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have you heard...the monochrome set?

by Aidan Merrit

I spoke to Robyn Hitchcock in Leeds one cold October night and asked him why the Soft Boys never became pop stars; he replied that like the dBs, the Soft Boys were one of the great "loser bands". Regrettably, the Monochrome Set fall into the same category. So how do we define a "loser band"? The simplest definition is a band that did everything right musically, had the charisma to carry it all off, won critical acclaim but never made it pay. A band that, had they sold one more single, had one more song on the radio, bought one more round at some muso executive's local hostelry, would have hit the big time with the force of a skinhead's boot. The fate of the "loser band" is to see copyists laughing all the way to the bank whilst they take their instruments down to the pawn shop. The Monochrome Set got closer than most to stardom, but were doomed by being just that little bit too good to be snorting cocaine off a naked model's breasts. Their glamour and mystique were just that little bit too subtle to allow them entrance to Stringfellow's; instead they were stuck with the college circuit and the occasional heading of the bill at the Rock Garden. The occasional tearful eulogy in the music press is their only reward.

The Monochrome Set were the archetypal post-punk art-school band. Formed from the ashes of Adam and the Antz (note the spelling), they began with a brace of wiry, angular singles on Rough Trade between 1978 and 79 with the core of their line up being Andy Warren (bass), Lester Square (guitar) and the enigmatic Bid on lead vocals; his most memorable claim was that he was descended from Indian princes. He was handsome and stylish enough to carry it off. Virgin Records' Din-Disc subsidiary clearly saw their potential and by 1980 they were in the studio recording their debut album The Strange Boutique. What can I say in a few sentences to do justice to this record? How can I explain to the uninitiated the class that oozes from its every pore? If one can imagine a classy swinging London party, probably circa 1966, with Andy Warhol, Jane Fonda, the Aga Khan and Mary Quant in attendance. Visualise the luxuriant seating, the fancy cocktails, imagine how exclusive the entrance to that party is. That's what The Strange Boutique sounds like. The album grazed the lower reaches of the national chart and there must have been a feeling that one more album of a similar standard could have shot the Monochrome Set to stardom.

It didn't come. A follow-up album, Love Zombies, released in the same year was a missed opportunity. It seems wilfully obscure; it stares you right in the face and says "you can't get a hold of me" and try as you can it's right. Din-disc clearly shared this writer's confusion as they let the Monochrome Set go towards the end of the year. Charisma's Pre subsidiary tried their hand at unravelling the code next, but the only product of their short relationship was the masterful 'Ten Don'ts For Honeymooners' single.

Where to next? Back to an independent label; this time Cherry Red. Drummer J. D. Haney was ousted; his departure was publicly celebrated on the flipside of the band's latest single 'The Mating Game' in the same way that John Lennon celebrated Paul McCartney's career on 'How Do You Sleep' but funnier. The subsequent album Eligible Bachelors, released in 1982, is another gem with songs about astrology, satan, Goya and public school. On the rear of the sleeve the band displayed their critical adulation with even Andy Warhol himself giving his stamp of approval. Drummers, however, were slipping through their hands like water; some moustachioed gaucho type called Morris Windsor even signed up for a couple of months after picking up his P45 from the Soft Boys. But, as is typical of the "loser band", what should have been a rout turned out to be only a minor victory in a larger losing battle. Even the ever present Lester Square chose this moment to bow out in favour of James 'Foz' Foster. After a final farewell single on Cherry Red, 'Cast A Long Shadow', the band were once more picked up by a major, this time WEA's Geoff Travis run Blanco Y Negro.

The same move had spelled success for Everything But The Girl and the Jesus & Mary Chain, but the Monochrome Set? You should know better by now. Their debut single 'Jacob's Ladder' appeared in 1984 and was a hit at every student night in the land, the radio played it, buyers of the 12" got a handsome Bid poster for their wall, they appeared on the Tube; it had everything going for it but it didn't chart. The follow-up, 'Wallflower' went the same way and an accompanying album The Lost Weekend appeared and disappeared some time in 1985. Once more it had bags of tunes and class and charm to spare but was just that one step away from superstardom. The band bowed in the face of the inevitable and went their separate ways. Bid recorded a solo single on El records, 'Reach For Your Gun', and then all was silence.

I, for one, was resigned to their fate when out of the blue I found a new Monochrome Set album Dante's Casino in my local record shop in 1990. Funded by Japanese die-hard fans, the album was consistent with the back catalogue; similar sound, top quality songs, same basic line-up but, hang on, why are all the songs about murder? 1991's Jack album followed in a similar vein and it was with some trepidation that I went to see them in Sheffield that same year. Was I going to be found by a gang of school children rolled up in a bloody blanket in a skip in Rotherham? Not so in the end; I met a band bemoaning their home country's lack of interest (obvious parallels on a postcard, please) and the fact that they were a top 40 band in Japan. The music is still wonderful though; anyone who doubts my word should pick up a copy of 1993's Charade album. They are one of the few bands who have made a genuinely worthy comeback and they aren't paying me to write that, but they are still a loser band; take a look at the current success of Pulp and contrast it to the fate of their musical forefathers.

I'm sure that in future editions of Have You Heard you'll read about many more loser bands; there are, however, few so undeserving of that tag as the Monochrome Set. So near and yet so far on so many occasions, but there is still time promise me you'll go out after reading this and investigate more; anyone who is not entirely satisfied has the right to bring their album up to Carlisle and slash my throat with it.

I wouldn't want to live in a world with such philistines anyway!

Last month a new Monochrome Set album, Misre, was released on the Cherry Red label. It contains, arguably, some of their best work (albeit also some of their worst) and is certainly recommended.

Have You Heard is a regular feature, highlighting other bands and musicians which may be of interest to readers. Obviously, we focus on bands with links to Robyn (e.g. those singers who's solo albums he's popped up on, or who've played with him) or with a similar sound, but certainly not exclusively. If there's anyone you'd like to suggest for a feature, or if you'd like to write a plug for your favourite (or your own!) band get in touch.

This article originally appeared in issue 3 of Positive Vibrations, the Soft Boys/Robyn Hitchcock/Kimberley Rew magazine. It may be distributed freely but may not be sold except with permission of the author or publisher.
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