If you’ve passed through the South Manchester village of Timperley in the past year or so, you’ll have noticed a new landmark by the main crossroads. Well, actually, it’s now the only landmark since Rook’s the ironmongers turned into an all-night chemists. Anyway, a full-size bronze statue of Frank Sidebottom is in place to greet all visitors come rain or shine. In fact, if you’ve spotted him in the last few weeks, you’ll know he’s currently resplendent in a Santa suit.
It’s getting less and less likely that anyone will be unaware of Frank Sidebottom. It’s been a big year for him and his big shorts. Aside from the statue appearing, Jon Ronson’s film Frank was kind-of-sort-of inspired by him, and Ronson wrote an accompanying book to explain the background. An ambitious crowd-funded documentary about Sidebottom is currently at the editing stage. To top it all off, the full story has been told, in fittingly unorthodox fashion, in a compelling new biography by Manchester music journalist Mick Middles, whose previous books have documented such remarkable local music stories as Elbow, The Fall, The Stone Roses and Factory Records.
It’s worth making the point, though, that Middles’ Out of His Head isn’t the biography of Frank Sidebottom. Just between ourselves, Frank Sidebottom was a fictional character. Instead, it’s the biography of the late, lamented Chris Sievey, creator of Sidebottom and the man behind the mask (with a nose peg on). There was much more to Sievey than Frank though, and that’s really the driving theme in Middles’ book.
Well before the character of Frank emerged, Sievey was an established and highly creative songwriter, whose post-punk band, The Freshies, were perpetually on the verge of big things – but sadly, that’s where they stayed. While Middles’ book isn’t structured chronologically, it’s quite some time before Frank makes an appearance.
“That was always the problem,” Middles says. “I wanted it to be non-linear but I was determined to cover The Freshies first. In the end it seemed to work to have ‘flashes’ of Frank in the first half. Somebody said that the book was like the way you think about someone close who has died. It comes in flashes of memory rather than flowing through a life in a chronological manner.”
From his work as a music journalist covering the Manchester scene, Middles knew Sievey since his Freshies days, and now he’s keen to see the man recognised for all his creative endeavours, rather than just the obvious one. “I would love to see Chris finally celebrated as a multi-dimensional artist rather than merely the man in the head. People who don’t know Frank, or are perhaps too young, have asked me, ‘Wasn’t he a comedian?’ Comedian doesn’t really cover it, though, does it? Chris was a great artist. I would love to see someone publish a lavish tome containing Chris’s artwork. But it is a bit of a paradox because it was Frank who made the break-through. To some extent then, yes, Frank clouded the true story.”
It was Sievey who first planted the idea for the book in Middles’ mind. “It was a book that had been mooted years ago, after conversations with Chris. I always found him a fascinating artist and a perfect subject for a book. However, no London publisher would touch Chris or Frank. It was simply too regional or off-kilter for them, so it just stayed on a back-burner. Then, of course, after Chris died the Frank industry just exploded. I have never known anything quite like it. All of a sudden a book seemed viable.”
By sheer coincidence, Middles had moved to Sievey’s old stomping ground of Ashton on Mersey, and found himself bumping into Sievey’s old school friends and band members. It was a project which seemed to have a will of its own. “Before I knew it, the book was up and running. It still took two years, incredibly slow for me, but it felt good just to let it fall together. It was Chris who originally suggested a book that held an element of chaos. I couldn’t imagine a blow-by-blow biography of Chris or Frank.”
Although it redresses the balance in terms of Sievey’s whole life and career, Middles’ book inevitably goes to some lengths to unpick the extraordinary phenomenon of Frank Sidebottom. At first, Sievey created him as as The Freshies’ fictitious number one fan, but he quite literally developed a life of his own, with a raft of records, live tours and TV shows.
On the face of it, Sidebottom was simply a comedy character, a living, breathing cartoon. But Middles’ book digs a lot deeper, and looks at some of the implications of Sievey bringing the character to life. For many years, the exact identity of the man behind Sidebottom was only known within certain circles. Sievey had a habit of responding only to the name ‘Frank’ once he’d donned the head. Without it, he’d talk about Frank in the third person, often quite negatively. And then there’s the matter of his tiny accomplice, Little Frank. There aren’t many people in the history of entertainment who’ve had an entire career performing with their face covered; fewer still who did so with a further puppet alter-ego to bicker with. It might have been very funny, but it can’t always have been ideal for Sievey’s peace of mind.
“I think that Frank was actually a manic aspect of Chris’s personality,” Middles says. “Chris would probably have been jailed if he had acted like Frank…and Frank got away with murder. It was certainly an extension of Chris.”
Over time, though, the balance between the two personalities tended to teeter a bit. “In the early days, Frank seemed ‘merely a laugh’. A typical Chris joke, but as the years rolled by, the relationship between Chris and Frank and, beyond that, Frank and Little Frank, darkened and started to take its toll. I know that Paula, Chris’s wife, went through hell really, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could cope in such a situation. Frank had no sense of responsibility at all and the line between Chris and Frank is exactly the root of Chris’s problems. He became incredibly hedonistic and yet seemed to fade away in later years. Frank took over. I think that most people close to him were aware of the dangers, for sure.”
In an endearingly eccentric, round-the-houses manner, Middles’ biography follows Sievey from his youth as a wannabe musician through his time in The Freshies, to his manifold, often highly inventive creative endeavours, and the rise and fall of Frank Sidebottom. For a time, Sievey retired the character, and embarked on a tentative new career working on children’s shows such as Bob the Builder and Pingu, both made locally in Broadheath by Hot Animation. By the time of his death, though, he’d made his peace with Sidebottom and revived the character.
As part of his research, Middles tracked down several of the future big names who worked with Sievey, including Jon Ronson, Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley. There were even more, though: Chris Evans was a young dogsbody at Piccadilly Records when he became the driver for the Sidebottom tour van; Caroline Ahearne was a friend of a friend who took on the character of Sidebottom’s neighbour Mrs Merton and developed her into an entirely independent comic creation.
“No one really declined to talk to me, but Caroline Ahearne and Chris Evans proved impossible. It could be sheer force of commitments with Chris, although there are reasons that I cannot go into why Caroline might not wish to talk. It wasn’t a problem at all.”
Sievey died in June 2010, aged just 54. While it’s heartbreaking that he didn’t live to see the current wave of love for and fascination with his most famous creation, it’s still remarkable and delightful that it’s happened at all.
“Yes, it was incredible the way the industry opened after Chris’s death,” Middles says. “And his passing was indeed the key that unlocked the floodgates in a way that Chris always dreamed of. It also highlighted a severe problem within the media. I mean, two Manchester Evening News front pages? A full page in The Mirror? These are outlets that largely ignored him throughout his life. But then the tumble of activity – gigs, films, the statue, books…and so it goes on.”
So why exactly did it take until now for all this to happen? “Great question. The world finally got the joke. Of course, this is all tinged with a terrible sadness, but it is still wonderful to see all that pent-up energy finally released.”
By Andy Murray
Out of his Head: The Authorised Biography of Chris Sievey is out now from Empire Publications. More details here: www.empire-uk.com/frank.html