No.6 The Monochrome Set
The Strange Boutique
(DinDisc Records, 1980)
If you have never heard of The Monochrome Set but are a fan of the following artists, then do yourself the biggest favour of your life and go out and track down a CD compilation of their first two albums, which carries the title Colour Transmission. Here are those artists: Velvet Underground, Beatles, Noel Coward, Kevin Ayers, Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, The Soft Boys, The Shadows, Love, The Monkees, Hoagy Carmichael, Judy Garland, Elvis Costello, Syd Barratt, Al Stewart, Venus In Furs, Bonzo Dog Band.
I provide you with this list because The Monochrome Set were either influenced by some of these people and/or have a similar style and approach to them. The Set (as I affectionately call them) appeared around the beginning of 1978 with the first of a string of sublime singles on Rough Trade records which divided critics and gained them an enviably large and dedicated following.
Like many of my choices for these re-evaluations, they were John Peel favourites and recorded a few sessions for the great man between 1979 and 1981. Here is a masterpiece, quite simply it is dazzling in its variety, confidence and strong material. Bid still is the lead singer, an Indian-born descendent of royalty, no less (it's actually true) but raised in Montreal and then London, where he met guitar genius Tom Hardy (renamed Lester Square, in punks harsh filament. Ha ha) and bassist Andy Warren at Hornsey Art College.
Bid and Andy had formed a band when they were still at school called The B-Sides, which later became the first of Adam's Ants. To cut a very long story short, by 1980 The Monochrome Set grew weary of recording for an independent label and signed for the Virgin subsidiary Dindisc, recording their stunning debut album, The Strange Boutique, toward the end of 1979/early 1980.
With veteran musician Bob Sargeant in the producer's chair (he had been in charge of some of their Peel sessions) the recordings progressed well, with a full, rich sound throughout. The opening number, The Monochrome Set (I Presume) is a big-budget remake of an earlier, more humble single. Here it is loaded with gargantuan jungle drums that rumble with gusto as our hero, Bid, the man with the wicked wit and the Karloff-meets-Lou Reed-meets-Noel Coward voice, lists some diverting facts:
'I'm adorable, you're deplorable' he disarmingly intones in the manner that irritated so many critics who had left their sense of humour behind with their nappies, long ago. A spoof of The Monkees old TV theme, it is immense fun, charismatic and boomingly powerful.
In a triumph of sequencing (and there's more of this to follow later) the tom-toms fade and jungle creature noises grow to fever pitch, when it is cut off suddenly and Andy Warren's superb bass-line announces The Lighter Side Of Dating, a song which, played live always guaranteed those in the first few rows would pogo with mental fury. Some chorus-treated strokes from Lester's Strat and in comes the rotating drum-patterns of The Set's eccentric percussionist, J.D. Haney. This is followed in turn by Bid's cool, deadpan voice with a spot-on surreal spoof on beauty contests: 'get hip, unzip your lip and flip out now, allow your jowl a howl and rip out now, Miss Universe is not adverse to bisexuality, I think abortion is a caution, and I like to ski.'
Early in this amazing song, Lester leaps to the fore with one of the most wonderful guitar solos of the entire 1980's, and I am prepared to argue! The notes are bent beautifully, Lester using his whammy-bar to marvellous effect, doing his Hank Marvin/Duane Eddy bit. Before you're aware of it, he's playing scintillating flamenco runs and the song is back to the later verses. 'Miss Solar System, when asked to list them, said she had no men, I'm still a virgin with no urgin vote for my hymen.' Er, sorry? Was that really what he said? Yes it was.
Expresso is next up, an after-life experience via Andy Warhol directing a Carry On film. Snappy drums kick in, bongos clatter away and Bid croons in his uniquely spooky but so very British baritone: 'I left my brain in a metal sieve with cancer injected just to stop it live, I know where the angels sing so play that harp and flap that wing, he's going to heaven.' It's all hilarious and colourful. Exemplary jerky guitar from Lester, and Bid returns: 'when I spoke to father's ghost he said he died by parcel post.' Lester plays us out with lovely warm, spindly guitar, alongside oohs and aahs from Andy and Bid.
The first of two outrageous Lester Square guitar instrumentals now makes its appearance, The Puerto-Rican Fence-Climber - and how's that for a title? Far out. Now, I'm not a guitar player, and working on the assumption that most people reading this aren't either, then I hope you'll sympathise when I say how difficult it is to attempt to describe instrumentals. I dont have those at-my-fingertips-guitar phrases, I'm afraid. But I know what I like, and I like this! Fence-Climber starts with elegant, sexy strokes, scrapers accompany the drums, then the pace quickens and the fun starts. A high organ creeps in illustrating a scene from a B-Movie that never got made. Wonderful!
Tomorrow Will Be Too Long begins with strummed Spanish guitars before Bid sings his sheet-metal manifesto: 'somewhere a tide of harder eyes brings guns to bridal suites, the interrupted lovers stand and shiver in floodlit streets.' The atmosphere is sophisticated, but this is still unmistakably thrilling, edgy post-punk rock music. Don't be fooled by the suave voice and intelligence at work here, it rocks! Lester chucks in another magnificent solo alongside keyboards and some breathlessly tight snare-drum rolls as a prelude to Bid bringing it all to a close: 'today has passed forever, tomorrow will be too long' he sings, as the theme from You Only Live Twice appears as a nod to their influence and to emphasise the concept of the song.
Cartoon-jazz chords and stop-start drums proclaim the arrival of Martians Go Home - that's Martians as in 'undesirable aliens' or anybody that others take a disliking to! This is fairly typical of the sort of smooth, charming vocal from Bid that would so infuriate critics and divide fans and their friends. Bid croons the amusing lyrics to a part-samba, part-punky rhythm, with Lester contributing exquisite, trebly guitar and John Haney excelling himself with an extensive variety of drum-patterns. 'Commie cupids quoting Lenin, but your Virgo is inactive, your Capricorn not attractive and my impulses didactic, say ho-hum.'
Heavily reverbed tremolo-guitar launches us into Love Goes Down The Drain, a dazzling free-for-all of hilarious puns, attractive melody and Bid's irresistible insouciance: 'The Creature From The Black Lagoon sits inside her warm wet womb,' he says 'mirror mirror tell me truly, is my hair dank and unruly? The beastie from the foulest end, slips around the toilet bend and says is this how one ages, ergo? Does it happen to all Virgos?' Great stuff, with a double-tracked Bid reciting the words down, down, down alongside the choruses in a cavernous, sexy voice.
The next song is Ici Les Enfant, a dark walk through the woods of Lolitaland using cinema references as a smokescreen, but also in keeping with The Strange Boutique's cool, aloof portrayal of all things cinematic. 'He's in love/lust, but she's only twelve! You've been driving me wild with the face of a woman and the body of a child, I saw your first take and all the outcuts, you've been sending my middle-aged blood pressure up' sings Bid, and little stabs of electric-piano appear alongside the band's usual tight performance. Yet again, here we have a simply divine melody - Irving Berlin would have grooved on these solid-gold tunes! 'Tell her it's art and keep the money in trust' deadpans Bid, securing his girlchild for the future in a sleazy sweetheart contract.
After a prolonged fade-out repeating the title, Ici Les Enfant disappears and Lester leaps back in with his second astounding instrumental, the tastefully titled Etcetera Stroll. Any attempt to dance to this could prove physically dangerous, it moves at a quick snap, and Lester's opening electric guitar riff is so fucking awesome that I am left speechless. If you like twangy guitars, then this is certainly up your street. John Haney keeps up with him though, and during the lovely refrains actually manages to fit in long, long rolls across every drum on his kit. Excellent! The arrangement is broken-down into something different in the attention-grabbing middle section, with bass and drums pounding out what seems to be a tango, as Lester's two thousand other guitars start appearing, each playing fantastic melodies of their own, which interweave with the main tune, up until its demise. How do you follow that?
Well, with what is arguably the greatest song The Monochrome Set ever recorded, and that is a meteoric compliment, as they recorded a great deal. Goodbye Joe is Bid's exquisite solo performance. There is only his adorable voice and his trebly, tremolo guitar and an already impressive album now becomes a classic.
Years later, when I had the chance to chat to Bid, he told me that the song was written about Joe D'Allesandro, the bronzen hunk who starred in some of Andy Warhols movies, and who graced the front cover of The Smiths debut album. Bid sounds by turn imperious, warm, sexy and plaintive as he croons his Lou Reed-like masterpiece. In concert he would often annoy everyone by rushing through it carelessly, ruining it! This, the master studio version, is the one to seek out and treasure. 'All the pretty girls they drool for him, and you know its right when he wins the one in the light - goodbye.'
The album terminates with its title track, The Strange Boutique. A manic potpourri of farting bass, zany organ, clattering rototoms and spidery, tinny guitar, it is a catalogue of threats, and pretty vile they are too: 'I cut your face into shreds, I crush your chest with barrage, I coat your liver with lard.' Ugh. 'I wanna be a devil!' sings Bid, with attractive abandon.
And there you have it, one of the best albums ever released, in my humble opinion, so good you have to restrict how much you play it! The Monochrome Set were/are one of the most misunderstood bands of the modern age, and widely reviled in the music business for their clever-clever arrangements, witty articulation and Bid's snotty sixth-former personality. I dont agree with these defensive, thuggy opinions. Although much later they sadly became depressingly ordinary, for the years 1978 to 1990 The Monochrome Set produced album after album of fantastic music. Why not check them out on the World Wide Web?
SJ review No.7 The Stranglers