Before he became Frank Sidebottom, the late Chris Sievey led the Freshies, an ill-fated Manchester diy new wave band – more peppy power pop than punk – that got into the lower rungs of the British charts with a verbosely delightful 1980 single, “I’m in Love With the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk,” that namechecks virtually every record label in the land. (When MCA picked up the self-released 7-inch for rerelease later in the year, the threat of legal action obliged it to be redone as “I’m in Love With the Girl on a Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk.”)
Despite Sievey’s amazing self-willed productivity and herculean promotional efforts (see the superb 2018 documentary Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story for the quixotic details), the Freshies got no further than that and lasted only a couple of years, leaving behind a batch of now-hen’s-teeth-rare picture sleeve singles, EPs and full-length cassettes.
So the CD compilation Cherry Red assembled is an invaluable document of a unique and wonderful band. Although nothing like the archly bizarre music of his alter-ego, there are bits and bobs that Frank fans will hear as Sievey predilections that foreshadow his subsequent reinvention – the guileless lyrics, oddly detailed throwaways, nearly adolescent emotionalism, strange obsessions, Beatlishness, catchy melodies and deft musical citations.
The scatter-shot invention of the lyrics matches the diversity and occasional melodic eccentricity of the music (fuzzy guitars, synthesizers, piano). But it all works, bound together by brisk, well-recorded musicianship, hooks everywhere and Sievey’s winning voice. “I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies by The Teardrop Explodes” is a collector’s lament about an actual 1979 single; “Wrap Up the Rockets” is a pacifist plea; and “Tell Her I’m Ill” is a squirrely attempt to get out of a romantic relationship by lying. He rues the fiscal challenge of playing indie rock in “No Money” (which would make a nice B-side to Wreckless Eric’s “Take the Cash”) and promotes domestic self-reliance in “House Beautiful.” The reverb-heavy “Let’s Go Space City” should have been the theme for a Saturday morning kids’ show, and “If You Love Me…Buy Me a Shirt” could have been a department store jingle. At 23 tracks (some of them audibly mastered from scratchy vinyl), there are a few that could have been omitted in service of a more perfect set, but no matter.
The nasal dada weirdness of Frank Sidebottom, I understand, is not for everyone, but it’s hard to imagine anyone into 1980 British indie pop not being charmed by this collection of wonders.