winter's night in the 1980s, somewhere between the ages of 7 - 9
years old, in the depths of the industrial North-East of England, I
switched on the television. Expecting the usual fare - a slice of
Cilla Black coaxing strangers into a spot of continental fucking, or
some old men running about in fields for Last of The Summer Wine, or
a cheeky chappy with his hand up a toy gopher's bottom apparently
conversing in screeches - imagine my surprise instead to see a
monocled man, lip-synching appallingly to some old, scratchy music,
accompanied by a small ensemble of besuited gents playing frying pans
and feather dusters, whilst interjecting on the left a big man
dressed as a Wagnerian maidens blows pursed-lipped raspberries,
grinning flirtatiously into the camera.
My world was changed. To this day I still trace everything I've created since back to that single, isolated moment of television. The lunatic behind this sublimely strange moment was not, however, the subject of this article. This was Spike Milligan, writer, comedian, manic-depressive, insider, outsider, nice man, nasty man, and so on.
Growing up, Spike was my hero. Irrefutably and unquestionably. He was the greatest artist in the world to me.
As I got older I began to realise that Spike was not “the greatest artist in the world”. In fact his work is patchy, often unpleasant in its racism, often severely unfunny. But it is usually, at least, interesting. And when it's at its best it touches those heights of the sublime, that extends beyond words into strange passion, that the best works of Lewis Carroll, or Lear, or Burroughs can reach.
But why am I rabbitting on about Spike Milligan in an article ostensibly about the late, great Frank Sidebottom?
A couple of years back, living quietly in rural Brittany, an e-mail hit my inbox from Mr Sidebottom. He had sent a mail out to every WFMU DJ, attempting to bag himself a live spot at the WFMU Record Fair or something suchlike.
Frank wasn't given a spot at the show, and later planned to turn up and gatecrash, a stage invasion!
He even advertised news of this surreptitious event on his website.
This is, undeniably, strange behaviour for a “normal human being”. But Frank Sidebottom, like Spike Milligan, was not, thank goodness, a normal human being, not governed by the same mores and social anxieties that put the majority of us into the sort of boxes Beckett's Unnameable writhes agonisingly inside.
When someone like Frank makes an untimely exit, a one-off who, whether you liked his work or not created something unique in the annals of art history (I don't believe it's unreasonable to speak of Sidebottom in this context – the division between “high” and “low” art is something made by the sort of institutions that I generally detest), it leaves a vast gaping hole in the world. I am not usually affected by the deaths of people I didn't know personally. Spike Milligan and Frank Sidebottom (also Peter Cook) have been the exceptions to that rule so far.
Frank's passing also feels strange because surely he couldn't die! He was part cartoon, wasn't he? Some kind of new species borne out of a passionate night of sordid and thoroughly enjoyable intimacy between Tristan Tzara and Max Fleischer, egged on by too many absinthes and the fires of Esquivel banging out of the Dansette.
What was it that Frank Sidebottom actually “did”?
His act consisted of wearing a particularly sharp suit, a huge papier-mache head with bulging eyes, and singing (generally) cover versions of pop songs, old and new, usually to Casiotone style beats.
I first encountered Frank in much the same way as I expect many people around the same age (early 30s) did. That is, either on children's television where he popped up throughout the 80s and 90s, or on one of the more abstract variety format shows kick-started by the blisteringly brilliant Vic Reeves Big Night Out.
I didn't understand. Who, or what, was this big headed creature speaking in muffled tones to perplexed presenters? I remember feeling simultaneously amused and terrified. There is something uncomfortable about a man in a mask, something strange about a non-moving, inexpressive face, something disturbing and inhuman. Frank Sidebottom's mask, however, was more than a mask. Here was a replacement head, ballooned out to proportions that defied belief that a human body could effectively balance with such a dome atop it. Sidebottom was in the innovator of the UBERMASK!
What was he? A comedian? A singer? A musician? It's difficult to put your finger on precisely what Frank Sidebottom did, and that is precisely what made him so glorious. Because whatever it is that he “did”, he did it with resilience, and he did very well indeed.
To this day I would love to know where the idea originated, and why Chris Sievey, the man underneath the Sidebottom, was led to pursue this idea. These kind of characters, bloody-minded mavericks who relentlessly pursue a path that may seem to others peculiar to the point of pointlessness, in the face of an increasingly homogenised cultural landscape, are like diamonds in a landscape of rocks. Viva Mr Sidebottom!