No.9 Love Zombies
Monochrome Set (1980)
The archetypal post-punk art school band, the Monochrome Set consisted of Indian-born lead singer and principal songwriter Bid (real name Ganesh Seshadri), Canadian guitarist Lester Square (real name Tom Hardy), and drummer John Haney (formerly of the Art Attacks). Formed in 1978, the band went through several bass players in the next few years before adding a school friend of Bid’s, Andy Warren, who had just left Adam and The Ants. The Monochrome Set began with four fascinating singles on Rough Trade Records between 1978 and 1979, recording a number of popular John Peel sessions along the way and attracting a lot of critical attention. Bid was handsome, literate and charismatic, with an elegant croon somewhere between Lou Reed and Boris Karloff; and Lester Square was a gifted guitarist. Where did these guys learn to play so brilliantly? Only Haney had been in a proper band. Bid and Andy had been playing in gawky school groups around London since 1975. All the more impressive then, that the level of musicianship on their first two albums was so high.
Virgin Records' Din-Disc subsidiary saw their potential and in early 1980 they were in a big studio in Camden recording their debut album The Strange Boutique, with famous producer Bob Sargeant in control of the sound. (You can read my review of that delightful album elsewhere on this site.) Following an instrumental single, 405 Lines, and many gigs here and in the States, toward the end of the summer of 1980 the band were booked into the same studio (Sound Suite) to record the second album, Love Zombies.
DinDisc had lost some belief in the group (no hit singles etc) and therefore refused the services of Bob Sargeant, in a cost-cutting exercise. Love Zombies was produced by the group in conjunction with engineer Alvin Clark.
The title track begins with military drum-rolls treated with echo leading to a fairground lilt with whispers thrown in for good measure. A fast waltz, Love Zombies is a strange song in that it’s mostly an instrumental. Twin keyboard phrases played simultaneously, one ascending, the other descending, push us through to the first appearance of the Wasp synthesizer. Even in 1980, this was a cheapo device used mainly to recreate the sound of a Theremin. This sings out a sweet, memorable melody and following a reprise of the main instrumental section, Bid asks peculiar questions:
Can someone tell me
What is it that we're doing under the lights?
Can someone tell me
Why once again we're food for vampires tonight?
It's paradise when those zombies eyes
Are trained on you and sucking you dry
Groovy guitar chords, a clumping cowbell and jazzy bass heralds the arrival of Adeste Fideles, a title derived from the Latin original of O Come All Ye Faithful yes, the Christmas carol, but only the title and some cod-Latin survive in this unique re-write. That Wasp synth wails away like the insect after which it is named, and John Haney’s tom-toms are treated with a cavernous reverb, giving the track a booming depth. Bid, the group’s singer and spiritual guide, begins the first verse in his beautifully posh English voice:
Sacred body, wan and worn
bruised and mangled, scourged and torn
by thy passion, kiss divine
fill my heart and make it thine
purest victim, stainless priest
thou the host and thou the feast
by the pains thou didst endure
cleanse my soul and make it pure
Behind these gentle words of sanctity, master guitarist Lester Square plays glistening tremolo barre chords until everything stops dead and the first of no less than three choruses (each with different lyrics) offer up authentic Latin references, again sung in a gorgeously pure voice:
Oh, thou, who camest from above
kindle a flame of sacred love
fons amoris, spiritus
This in turn leads to a refrain featuring rumbling tom-tom drums and groovy reed organ, against which Bid narrates phrases presumably nicked from the Holy Book itself:
I am risen and am still with thee, thou hast laid thine hand upon me, thou hast searched me out and known me: thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.
A third of the way into this reverent homily, Lester casually tosses off another sublime guitar solo, there are further intriguing verses and the whole mysterious experience ends with this calm assertion:
Mine eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate, afflicted, and in misery.
Do you like jazz music? If not, skip this bit and move on to the next track. 405 Lines is a fabulous instrumental, an authentic Fifties Blue Note period parody, redolent of legendary jazz guitarists such as Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.
As mentioned in my introduction to this review, a faster version of this had come and gone as a single release earlier in 1980. Difficult to describe a tune, but suffice to say it’s catchy as hell. There’s an introspective middle eight where the playing is muted, the bass takes over as lead instrument and bongos pit-patter attractively.
A toy town piano plays a childlike countermelody, the guitar goes all snaky and it finishes in a tight snare drum roll into the distance. Hardly punk then, but divine!
I don’t always want the words of pop songs to be about anything in particular. It’s often refreshing to have some poetry, perhaps references to a book, film, or a play, maybe even some text that is surreal or humorous. Art shouldn’t always be continuously serious and emotional, have some fun once in a while!
Journalists from the music press in this country slammed into this album at the time. They didn’t just dislike it, they loathed it. And the next song on Love Zombies is probably an archetypal reason why: the self-reverential smugness of B-I-D Spells Bid.
B-I-D starts with soft brushstrokes on the cymbals, hesitant bass drum beats and a melody to die for. Against a shuffling percussive backdrop, the Anglo-Indian in the round collared shirt quietly serenades us with his vanity:
I am joyous, full of mirth, I am born of noble birth
I'm meek, but for what it's worth
It's spelt Bid with a B-I-D
Cos B with a K spells BK
I am modest, I am mild, I was charming as a child
I've no taste, nor any style
But it's Bid with a B-I-D
Cos B with a Y spells 'Bye'
Another of the Set’s wickedly exact pastiches of Sixties pop, the song has a beguiling arrangement: stabs of organ and cowboy guitar play one of two wonderful alternative tunes that weave between the silly, endearing verses. There are hilarious bits where the showing-off goes into overdrive:
From all sloth and idleness
From not caring for distress
From all lust and greediness
Save us, Bid
After which the second alternative melody proudly announces its arrival: Eastern, enigmatic and cool, it could be an outtake from the Beatles Revolver, that’s how fab it is! Overdubbed guitars jangle, John Haney goes for little forays around his drums in rotating patterns and it all fades away.
Swathes of distorted guitars fade in before a cabaret hi-hat and an expectant two note bass begin the jazzy introduction to RSVP. Now, I’d like you all to go and fetch your French phrase books. (You’re allowed to dance madly around the room whilst keeping the book in one hand.) Ready? Let’s begin. Bid steps up to the microphone, looks around him with a sexy indifference and suavely intones his absurd words:
Pas de deux, cordon bleu
Quel dommage, à la plage
Laisser faire, tête-à-tête
The pace picks up and we’re off at a splendid trot, the vocals increasingly teasing and triumphant. Here’s some more:
Je ne sais pas, pâté de fois gras
Corps de ballet, tout-à-fait
Rendez-vous, femme de cilambre
Entre nous, tous ensemble
It ends in a long fade-out of echoing, chiming guitars. Enormous fun!
Stick the word apocalypse to the word calypso and what do you get? A daft but entertaining post-punk gem, of course! Apocalypso was issued as a single and although admittedly catchy and potentially radio friendly, its knowing cleverness and witty wordplay sailed over the heads of the shop girls and white socks brigade, sinking without trace. A scraper sounds off, Andy ‘miserable’ Warren’s nimble fingers pick out a complex bass riff, Lester plays a languorous five part guitar piece and JD Haney whacks his snare drum twice to kick off this spoof Caribbean romp.
Simultaneously, this song is about:
1 A lust for wealth
2 Praising nuclear weapons
3 Some arch puns on various musical names.
The dark-eyed Asian in the Buddha suit lets us have it:
Sing ho! for the A-bomb melody
It merrily whistles down on me
I’m wrapped in silver foil, my blood is on the boil
while B52s flutter coyly
Hurrah! for the missiles from heaven’s gate
they syncopate gaily in 7/8
I mambo to the sound of Martels, air-to-ground
I hear the baying of bloodhounds
Wistful guitar flourishes spring out behind the silky voice on the refrains (two of them, different words) as Bid, preoccupied with the upper class English-at-play and posing as didactic pedant, yearningly spells out his heart’s desire:
All I want is a flat in Berkeley Square
with colour TV set, reclining chair
big box of Suchard for me to devour
antique grandfather clock, phone in the shower
All I require is a Rolls Royce Corniche
cocktail cabinet for the nouveaux riches
Persian carpets and Van Goghs in the boot
Cardin 3-piece beneath my noddy suit
Lester Square contributes a pensive solo which is followed by a symphony of percussion: steel drums rattle, roto toms reverberate, the scraper zings away and its all rather tropical: Ricky Ricardo And His Rhythm Orchestra! A single high note is sustained throughout before the guitar returns us to the later verses and some playful ad-libbing (treated with reverb) from Bid. Here’s the splendid kiss-off:
All I desire is a Swiss bank account
given an OBE and made a Count
country estate with a resident staff
acute angina and an epitaph
Karma Suture (literally, ‘action stitches’) is the curious title of the next song, a pun on Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian text widely considered to be the standard work on love in Sanskrit literature, a small portion of which deals with sexual behaviour. Written largely by the drummer, John Haney, it describes in surrealist terms a rape and more generally acts as a warning to the fairer sex about the dangers of nocturnal urban mobility. By combining serious and often satirical lyrics with fluffy musical frameworks, the Monochrome Set create an insidious quality that prompts a different interpretation each time the tracks are played.
It starts with an exotic guitar line from Mr Square, all warped Eastern promise, before some adept bass harmonics moving adroitly up and down the scale, lead to the full rhythm section. Bid’s rich baritone is drenched in echo with a slight delay between the signal and its audio reply, an effective disorientating device:
continued in column 2
The D]s are dedicating music to the dead
she has no suspicion of the things that lie ahead
pulled up in an empty street without a sign of life
she relaxed, she didn't know that time was getting tight
if she looked into his eyes, she'd surely change her mind
she was just a lonely girl who thought she'd made a find
An improbably poppy instrumental break is squeezed between the verses, culminating in the main guitar riff dramatically flanged, then panned across the stereo dimension. Overdubbed backing vocals a la Brian Wilson provide a soothing background until the final verses arrive and it’s not good news:
Turning up the radio and switching off the light
now she's been commissioned in the armies of the night
the DJ's dedication's drowning out her screams
she cannot absorb the shock, she is such a soft machine
smashing up the radio and turning out the lights
now she's been commissioned in the armies of the night
The 10.cc-like voices (all Bid, multi-tracked) now dominate, pushed up in the mix to straddle the sonic field until you think you’re going insane, then it all abruptly stops.
With wit, intellect and charm, the mood is transformed for the next gem, and as I said when discussing B-I-D Spells Bid, the music journalists wrenched this fantastic LP off their stereos and threw the vinyl out of the window in disgust when they heard the cartoon guitar riff that opens The Man With The Black Moustache. Now you tell me why does pop music always have to be so relentlessly macho? Why can’t an artist experiment with different styles?
That’s how great art can be achieved! We all need wildly different art for different moods. Variety is crucial to prevent torpor and this versatile group of musicians rose to the occasion on all their eighties albums with brilliant tracks such as this. Instantly recalling the golden days of the delightful Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, this comic jazz confection possesses a sublime tune right out of 1940’s Disney movies, performed by the amazing Lester Square, by utilising two guitar motifs. The first is a cyclical sort of jingle high up the fret-board, the second really carries the show, a warm, funny and nimble tune played with impressive dexterity. Bid is at his most foppish, all camp, arch and wickedly trite:
When he speaks he's never loud
you could lose him in a crowd
changing colour with the clouds
self-effacing at the start
oh so well he plays his part
secret violence in his heart
Children’s toys are employed as sound effects during the instrumental break, emphasising a kindergarten atmosphere. The high guitar part returns, followed by these nagging questions:
Who’s that man?
who’s that man? (I’ve no idea!)
who is that man? it’s the man with the black moustache!
The final verse reveals all, sung in a frothy manner perhaps, but this song isn’t everything it seems, and neither is the man with the black moustache. Crucial trust is shattered as an act of abuse takes place:
Something stirring deeper down
this man is no children's clown
leads you on to shaky ground
all good things, they have to end
only so much you can spend
broken faith is slow to mend
Before the days of the compact disc and user programming, the more thoughtful artists would spend a lot of time considering the sequence of tracks on an album and here the Monochrome Set employ a brutal edit to cut off Lester’s guitar and splice in a voice which calls out the scene to come:
Rolling! Mark it.
There is the sound of a clapperboard snapping shut, and action! We are hurled into The Weird, Wild And Wonderful World Of Tony Potts.
The named individual was a close friend of the band and was included in the line-up on the sleeves. Tony Potts was a talented film maker who provided bizarre short filmed extracts beamed onto screens on either side of the stage when the Set played live. These films portrayed them leaping about in the nude, miming surreal acts of violence and generally disporting themselves in a physically outrageous manner. This was of course a complete contrast to what they were doing onstage. Often, the only person moving in any way was the impossibly tall Lester Square, gyrating in a peculiar variation of the twist, as he peppered the venue with his stunning guitar solos, therefore presenting the audience with a juxtaposition of images to enthral the eye, while the ears were entertained. Here, then, is their tribute to their friend and to the movers and shakers of film history.
Cute, trebly guitars play a pretty tune and the bass murmurs expectantly before everything goes bang, with a scorching backing track of guitar, bass, drums and subtle piano. Have a look at these remarkable lyrics, every technical film reference they could think of without caring if any of it scanned at all:
Stir into the essence pot
close-up, cross-fade and mid-shot
sprinkle short ends on the gruel
tape splice and camera spool
focus and fade
A-B rolling, f-stop and grade
swirl the potpourri around
sync-pulse, pic-sync and sync-sound
Chalk of slate and pinch of pan
reclaims, reversals, recans
Kodachrome, cut-away and clap
And that’s just one verse!
There are name checks for Murnau, Mayer and Fritz Lang, as well as paraphrasing the witches scene in Macbeth. Somewhere in this seething mass of brimstone and groove there’s an awesome instrumental break, intelligently composed, arranged and performed Lester Square overdubbing several guitar parts, including some gorgeous Flamenco noodling. We leave this unique song as we came in, with the same high guitar and rumbling bass. This is accompanied by a cymbal struck hard and fed backwards onto the track, creating that sucking, womblike sound we all loved so much from Beatle records. That voice (Tony Potts himself?) shouts ‘print it!’ Then all hell breaks loose as a cacophony of jumbled audio bursts out of the speakers, immediately followed by a lonely, strummed guitar, slowly introducing the final track on Love Zombies.
Cowbell, shaker and other percussion instruments make appearances as this groovy instrumental gets under way. The Monochrome Set pose the question, In Love, Cancer? And then don’t bother answering it. But who cares when you’re at a party as great as this one? A huge swirling organ takes off into the stratosphere and the swinging Sixties are authentically evoked. Here is the theme tune that Austin Powers should surely have used.
The keyboard playing here is wonderful, immersed in Los Angeles circa 1967. As it fades, a child’s squeaking toy is heard and a ringing telephone nags the ear, it’s taken off the cradle and we hear a faint voice intone the titular query.
So there you have it. As I keep saying, everyone in the music press in 1980 hated this group and this album. They also despised other fabulous releases, such as Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight. Those journalists were arseholes! My advice is: ignore those wankers!
Track down this fantastic album. It is in my top ten LP’s of all time.
Coming next month:
Part 10 • Stu's post-punk compilation