There exists a breed of artist that has not a single foot on the ground. The type of person who has zero common sense, but every other sense. Their work is their life, but importantly it is not work, it doesn’t pay – not in cash anyway. Most of them live and die penniless and unrecognised, brushed over figures in the music annals, forever the eternal underdog. Think Vincent Van Gogh for example, that bloke cut his ear off and still didn’t get spotted – what a shame. They give up their life for their art, and they do everything in their path to pursue it, it’s everything they are.
Well, Chris Sievey, commonly known as Frank Sidebottom – the eccentric paper mache encrusted persona behind ‘Live Aid 2’ – was one of this rare breed. He’s our hero. He devoted his life to his character in search of getting an ever-elusive big break in the biz; a pipe dream that nearly all us music-folk have. His story is worth telling, and retelling, and retelling. Many have already done it in one way or another; it’s been a big Hollywood film, a little documentary, and a book; but we thought heck, we will give it our spin. After all, he is one of our heroes.
Chris was the musical and comedy equivalent of the mad scientist jumping from one creation to the next with a vision and a dream; “It’s alive!” I can picture him shouting when he got his first Sony Walkmen. But, for his whole life he was simultaneously one step ahead of the pack and one step behind the pack, never quite in time. His story and his art were full of ups and downs and ups again, and both existed in a state of constant flux that bordered on a type of hilarious madness. Nevertheless, his life is a triumph, his art incredible. And, he is a prime example of the human spirit.
His story begins properly to us, with a big-ish little break in 1971, when Chris and his brother staged a sit-in at Apple Records, insisting on seeing the Beatles – despite them breaking up a year before by my calculations. After travelling down from Manchester and staying in the foyer prostrate for the best part of a day, they ended up nabbing a demo session with the head of A&R Tony King. For the two this was a lifelong dream; they spent much of their youth imitating and listening to Beatles records in their bedroom. And, lo and behold when they got into the studio, none other than Ringo Starr turned up; “hello boys” Chris remembered him saying to them.
To not just sit in Apple Records but record a demo there was an incredible and immense opportunity for the two dreamers. To be successful you need a big break like that, you need someone to see your talent and pick you up for that big ole’ ride into the sunset made of money. But sadly, the demos never came to anything and Chris would split from his brother and begin his career as a musician in a band called ‘The Freshies’.
Their one-and-only-hit – okay, kind of hit very loosely – was a song with a snappy title called ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk’. It summed up the silliness of Chris’ character perfectly. He wasn’t going to fit in the box that the biz had created for a pop star. He was going to write a jive at the industry instead. It’s cumbersome title and chorus play on the fact that commercial pop had become stagnant in the early 80s. Record Labels had begun to see profit – and only profit – as the driving force behind hiring new talent; bubblegum music was born.
After, several complaints by Virgin about the use of their name, the band re-recorded the track. But sadly, the “hit” flopped and The Freshies, though full of energy and talent, did not make any money. Success yet again evaded Chris.
Chris’ passion to create, however, continued. In fact, it worsened. After the band broke up, every waking moment he schemed, planned and tried new things out. He began to self-produce and record his music, then he began to self-release it and self-promote it, and soon enough he was a whole cottage industry. Every cassette was hand-drawn and posted with care.
And, if he wasn’t working on one project, he was working on several simultaneously, innovating all the while. His friends and family remember Chris running from one idea to the next one in the space of days and hours. When he was young, his Subbuteo league was a great example. Chris didn’t settle with a green piece of cloth and some plastic footballers to flick about. He sold tickets to the games, he made match programmes, he cordoned off areas of his living room – one for the regular folk, one for the rich folk – he did everything he could to make the game as real as possible.
He was truly a little bit mad. Another great example came in 1983 when Chris made a 7″ single that doubled as a video game. Yes, you read that right, a vinyl record, a thin bit of pressed oil that could play both a tune and a game; don’t get that with our standard CD nowadays. At the time, and even now really this was/is pretty amazing. Can you imagine Kanye putting out a record with a video game on it? Actually yes you probably can. But in 1983, this would have blown people’s minds, I mean, multi-media wasn’t even a thing and here was Chris programming on wax.
The single was called ‘camouflage’, which appeared on one half of the record, whilst on the other, three programs were in the grooves. They were playable through a Sinclair ZX81 home computer, which of course Chris had self-taught himself how to program – one of those ‘many projects’ I presume. The computery half included a game called ‘Flying Train’ – playable on two different systems – and a pop music video which you can see below. Neither look that amazing nowadays, what with Xboxes and the PlayStations, but for 1983 again this is insane.
But, despite creating multi-media, even more sadly this time, success avoided Chris. Admittedly, this one was very niche. Hardly anyone probably owned or could afford to own, a Sinclair ZX81 for starters. And secondly, the ‘music video’ was only just blowing up. The ironic thing is that today, this would probably go viral. But again, as I said, the big-time skipped poor Chris.
But then came Frank – his magnum opus project. When Chris had exhausted so many avenues, when he’d become lost and estranged with the industry’s concrete walls and bullshit, he created an alter ego – if he couldn’t be famous as Chris Sievey, then maybe he could be big as someone else right? Well, kind of. Frank Sidebottom was created to be Chris’ own ultimate superfan – you know, the type that stalks people and goes to every show? Yeah, that was Frank, a sort of comedic answer to Chris’ lack of success.
In true Sievey fashion, the easy way to change his appearance – to probably put a fake moustache on or wear sunglasses – was his last resort. Sievey built a huge paper mache head shaped like a hot air balloon with massive eyes. Underneath it, Sievey wore a swimming clip over his nose to create a nasal voice whiney voice. With a few badges and a signature suit, Frank was complete.
Frank was strange, not just because of his appearance, but because of his character. He was a child-like, innocent and naive soul for 35, who still lived with his mum, loved football and Star Wars, and barely knew his George Formby from his Duran Duran – an odd choice for a superfan. But, he was the admirer Chris always wanted. He was the diehard fan, the person who would love whatever he did until the end. He was perfect.
Frank first appeared on a tape cassette which came with Sieving Through The Biz, another game created by Chris, that saw you manage a band and hopefully record with John Peel – a figure who boosted your exposure through “broadcasting influence to people 20 to 60 years of age,” brilliant. It featured Frank meeting his hero and conveniently for Chris wanting to conduct an interview.
On the tape, Frank asks Chris about how he can get into the ‘biz’ – something Chris struggled to do himself. It’s a strange recording, but it’s quite intriguing. Frank seems nervous, talking over Chris at times, probalby because of all the excitement. Chris, however, seems intellectually engaged and sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. It reminds me of listening to someone’s thoughts, the conversation jumps from being serious to being silly, to being both at the same time; its a nice slice of madness.
Once Frank was on the scene, Chris couldn’t stop himself. He was the project people loved. Every shred of his energy, the same energy he’d used to follow his dreams of music, created a universe for Frank. There was: Big Frank, Little Frank, a comic book series complete with a coded language, an animated series, a football team (Sunday league of course), 4 albums, 6 compilations, 13 singles and EPs (including Frank Sidebottom Salutes The Magic of Freddie Mercury And Queen And Also Kylie Minogue (You Know, Her Off Neighbours’), two shows on manchester local television (one broadcast from his shed), and a splattering of catchphrases.
That spirit, the spirit to just follow an idea and a character through to the absolute was incredible. It was mad. If there was something he could do, somewhere he could take Frank to, he’d do it with 110% of his being. I’ve only ever had dreams and visions with that kind of energy playing with Lego when I was 9, but Chris spent his whole life like that, a dreamer no matter what
After a few bigger breaks for Frank, several more than Chris ever got – including an appearance on Kazuko’s Karaoke show with John Cooper Clarke – the alter ego began to take over, however.
Now, a mask is a powerful thing. It liberates and frees you, symbolically it removes you from your body so that you can play the fool, make people smile and escape consequence – that’s why bank robbers use them. But, as with so many method actors – as Chris was really – the character you embody in the mask so often begins to fight the face of day to day life. It becomes difficult to separate one persona from the other, and the two often end up at ends with each other, resenting one another.
This is what happened to Chris. After all, the man who yearned for his own music stardom now only found fame and adoration behind paper mache. People didn’t love him for Chris, they loved him for Frank. The man who used to sing for the dream of music could only sing with a swimmers clip on his nose, and a silly keyboard piano, in order to be heard. That’s the sad part. Before Chris knew it, his fore deeper and deeper into what looks to us like a sort of controlled and crafted lunatic genius, became more and more at the expense of reality.
The head was a safe zone, he rarely took it off. In many ways, with it on he was free, he could act however he liked and people adored him. Without it on he was us, Chris, nobody knew Chris, they knew Frank. To take it off represented bills, taxes, jobs, reality, it represented a life that Frank didn’t have to worry about. With a mask on, Chris could be the odd person, he could be the marginalized figure like he was in the music industry. He was safe from reality, in his own surreal and abstract creation.
Though he was jealous of Frank, Chris couldn’t help but follow the project through, growing more and more attached to the escapism. In conversations on the phone, people remember that Frank would pick up; “Oh sorry my mums not in at the moment,” Frank would say. “Can I just speak to Chris for a second,” the voice on the other end would reply. “Oh blimey, I’ll see if he’s free.” And the charade would go on. The struggle between ego and alter ego could almost be heard.
In the end, Chris’ work was Frank’s work, and the artist went on a mystery, unknown and unrecognised for his talent. The mask both liberated and trapped Chris. It enabled him to do what he loved, make people laugh and enjoy themselves, but it did it at a price.
But, alas, like Chris’ other projects, Sidebottom never did reach the big time. As the years went on Chris and histouring band – named ‘The Oh Blimey Big Band’ – kept on playing to fewer and fewer people a night. And whilst Chris was struggling to make ends meet financially, one by one his bandmates left. Chris Evans, his bus driver left the group to become Britain’s highest-paid presenter – earning 31 million pounds a year. Mark Radcliffe became a BBC 6 Radio presenter – you might know him from the Glastonbury coverage. And, Jon Ronson became a critically acclaimed writer. Chris remained penniless.
Sidebottom did become a kind of cult hero, popping up in the odd tv spot – including a FIFA game trailer. He became a kind of king of the oddballs, a figure so absurd that people could just laugh at the silliness of it all. He was a home for those marginalized by society, both young and old, and he brought real pleasure to whoever met him. So, Chris carried on.
It was his passion to be Frank, he had to do it. It didn’t pay the bills, it didn’t help his family life or give him a pension, but people still came to see him and that’s what mattered. In Ronson’s book, titled simply ‘Frank’, he remembers playing a gig to a room of 5 people. Mid-way through the performance, the audience started kicking a football around and set up a pitch across the floor; Ronson remembers it as one of the worst turnouts they ever had. But after the gig, when the mask was off, Sievey probably covered in sweat stopped the band and said: “That was the best gig we’ve ever played.” It just showed that the thing that mattered to Chris was making people happy, it wasn’t money or fame – though those were great – it was his art that meant everything to him.
Unfortunately, this brings us to the end of Chris’ story. During the early 2000s, Frank became less and less relevant to Chris. Now a divorced alcholic with bigger issues to think about Chris’s distance from Frank was larger than ever. He began to talk about him in the past tense to his friends. His finest project seemed over.
But then, Chris after cleaning himself up, decided to revive him. This time, it would be on Chris’ terms, not Frank’s. He devised a Five-year plan to make Frank the most popular he’d ever been, complete with tour dates nationally and internationally – well, one in the USA. Then, at the end of a mad ride to stardom, Chris would unveil his true identity and get the recognition he deserved. Then he could do anything he wanted, music, films whatever; Chris would finally be loved.
But, he never did complete his ‘five-year plan’. In May 2010, Chris Sievey was diagnosed with throat cancer, announcing the news via his myspace account with one of Frank’s famous catchphrases, “Oh Blimey!” After undergoing chemotherapy that month he posted this image of Frank, having also undergone chemotherapy, online.
He passed away in June, just a month later. Below, is the last recording of Chris as Frank, shot on 11th June 2010; Chris died on the 21st.
But there’s a final twist. Sadly, Chris’ family couldn’t afford to give him a funeral so he was set to have paupers grave – where the state pays for a simplistic burial. After one tweet, just one by Jon Ronson, 2,000 people donated £21,000 to give Chris a proper send-off. Chris was loved for being Chris and Frank after all. The end.
To create something unique no matter what is perhaps one of the most human things you’ll ever come across. It’s an incredibly rare, complete dedication of the human spirit. Yousee it in people like Captain Beefheart or Bjork, it’s that fire to just make and make with such a clear and precise vision. That is what makes Chris our hero. His willingness to give up everything, even himself, in order to create something for others is one of the most selfless acts a person can do. Chris’ dedication created his own little bit of the world to point at and say “I did that!” and it made people smile and laugh. That is something truly human, something heroic.