The band’s first single made a splash on Rough Trade in 1978. “He’s frank” was all uncomfortable “Dutch” angles over a repetitive guitar figure that coiled and uncoiled throughout the brief song. that only spilled over into indie jangle for its bridge and coda. The nonchalant phrasing of vocalist Bid was perfectly modulated; particularly on the line “but now the red’s in his eyes, he’s no longer a prize, there he goes…” where his delivery was the perfect poise of arch minimalism. The single has an iconic heft to it. As Post-Punk era debuts go, it should be figuring higher in the canon than it does. This was a band that that could perhaps cite Roxy Music as inspiration but did not actually try to sound like them across any of their phases. Perhaps it only comes across in the Post-Modern synthesis that the band would investigate. Vocalist Bid was a smooth crooner but not in the Ferry style. The song’s relentless drive was more of its era than any Roxy Music pastiche.
The next single was a radical shift from anything remotely touching Punk orthodoxy. The orchestra tuning up gave quickly away to Latin scratcher percussion and a vibe that seemed to have been lifted whole cloth from Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” The abstract lyrics were particularly impenetrable as Bid sang a duet with himself. The marvelous instro B-side, “Lester Leaps In,” gave the spotlight to guitarist Lester Square with a frenetically happy slice of New Wave bop with a handy sideline in frantic drum fills and fingerpops.
The band’s eponymous single “The Monochrome Set” finally gave me insight as to the band’s name. It was referring to the UK parlance for black and white TVs. The shift to color was a few years behind the US market, and no doubt the band had grown up with the titular monochrome set throughout the 70s. The lyrics here examined the influence of television from the perspective of the device itself. The hard panning of the guitars in the middle eight made headphone listening a treat. As did the double tracking of Bid’s breathless vocal.
Its B-side was the unsettling “Mr. Bizarro.” Yet another dive into the Latin rhythm pool as the percussive attack and timbale flourishes of drummer J.D. Haney set the tune firmly in the cha-cha camp while the lyrics seemed to posit a transexual figure who was an extreme character who was …reviled by one and all [“who doesn’t hate Mr. Bizarro?”]? After a few seconds of silence at its end, the sound of a laughing bag prank provided over half a minute of uproarious canned laughter to finish the track. Leading one to believe that the whole song was a put on.
“He’s Frank” also showed up as a second 1979 7″ put out by the band themselves. The version here was called called “He’s Frank [slight return]” and featured a very different recording. As produced by the Rough trade team, there was more midrange and bottom end, so the thinner, trebly sound of the first version was cone. Bid’s vocal was double tracked for a fatter, more “rock” sound. The guitar solos were very similar, but the thing that stuck out like a sore thumb was the lyric change. Subtle, but immediately noticeable when the lyric “but now his skin is slack, he shows a certain lack” becomes “but now his skin is black, he shows a certain lack.” Tectonic plates shifted with that single letter. It is counter-intuitive that the demo version was released after the other recording, but I prefer the thinner, flatter non-demo version for the frissons of Bid’s performance, though the unfettered lyric in the demo really makes an impact.
The B-sides to this one were the surreal and impenetrable “Silicon Carne” but the thing that immediately struck me was how Lester Square’s guitar evoked the tone of Phil Manzanera on “Amazona,” one of my favorite Roxy Music songs. So maybe I was hasty in proclaiming the band to be free of Roxyism. I thing if we dig, it will manifest.
There was a second B-side to this 7″ EP and “Fallout” really makes me wonder if the song had any connection to the song “Fall-In” from Adam Ant’s B-sides days when Square and Bid were playing with Adam Ant. There seems to be a slight overlap in the melodic structure of each song’s verses. Hmmm. I can almost hear it.
Next: …Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em