❉ The craft and invention in these five albums has matured finely, writes Andrew J Duncan.
“Please yourself!” – it’s such a loaded comment. Could be said with a cheery wave of the hand or a bitter curl of the lip, could be intended as beatitude or double entendre, all four readings being present at different times within the works of The Monochrome Set, a group who could have the phrase as their motto (certainly, they’re a group one wouldn’t be surprised to find actually did have a coat of arms). More to the point, when directed at one’s own self, it’s a real challenge which few actually succeed in following, and in the music world, a credo often claimed but very rarely observed, but the Set’s jaunty progress is one such uncommon example.
“Too clever by half? I’ll get worried when other people start calling us dumb. What would be great would be to be onstage at 80, still doing things that others think too clever by half.”
So principal songwriter, singer & captain of the ship Bid told Smash Hits in 1985, as the mainstream nibbled at their toes after seven years of arch activity on the fringes, mere months before their original split seemed to have put paid to such ambition. With louche persistence, his wish may well yet be granted (steady on, he’s not that venerable yet… just getting there), as the band continue to this day, six albums to the strong in the past decade. Following a 40th anniversary curation of their initial phase, this new collection gathers together their first reformation, 1990 to 1995, the majority of this material seeing its premiere digital release in the UK.
Conventional wisdom has the Set as something like a tray of fancy cakes, an indulgence or a frippery, but their lyrical concerns belie the cartoon, often pacing around an Orton-esque supernatural world, hymning the worm in the apple. Musically, as Bid points out in the liner notes to this collection, they regarded themselves as aligned with garage rock or sixties psych, albeit transposed to a theatrical revue, and here, with the classic engine of Bid, bassist Andy Warren and guitarist Lester Square in full effect, they’re often capable of a right old sturm’n’twang to leaven the esoterica, their signature peal never without an Angostura note of cavalier chanson to render the tizz piquant.
“Break down the door and you find – well, you find what you’re looking for.” The facts in the case here are five albums presenting a coup-de-theatre return to life and a subsequent sturdy gallop through the demi-monde, a perverse, picaresque comedy of manners in five confident chapters, not just consistent in quality but somehow parts of a larger whole, as if this phase of their career were deliberately finite.
1990’s Dante’s Casino (a title summarising them better in two words than I can manage in these hundreds) is a rakish affair which in a biff-bang one-two with 1991’s Jack sets the tone with aplomb. Perhaps less quirky than they were first time round, and I suspect Bid would wrinkle his nose at this review were I to use the term “mature”, there was good reason for this sleeker Set. The material had largely been stockpiled by Bid during their abeyance, record-company hopscotch was no longer an option, and with such constraints went the multimedia performance aspect of their game on the live front; therefore, the song was all. Emboldened by new blood Orson Presence, who swung from guitar to keys to voice as required to enrich the canvas, they’re proficient and fecund here, evidently having a gas.
The following two albums – Charade (1993) and Misère (1994) – are ample consolidation, the former a more thoughtful suite, at times troubled and interior and turned away from the party, its successor perhaps the closest to their eighties previous-selves in this run, simultaneously hale and gnomic. Always with a certain sidelong glance and a panache in even their more raucous moments, there’s more of a stillness to many of the songs here, almost conspiratorial vignettes at times, the echoes of a thunderclap.
From the tone of Bid’s recollections, it seems 1995’s Trinity Road was always privately intended as a final flourish, the band suspecting that the jig was again up, yet it resists any tendency towards envoi and may be the pick of this bunch. With song titles variously tagging such as Agatha Christie, Bernard Quatermass, W.B.Yeats and The Man From UNCLE, should you be looking for clues to authorial intent, it’s a deftly-judged cabaret mix of stridence, ballad and comic interlude and, in the single I Love Lambeth, contains what could easily have been mistaken for a Britpop lament by uninquiring minds. Man cannot live on big-in-Japan bread alone, however, and so the book was closed here for awhile.
Giving these albums a spin in these days, it seems a shame they didn’t receive more appreciation at the time; something in the water around then seemed to be amenable to their point of view (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the likes of Jake Shillingford, Anthony Reynolds or Neil Hannon hadn’t previously bent them an ear, for example). But then, never being signed in means never being written out, and it would be hard to imagine a Set faded by the sun; a certain unclubbable irrepressibility pokes through everything the Monochrome Set put their name to, and whilst they’ll never be musos (although… go on, Guitar Magazine, give Lester a ring for a chat sometime, eh? I dare you), the craft and invention in these albums has matured finely in the interim. With all the pleasures of the second act and the thickening plot, it may well please your self to investigate further.
❉ Monochrome Set: ‘Little Noises 1990-1995’ 5CD (CRCDX88) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £21.99.
❉ Andrew J. Duncan has been a We Are Cult contributor since the site’s inception in September 2016.