If You Really Love Me Buy Me A Shirt (The Freshies)

Michael Fassbender, crazy German name, crazy Irish guy, is as hot as any film actor in the world today. The title role in Ridley Scott’s movie “The Counselor” is done & dusted. The new X-Men, a Terence Malick joint, “Macbeth”,as the Thane, “Prometheus 2”, possibly “Assassin’s Creed”. Hot, hot, hot. Busy, busy busy. Then there’s “Frank” currently in post-production & the one of this long & heavyweight list which is most likely to get my cash. The imaginative yet deranged character of Frank Sidebottom, a naif with a papier-mache head from Timperley in Cheshire, was created by Chris Sievey. Frank was an endearing, hilarious character to whom I am most partial, a luminary in the pantheon of British comedy. There are those who fail to discern humour in his work…well…move right along because we probably disagree on a whole bunch of stuff. Anyway, before Frank there was Chris Sievey & there was the Freshies.

Young Chris really, really, wanted to be a pop star. At just 16 he hitch-hiked to that London with his brother, headed for Apple HQ & demanded to see a Beatle ! They left after playing a song to the head of A&R then heard no more. You know, I really do hope that that story is true. By 1974 Chris had a scrapbook full of rejection letters & his own Razz label on which he released his cassettes. By 1978 the Freshies were a band & their tunes were being pressed on vinyl. The optimistic “Straight In At Number 2” EP failed to live up to its’ name but the 6th single released by the band in 1980 (those were the days !) stood out from a crowded market & got itself played on the radio.

“I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk” is a powerpop companion to the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love…”. It charges along & has a similar Mancunian self-deprecating humour. The record was picked up by a major label, the brand name removed from the title &, 40,000 sales later, reached #54 in the UK charts. That was a commercial high point,as  good as it got for the band & I’m just not sure why. “I’m In Love…” is a good song but  there are songs like “Tell Her I’m Ill” with a little less novelty, the same dry humour, which pack a punch & deserve a hearing.

“Wrap Up The Rockets” was the follow-up. It’s just as good but perhaps nuclear disarmament or annihilation doesn’t appeal as much as unrequited love. I certainly did not know much about this song until recently (Jah bless the Internet). There is a Y-tube clip of the band playing this at a “Rock Against the Missiles” gig in Alexander Park, Manchester 1981. It’s tipping down, the audience are getting wet through & the sound is poor. Just another grand day out with the Freshies. “Scrap our defence plans. That’s 12 grand each for everybody in the UK. I’d buy a sports car but I wouldn’t go far just go to Rhyl”. That is good stuff & it is funny stuff, with a musical tip of the hat to Thin Lizzy too.

“I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes” is another song of  Freshies’ frustration. This time it’s not a girl but a rare record which is out of reach, maybe it’s a metaphor. This was the last of the 3 singles released by MCA, a third strike & the band was back on the Razz. There were other releases but if the Freshies did ever have a shot then the opportunity had gone. Those wry songs concerning life’s small but vexatious torments could break through. Chris would loved to have been as big as Squeeze, hell, he may have settled for one hit like Splodgenessabounds. Anyway this time we get to actually see Chris & the band & that’s great. Any poignancy regarding the stymied record collector is undermined by the “Boing, Boing” refrain but the Freshies liked things to be funny.

There were a couple of solo records in 1982/3. “Camouflage” is a 7″ single with 3 programs for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer written by Chris. There are 2 versions of a game, “Flying Train”, & a video for the aforementioned song. Any of you familiar with this antediluvian form of technology will know that hardly any of the attempts to load the program were successful. Here are the fruits of a very painstaking obsessive’s labour, doing things we don’t understand with machines of which we have even less comprehension. A similar device was used later by Pete Shelley on his electro “XL-1”. This is the 2nd brush with the Buzzcocks on this post…no coincidence.

There are bands who have recorded just one song as good as “Camouflage” & are regarded as powerpop paragons. In 2005 Cherry Red Records compiled “The Very Very Best of the Freshies: Some Long & Short Titles”. It is 23 tracks that got away. There was no more music from Chris. In 1984 he put on the papier-mache head & embraced his inner Frank Sidebottom. It’s a pity that the Freshies were overlooked but a world without Frank would be a worse place. You know it would, it really would. Thank yew !

Stepping In And Out Of That Manchester Beat

The first fulmination of British Beat music is always going to be known as Mersey Beat. Brian Epstein may have thought that his lovable Mop Tops had the potential to make a record or two but he also managed a stable of Scousers ready to follow the ‘Pool pathfinders into the chart limelight flaunting their provincialism, their youth, their “fab” & “gear” & “wacker”, their swinging blue jeans. Down the East Lancashire Road, at the other end of the North West megalopolis, Manchester, Liverpool’s civic & commercial rivals since the Industrial Revolution, had to watch as the British youth coup which spread across the world’s turntables had a distinctive Merseyside twang. Now, 50 years later, Manchester’s musicians have made their mark on our music but their beat group hit-makers were a little exiguous.

The Hollies were bang on it from the very start. The first 45s were the R&B covers from their stage act, lively Coasters harmonies, the music stripped to a basic beat . Success was incremental until Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” took them to the Top 3. From record 1 the b-sides were their own songs. “Now’s The Time” is credited to Graham Nash & Allan Clarke (for the next record Tony Hicks would join in). It is the flip of “Stay” & is featured in the 1963 film “It’s All Over Town”, a forgotten flim-flam which was passing its sell-by-date as it was filmed. What an early shot of the group, the leather look was not a great one, they still have the original drummer, Don Rathbone & their pre-Fab Four haircuts. The song though is a simple variation on the Lennon & McCartney template showing that the Hollies were quick learners.

The band were certainly helped by the production talents of Ron Richards but they made the smart moves at the right time. they began to record original songs, the move across the Atlantic in 1966 made them very successful. So many of those first beat groups were left behind after that first energy burst. The Hollies were better than most , they were talented & had got it going on. More from them soon.

The Swinging Sixties had not yet been declared open when, in 1961, George Formby, a singer/comedian who had been the UK’s highest paid entertainer, passed away. Formby’s appeal was not too apparent to my generation, novelty songs, an innocent demeanour, an exaggerated accent, a “Lancashire half-wit” said one Liverpudlian (though George Harrison was a fan). Peter Noone, a young actor from Manchester was 16 years old when he had his first #1 hit as the singer of Herman’s Hermits.  When he was just 17 (you know what I mean) he & his group had 7 Top 10 hits in the US. Peter was cute, America was in thrall to a rampant Anglophilia, The songs were R&B covers,( think Pat Boone “Tutti Frutti”) or novelty songs, the syrupy “Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter”, a Cockney knees-up, “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am”, which were both awful & both hit #1. Peter was innocent, he exaggerated his northern accent & the Yanks just ate him up. What the…? I have no idea what any of the Beatles thought of him.

Mickie Most, the band’s producer, kept the hits coming until the end of 1967 when Peter handed over the title of Sweet Young Mancunian Boy to Monkee Davy Jones. The Hermits still had access to hit songs & had continued success in Europe. Before the Top 10 hits stopped they released this version of “Dandy”. The clip is from “The Dean Martin Show” & OK the song has been sedated & de-clawed, “Well Respected Man” it is not. It is, though, a Ray Davies song at #5 in the US charts & that is a thing.

Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders took that same ride to the top of the US charts. It must have been such a blast for these young men who had grown up in the black & white world of 1950s Britain. “The Game Of Love”, a song by an interesting American writer, Clint Ballard Jr, was the group’s 2nd UK hit & a #1 in the USA. Man, if you were British & in a band in 1965 you were a prince !. So Wayne Fontana (erm, Glyn Ellis) had his head turned & split from the backing group. He did have some smaller hits in the UK but there was an increasing look of desperation in the man’s eyes with each attempt to recapture past glories. Instead, would you Adam & Eve it, the backing group hit paydirt with their very first record post-Wayne. “A Groovy Kind Of Love” is a hit record waiting to happen, an easy lope through one 2-minute hook. Whoever got hold of the song first was the winner. It was a sign of the 1965 times that a young British band, with no great track record, got first refusal of a new American tune. The Mindbenders were not able to repeat their success but were around until 1968. Singer/guitarist Eric Stewart had learned the ropes, used his earnings to build a studio just outside Manchester & came right on back with 10cc. Wayne Fontana came around in 2005 in some weird-ass court case.

And that is about it for Manchester 60s hit-makers. Freddie & the Dreamers were around too but that line between child-like & childish was very quickly crossed…not great. There are those who claim Georgie Fame but he was from Leigh, close but not a Manc. John Mayall played in his first blues bands in the city but he, like Georgie, had to leave for London to find the scenes they wanted. Hey, it was just a short time & the Hollies are just the first of a line of great groups from a music city. It just stung a little that all that music was coming from just 30 miles up the road.