The Monochrome Set – ‘Eligible Bachelors’ (3CD) reviewed

Stephen T Porter takes a closer look at Cherry Red’s Deluxe Re-Issue of The Monochrome Set’s classic 1982 album.

What do you do when you’re too clever for your own good and it makes you unpopular?

How do you cope with a world that wants “In the naughty north and in the sexy south, we’re all singin’…. I‘ve got the mouth!” instead of lyrics where irony, archness, arcane references and a cheerful love of enjambment keep you on the barely-better-than-pub circuit, entertaining your ever-balding, increasingly wrinkly (but enthusiastic)  middle-aged male audience at twelve quid a ticket – even though you should be playing Carnegie Hall to the beautiful people for a minimum of one hundred bucks a pop?

The Monochrome Set were just an ace away from chart success in 1982 with their catchy single Jacob’s Ladder (the opening bars of which always remind of the Graham Gouldman-penned Forever Everton), but poor management and an inadequate grasp of logistics meant that their one chance of exposure to a Top of the Pops audience eluded them.

The band were formed from the ashes of short-lived band The B-Sides, and whilst one Stuart Goddard went on to find and fame and infamy as mega pop star Adam Ant, fellow B-siders Bid (Ganesh Seshadri), Lester Square, Andy Warren, J.D. Haney and a whole host of others ploughed an often lonely furrow in their (semiotically) curiously-named band. And while they never found a substantial audience in the UK, the greatness and beauty of The Monochrome Set live on in the hearts and minds of all of those who love to hold a cult band close to their hearts.

Which for all of us eternal, angst-ridden, vinyl-collecting perma-teenagers is fine, but not so good if you’ve dreamed of playing enormo-domes, and ended up (some forty years later) playing pubs in Preston on an unfathomably cold night in March.

See you there, lads!

The Monochrome Set is a curious name. When the band first appeared in the late seventies, it was a name which suggested an industrial bleakness and the existential darkness of a post-punk world of earnest young people in long overcoats who read Camus, listened to Joy Division and embodied an austere, chaste (if not sexless) reaction to the ghastly version of sexuality portrayed on film and TV in the seventies.

But The Monochrome Set were no New Puritans and often wrote about sex with gay abandon (more later), and if you’ve ever heard The Lighter Side of Dating, you might understand why it’s taken me some forty years to actually work out the peculiarities and terminology of Anglo-Indian frontman Bid’s saucy lyrics.

I’m right naïve, me. But happy.

So, The Monochrome Set. If you’re unaware of the band and think that they might sound like something from The Cure’s funereal Faith album (“…cos I’ve got have faith!”), then this glossy, mini box-set reissue of their classic Cherry Red album Eligible Bachelors might surprise you.

I’ve always loved the band, but I particularly loved them when a peer of mine declared: “I can’t stand bands like that; I’m glad that the Roses (The Stone Roses) and Doctor King (Doctor Martin Luther King – your guess is as good as mine) finally taught us how to dance.”

The sheer non-sequitur pretentiousness, wrongness and indeed twattiness of this utterance (made about six months after everyone was bored to death with The Roses’ first album) still makes me feel ill after almost thirty years.

So how do you characterise this group? Well, you don’t. In an age of YouTube, Spotify and Deezer, the musical world is your lobster and if you want to be acqauinted with music from any age, just do it. I used to love the snobbery of having ‘my bands’ percolated via Peel, Sounds and the NME (R.I.P.) because it gave me the tiniest amount of power over those not in the know, but such days entailed missing out on a ton of stuff because a music fan simply couldn’t find anywhere that played such music. I’ve never been a record shop hanger-rounder, and speculating on the quality of an album or even a single without hearing it first was just too much of a gamble for most people in the late seventies and beyond because funds were low.

A rubbish album purchase was a sure-fire Road to Depression in those days.

I bought Eligible Bachelors first time round, and like its predecessors Strange Boutique and Love Zombies, the album is suffused with everything that Monochrome Set fans love, and everything their distractors would hate. The intricate word-play, the lashings of irony, the nods to Noel Coward and 1920s-style crooners are all there, and if you love it, you love it, but it’s easy to see why the accusations of smart-arsery are not without foundation.

Jet Set Junta, the album’s opening track, is an attack on (presumably) the corruption of South American dictatorships using unfortunate Baldrick-style War Poetry onomatopoeic sound effects to achieve its aims:

Tick, tock, go the death watch beetles in él presidente’s swill

Pop, pop, goes the Cliquot magnum at the reading of the will

Hiss, hiss, goes the snakeskin wallet stuffed with Cruziero bills

As the great Colm Meaney once almost said: “I’m sure General Galtieri is shitting himself!”

Track two – I’ll Scry Instead – is much better. I remember looking up the title verb when the album came out in 1982, and found that my rubbish school dictionary wasn’t forthcoming, but Bid’s lovely tale of future-predicting charlatans is of interest because a year later I heard a band that sounded as if they’d used this song – along with its vocals, guitars, production and lyrical conceits – as its template.

The Smiths.

Listen to I’ll Scry Instead and if you don’t think of Morrissey, you’re a better man than me. (Not difficult to be honest, and I only used the male-inclusiveness terminology for the purposes of that one comic aside. I’ll shut up now.)

It’s not just the Morrissey-before-Morrissey rising croon and the Marr-before-Marr chiming guitars that remind me of The Smiths, it’s also the apostrophical, direct address to an imaginary character and the ironic, quotidian nature of the transactions mentioned in the lyrics that recall any number of Smiths songs, but especially Frankly, Mr Shankly:

Dear Madame Maenad, in answer to your ad
I enclose a cheque for
eleven pound, ten
My time of birth is nine twenty-three a.m

Dear Madame be clear
Will I be rich next year
Please send me my birth chart in the
s.a.e
And I’ll allow fourteen days for delivery

Legend has it that when Johnny went round to see Steven (what IS his problem? It’s a f***ing great name), the only contemporary singles amongst the rows and rows of Sandie Shaws, Twinkles and Cilla Blacks in Morrissey’s collection were those of the The Monochrome Set.

So – no Monochrome Set, no Smiths.

Possibly.

On the 13th Day has more Byrds chimes and – apart from its Learesque lyrics – could be the template for any number of copycat ‘crooners’ of that era such as The Farmers Boys.

Cloud Ten is just beautiful. A wistful, yearning meditataion on death, with more direct address to the gods, wrapped in almost-Edwardian referencing:

Jesus, Jesus, give me your answer, do!

The song also contains one of the many examples of singer Bid’s occasional playful direct self-referencing – along with more Smiths-like lyrical flourishings:

I’ve booked my plot in Bid-a-wee
And I’ve had the stone inscribed
The coffin’s black mahogany
With silk cushions, dear, inside

And if you’re wondering, less-imaginative British staycationers really did used to holiday in cottages called ‘Bide-a-Wee’ in the sixties and seventies. Well – in comics and Scottish gripe-fest newspaper The Sunday Post, they did.

Have to say that the next track The Mating Game (an updated version of the brilliant aforementioned The Lighter Side of Dating) is – however ironically intentioned it may be – just terrible, and  turns an act of sexual congress into another Baldrick War Poem of elliptical, onomatopeic free-form. The opening line for example:

Kiss, lick, stroke, flick…

Recalls that infant school paean to nose-picking: Pick, Roll; Flick, Goal!

Whereas verse three reminds of nothing more than a dirty Richard Stilgoe:

Squeeze, suck, pinch, pluck
Wobble, wobble, grab and gobble, darling, moan
Un-zip, ooze, drip
Dippy, dippy, wet and slippy, groan

And so, red-faced and hiding behind the sofa, I plough on. The March of the Eligible Bachelors is a fairly forgettable instrumental; The Devil Rides Out is a Sanskrit-based take on the Aleister Crowley favourite The 19 Encochian Keys and is beyond my ken (whover he may be), but the album perks up again with some Royal Family-baiting (sounds familiar?) in the Robert Browning-like Fun for All the Family – the story of a royal portrait gone wrong due to inter-breeding.

The Midas Touch – a ballad of European casino team-gamblers (!) has a folk/Irish/sea-shanty lilt and contains several clever, esoterically wonderful Monochrome Set verses such as:

We played our hands with frozen hearts
Toujours chemin de fer
And human kindness played no part
When we were free of care

Just to annoy the haters.

Before the album’s instrumental closer (The Great Barrier Riff), Bid and chums return to the subject of royalty and privilege (sounds familiar – again?) with The Ruling Class, which plays around with lyrical cues taken from My Old Man’s a Dustman to a peculiarly mid-sixties riff:

My old girl’s a duchess
She wears a Hartnell frock
She’s picked me out a Cheltenham girl
Of Suffolk breeding stock

Eligible Bachelors, then, is not faultless by any means, but the gems far outweigh the dross, and is a sobering reminder that quality, intelligence and the ability to make brilliant pop music are no guarantee of success or riches.

But you knew that anyway, didn’t you? I bet Bid puts any number of zinging one-liners on his Facebook page only to see its ‘likes’ totals dwarfed by pictures of Billy the kitten asleep next to Harry the dog

Included in the Eligible Bachelors Deluxe Edition are a collection of BBC Sessions and Rarities, and Fin (AKA The Good Life), a rather fine live album of some of the band’s best-remembered songs.

The Deluxe Edition is as lovely a package as you would expect from those good folk at Cherry Red (my copies of their C86 and Liverpool Post-Punk collections are still wrapped in cellophane, such is their aesthetic beauty and my Nigel Smalls-like insistence that visitors can’t even point at them), but if I had one quibble it would be the large picture of the band in the fine accompanying booklet is actually a photograph of Scottish post-punkers The Scars – and NOT The Monochrome Set.

So, to go back to my original point: can you really be too clever for your own good?

Of course you can’t!


❉ The Monochrome Set – Eligible Bachelors – Cherry Red 3 Disc Expanded Edition released March 16, 2018. RRP £14.99

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve always found The Mating Game spectacularly cringe-inducing, personally. Intellectually I think it’s brilliant that it’s possibly the most unsexy song I’ve ever heard. It seems that it’s clearly not trying to be sexy, and so there’s that, it’s a curious enigma. It doesn’t make it any more bearable, for me, anyway, but it’s good that there’s more to it.

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