10 August 2014

Chris Sievey - Camouflage

Label: EMI
Year of Release: 1983

I suspect that there will be non-British readers of this blog for whom the name Chris Sievey rings very few bells, the significance of it being utterly lost. But then again, maybe not - maybe times are changing. Since the release of the film "Frank" this year, which was partly based on Sievey's Frank Sidebottom persona, more people around the world are beginning to question who he was and what drove him on through numerous years of near-breakthrough success and utter failure.

Sievey's bullheadedness and resilience became apparent very early on. In 1971, at the age of sixteen, he and his brother hitch-hiked from their home city of Manchester to the Apple headquarters in London  and refused to leave their offices, demanding to meet one of the Beatles so they could play them their music. Staff were unable to help, but the Head of A&R Tony King allowed them some time in Apple's studio to record a demo, but clearly wasn't interested in making a signing upon hearing the results. For the next few years the rest of the music industry remained similarly oblivious to Sievey's charms, and he self-released numerous cassettes and slabs of solo vinyl to the public's general indifference.

His solo efforts gradually morphed into the band project The Freshies in 1974 (who, according to Sievey, a very young Johnny Marr tried to join) who slowly began to attract attention, hitting their peak after being signed by MCA in 1981 and almost having a hit with "I'm In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-Out Desk". Follow-up efforts such as "I Can't Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes", however, were greeted less keenly, and MCA lost interest, as eventually did the rest of the band, leaving Sievey to release solo material again.

While even his greatest fan would probably have to admit that Sievey was sometimes much too keen on gimmickry and whimsy to connect strongly with the general public, "Camouflage" is one of those eighties hits that should have been but never was. Bulging with hooks, anthemic riffs, a Springsteen-esque chorus and a keyboard line peculiarly reminiscent of Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again", its a lean and marvellous pop record which should have been on the radio dozens of times a day. In the event, "Camouflage" got a slot on Channel 4's "The Tube", some minimal radio exposure, and little in the way of sales. If he seemed to give up on a straight pop career after this, I for one can't blame him - "Camouflage" is the sound of someone throwing every last great idea they have at the wall and smoothing everything over to commercial neatness and perfection.

Always searching for a novel marketing angle, Sievey included free computer programs on the B-side, including one original game he'd written called "Flying Train", and a computer video for the track "Camouflage" itself. While this might have seemed like a quirky one-off idea, it did actually inspire his next career move, which was to properly issue a computer game called "The Biz" which was a flawed but horribly addictive band management simulation for the ZX Spectrum. Nestling on the same tape that the computer program could be found was audio of a comedy character called Frank Sidebottom. Computer games magazine reviewers remarked that this character was "hilarious", and a brand new phase in Sievey's career was born for which he specially donned a large papier-mâché head.

Sidebottom is very difficult to explain to people who are unfamiliar with his work, being a cumbersome, eternally boyish, over-enthusiastic whirlwind of a character with more energy than talent. People who worked with him at the time have said that the alter-ego may even have been a safe haven for the chaotic Sievey, but what is certain is that it gave him more headlines, television appearances and exposure than singles like "Camouflage" had ever managed, and so - career breaks notwithstanding - he stuck with the character until the end of his career in 2010 when he died of cancer.

Whatever you think of his work, there's utterly no question that Sievey made the world a much more interesting place. Self-releasing singles before punk broke, creating multi-media computer games before such a thing became common practice, releasing singles with gimmicky catchphrases for titles - his approach to the media circus was frequently ahead of its time, and its impossible not to conclude that with a bit more fortune and focus he might have managed a short spell of genuine, run-of-the-mill success. But that would have meant that the comedy of the equally over-enthusiastic budding pop star Frank Sidebottom would never have been born.

Sometimes when obituaries are published for media figures, someone spouts the cliche "We will never see his/her like again". It seems trite, a half-hearted sentiment faxed from one star's agent to a journalist's dusty corner of an office in London. But in Sievey's case, it's an entirely genuine observation. There's almost nothing else to say - nobody will ever come along and have a remotely comparable career in the media again, and everyone should spend some time online digging around his work and interviews. This blog entry would have been finished weeks ago if I hadn't been so distracted by the monstrous online Sievey trail, not least the rather marvellous computer game "The Biz" which left me hooked for almost an entire Saturday.

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