At first glance, Frank Sidebottom was just an idiotic soccer fan from Timperley (a tiny suburb of Manchester, England) who performed inanely nasal parodies of popular songs — accompanying himself in various musical modes, from rock to acoustic piano to a rinkydink synthesizer approximation of ’20s ragtime — while wearing an enormous painted papier-mâché globe head. But what Chris Sievey (who had led the equally prolific punk-era Freshies) did as Frank Sidebottom was so completely over the top, so singlemindedly weird, funny, accomplished and charming that one has to marvel at the wit and intensity with which he pursued his bewildering career. As British as a sixpence and as mad as a hatter, this tireless and hilarious character offered the world (or at least the hardy members of his fan club) a much-needed blast of humbly self-indulgent fun. And unlike so many rude, crude and lewd performers, he always remembered to say “Thank you” at the end of each song. Sievy died suddenly at home in June 2010, shortly after undergoing treatment for cancer.
After outlining the parameters of his parodic career with three self-released EPs that include, respectively, covers (of the Sex Pistols, Police, Queen, etc.), holiday originals (like “Christmas in Australia”) and space-themed oddities (including the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Urban Spaceman” as well as the “Fireball X15 Theme”), Frank hooked up with In Tape and delivered Christmas Is Really Fantastic. Besides the inspirational title track, the EP (in its expanded 12-inch form) includes a medley of seasonals, an absurd oompah version of Roy Wood’s “I Would It Could Be Christmas Everyday” and “Mull of Timperley,” which allows Frank to advance his own geocentric worldview and make fun of his idol, Paul McCartney, at the same time. Troublesome puppet sidekick Little Frank even gets a turn, closing the record with the punk-rocking “Football Is Really Fantastic.”
Pictured on the cover of The Magic of Freddie Mercury and Queen (a 1987 7-inch expanded to foot-long form with extra tracks the following year) with a mustache and detached mic stand, surrounded by a constellation of Kylie Minogue faces clipped from newspapers, Frank croons “I Should Be So Lucky” and reads “Love Poem for Kylie” (“Oh Kylie Kylie Kylie, as a person you are ace / Oh Minogue Minogue Minogue, let’s run away to space / I’ll build a dream house next to yours, with Australian cheap labor / And you can be the girl next door, and I can be your neighbour”). The rest of the record consists of goofy Queen covers and adaptations, including “We Will Rock You,” “Frank Gordon,” “I Am the Champion” and “Everybody Sings Queen,” which strings together song titles. Fantastic.
Timperley is a conceptual tour de farce, a delicately delicious romp through the Kinks (“Timperley Sunset,” with all-new regional lyrics), Bruce Springsteen (“Born in Timperley,” which includes a useful explanation of the town’s fantasticness: it has two post boxes!), the Troggs (“J’Taime [sic] Wild Thing in Timperley”) and — for all of 27 seconds — the Monkees (“Next Train to Timperley”). As usual, Frank and Little Frank squabble about this and that between tracks.
The original concept behind 5:9:88 and 13:9:88 was to make and release the two albums a week apart, but that’s not exactly how things worked out. The first, a double-LP (and somewhat revised cassette), did appear on schedule in September 1988: nearly two hours of music and chat (the two Franks engage in a lot of the latter; “The Tomb of Maurice Karmen” is sort of a homemade radio play, an echoey little excursion (“The Tomb of Maurice Kamen”) which yields such useful information as the ancient Egyptian derivation of the word “formica”) that runs the top-to-bottom gamut from ’60s nostalgia (“It Was Nearly 20 Years Ago Today”), a jolly sea chantey (“Fantastic Sea Shanty”) and the incisively Floydian “First Puppet on the Moon” to some total time-wasters.
The second half of Frank’s week didn’t go so well; his follow-up extravaganza ran into legal difficulties regarding a Little Frank Christmas parody of the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right” and wasn’t issued until the following April. Presented as a holiday trip (by train, of course), 13:9:88 begins on a merry note with the singalong “Blackpool Fool.” But as it quickly develops, Frank has neither enough songs for an album (a problem Little Frank repeatedly mentions, much to big Frank’s vexation and depression) nor a train ticket. Although Frank does make it to Blackpool, he really doesn’t really have any songs, and this winds up being a largely non-musical vacation of radio-play nonsense that ends on a classical note with “18:12:88 Overture.”
The 10-inch/ten-song Medium Play has no overriding concept, but this more-wonderful-than-not hodgepodge includes really fantastic interpretations of songs by Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys, Little Frank’s “Tummy” rock opera and a sketchy guest rendition (on guitar and sloperatic tenor) of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” by some dolt who belches at the end. Alongside a spiffy upending of “Twist ‘n’ Shout,” MP‘s highlight is “Timperley Blues” (apologies to Eddie Cochran), which contains the following profound exchange between the artist and his sidekick (prompted by Little Frank’s having fetched a pizza instead of the visa Frank wanted): “You stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid puppet.” “I’d like to help you Frank, but I’m cardboard.” If that makes you smile, Frank Sidebottom’s your man.
The box set, a timely career retrospective released the year of Frank’s death, contains four CDs and a live DVD, more than 120 numbers covering everything he released from Christmas Is Really Fantastic to 13:9:88. Hear it and weep for all the right reasons.