Chris Sievey drained his pint of Kronenbourg. His partner Gemma headed into the pub to get another round as we shot the shit and reminisced about London Frank Sidebottom psychogeography, and other things.
It was July 2007, and I was heading into The Morpeth Arms on Millbank for a lunchtime pint. Vicious mid-morning downpours had cleared away all the London summer fug, and the day was fresh and clean. I'd been to see Frank Sidebottom at his Chelsea Space Is Ace installation near Tate Britain and laughed myself stupid.
To mark the event, I was wearing a vintage "Shed Show" tee shirt I'd bought on a pilgrimage to Timperley in 1992, and I took my pint and sat outside. I was aware of a small group sitting to my right. They'd been there when I went in. I got on with sipping my pint of Youngs Ordinary when I was interrupted. The girl sitting with the group came over and asked if I'd like to join her and her friends. I looked over, but the penny didn't drop. I looked at her again, and vaguely recognised her as the girl with Frank at the show earlier. Then I realised that I was finally going to meet Chris, the man underneath the "pumpkin head".
I first heard Frank on Mike Read's Radio 1 Breakfast Show. He was much taken with Frank's "Oh Blimey It's Christmas" record and played it repeatedly in the run-up to the 1985 festive season. At first, I thought it was a joke. Another Northern club-circuit comedian emulating Fred Wedlock and his "Oldest Swinger In Town". But I was curious. The song had a pleasing hook, and I loved the "oh! blimey!" I consulted a recent arrival from the NW who was a fellow City fan and member of Hacienda. He'd know. "Remember 'The Freshies'?" he asked. Yes, I did. I remembered their powerpop classic "I'm In Love With The Girl From The Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk". Well, Frank was Chris Sievey out of The Freshies.
Acquisitions and learning followed. The Timperley EP, "Space Is Ace", "Christmas Is Really Fantastic". Through his interpretations of other peoples' songs, he'd set out this entire parallel universe where he ran a showbiz empire out of his garden shed, had to hide his fame and stardom from his mum, and his list of chores would compete with his "showbusiness". His Jiminy Cricket in the form of little frank, was always rescuing Frank from scrapes, despite the fact that he was supposed to be Frank's ventriloquist puppet. It all seemed so normal, so easy to get into. I was totally hooked.
My first chance to see him came as a result of a phone conversation with Jon Ronson, who was then in Frank's Oh Blimey! Big Band. He was doing a Christmas gig at North London Poly and Ronson was selling the tickets. I rang to try and get hold of four. No dice. I asked if he was playing anywhere else, and learned he'd be playing in a pub called The Cricketers at Kennington Oval. Perfect! Just round the corner and tickets on the door.
The place was heaving. We got in and managed to force our way to the front. He did two sets, one an Xmas-themed medley, the other running through his greatest hits. At the interval, while he went to change, two of us drunkenly stormed all the toilets looking for him. We wanted pictures. Having failed miserably, at the end of the gig we tried to go behind the bar. "Sorry lads" we were politely but firmly rebuffed, "'e's taken 'is head off." And that was that.
His popularity grew, and as well as TV show appearances, he did the Reading Festival, produced a regular full-page comic strip in Oink! Comic (a sort of kiddie Viz), lecture tours and more records appeared through the early Nineties. By this time I was working in Germany. I used to try and get the BFBS DJs to play him. They'd go "eh?"
After two years I came home, and on my first weekend back, he was on at The Cricketers. No band this time. He came on stage with a dustbin and there was just the single keyboard that would become his main stage prop, along with little frank.
And that would be the last time I saw him live until 2006.
_______Outside the Morpeth Arms that July afternoon, myself and another fan had a chance to recount our favourite Frank moments with Chris. He didn't realise the Chelsea Space was only 10 minutes from the former Cricketers pub he appeared at so many times. I recalled a Channel 4 documentary called "The Spirit Of Christmas", where numerous 'celebs' were invited to a full dinner and asked to ponder the meaning of it all. Frank had been booked, and chipped in that the Meaning Of Christmas was going out on Christmas Eve with your favourite auntie to buy Pink Paraffin. Warren Mitchell was there and took a serious dislike to him. Chris couldn't explain why, but he quite liked to idea of rubbing Alf Garnett up the wrong way.
He'd stopped 'being' Frank for over a decade, with only a greatest hits CD called 'A B C & D' being released in around 1998. When he came back, he explained away his absence from 'Showbiz' by saying his mum found out about his career and had made him get a proper job. That job was as an animator, a talent he put to excellent use by making a pilot episode of 'Frank's World', 11 minutes of subversive, clever and literate animation.
In 2006, word came out that Frank had been booked to appear at one of Chelsea's shows called Researching/Samuel Beckett. He turned up and did a bizarre double-act with a 'Darlek' fabricated by a couple of Chelsea College of Arts students. He 'narrated' all of the Beckett exhibit on the basis that Sam had nicked all of his ideas from Frank and the proof was in the correspondence. Then he did a duet of 'Anarchy In The UK' with the Darlek as it discharged Co2 all over the place.
That same summer, Late At Tate did an Evening With Frank Sidebottom, where his Mark Kennedy-created mosaic was unveiled. Frank sits at the centre, surrounded by Mark Radcliffe, Jon Ronson, Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton, and Chris Evans. The event also premiered his 'Frank's World' animation pilot. His association with the Art Space and Tate Britain continued into 2007 when he 'hosted' his Chelsea Space Is Ace installation and performed at the August 2007 Late At Tate evening.
In the meantime, Channel M based at Urbis in Manchester had given him a TV show. Part performance, part chat show, part showing 'Frank's World'; part vox-pop. He memorably ambushed Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to ask what colour pens they wrote their scripts with.
After our afternoon with Chris, I was able to spend a little more time with both he and Gemma. I watched with a mixture of amusement and horror as he closed the Chelsea Space Is Ace event by repainting the entire front of the Art Space. He never said a word, he was Francois Sidè-Bottem. Mime-like, he took bottles of poster paint and, having painted the glass screens, included the porous sandstone front and the uplighters set into the ground.
When it was all over and he re-appeared as Chris, we all sat on the ground and watched as the Art Space volunteers tried to clean the paint off with liberal applications of water, only succeeding in diluting the paint into the stone facade. Later, over a pint, when I recounted all this to Director of Exhibitions Donald Smith, he looked at me sternly. "I had to come back and get him to apologise to one of the volunteers", he said. Then his face cracked into a rueful smile. "I just wish I could have seen it", he said.
I last saw Chris in Brighton at The Albert at the end of 2007. I had a quick chat before he got his head on and did a cracking show for the 80-odd squeezed into the performance space upstairs at the pub.
His creation has given me 25 years of joy. Amidst the feelings of loss and sadness, there are the little regrets. I wish I could have seen him in New York. His account of his day trip to New York is classic. I wish I could have been on one of his 'Sunday With Sidie' open-top bus tours and events. And I really wish he'd taken on board my idea of a game show called 'Stars In Your Big Blue Eyes'. A rip-off of the Matthew Kelly-hosted impersonations show, in this version, Frank would compere while celebs had to perform as him.
But, he also left a substantial body of work, which I hope won't be allowed to disappear from view. That would just be bobbins.