The last single we discussed was from 1982 and Cherry Red’s “Eligible Bachelors” album, but from that point to 1986, the band had an album on Blanco Y Negro; and that period was not the purview of this compilation. It was a collection of the indie A/B sides, so next we leap forward past five years of no Monochrome Set, to 1991. One year after the reformation of the band [MK II] and the band’s non-LP ode to homicide. The rest of these singles would take place in another decade to the first 15 tracks.
It started with a bang and receded from there. “Killing Dave” used the unlikely ploy of beginning the song with its chorus. When the chorus was three syllables: “Kil-ling, Daaaaaaaave…” while being punctuated by guitars and a blood-curdling scream, it made certain that everything else else was anticlimactic. It was 1991 and the motorik rhythms of the tune placed it outside of the weird 90s bubble where music like this seemed to be beamed in from an alien planet where grunge and tech dance styles had never manifest. The Monochrome Set were never content to follow trends, much less forge a cohesive style, but that must have made their five year existence in the 90s exceptionally difficult. Looking back in retrospect. “Killing Dave” did come closer to rock music than anything else on the disc thus far, so maybe it was actually the band showing pragmatism?
The single was the first one from the band that was on the shiny new CD-5 format as 1991 beckoned. “House of God” was a live rendition of a tune from the previous year’s “Dante’s Casino” album. Good gravy this song sounds like a hit. The chugging acoustic rhythm guitars were warm and inviting. Lester Square’s electric leads slotted in over them beautifully. Bid’s vocal was soaring and immaculate as he offered up yet more fascinating lyrics; invoking decapitation in the opening couplet. More intriguing was how the song’s powerful instrumental coda was lifted whole cloth from… yes, Roxy Music’s “Both Ends Burning!” I knew I was getting Roxy DNA off of this group, even if it was until now avoiding all obvious taint!
“Forever Young” was a chugging throwback to the early 70s rock sound. Andy Warren’s sinuous bass line pulled me right into the track, and Lester Square’s stinging leads in the middle eight finished the job. The B-side “Hurting You” could not have been more different as the band offered up a brilliantly pitched Broadway show-stopping ballad. The instrumentation was mostly electric piano and string synths as Bid beautifully sang the song on his best matinee idol voice. Then when the song to make Andrew Lloyd-Weber insane with jealousy ended, there was an unexpected coda with bassoon and oboe playing counterpoint to each other for a few bars. Strange.
The last A-side here was an even more specific early 70s throwback as “I Love Lambeth” was every inch a Fred Neil singer-songwriter piece. Lester Square’s slide guitar was subtle and elegant, but the sardonic lyrics professed to love Lambeth; a central London district, but the examples given were all surreal. According to Bid, Lambeth would be a great place to be… if you were a hydra. Or perhaps the Bishop of Durham.
The first B-side, “Kissy Kissy” was another whiplash-generating genre pastiche that roared in straight in from 1951, but for the perky synthesizer solo over the rhythm ukes. And it also ended with the second smooch sound to be heard on this disc after a brief 1:09…seemingly. But after eleven seconds of silence, music of a vastly different stripe crept back in the the forefront as an expert Henry Mancini pastiche swaggered in like the best hard-boiled 50’s private eye theme you had never heard!
Twangtastic guitar riffs over which lowing trombones, tense strings, and sleazy sax set the tone for a hyped up Bid, drenched in over-modulated echo, to introduce the band with hyperbolic aplomb. This was absolutely hilarious and a prime example of a great B-side that was not a song, per se, but was simply one of the most entertaining things you could have heard. As a non-musical B-side, this was right up there with The Cramps’ “Wilder, Wilder, Faster Faster.” So you know I really loved this!
“Quite conceivably, the finest collection of male flesh assembled on stage in this hemisphere…”
“All Over” was another early 70s pastiche. It’s funny, while the mid 90s were being defined by hard rock bands digging up the corpse of early 70s sludge rock, leave it to Monochrome Set to instead point to the contrarian singer-songwriter movement instead in a show of indifference to trend. The final track, “Closing Time” was build on a foundation of sustained organ chords, an absence of guitars, and wistful, double tracked vocals from Bid.
I have to say that I was very happy that chasinvictoria [rightly] assumed that I needed to get on board [finally] with The Monochrome Set by sending me this gateway drug of a disc. The Monochrome Set were/are exactly my cup of tea but their history as cult with lower case “c” artists perhaps works against them. They were a band with no shortage of ideas and inspiration, but the lowest of commercial profiles. Without the high profile hit that should have put them over to an audience wide enough to include me, it was all too easy to see them as a band I should probably admire but nothing more. Their lack of a unifying style meant only that style was a trait to be used by the band like an artists’ palette, not a crutch.
They ultimately, were too intelligent and witty for their own good, if there can be such a thing. Their unifying trait was not the mutable fashion of style, but the astonishingly droll group mind of the band collective. Their consistent trait was the arch wit and point of view that the band brought to the music arrangement and that which Bid brought to the frequently astonishing lyrics.
The band now have had three sustained and productive periods of seven, five, and now ten years of solid artistic achievements. There are boxed sets [the first, now unaffordable] covering their 78-85 period, and their 90-95 period [still affordable!] that taunt me. Less that three years ago Cherry Red released a 3xCD DLX RM of their highly regarded “Eligible Bachelors” album of 1982. It’s already priced out of my range. They just released their latest album in 2019 now that they are safely ensconced on the perceptive and appreciated Tapete Records label. Amazingly, their website lists their upcoming tour dates and Great Caesar’s Ghost… most of the dates were slated for North America!
2021 UK Tour Dates
18/09/21 – The Amersham Arms, London, UK
25/09/21 – South Street Arts Centre, Reading, UK
2021 North American Tour
07/10/21 – The Baby G, Toronto, Canada
08/10/21 – Bar Le Ritz, Montreal, Canada
09/10/21 – Middle East, Cambridge (MA) USA
10/10/21 – Mercury Lounge, New York City, USA
11/10/21 – TBA, Philadelphia
12/10/21 – Dogfish Head, Rehoboth Beach (DE), USA (free entry)
13/10/21 – Jammin Java, Vienna (VA)
14/10/21 – Funhouse@Mr Smalls, Milvale, Pittsburgh
15/10/21 – Ace Of Cups, Columbus (OH)
16/10/21 – Third Man Records, Detroit
17/10/21 – Reggies, Chicago
18/10/21 – Shank Hall, Milwaukee
20/10/21 – Barboza, Seattle
21/10/21 – The Goodfoot, Portland
23/10/21 – Brick & Mortar, San Francisco
24/10/21 – Zebulon, LA
2022 UK Tour Dates
05/03/22 – Greystones, Sheffield, UK
12/03/22 – Lewes Con Club, Lewes, UK
19/03/22 – The Deaf Institute, Manchester, UK
I have a lot of catching up to do with The Monochrome Set. And I would love to see this band live, given that they are going to be seven hours away in Vienna, Virginia. Maybe it would be time for that Chicago trip that we had scheduled for May 2020? But it’s still doubtful that any such events will unfold as scheduled for still some time. Wish me luck.