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King Bong: The Ballad of Xylophone Man

4 July 12 words: Al Needham
You saw him in town, and he made you smile. How many other people can you say that about?

Scored by Michael Wetherburn

2004. Is it really that long ago? Nearly a decade since we heard that sound? The magnificent cacophony of randomness that went; “Bing Bong Bing Bang Bong”?

If you weren’t here when Nottingham was under the rule of Xylophone Man, who died on July 4, 2004, you missed out. Town hasn’t really been the same since. Here’s the story: at some point in the 1980s, a man in his late fifties from Cotgrave came to town armed with a child's metallophone and a crate, which he plonked down outside the C&A on Lister Gate, and bonged away. At the same tune. Over and over again. First time you heard it, you swore blind that you knew it. You never did; it remained on the tip of your brain forever. Like the obsessed artist returning to the same canvas for one more splash until the paint was three inches thick, Frank Robinson picked away at his magnum opus until his dying day.

Nottingham being the big city with the small-town attitude it was, and is, it wasn’t long before he got a nickname ('Xylophone Man', naturally – there's no interest in poncy wordplay round here) and the rumours spread. He was a millionaire who had gone a bit mad. He was a musical extortionist who would target shops in town, banging away until the manager came out with a tenner. He was an undercover Fed. In short, he was suspected of being everything except the thing he actually was; a genial old chap bonging away on a metallophone and yelping along to himself with undisguised glee because, well, because he wanted to. And he carried on doing the same thing for almost two decades.

Which leads to the obvious question: was he mad? Well, you can’t hit the same bit of metal for that long without being a little bit batchy, but on certain days, after coming out of your rammel job on a rammel day after a row with your rammel boss over some meaningless rammel, you’d see Xylo bashing away with a smile on his face, earning his baccy money, and you'd wonder who the really mad people in town were.

By the time C&A had changed into H&M, he had effortlessly glided from 'cheerfully random bloke in town' to 'bona fide civic treasure'. I'd spent much of this time away from Nottingham, and whenever I got into conversations about where I came from, 100% of the people who had been there would say: 'Nottingham? Loved it there– great shops, loads of pubs, and that bloke on the xylophone.' Whenever I came back to see my family, the first thing I did was to walk from the train station to seek out the tinkly cacophony of mallet on metal. The sound of home.

The cover of LeftLion 19, created by Chris Summerlin

So why did Frank Robinson hammer his way so deeply into our hearts? After all, Nottingham has never been short of 'local characters'. There was Mr Pope, the gentleman of the road who was allowed to sit in the doorway of Selectadisc out of the rain (and the stench from whom caused people to avoid entire letters in the record racks). There’s been a million Bible-bashers in Lister Gate. There’s been Axeman, who used to hang about the rack of badges at Pendulum Records in Viccy Market and brag on to twelve year-old Mods about the chapter of Hells Angels he commandeered at the Sal (even though no-one ever saw him on a motorbike). There was ‘Denis’ who, for a long time, treated Mansfield Road as his own personal catwalk, and Whycliffe is still Whycliffe.

None of them have ever come close to the level of affection we had for Xylophone Man (and yes, it was affection; when he died, people were genuinely upset); maybe it was because he didn’t hassle us for money (you got the impression that he would have been quite happy to do it for nothing), or tell us we were going to sizzle in Satan’s chip pan, or pretend he was something he wasn’t. In a city that seemed to be changing on a weekly basis, he stayed the same. More importantly, in a city that - like everywhere else in this country - is becoming more and more anonymous and unfriendly by the year, Xylo was someone that everyone knew, and everyone liked. You saw him in town, and every time you did, he made you smile. How many other people can you say that about?

Now all that’s left is a memorial in the spot where he regularly played. In a perfect world, every Fourth of July would be commemorated with us all gathering round it, armed with kiddie xylophones, and going into a minute-long clatter of noise at noon. And here’s a thought; there’s a reasonable chance that he will be the only person who lived in Notts during this time whose memory will be commemorated for future generations. Maybe, after all of us have long gone, the time we spent on this particular part of the planet – and all our travails, achievements, hopes, dreams and fears - will be represented by an old man who never finished a tune properly, whilst sitting on a crate outside C&A. How mint would that be?
 




Talk to Frank

The original Xylophone Man interview

A poem for Xylophone Man

Xylophone Man on Wikipedia

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