Leicester, Autumn 1991. This writer was a first year student living in a university hall of residence. The same conversation-opener with fellow students was repeated ad infinitum:
Them: So where are you from, then?
Me: Have you heard of Timperley?
The reaction to this was invariably as follows: they would grin broadly, say “Frank Sidebottom?” and draw an imaginary large head round their face with a finger.
Now, not everybody wants to be immediately identified with an eccentric living cartoon who speaks in a high-pitched nasal squeak. It could be a bit of a drag, frankly. But in the fullness of time I have made peace with this. Because, hey, at least it made them smile.
Chris Sievey, the man in the fibreglass mask, died nearly four years ago at the tragically early age of 54. Last November he was commemorated by a bronze Frank Sidebottom statue stationed in Timperley Village. And due to some curious alignment of the stars, this is set to be a very big year for Frank. There’s to be a crowd-funded documentary film, Being Frank, directed by Steve Sullivan, and a full biography, Out of His Head, written by Manchester music historian Mick Middles. Perhaps most visibly of all, next month sees the release of a major new feature film, Frank, co-written by Jon Ronson, the one-time keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band.
Here’s where things get a little complicated. Though inspired by Ronson’s time as a Sidebottom sideman, and starring Michael Fassbender as a musician called Frank in a gaudy fibreglass fake head, the film isn’t the Chris Sievey story at all. Rather, it takes key elements and themes from his life, adds in other ingredients from elsewhere, and synthesizes an entirely new, fictional tale. It’s about someone akin to Sievey and artists like him, but it’s definitely not a biopic.
Tying in with the release of the film, then, Ronson has written a short book, Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie. At under 80 pages, it’s an odd little thing. Just as the Frank film isn’t exactly the Frank Sidebottom story, this is far from the definitive tale. Essentially it’s a fleshed-out article Ronson wrote for The Guardian in 2006 in which he reminisces about his Oh Blimey days (“We were very much sort of like a band”) and ponders on the forces that drive Sievey and his ilk.
Like all of Ronson’s work it’s beautifully spare, measured prose, layered with terrific anecdotes and vivid details, and the effect is hugely thought-provoking. At points it’s also a snapshot of the now-lost Manchester of the 80s and 90s, the free-wheeling, slightly down-at-heel world of Edward Barton, Man from Delmonte, City Life magazine, Hulme Crescents and the Aaben cinema.
Ronson never seems to have quite got to know Sievey the man or worked out what made him tick, and thankfully he doesn’t attempt any pat explanations here. In fact, he still seems to be pondering what it was all about, more than 25 years later. He suggests that Sievey was something like an outsider artist/musician, in the great tradition of Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston or The Shaggs. Given that Ronson has since made a career of writing about assorted oddballs and people on the margins, maybe his time with Sievey was a genuinely seminal experience.
There’s a danger, though, that as a whole it’s all a bit ‘something and nothing’. It’s still essentially an extended article, not entirely satisfying in its own right, and presented here not as a chapter in one of Ronson’s longer collections, but as a stand-alone piece, which it doesn’t quite justify. As the subtitle implies, it does go some way towards explaining the genesis of the Frank movie – and specifically the thought processes that led Ronson to draw from – rather than actually tell the story of Sievey’s strange career. But again, that leaves it feeling like a side dish – an adjunct to the film – rather than a main course.
To be fair, though, these faults are overcome by Ronson in person in a short series of reading events he’s undertaken around the country. At The Dancehouse, over the space of 90 minutes, Ronson reads pretty much the entire text of the book, adding in digressions, tangents and spontaneous thoughts. He also uses stills, songs and clips to illustrate the reading which very much brings it to life: but really, Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom act is something best experienced, rather than read about. As a surprise touch, Ronson follows the reading by switching on his Casio keyboard for the unannounced on-stage reunion of the Oh Blimey Big Band, complete with overcoats and fezzes, for just a handful of numbers. The star himself is notably absent, of course, but Sievey’s son Harry steps up to provide spirited vocals, minus the head and the nose-clip, which is probably wise. He does a fine job, actually, and it’s an enormously heart-warming moment.
So while Ronson’s book is fine but falls perhaps on the slight, inessential side, it does at least herald the start of a swathe of Sidebottom-related activity in 2014. It’s up to Steve Sullivan’s documentary and Mick Middles’ biography to tell us the whole story which, to be fair, this book never sets out to do anyway. And what comes across most strongly from both book and reading is that, though Frank Sidebottom’s star faded quickly and his creator is sadly no longer with us, that character, that voice, that head, still retains the power to make people grin like mad. You know he does. He really does.
Where: Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester
When: March 30, 2014 and touring
More info: http://www.jonronson.com/frank_movie.html