fri 27/11/2020

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Monochrome Set | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Monochrome Set

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Monochrome Set

The reappearance of 1980’s ever-delightful ‘Strange Boutique’ and ‘Love Zombies’

The Monochrome Set take the air in New York, October 1980

 “An exercise in bizarre mixtures, combining the bleak acid hangover of half-hearted Velvet Underground impersonators with muted razzmatazz: a long and rather stylish joke.”

 “An exercise in bizarre mixtures, combining the bleak acid hangover of half-hearted Velvet Underground impersonators with muted razzmatazz: a long and rather stylish joke.”

The April 1980 New Musical Express review of The Monochrome Set’s debut album wasn’t entirely favourable but it captured the difficulty of getting to grips with the band. A combination of raised-eyebrow archness and dolefulness confirmed the band was setting-out its own path. Further confirmation of their slipperiness came in October 1980 when a second album was released.

Monochrome Set_strange boutiqueStrange Boutique, the debut, and its follow-up Love Zombies are newly reissued. Their reappearance helps emphasise The Monochrome Set’s offbeat character. They were indeed indebted to the Velvets and, in 1979, their single “He’s Frank” repurposed the VU’s “Foggy Notion” (then only available on a bootleg EP). The April 1980 B-side “Surfing S.W.12” was an “I’m Waiting For the Man” rewrite. But more was going on. Bossa Nova, jazzy instrumentals, Hank Marvin-style guitar and nods to Ennio Morricone were in there too. There’s also a surreal mind-set akin to that which had surfaced on odder Beatles’ White Album songs like "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and "Rocky Raccoon". Singer Bid’s voice was lounge-singer lugubrious and still is. A version of the band is still playing.

The distinctiveness of the two albums ensures they remain fresh. Although both were thin sounding, the melange of influences and eccentric approach has ensured that time has not eroded their vitality. Strange Boutique was produced by Bob Sergeant, who had done the same job when the band recorded for the John Peel Show. Love Zombies was produced by Alvin Clark, who had engineered Strange Boutique.

There is the odd misstep, like the inferior re-recording of their 1979 single “The Monochrome Set (I Presume)” but both albums are stuffed with arch lyrics, dynamic performances and memorably strong songs. Lyrics reference arty European cinema, Beatnik preoccupations, Fifties coffee bars, the impeding nuclear apocalypse, psychedelic drugs, religion and sex. Song titles like “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber” and “The Etcetera Stroll” ram home the idiosyncrasy. Unfortunately, the prurient subject matter of “Ici Les Enfants” has not worn well. It’s all thoroughly Buñuelian.

However they were promoted, The Monochrome Set were never going to be a mainstream band

Both albums were originally issued by Dindisc, a subsidiary of Virgin Records run by the head of the parent imprint’s music publishing arm. The label was extant from Autumn 1979 to early 1981 and its main successes were Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach” single. Despite its new wave inclinations, Dindisc also had the metal band Dedringer on its books. Once signed, The Monochrome Set worked hard in 1980 to promote themselves. There were radio sessions, an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance on TV, two UK tours (one in May, the second in October/November), continental European dates in September and a US tour the following month (they’d already played the US in September 1979).

After Dindisc folded, The Monochrome Set recorded demos for EMI in March 1981, issued one single for the Charisma sub-label Pre in July 1981 and in December 1981 made further trial recordings for the independent label Do It. Ultimately, they ended up with Cherry Red Records. Unlike OMD, they did not transfer over to Virgin when Dindisc shut-up shop. Presumably, Virgin had found The Monochrome Set’s commercial worth wanting.

Monochrome Set_Love ZombiesConsidering their history, this was unsurprising. However they were promoted, The Monochrome Set were unlikely to be a good fit with the mainstream. The band evolved from The B-Sides, Adam Ant’s pre-Ants band, which he formed after seeing Sex Pistols in 1975 – he instantly left Bazooka Joe, the band he was then in, when the Pistols supported them and formed the new band in 1976. Bid and Monochrome Set guitarist Lester Square were in The B-Sides alongside Adam (Bid and Adam were at Hornsey College of Art – members of The Raincoats, Slits and Wire also went there). Earlier, Bid and long-term Monochrome Set bassist Andy Warren had been recording together from 1975. Up to late 1979 Warren had been in The Ants, who he left to join The Monochrome Set. The first version of Monochrome Set began playing live in February 1978. In short, it's a lineage directly tracking back into the earliest, artiest roots of British punk rock.

This pedigree took them to Rough Trade, who issued their first three singles in 1979. Also released that year was an EP of their first demos, recorded in April 1978. The tracks were produced by then Vibrators guitarist John Ellis (The Vibrators’ first live show was at Hornsey College of Art), another former member of Bazooka Joe. After Rough Trade, they hooked up with Dindisc and made their first two albums.

Strange Boutique and Love Zombies are idiosyncratic, terrific artefacts and integral to an important branch of the British punk rock family tree. Their reappearance is welcome. These are straight, vinyl-only reissues. Strange Boutique lacks the embossed cover of an original pressing, and the silver sleeve of 1980 has become blue-grey. The sound of the reissues is more wide-screen than the originals, which highlights the production shortcomings. Probably, EQ applied during mastering in 1980 has not been employed today. First pressings of each aren’t rare and can be found in good shape for about £10. The reissues sell for around £22.

It doesn’t matter which pressing is plumped for because, as these reissues show, Strange Boutique and Love Zombies will always delight.

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