Manchester's Frank Zappa
A Tale of Two Franks, you know it is, it really is!
Frank Zappa is a legendary rock guitarist and composer known for his technical mastery of his instrument and his staggeringly complex music designed to challenge his band and listeners alike.
Frank Sidebottom is a man in a papier mache head dancing around a Casio keyboard with a little cardboard puppet of himself, singing "...you know it is, it really is". I can't believe I've never noticed the wealth of similarities between the two. Just as I was chopping vegetables for my tea, and listening to Frank Sidebottom's album 5:9:88 for the fifth time this week, it hit me.
First let's get the massive difference out of the way; one which I have already alluded to. Zappa's music has a major focus on complexity and technical perfection, whereas Sidebottom's is exceedingly simple and often poorly played. But none of that really matters when there are so many similarities. I think I might use bullet points, yes I will; you know I will, I really will.
Frank Sidebottom is essentially a stand-up comedian. Chris Sievey, whose real head was located under Sidebottom's papier mache head, began as the singer in a punk band The Freshies. He created the Sidebottom character as a support act for his own band; eventually it became more popular and took over. Sidebottom is childish, creative, naive, and endlessly silly.
Frank Zappa was obsessed with silliness and humour
"American way, threatened by us," wrote Zappa on 'Concentration Moon' from We're Only In It For The Money. "Drag a few creeps away in a bus. American way, prisoner – lock. Smash every creep in the face with a rock. Don't cry, gotta go bye bye, suddenly die die. Cop kill a creep, pow pow pow."
"Hey you, riot policeman, have you got the time?" enquired Sidebottom on 'I Said, Hey You, Riot Policeman'. "They always say ask a policeman, so I am asking you. See I need to catch a bus to Wythenshawe hospital. In the mayhem and confusion, I've lost all track of time. Hey you, riot policeman, I think you do a wonderful job. It's a fabulous public service, and I think you deserve a rise. Cos bullets and guns and gas are cheap, and what's with the price of truncheons? It's fifty pounds for a couple of tickets to the riot policemans' ball."
Frank Zappa's stage shows allow room for long passages of improvised technically sophisticated music, whereas Frank Sidebottom's Channel M test card is an hour of improvised talking to himself and playing around on his keyboard.
As well as composing in a wide variety of styles of music, Zappa was also a producer, record label executive, and A&R man; his shows often included bizarre props used as Dadaist art somethings. He also made films and even animation. Sidebottom drew and painted prodigiously, and made a huge amount of props including his own head! He made radio shows, YouTube videos, animation, music videos, and a TV series; he had a beautiful website, communicated with his fans on MySpace, and apparently even wrote an award-winning episode of Pingu (click here for his own words on the subject) called Pingu's Bedtime Shadows.
Albums by both the Franks contain strange sound effects, skits, audio plays, conversation, comedy dialogue in between the more traditional song songs
Sidebottom gave us some well known names such as Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton, Graham Fellows (John Shuttleworth), journalist Jon Ronson, and apparently Chris Evans was his driver. Zappa supplied Captain Beefheart, Steve Vai, Wild Man Fischer, G.T.O.s, and Alice Cooper.
Frank Zappa is called Frank. Frank Sidebottom is also called Frank. They are both called Frank.
Frank Sidebottom has Little Frank accompanying and obstructing him everywhere he goes. Zappa liked to make puppets or pets out of his band members, turning them into characters, such as Jimmy Carl Black "the Indian of the group", and Ray White "the assistant Illinois Enema Bandit".
Music about music
The first song on Sidebottom's album 5:9:88, Airplay, documents his attempts to get a hit record and explains how he gently subverts the cliches of pop music in order to do so. The song is fantastic; the lyrics are too. A cursory search of the internet can't find them, so I'll work them out myself and stick them here for your enjoyment (at least as much as I can discern from listening through cheapo speakers):
Breakfast time again
Switch on your radio
Here it is again
Airplay, they're playing my song again
Airplay, there's nothing wrong with
Catchy little hooks
You hate but just can't seem to shake
They're going 'round your head
There's nothing you can do
To stop yourself
From latching on the bridge, and singing
Airplay, they're playing my song again
I'm heading for the one
Airplay, take it away!
That's the solo gone
I stuck it early in the song
To make the structure different from the last one
That's the sort of thing that you consider
When you're going for
Airplay, we're on the hook again
I'm washing your brain
Airplay, a simple refrain
But a tricky middle-8
You have to wait a few times to hear
It's not as easy on the ear
I'll take you right back to
Airplay, now you're tapping your foot again
I'm taking it up
Airplay, I'm blowing all the stops out now
And making subtle changes to the verse
The worse is yet to come
It's the obvious ---type harmonies
----, Dollar and Bucks Fizz
Everything you wish for
Airplay, keep the chorus coming
I'm pushing it home
['Airplay' by Frank Sidebottom, (p)1989 In Tape, licensing Stirling Sievey & Gemma Woods]
Zappa wrote a lot of music playing with the forms of recognised genres. For example We're Only In It For The Money ridiculed the hippy movement using subverted psychedelia, and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets played with the forms of doo-wop.
In The Real Frank Zappa Book he says "Without deviation (from the norm), 'progress' is not possible. In order to deviate successfully, one has to have at least a passing acquaintance with whatever norm one expects to deviate from".
Both artists reference their own influences explicitly over and over, both lyrically and stylistically. Sidebottom likes Sex Pistols, Freddy Mercury and Queen, and the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney. Zappa likes Edgard Varese, 50s doo-wop, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson.
Click the above link for Zappa's explaination of his concept of the Project/Object. It's basically the idea of using many of the same flavours, references, in-jokes, etc and sneaking them into an artist's entire output. He references "a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there"; his deep voiced MOO-WAH is heard often, and we get lots of songs about stupid men, sexual jokes, hair cuts, dancing, etc, etc, etc.
Sidebottom's Project/Object includes football, Altrincham, Altrincham FC, Timperley, Little Frank, NASA, space, rockets, Paul McCartney, television, his mum, his tea, being sent to bed with no tea, not even a great big bowl of cereal.
Zappa collected magnetic tape of every remotely musical sound he ever made or heard, and he collected musicians. Sidebottom collected He-Man figures and crudely drawn pictures of himself.
That's enough for now. You know it is... IT REALLY IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!