I first came across Frank Sidebottom in the mid-Eighties, when he popped up on Radio 1’s Saturday afternoon magazine show. I was immediately entranced by this nasally voiced character, singing eccentric cover versions of recent pop hits, and when I saw him, he seemed even more amusing – a man sporting a giant papier-mache head that looked like a schoolboy from an old comic book, soon to be joined by cardboard cutout puppet Little Frank. He became a mainstay of local and occasionally national TV for a while, and even then, I wondered just what the rest of the country would make of this thoroughly Northern figure. “Surely”, I thought, “Londoners must be too humourless to get this?” And perhaps they were, as Frank never quite made it beyond cult status. He was too difficult to quite pin down, after all. What was he? A novelty act? Comedy? A children’s entertainer? A satirical dig at the music business? A Residents-style deconstructionist? The answer to all those questions seemed to be ‘yes’, and so it was obvious that this character – the creation of former Freshies man Chris Sievy – could never hope to achieve any significant mainstream success – he was just too eccentric and slippery to pin down.
Yet over the decades, in the North West at least – and beyond for a dedicated elite – Frank remained a beloved figure and one who never quite went away. When he died in 2010, there was a genuine, surprising and touching outpouring of grief from all walks of life. Frank had somehow become part of our lives – a local treasure, if not a national one.
This exhaustive box set – first released in 2010 and now reissued – gathers together a lot of his recordings over four CDs and a DVD of live appearances and music videos, and is – as Frank would say – ‘FANTASTIC!’. For anyone coming to his work for the first time, it might seem pretty overwhelming, but for the fan, it’s the perfect memorial.
Disc One features a handful of Frank’s EPs, opening with his Christmas is Really Fantastic 12 inch. Opening up with the title number, this is a festive treat to enjoy all year round, the songs backed with the bouncy Bontempi beats that feature on all the tracks he recorded without a backing band. The EP continues with Oh Come All Ye Faithful, and this is where things start to get odd. Because the music is deliberately discordant and bizarre, while Frank’s voice is a mix of excitable and aggressive – this is gloriously subversive, weird stuff, much beyond simple novelty stuff.
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Mull of Kintyre (here retitled Mull of Timperley, one of several songs about Frank’s home town) see the songs deconstructed and rewritten, new lyrics stripping the songs down to prosaic observations of life – something else that will be a trademark of Frank’s work. The EP ends with Football is Really Fantastic, with Little Frank ‘stealing’ the tune of Christmas is Really Fantastic before the entire thing collapses into a mad argument.
The superbly titled Frank Sidebottom Salutes the Magic of Freddie Mercury and Queen and also Kylie Minogue (You Know, Her Off Neighbours) opens up with a cover of I Should Be So Lucky before slipping into spoken-word piece Love Poem for Kylie, and has comedy interludes with Little Frank between covers of Radio Gaga, We Will Rock You and others (including the retitled Frank Gordon) that some of us will maintain are better than the originals. The Queen Hip Hop Disco Mix is a bizarre, Fairlight driven mix of samples (including some actual Queen cuts) mixed with White Lines that is sublimely weird. What anyone expecting a simple comedy record made of this is anyone’s guess.
The Timperley EP sees reworked hit records in a conceptual tribute to Frank’s home. Timperley Sunset, Born in Timperley, Wild Thing in Timperley (complete with fuzzed-out guitar and deranged vocals from Frank), Timperley 969 1909, Next Train to Timperley and Oh Timperley are more straight forward musically than the previous EPs, but make up a strangely authentic study of small-town eccentricity and normality that is curiously up there with anything by The Kinks when it comes to English whimsey. And the lyrics are great: “Wild Thing, you’re really wild… and you’re also a thing” neatly skewers dumb rock ‘n’ roll songs, and the pretensions of Ultravox’s Vienna is demolished with talk of “loads of roads and trees and houses”. There’s also another row with Little Frank to end the EP.
Disc one ends with side one of the Medium Play EP. Originally released on 10-inch, it opens up with the rousing instrumental march Guess Who’s Been on Match of the Day – which sounds authentically like a football anthem played by a brass band. Frank seems to be moving up in the world here, which is rather disturbing. No one needed a Frank Sidebottom taking himself too seriously. But not to worry, things get back to being seriously odd with the Bros Medley, which is actually a reworked version of silent Night mixed with songs from the forgotten boy band that is a truly demented mix of discordant sounds. There’s also Duran Duran’s Planet Earth, featuring ‘Kevin Bignall from Birmingham’ in a bizarre lo-fi version, and Little Frank doing seven-minute rock opera Tummy (“can you hear me tummy rumble?”), a tribute to a Breville Sandwich Toaster via The Who. Disc Two picks up on side two of the EP, with a rocking version of Timperley Blues, a fantastic reworking of Summertime Blues, which shows that if Frank’s music was becoming more expansive (Guitars! Drums!), his lyrics remained as eccentric as ever. The odd new wave flavoured What For – From Me Mum is, after all, a song you can’t imagine anyone else performing. Firm Favourite Ads #1 is a medley of TV commercial jingles, and there are Beach Boys and Elvis reconstructions too.
After this, it’s on to the LPs, starting with 13:9:88. The album is mostly spoken word material – you might call it comedy, but it seems a strangely inadequate word for what this is. Instead, it’s a curious, likeable and humorously twee affair that links the material into a concept piece about Frank’s holiday in Blackpool, like a Northern Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. As such, it plays more like his radio show than the previous EPs and is thoroughly entertaining stuff, if very different from what he has done before. It’s less subversive as a result – the comedy is definitely surreal, but there’s less room for weird music in amongst the comedy stuff with people like Caroline Aherne guesting in an early appearance by Mrs Merton and the bizarre stream of consciousness that informs the story as it slides oddly into darkness at one point. There’s also the mini play ‘Murder at the Blackpool Wax Museum That Dripped Blood’. But when the music appears, it’s pretty solid – a belting version of Hit the North, Mirror Man / Mirror Puppet (which is a sludgy psych number), a rocked out version of the 1812 Overture and a couple more typical Frank numbers, if such a thing exists.
Discs three and four feature Frank’s first album, the double LP 5:9:88, which is a more even mix of music and spoken word. Opening up with The Robins Aren’t Bobbins, a tribute to Frank’s favourite football team, Altrincham FC, it perhaps more resembles the earlier EPs in style, featuring remarkably aggressive arguments between Frank and Little Frank interspersed with the songs. Musically, the sound has developed from the basic weirdness of the earlier recordings to feature a band playing oddball drum and distorted guitar, and conceptually the story is a lot more casual, with Frank and Little Frank searching through tapes to put on the album, finding songs and sketches from his Radio Timperley and Frank’s World shows. The songs include Mr Custard You’re a Fool (a lyrical masterpiece!), Airplay, Paul McCartney tribute It Was Nearly 20 Years Ago Today, rap song I Said ‘Hey You Street Artist’ (plus variant version I Said ‘Hey You, Riot Policeman’) and weird trippy space rock number Ultimatum to Return. There’s a cover of Abba’s SOS by Little Frank and the Demon Axx Warriors from Oblivion, the glam rock stomp of Timperley Travelogue and the epic album closer Electricity, which actually reveals a genuine pop songwriting talent beneath all the strangeness.
There are also surreal sketches like The Squid is Correct, Pirates, First Puppet on the Moon and interviews with Patrick Moore, Nicholas Parsons and Ian McCaskill. There’s a multi-track distraction that sees Frank and Little Frank heading into space before heading back down to Earth to deal with money debts, visits from Mr Emerson Lake, disastrous babysitting for Mrs Merton and visits to football matches (cue 6 All-Time Great Footballing Chants).
Disc four closes with bonus cover tracks taken from compilations etc – there’s a twee version of Anarchy in Timperley, a suitably eccentric rendition of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kyte, an Indie Medley (taking on The Smiths, Joy Division, The Fall and others), a riot strewn Panic and totally disturbed version of God Save the Queen (the national anthem, not the Sex Pistols song).
The DVD disc features live and music video performances, which show Frank in a variety of settings – at one point he seems to be playing a family function (excited little kids loving it), at others a bar. In Liverpool’s Cavern Club, he baits Beatles fans, which is impressive to see. The footage quality varies, but it’s great to see examples of Frank’s always bizarre live show.
If you’ve written Frank Sidebottom off as a mere novelty act – or even if you’ve loved him as a novelty act – it’s worth giving his work another listen. Of course, it’s great fun and very amusing, the sort of thing you can entertain the kids with. But it’s so much more than that. There’s genuine subversion going on here that should make this a must-have for fans of noise, deconstructionalism and underground music. It’s a strange, gleeful work of performance art that you need to own.
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