Jul 9, 2010

Frank Sidebottom's Fantastic Send-Off: a review

This is the one of the toughest blog posts I have had to write. Not because Frank Sidebottom's death affected me personally, although it does make me sad and I believe the world has lost a tremendous comedy talent.

It's because I'm going to have to sum up his memorial concert, held last night in Castlefield, Manchester, in significantly less than the 50,000 words it would probably take to do justice to this bizarre concoction of an event.

I'll do my best to fit everything in, but I'm bound to miss stuff and it won't be in the right order. It doesn't have to be perfect, though. This is about a man I once saw play film footage to a room full of people using an image that was barely a foot square... and upside down.

As you'd expect if you'd ever been to see Frank, it was a mixture of telly and music. I'll start with the music.

Frank's moustachioed brother "Hank Sidebottom" (Martin Sievey looking like the Edge if he'd only ever been a truck driver) performed numerous tracks with the Oh Blimey Biggest Ever Band. Is that a fireman on sax? It is indeed.

Dangerously crazed 

His impression of Frank was uncanny, as you'd expect, and they played all the trademark tracks including Born In Timperley and a dangerously crazed version of Twist And Shout. Sadly, his desperate call to a possibly-present Mark E Smith to help him out with the words to Hit The North was in vain.

Badly Drawn Boy performed the headline set, and although musically it wasn't my cup of chai, he melted everyone with a comparison of Sidebottom and Springsteen ("I'll treasure Frank's gig much more than Bruce's") and his memory of a time he mistakenly bought a magazine called Bobbins "like a dickhead", thinking it was about Frank and not about, well, actual bobbins.

His performance of Let The Sun Shine On Timperley would have made Frank proud, as would his singalong Kinks moment that sent a wonderful phrase drifting from the crowd into the Castlefield arches: "as long as we gaze on Timperley sunset, Frank is in paradise."

Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer was a revelation. Think of a what-ho musichall George Formby, then pimp him up more than a dash of Public Enemy. I'll never think of Inner City, SL2, Orbital, the Shamen or, especially, Tim Westwood in the same way again.

He was so good, the Elvis impersonator's rendition of The Wonder Of Cardboard rather paled.

Test card

The telly bits were integral to the evening, which started at 7pm with Frank's stupendous test-card and ended at 10pm with bad quality footage of Frank playing 36 Hours with John Cooper Clarke.

We were treated to lashings of Frank's show highlights, from inside his shed or out-and-about on an animated canal journey. Frank's interviewing style was massively gigglesome (who asks Adamski what colour pen he uses to write his music?).

We were also shown Frank Sidebottom's Celebrity Sleepover, an episode sadly lost when Channel M shut down but now 95% restored thanks to telly producer Dan Parrott.

And so we saw Frank doorstepping Smiths' drummer Mike Joyce with the introductory line, "You know when I asked if I could come round and you said no?"

What followed was the absolute bang-on highlight of the evening, with Joyce coping less-and-less with an unwanted guest who took endless fully-clothed showers, didn't stop talking, and went on to destroy his allotment. You can see a short clip here.

Emerson Lake 

Then there were the guests. The first was Emerson Lake ('twas Mark Radcliffe), who gave a tribute that was understated as much as it was moving: "all of us had our view of the world slightly shifted once we'd met Frank."

Ex-BBC Breakfast regular Steve Blacknell recalled the time Frank met Frank Bough ("snap!"), while Brian Little, co-founder of Hot Animation, revealed Chris Sievey penned an award-winning episode of Pingu called Bedtime Shadows (written in green biro).

Former Big Band member Jon Ronson, looking all bashful and Jon Ronson-like, paid tribute too, while Charlie Chuck tempered his usual non-sequitur mania with a sweet fondness for his old friend.

I switched off during the football bits. Sorry, Frank. A bloke from Altrincham Football Club had me daydreaming about other things, although his description of Frank's cardboard box-based outside broadcast unit was quite lovely.


And then came the finale. And this is why this blog post is almost impossible to write.

This was a memorial service that burst with affection for a great entertainer. If that affection had been missing, what followed would have been horrendous. But it wasn't. You have to believe me on that, because it ain't going to look good on a computer screen...

They wheeled on Frank's mummified body in a suitably 'Sidebottomed' sarcophagus. They then brought on a similarly bandaged and completely dead Little Frank... stuffed into a plastic bag.

A debate ensued as to the fate of Little Frank, with the crowd chanting to have him thrown in the canal. "Shall we kill him?" came the response... and they did. They stamped on his head. They stamped on his head and chucked him, crushed, into the sacophagus with big Frank.

It was brilliant. And wrong. But brilliant.

Loss, love, affection and joy flowed from this uniquely silly patchwork of music. memories and moving pictures. It ended with Chris' son Harry playing with the Freshies, while his other son Sterling regretted a lost opportunity: he will never know if his Sidebottom moniker "Roger the Boy Next Door" was in any way a kind of vague sexual innuendo.

"Guess who's been on match of the day?" called Sterling at the end. "You have," shouted the crowd, "in your big shorts." For Frank's sake, go and buy the single now and let's get it in the charts this weekend. You can search for it on Amazon too.

Meanwhile, I'm going to dig out my old Oink comics and see what adventures Frank has been on.

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