covering a raft of ideas.

Within the monochrome vision of post-punk Manchester, discovering The Freshies was like chancing upon an untouched tin of watercolours, of possibility. Writing the gig up for Sounds – and the many Freshies gigs and singles that followed – I attempted to fully convey my enthusiasm. It didn’t entirely work. The people at Sounds didn’t quite grasp such open-hearted talent.

But, at the eventual close of play, it took just one minor and quirky hit single – I’m In Love with the Girl from the Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk – for all the wider world would really know about the shifting sands of The Freshies output.

Throughout all this I am proud to declare closeness to Chris Sievey. In the early years we would spend numerous New Year’s Eves together, plotting some kind of attack. It never quite happened. But his company, his talent were endlessly inspiring. At the time he lived in a flat in Timperley – where else? - with his wife and two children. He has skilfully transformed the kids' room into a Beatles, circa Yellow Submarine, extravaganza.

Obsessed by the “Fabs”, he also plotted Beatles books in dizzying detail. He would have made a biographer blessed with serenity and strength…had that confounded muse not kept tugging him in myriad directions.

Even The Freshies – still one of my favourite bands of all time – became a fluctuating affair, with drummers and guitarists, unable to cope with the wit, perception and aloofness of Sievey's muse. It was untameable.

There was one constant. That impish aesthetic. Asked to produce a nuclear protest single, for example, Sievey arrived with the completed ‘Wrap up the Rockets’. A gloriously juvenile hymn to nuclear disarmament and a precursor to the naiveté synonymous with Frank.

There was something else…a pastel-coloured warmth to his native Altrincham, the Manchester suburb that – even in its current state of trendification – always seemed to stretch from the harder fringes of the city towards rural Cheshire.

This environment always suited and inspired Chris Sievey in a similar way that, say, Prestwich, inspired and became a part of Mark E. Smith. There IS weight to that comparison. I introduced the two artists to each other during my own wedding ceremony on, significantly, it seems, the night that Ian Curtis died. Incredibly, they hit it off. Never did two people seem quite the antithesis of each other…and yet strangely similar. Mark, I know, sensed this and, in later years, always spoke fondly of Chris….and of Frank.

Before the inglorious implosion of all the possibilities within The Freshies, Chris had designed and sold a rock biz computer game, devised an incredibly elaborate “wind-up” designed to gather record company attention (it failed) and countless wheezes, scams and schemes.

And then came Frank!

Frank was unearthed as the number one, make-shift fan of The Freshies.

On the band’s promo radio tour for “Megastore”, Frank would turn up at radio stations to lugubriously harangue their receptionists and creative controllers alike, his personality building – literally, day by day, until two separate entities became one reality. Chris and Frank…Frank and Chris. Kinda the same…kinda different.

1985 was a big breakthrough year for Frank Sidebottom, his identity cementing itself on the Manchester and North West underground, performing at The International Club, The Hacienda, The Citadel and endless university dates. In addition, we published his self-drawn Frank’s Firm Page in the glossy Muze Magazine.

Only those lost in a maddening haze of political correctness failed to appreciate the joke. One would see him in the studio of Piccadilly Radio, performing wildly in front of his Cor Blimey Big Band, which included Radio 2's Mark Radcliffe – in character as greengrocer Mr Emerson Lake – on drums. Frank’s World was in the early stage of creation.

A friend of his wife's, Caroline Aherne, adopted the persona of Frank’s imaginary neighbour, Mrs Merton. Just another star taking an inspiration and a first step from the ferocious mind of Frank…or was it the mind of Chris? Soon things became slightly clouded. Then the cloud thickened.

The career of Frank Sidebottom is simply unprecedented. A household name…maybe not? But his immense three-decade career would turn him into – I strongly suggest – the greatest northern cult-comic hero of the age. Sadly, that is a claim which will continue to strengthen. Immortality for Frank. Not so, for my friend, Chris.

I have too many memories to impart here. Wandering in ’85, through Timperley with Frank, enjoying the fond acceptance of the locals. “Hi Frank, how are you today?” said the newsagent, in complete acknowledgement of a man in a papier-mache head.

Years later, along with Cheshire journalist Chris Ewan, taking Chris Sievey into the heart of Cheshire…watching him transform into Frank and bewitch the shoppers and office workers of Alderley Edge….seeing Frank launch into a all fronts blazing attack on a hapless Santa Claus at Alton Towers….endlessly parading in big shorted football parody, leaping onto any trend that came his way. Frank, Frank, relentless Frank.

There is a one touching story of a letter-day Chris Sievey taking a new girlfriend to see Oasis at Maine Road. Although the girl was unversed in matters Frank, her interest was aroused when Liam Gallagher perceptively dedicated ‘Rock’n’Roll Star’ to “Frank Sidebottom”, Quite right, Liam.

I saw Chris…and Frank, on two occasions within the past two weeks. Firstly at a Sidebottom gig at Warrington’s Pyramid Arts Centre. Frank suitably buoyant onstage…but back in the darkness of backstage, Chris seemed rather more distant, sitting, smoking by the open window; frail but warm and full of hope. His cancer had become the news and the Warrington audience had seemed strangely passive. I admit that it was an odd gig and not and as relentlessly side-splitting as a similar set in the same venue three years previously.

Two days later I briefly spoke with Chris once again. This was at a lavish celebration of septuagenarian Manchester music legends, Bruce Mitchell (of Factory Durutti Column et al) and, more tellingly, his old mentor, Tosh Ryan. Chris drifted past me with a wink, and vanished into the crowd of ageing Manchester musical illuminate. That. Too, seemed fitting and slightly ghostly.

Yesterday, I received four press releases telling of impending adventures of Frank Sidebottom. However, all day I felt heavy with visions of Frank and his cardboard Nemeses, Little Frank. I was tearful before the news hit my computer screen.

Chris Sievey: 1956- June 21, 2010

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11 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Guy LoveladyJune 22nd 2010.

You say it like you see it. and you see it crystal clear every time. love and peace x

shifty edJune 22nd 2010.

Frank was a STAR - Saw him regulary when at Liverpool Poly especially his Frank's Lectures during the summer hols inc great songs like Guess whose been on Match of the Day? You have in your big shorts. Genius

AnonymousJune 22nd 2010.

This is one of the best tributes I've seen.

Frank fanJune 22nd 2010.

Very moving piece.

AnonymousJune 22nd 2010.

Frank would cry if he read that and little Frank would go soggy... Brilliantly touching obituary. Life's a shit, but people like Chris made it a lot more entertaining. Take care.

Mitch PooleJune 22nd 2010.

This is a lovely piece and a great tribute. Chris and Franks departure from this world has moved me greatly. I hope its a comfort to Chris's family, Little Frank and Frank's mum that thier presence touched so many people in such a happy, positive and endearing way. It is also a lovely tribute from the fans that so much money has been raised toward Chris' funeral (£15,000 as of last night). Chris and Frank were unique, original and very funny and the world is a duller place without them. Yes it is, it really is

Tricky WooJune 22nd 2010.

Yes, used to know Frank years ago. Hardly anyone knew what he looked like, you knew it was him after the gig though, there would be this bloke absolutely saturated in sweat after performing in that head for two hours. His family can't afford to pay for his funeral. very sad.

Tony SchumacherJune 22nd 2010.

I was lucky enough to gig with him once, lovely guy, sadly missed. Lovely piece in his memory.

Prof ChucklebuttyJune 22nd 2010.

Thank you Mick Middles and Liverpool Confidential for this lovely tribute to a lovely man and comic genius. By far the most touching and fitting piece I have seen..and I have googled quite a few. What with this and Tony Shumacher's Father's Day, you have well and truly put the readers through it this week. Laughing, Tears and Snot Bubbles. And by golly it does yer good - and does you proud.

Arthur AdamsJune 22nd 2010.

I was also at the Warrington Pyramid gig. I don't know whether we were passive compared to audiences at other Frank gigs or not, but I do know that we had a good time. Before the gig we were talking to the people next to us about Chris's cancer and I heard other people doing the same, so perhaps that is why we were a bit subdued.Frank started a bit late and I wondered then whether the delay was caused by his illness. Then, part way through his act, he started coughing and took a short while to recover so he was obviously suffering which must be made worse when wearing a giant papier mache head.Having said that, though, Frank put a lot of energy into his performance and was no worse than previous times that I had seen him perform. I was sure that with energy like that he was going to pull through. Sadly, I was very wrong.Any fans who want to contribute to Frank's funeral can find details on Facebook. Just search for Frank's Fantastic Funeral Fund. I believe that any surplus will either be donated to Cancer Research or may go towards creating some sort of memorial for him in Timperley.

Guy LoveladyJune 22nd 2010.

You say it like you see it. and you see it crystal clear every time. love and peace x

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