Frank Sidebottom

Steven Rainey witnesses a comedic comeback for the man with the paper head

Frank Sidebottom is an underground institution. Not everyone remembers him, but those who do will never forget him.

A staple of 'yoof' orientated TV shows in the 80s, I have often wondered what happened to Frank and what he would have to say in this modern age. Thanks to the good people of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, I got the chance to find out.

But before that, there was the small matter of Gary Armstrong. Some of the heckles thrown at this poor man brought tears to my eyes. 'I’d rather listen to the sound of my own lungs collapsing.' 'Please stop, you’re hurting me.' And my personal favourite, 'Ulster has suffered enough.' Even the man himself was laughing by the end of it.

My face was still creased with laughter when, resplendent in a sharp grey suit, Sidebottom bounded out onto the stage and ploughed straight on in there with his keyboard.

Sidebottom’s style is difficult to categorise, and one has to enter into his surreal worldview in order to make any sense of it all. There is a definite sense of unabashed nostalgia for the 1980s, but it also has a contemporary edge, dealing with Sidebottom’s attempts to understand the modern world.

Sidebottom himself cuts a strange figure on the stage, wildly animated, hunched over his trusty keyboard, changing outfits, and generally being a top showbiz entertainer. Of course, one cannot help but stare at Sidebottom’s giant papier mache head, which is even more impressive in real life.

His show is a mix of stories, gags and songs performed in Sidebottom’s unique style. No song is off-limits, and particular highlights were the rousing sing-a-long version of Joy Division’s 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', and what I would consider to be the definitive version of the Fall’s 'Hit the North'. 

Sidebottom also makes his mark on these songs (and others) by introducing the concept of ending every song with the words, 'You know it is, it really is', giving the song a definitive ending in all our minds.

Another particularly noteworthy facet of the performance is Sidebottom’s ability to improvise. There is a strong audience participation element to the show, and obviously that can throw up all manner of curve-balls, but Sidebottom never faltered in his efforts to see everything through the eyes of a man who has a giant papier mache head.

At one point, he even made the decision to play his song, 'The IRA are Fantastic', which (especially considering the political events that had occurred earlier in the day) was possibly a risky move. But the crowd lapped it up. Whether this was to do with the changed political climate or just the pure showmanship on display remains a matter for conjecture, though I’m tempted to guess that it was the latter.

One criticism that could be levelled at the show is the largely esoteric nature of the content. If you don’t buy into it straight away, you probably never will. Sidebottom’s show is not meant for mass consumption, and I can imagine people struggling to pick up on all of the pop-culture references being thrown about, but that is just part of his charm. And if you don’t appreciate the finer points of bidding for a Betamax copy of The Wrath of Khan on a made up version of ebay, then that’s your loss.

You know it is, it really is.