Finding the real Frank under his mask
Frank Sidebottom's intriguing life gets the Hollywood treatment. By Paul Whitington
In Lenny Abrahamson's remarkable new movie Frank, Michael Fassbender plays a mentally unstable rock singer who constantly wears a huge papier-maché head. It's a great film, and such a strange idea that you feel it just has to be based on something true. It is, and the real story is every bit as odd as the fictional one.
In the mid-1980s, an outfit called Oh Blimey Big Band emerged from the northwestern English club scene to become an unlikely overnight sensation. They were led by 'Frank Sidebottom', an irrepressible spiv who wore a huge fake head, sang badly in a broad Manchester accent and interspersed songs with jokes and impromptu lectures.
His performances were bizarre but oddly compelling, and, by the late 1980s, he was appearing regularly on BBC radio and on TV shows such as Channel 4's quiz Remote Control. He even got his own series, but every time he seemed poised for main-stream success, Frank would do something to botch it.
Although he failed to make it big, Frank was much more than a would-be novelty act. He has been hailed as an artist and comedian of genius, but was also an alter ego for his late creator Chris Sievey.
Born in 1955 in Manchester, Sievey has been described as a brilliant but tragically distractible artist who could never quite master the huge talent he was blessed with. His first love was music and, at the age of 15, Sievey and his brother Martin hitchhiked to London to stage a sit-in at The Beatles' Apple headquarters, refusing to budge until they got to record a session.
In the mid-1970s, Sievey founded his own record label and began recording oddly titled songs with a series of bands. But tunes like I'm in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk failed to resonate with the record-buying public, and, by the early 1980s, Sievey was tinkering with computer programming and seemingly finished with music.
Then came Frank. In 1985, Sievey recorded a ridiculously upbeat version of The Sex Pistols' punk anthem Anarchy in the UK, and sent it to all the major labels. When some brave soul at EMI made the mistake of inviting him in, Selvey arrived in full Frank Sidebottom mode. When the A&R man asked him "Have you been in showbusiness for long?" Frank looked at his watch and said "10 seconds". A cult legend was born.
As time went on, Sievey took his characterisation to ridiculous extremes.
He had two sets of handwriting, one for Frank, one for him, and, once he put that head on, if anyone addressed him as Chris, he wouldn't respond. Former band member Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the screenplay for Lenny Abrahamson's film, remembered that Sievey would sometimes leave the head on long after a gig had ended.
"Chris sometimes kept Frank's head on for hours, even when it was only us in the van. Under the head, Chris would wear a swimmer's nose clip. Chris would be Frank for such long periods, the clip had deformed him slightly, flattened his nose out of shape. When he'd remove the peg after a long stint, I'd see him wince in pain."
Jon Ronson was part of Sievey's Oh Blimey Big Band that toured Britain in the late 1980s and early '90s. Other members included future radio stars Mark Radcliffe and Chris Evans.
On stage Frank was like a mad, inspired cross between George Formby and a drunken muppet. Giddy versions of weary standards like I Should Be So Lucky and Every Breath You Take were interspersed with jokes, quizzes and even games of tombola. Those who saw them say the early gigs were wild, and inspired, and for a brief moment Frank seemed poised for greatness.
But world domination didn't seem to figure in Frank Sidebottom's plans. Jon Ronson remembers Frank and the band being asked to support the boy band Bros in front of 50,000 people at Wembley. "This was a huge stage for Frank – his biggest ever, by about 49,500 people. It was his chance to break through to the mainstream. But instead he chose to perform a series of terrible Bros cover versions and was booed off."
While those around him hit the big time, Frank Sidebottom's career stuttered to a halt. Chris Evans left the band to become the highest paid entertainer in Britain. Ronson's next-door neighbour Mani formed a band called The Stone Roses. After a young comedian called Caroline Aherne joined the Sidebottom circus and played a neighbour of Frank's called Mrs Merton, she got her own TV show and won a Bafta.
Following a disastrous foray into stadium rock, the wheels came off the Sidebottom bandwagon in the mid-1990s, and by the end of that decade Sievey was working as an assistant art director on Bob the Builder.
But old Frank wasn't finished with him yet. In the mid-2000s, Sidebottom made a comeback, hosting a new TV show on local Manchester station Channel M.
Mick Middles, his biographer, believes that Sievey, who died in 2010 after a short battle with cancer, "couldn't get rid of Frank. Chris resented Frank because he just kept coming back. Chris wanted to do other things. but eventually he had to go back to Frank because Frank was the only way of making a decent living."
And Frank Sidebottom will be his enduring legacy.
A book about Frank, and a documentary are also on the way, and Lenny Abrahamson's film will only add to the Sidebottom legend.
In his hometown of Timperley, a statue has already been erected, and it's of Frank, not his elusive creator.
'FRANK' IS OUT IN CINEMAS ON FRIDAY. SEE 'INSIDER' MAGAZINE, FREE WITH TOMORROW'S IRISH INDEPENDENT, FOR AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL FASSBENDER