The Monochrome Set – An Appreciation

January 27, 2008

The Monochrome Set were fuckin' ace.

The Monochrome Set were fuckin' ace.

I’m not entirely sure why, but this is a band that fascinates me like no other. Is it the obscurity? Is it the fact that they failed so heroically? The fact that they are not really remembered, despite being the first ever band to release a record on Rough Trade? The fact that nobody seems to know anything about them these days?

I grub around in Kingbee Records in Chorlton, occasionally sidling up to the guy behind the counter, asking him if he has anything. Three records have turned up so far.

‘405 Lines’, a 7” single from the magnificent Love Zombies LP… An utterly quixotic choice for a single, a seemingly tossed-off instrumental, with a few noncommittal backing vocals added to the single version as a concession to commerciality.

Monochrome+Set+-+Love+Zombies+-

Love Zombies - Great album, wrong single!

Why the hell did they put that out, when there were such obvious choices for two or three other singles on the record? I need to know, did they put out the brilliant ‘Adeste Fideles’? What about ‘Apocalypso’? What was going on at the time?I was introduced to the Set by Rob Fleay, who got involved with my band Lazer Guided in 1997 and helped us to self-fund and released a split 7” with another local group, Stumble, then a second split single, this time with the Reading-based Saloon – Saloon went on to top John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 2001.

As a Christmas present, Rob made a C90 for me and our guitarist, Will Stone. This tape was peopled with figures from the seventies and eighties in the main and whilst I am sure the majority of it was seriously worthy (the curmudgeonly mutterings of William S. Burroughs featured, alongside Captain Beefheart and many others), the standout winner for me was the Monochrome Set’s awesome ‘Lester Leaps In’. It, well, it leapt in with a snake-hipped guitar riff, then in cracked the snare, then an insanely busy, beetling bass part, then the guitar ripped into an amazing motif and the band chugged along, watching the lead guitarist go, powering his solo. Then in the middle 8, they suddenly change the melody again and in come the handclaps. It was exquisite, so formal, so perfect, the absolute quintessence of formal rock’n’roll, which is something I’m totally obsessed with.

It makes me feel nostalgic for a time and place that simply doesn’t exist. One or two other songs do the same thing, but The Monochrome Set seem to be able to do it to me all the time. They hit me in a spot that no other band does, maybe ever will.

Years later, I had moved cities and moved bands. We had a group called Stars on the Water, who made, under the influence of a lot of hashish, some very beatific, naïve records, described in one of the few reviews we got as a new sort of clean post-rock. The only label to ever take a serious interest in us was Dreamy Records, an indie from London, run by an ex-pat Californian named Tracy Lee Jackson. Tracy’s favourite ever band was … you guessed it. So when her birthday came around, she booked ourselves as her favourite current UK band (an honour), supporting Scarlett’s Well, the new incarnation of Bid, the man behind the Set.

I dug out the old tapes and found ‘Lester Leaps In’. Still worked. My house at the time was something of a music download centre, so I tapped in the Monochrome Set to a P2P site we used and waited to see what came down. Not a lot, was the answer. On the whole web, it seemed that hardly anybody had the band on their hard drive.

In the end, I found an LP called Strange Boutique, along with bonus tracks, including ‘Lester Leaps In’ and something called ‘Eine Symphonie des Grauens’ – ‘Eine Symphonie’ proved to be an instant classic and my heart was won.

I read through what history I could find, noted the arch interview quotes, the masses of art-school pretension. The Lester of ‘Lester Leaps In’ was Lester Square, of course. Bid, I thought, looked like a slightly shifty character, but one I would have killed to have known. I was thrilled with them. No other band had made me want to be there at the time. People would probably go on about ‘The Rolling Thunder Revue’, or Led-bloody-Zeppelin, or The Beatles, or whatever, but no, I would have liked to have been around this group in the early 80s. If I could teleport back any place, any time, it would be to London, to see them play, around the time of Strange Boutique.

The Peter Saville-designed cover of the fantastic 'Strange Boutique' LP

The Peter Saville-designed cover of the fantastic 'Strange Boutique' LP

So, Stars on the Water frove down to London to play Tracy’s birthday party at the Water Rats in Camden, in support of the mighty Bid himself. Struggling to navigate the vicious one-way system, we drove into the heart of the capital and found ourselves circling the venue, noting the double red lines outside. Double red lines, we knew, meant that if you stopped at all, for whatever reason, you risked Instant Death, but desperate to get some sort of soundcheck / stop driving around in circles, we ultimately ran out of ideas and simply parked outside the venue, red lines or none.

I ran into the venue to be confronted with a small, shifty-looking individual with wiry hair, deep in conversation with an enormously florid, bespectacled man, sat on a chair on the stage twiddling on a bass guitar. The florid man was talking about his time in the seventies, hanging out with CAN. I suspected it must be nonsense.

I gabbled quickly that we were parked outside. The small, shifty-looking character started, said ‘oh, blimey’ and darted out of the door. ‘Come on’, he shouted over his shoulder, ‘hurry up’.

So it was that Bid of The Monochrome Set humped my bass amp into the venue for me. This is a task I have, in vain, been trying to delegate to lesser mortals for years.

Bid (left) - Leapt into action to save SOTW from a certain parking ticket

Bid (left) - Leapt into action to save SOTW from a certain parking ticket

I seem to recall hanging around, vaguely hoping to talk to Bid, but not really having much to go on. I knew only a very little about the Mono Set, which didn’t help.

So Scarlett’s Well soundchecked, we soundchecked, the venue started to fill up. Friends started to come over and say hi and the nerves started to flow. A gentleman named Matt Dornan, who ran an exemplary magazine called Comes With A Smile, came over to chat and exhorted us to record an album ourselves. ‘Don’t wait for someone to give you the money, just do it’, he counselled. Tracy had been feeding him all our stuff and he was impressed.

Finally, some recognition and some encouragement. We had been sending records to all the wrong places, labels like Twisted Nerve and Infectious, or tiny micro-indies that were essentially only extensions of somebody else’s band. Tracy hadn’t the money to do a record for us, but she was dying to help in any other way she could.

The gig would prove to be one of Stars on the Water’s very last, but it was a triumphant affair. We played well and the new song we had written especially for Tracy (she was supposed to be putting together a compilation CD with a Valentine’s Day theme, but it never happened) went down great. We had another new song we were pretty excited about, entitled ‘No Kicks’. We played that last, as a showstopper, replete with screams and as much thunder as we could muster (Stars was not a very heavy band).

I walked off and backstage, feeling rather happy with the set. I rounded the corner and the first person I saw was that man Bid.

‘Good’, he said, levelly, looking me dead in the eye. I was somewhat unnerved. ‘Particularly that last one’.

Duly noted.

I was thrilled and started blathering about the Monochrome Set, hoping I could maybe blag a CD off him or something – such is the way my mind works. He puffed out his cheeks on hearing the name of his old group.

“That’s going back years now”, he sighed. “Maybe try Cherry Red (Records)?” I was surprised. I would have thought that the records would have been easily available, that he wouldn’t have been at a loss if asked about his old band. Clearly, they were far more obscure than they should be.

This was a band I couldn’t bear to see languishing in the dustbin of history – they were far too good. But the back-history was so sketchy. Signed to Virgin, dropped after a couple of albums, careering on through the eighties with constant line-up and stylistic changes.

Scouring Manchester second-hand stores such as Kingbee, Vinyl Revival, I managed to pick up a few bits – I slavered at stupidly expensive 7” copies of ‘He’s Frank’ and ‘Eine Symphonie des Grauens’ on eBay. It is perhaps fortunate I didn’t “remember” to bid for these artefacts after a night out, as happened to me with the early Pavement 10” Perfect Sound Forever. Which is terrific, incidentally.

After a few drinks whilst watching the Slow Century DVD, I felt compelled to spend £40 on this badboy.

After a few drinks whilst watching the Slow Century DVD, I felt compelled to spend £40 on this badboy.

The problem is, I am no sort of record collector, as I’m incapable of keeping things nice and believe that records exist in order to be played and enjoyed, not kept shrink-wrapped in a vault to accumulate value. So although I try to pick up records when I can, they will certainly be played and not kept locked away for future re-sale.

Suddenly, a total fluke in Vinyl Revival! Scouring the racks, on a random search, I noted something hidden behind a plastic board that read ‘Indie & Rock, J-L’. Pulling it out, the moment of realisation, it was Strange Boutique! Not in the greatest nick, but who cared?

£6. The cover was silver, with a small, silver-on-black photo in the dead centre, of a woman diving into water. I turned the cover over and read the credits to discover that it was designed by Peter Saville. The glorious mystique around this band only grew.

That’s about as much as I know, for now, but any more info would be great. Jesus, maybe I’ll write a book about them some day!

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5 Responses to “The Monochrome Set – An Appreciation”

  1. James Evison said

    I remember that gig very well, it was an appropriate ending for a band to go out on.

    In full agreement about the Set. I just don’t get why they aren’t better known. Great band.

  2. john robb said

    i saw them twice and thought they were a genius band, always loved them and still play them to this day!

  3. Johno said

    It’s great to see that I am not the only one with a Mono Set fetish, what an amazing and underrated band, so subtle, compositionally intriguing. There’s a razor-sharp humour to the lyrics aswell

  4. Jon said

    I was clearing out some old stuff at the weekend and found an old Stars on the Water demo CD. I had a listen to “Fortunate” in the car and surprised myself I could still remember most of the words. Fantastic.

  5. Nigel said

    The Monoset were a fantastic band, however they weren’t the first artist on Rough Trade (that honour fell to Metal Urbain) and 405 Lines came out as a single a full three months before the album and is a completely different recording… All of their output is well worth checking out, though.

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