The Universe Inside Your Head: Stuart Maconie Recalls the "Real" Frank Sidebottom

By Maconie, Stuart | New Statesman (1996), April 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Universe Inside Your Head: Stuart Maconie Recalls the "Real" Frank Sidebottom


Maconie, Stuart, New Statesman (1996)


The eminent Australian cultural critic Robert Hughes once skewered a wrong-headed standard dismissal of modern art (and specifically Carl Andre's "bricks at the Tate"). It was wrong to say that even a child could do it, he said. In fact, the opposite was true: contrary to appearances, only anybody but a child could do it; it needed the knowingness and intention of adulthood.

I thought of this recently when, moving house, I was trawling nostalgically through a tranche of old vinyl records and came across a copy of Frank Sidebottom's debut album, 5.9.88. On it was written: "To Stuart, with best fantastic regards, Frank". I had friends round at the time and a wistful "Ahh" went up from everyone except their nine-year-old daughter. She looked at the cover dispassionately, suspiciously even, at the stylised, sad-eyed, giant-headed man-child, and concluded: "He's weird."

The man in the papier mache head had something of the child about him, in his irresponsibility if not his appetites. Under his own name, he wrote for the claymation series Pingu, and his most familiar creation did appear from time to time on children's TV and in comics. Yet kids weren't his core audience. A child could get it, sure--the funny voice, the daft get-up, the puppets but adults would find something more: the plangent bottom note in the nasal whine of silliness, the whimsy, absurdity and melancholy in the story of the overgrown, overdressed bloke still living in loving exasperation with his mum in Timperley--and, of course, the frisson that came from knowing that there was in fact a grown man in there, a beery, divorced post-punk musician from Manchester, who died of throat cancer four years ago and was destined for a pauper's funeral until a Twitter and Facebook campaign bought him a decent burial. (Some weird juxtaposition, 21st-century technology preventing a 19th-century fate.)

The man in there was called Chris Sievey. He'd been a minor stalwart of the Manchester music scene with his band the Freshies since the mid-Seventies. Punk's ethos had chimed with his outsider temperament and he had a couple of indie hits with "I Can't Get 'Bouncing Babies' by the Teardrop Explodes" and "I'm In Love With the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk" (later renamed "I'm In Love With the Girl on a Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk"), which reached number 54 in the charts in 1981.

The Freshies produced the world's first multimedia single by including a Sinclair Spectrum game, The Biz, on the B-side. On this, Sievey also first introduced the character that he would become best known for, and that would essentially subsume him for the rest of his adult life. Frank Sidebottom had a studiedly "northern" name, evoking generations of stage comics and their characters, who were daft losers and simpletons. The conceit was both simple and grotesque. Frank was an aspiring pop star and entertainer with an enormous spherical head and a mournfully cute visage. There were no jokes as such. It was situation comedy in the truest sense of the word; the absurdity of it all was what we were being invited to laugh at. Like much classic British comedy--Hancock, Steptoe, Morecambe and Wise, Norman Wisdom--the keynote was pathos: thwarted expectations, grandiose schemes, inevitable failure.

At 35, Frank still lived with his mum and used his shed as his artistic base, along with his occasional sidekick, the piping-voiced puppet Little Frank. His own voice was a parody of the nasal Manchester drawl, achieved at some discomfort by wearing a swimmer's clip on his nose for hours under the paper head. The writer Jon Ronson remembers how "Chris would be Frank for such long periods, the clip had deformed him slightly, flattened his nose out of shape. …

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