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Can I be Frank with you?
on 20 May 2014
Frank Sidebottom was a novelty act from the Manchester music scene of the late 80s/early 90s. Sporting a fibreglass cartoon head, Frank (played by Chris Sievey) would perform strange Beatles/Queen/Bruce Springsteen covers with his Oh Blimey Big Band, of which Jon Ronson was the keyboardist.
Ronson’s brief memoir comes out just as a movie version of Frank Sidebottom, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is released and recounts the barmy days he was in the band. There isn’t much to this book – Frank was a character Sievey played who revelled in chaotic stage shows and whose success was relatively low (his biggest gig was opening for Bros at Wembley to an audience of 50,000 who booed him as he came out and played terrible renditions of Bros songs).
It’s kinda funny and tragic that there was this Jekyll/Hyde nature to Sievey and that he actually seemed to prefer being Frank to the person he was in real life, and that professionalism was the death of the band – Frank’s improv/freestyle showmanship was what made him stand out, and bringing in actual musicians and rehearsing made him less appealing to audiences. Ronson clearly liked Sievey a lot and his book casts him as crazy and George Bernard Shaw’s Unreasonable Man, but that these were admirable qualities in this unique individual and made him stand out.
Ironically, nearly everyone else in Frank’s periphery became hugely successful – but not Frank. Caroline Aherne, then a secretary at the BBC, played a character in a skit during Frank’s radio show: Mrs Merton. Aherne took the character and developed it into The Mrs Merton Show and the enormously successful follow-up, The Royle Family, making millions and winning numerous awards.
Their van driver was Chris Evans who went on to become one of the highest earning celebrities in the UK, earning tens of millions for his breakfast radio show; and of course Ronson himself who went on to become a successful journalist, documentarian, and bestselling writer.
Frank Sidebottom/Chris Sievey would die of throat cancer in 2010, penniless, whose funeral and commemorative statue would be paid for by his fans, who came out in droves to donate when he passed.
Ronson’s short memoir – nearly 70 pages made up of double spaced, large font sentences with full page photos – is padded out further with a brief look at another outsider artist music group, The Shaggs. They were a small group from the American South who grew up on a farm, isolated from the outside world, and banned from listening to music until one day their crazy dad gave them instruments and demanded they become a successful band.
The music they made is the music of people who didn’t know what music was and who created it without influences or having heard a single song – the results are extraordinary! Check out “Philosophy of the World” for some of the weirdest music you’ll ever listen to (though The Shaggs have their fans – Kurt Cobain and Frank Zappa both rated their record as among their top 5 greatest albums ever made!).
This is an entertaining short book about a moderately interesting person that doesn’t quite feel worth the full hardback price as you’ll read this in under an hour, and the piece will probably appear in a Jon Ronson collection like Lost At Sea sometime in the future. That said, the Kindle price is (currently) 59p which is definitely worth it. Despite its brevity though, Frank is a fun read that Ronson and Frank Sidebottom fans will enjoy.