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The Monochrome Set

+ {Bid} + {The Raj Quartet} + {Scarlet’s Well}

Characterised by the lugubrious, sardonic and unique vocals of Bid, a veritable modern-day crooner, The MONOCHROME SET’s offbeat guitar/keyboard-based musings won them a cult following and a modicum of critical acclaim, but precious little in the way of commercial rewards. Who would deny them their place in rock history’s near-forgotten acts? Not The SMITHS/MORRISSEY, ORANGE JUICE/EDWYN COLLINS or The DIVINE COMEDY/Neil Hannon, that’s for sure!
Formed in the inner-suburban district of Hornsey in north London, The MONOCHROME SET sprang out of The B-Sides, a punk act that had briefly included Stuart Goddard (aka ADAM ANT) and breakaway member, Canadian-born lead guitarist Lester Square (aka Thomas W.B. Hardy). Throughout 1978, when punk-rock/new wave was in transition, the Goddard-less group’s ranks swelled to include Indian-born vocalist Bid (known to his family as Ganesh Seshadri), drummer John D. Haney (from the excellent ART ATTACKS and also brother of CRASS’ Joy De Vivre), plus bassist Charlie Harper – no, not that one! While the latter was superseded by Simon Croft, and, in turn, Jeremy Harrington (ex-Mean Street and GLORIA MUNDI), this settled 4-piece line-up signed to Rough Trade Records. Introducing experimental filmmaker Tony Potts as a 5th member stage projectionist, designer, etc., the somewhat soft pallette of several songs could be shadowy and almost creepy.
Releasing a string of quirky but compelling singles throughout 1979, namely `He’s Frank’ (b/w `Alphaville’), `Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’ and their sub-tropical signature tune, `The Monochrome Set’, they set the tone for an exciting, eclectic but generally low-key career. Hardly surprising then, that they were shunted around from label to label, the band moving on to Dindisc (through Virgin Records) after Disques Bleu issued a re-working of `He’s Frank (Slight Return)’.
1980’s debut album, “STRANGE BOUTIQUE” {*6} marked the arrival of bassist Andy Warren (also ex-B-Sides) and, on the strength of the exotic Burundi-styled drumming on the opening re-vamp of `The Monochrome Set (I Presume)’, there was more than a hint to Andy’s other former band ADAM AND THE ANTS. The Bob Sargeant-produced album stands as the group’s one and only flirtation with the charts, skirting outside the Top 60; the accompanying `The Strange Boutique’ single flopped. Minus the Rough Trade 45s, the ‘Set were starting afresh, but were “best Bids” `The Lighter Side Of Dating’, `Love Goes Down The Drain’, `Ici Les Enfants’ and `The Etcetera Stroll’ great substitutions? – probably not!
Pigeonholing the playful and sweet ‘n’ sour pop of The MONOCHROME SET was nigh-on impossible and, with album two LOVE ZOMBIES {*7} coming out so soon (that October) after their first, famous fan/DJ John Peel and disciples had another chance to assess their wry ballads and rock rhumbas by way of flop 45s `405 Lines’ and `Apocalypso’. Almost BONZO DOG BAND-like in their novelty fun-time approach, there was icing on the cake on the closing foursome of `Kama Sutra’, `The Man With The Black Moustache’, `The Weird, Wild Wonderful World Of Tony Potts’ and the dreamy instrumental `In Love, Cancer?’.
Moving along the corporate corridor to Charisma’s subsidiary, PRE, 1981’s token release was the single `Ten Don’ts For Honeymooners’, but once again – nothing. Dogged by personnel changes, Lexington Crane superseded Haney, who moved to the Big Apple and became a gourmet critic. ELIGIBLE BACHELORS (1982) {*7} was the first fruits of a new deal with Cherry Red Records, and featured such memorable MONOCHROME SET moments as ironic Latin America commentary `The Jet Set Junta’ and the wry `The Mating Game’, the latter set to a hilarious “Young Ones”-era CLIFF RICHARD-style tune. Produced by STEELEYE SPAN’s Tim Hart, incredibly folk-rock was never forthright on the table, just protests against England’s elite system by way of `The Ruling Class’ and the whimsical MORRICONE-esque `The Midas Touch’.
Despite indie chart success and an obvious influence on upcoming bands like The SMITHS, Bid and Co couldn’t quite manage a significant breakthrough. In the meantime, the line-up changes continued apace as Carrie Booth (ex-THOMPSON TWINS) joined on keyboards and Nick Wesolowski took up the vacant drum seat (given up by Crane’s replacement Morris Windsor of SOFT BOYS fame); only one single `Cast A Long Shadow’ was issued under this regime; early in ’83, James “Foz” Foster replaced Carrie, who was off to The Sing Market.
Even on Warners group subsidiary Blanco y Negro The MONOCHROME SET couldn’t buy a hit single, close as they came with the pop-fuelled `Jacob’s Ladder’ and `Wallflower’. Wider recognition had passed them by moons ago, but in 1985’s parent set THE LOST WEEKEND {*6}, the retro-faction of Bid’s psyche was all over the show in `Cargo’, the quirky alt-gospel `Don’t Touch’ and the film-noir jazz of `Take Foz’.
Disillusioned when all around them seemed healthy and constructive (Rough Trade bands were positively swinging), the band split up; BID subsequently re-grouping as a solo artist in ’86 for a one-off single on El Records (augmented by Carrie and Nick), `Reach For Your Gun’; his time in ’87 as short-lived The RAJ QUARTET was equally humble and indie-centric when `Whoops! What A Palaver!’ went virtually unnoticed.
Come 1989, Bid, Lester and Andy re-grouped to give it another go, recruiting newbies Orson Presence (guitar/keyboards) and Mike Slocombe (drums) for the album DANTE’S CASINO (1990) {*4}. Dividing critics right down the middle in their Postcard-meets-C-86 wordplay, it was one of the few times an indie group had failed to re-gain momentum. With drummer Trevor Reidy now on board, 1991’s DAVE {*4} did little to resolve the matter.
The re-vamped MONOCHROME SET subsequently renewed their acquaintance with Cherry Red Records, delivering eccentric and innovate material in the shape of CHARADE (1993) {*6}, MISERIE (1994) {*5} and TRINITY ROAD (1995) {*4} at their usual prolific pace. But all were to a generally disinterested music scene who’d grown tired of their upper crust lyrical abandon.
When Warren was whisked on to join The WOULD-BE-GOODS, Bid was left thinking that maybe the ‘Set were not ever going to get the recognition they’d briefly had at the turn of the 80s. Recruiting a light-headed bunch of similar-thinking singers and musicians, Bid founded SCARLET’S WELL with Alice Healey, Laura Piggott, Lucy Tidy and Florence (vocals), Orson Presence (keyboards, accordion, vocals) and Yann Faurie (percussion, vocals), among others. 1999’s Baroque-folk-ish STRANGE LETTERS {*6} met with muted response from everybody but those who’d followed Bid. However, by the time of second set THE ISLE OF THE BLUE FLOWERS (2000) {*7} – temp Lucien De Chaffetrey in place of Yann and vocalist Zarif Davidson replacing Laura and Lucy – there was at least a guarantee there’d be no pressure. ALICE IN THE UNDERWORLD (2002) {*7}, THE DREAM SPIDER OF THE LAUGHING HORSE (2004) {*7} and the live/studio set UNREAL (2006) {*6} were delightful releases for their Spanish masters at Fiesta Records; on the latter, Bid, Alice and long-time producer Toby Hrycek-Robinson had added vocalist/guitarist Dickon Edwards (ex-ORLANDO, ex-FOSCA), accordionist Martin White, Kate Dornan (ex-FOSCA) and drummer Jennifer Denitto (ex-LINUS, ex-Low Edges).
Describing this gypsy-goth outfit as a loose collective would be an understatement, but when Dickon and Toby moved over for guitarist Peter Momtchiloff (ex-TALULAH GOSH, ex-HEAVENLY, ex-WOULD-BE-GOODS), bassist Deb Van Der Geugten (ex-LINUS) and violinist/mandolinist Helena Johannson, one wondered how long all their aerie-faerie medicine could continue; BLACK TULIP WINGS (2006) {*7}, GATEKEEPER (2008) {*6} – adding Sian Chaffer – and SOCIETY OF FIGURINES (2010) {*6}, had all decent reviews in their time. When Bid and Alice trimmed to a trio after roping in third singer Yps Roth, the answer was – not long. Bid had a stroke and in his convalescence period it was again time for another re-think.
The MONOCHROME SET – Bid, Square, Warren, drummer Steve Brummel (in place of Jennifer Denitto) and violinist Helena Johansson – re-formed in 2011 for a proper tour of Britain, Europe and Japan. 2012’s PLATINUM COILS {*6} was a definite hark back to the past; the fun, fun, fun of `Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome’, `Mein Kapitan’ and `Les Cowboys’, were easy on the ear and even the brain. Ditto as much for the Helena-less SUPER PLASTIC CITY (2013) {*7}, a slightly better-endowed set of twist and psyche turns, with Bid just reeling off titles such as `The Time I’ve Spent Doing Nothing’, `Isn’t It A Wonderful Life’, `If I Could Be Woebegone’ and `Rotten Ralph’s Custard Carnival’.
Furnished in sophistication and literate art-deco a la the swinging-60s, Bid was probably as close to a “rock” Anthony Newley as he’d ever get on SPACES EVERYWHERE (2015) {*8}, even if Neil Hannon and MORRISSEY were better examples of the man’s maverick muse. One interesting song, `Avenue’, has a keyboard shrill the spit of YES’s `Roundabout’, but in the cool and cosmic `Iceman’, The MONOCHROME SET have at last a contender to match something from their early 80s heyday. The deep and meaningful `Fantasy Creatures’ and the glam-PULP `Oh, You’re Such A Star’ were equally effective, while the rest – including `The Scream’ – all glowed with thoughtful, comical relief.
A part-time member since deputising for an injured Lester Square (who’d broken his leg in 2013 and departed after recording previous set), kinetic keyboard player John Paul Moran (ex-BLUE ORCHIDS) was drafted in fully for follow-up album, COSMONAUT (2016) {*7}; Bid doubled up on vocals and guitar. Their 13th in all, carousel crooners The MONOCHROME SET were the embodiment of PULP, MORRISSEY, ORANGE JUICE and The DIVINE COMEDY; the latter coincidentally released their “comeback” set in the same September month. Bid’s upbeat and droll sophistication was reeled off over ten cuts, including the opening title track, `Suddenly, Last Autumn’, the lounge-y `Squirrel In A Hat’ and the cocky and boisterous `Stick Your Hand Up If You’re Louche’.
For many collegiate and graduates who loved their alt-pop profound but playful, the turn-of-the-80s was a time when one could bask in the rays of fresh-faced indie bands hoping to get noticed. Intrepid explorers The MONOCHROME SET were one such act, surfing high on its new wave caveats; but who’d have thought elder statesman Bid (and Co) would be surfing higher still, in 2018, when they dispatched the grandiose and giddy MAISIEWORLD {*7}. Clocking in at just a song over the half-hour mark, one will smirk and possibly gush at the timeless loon-croons of `Give Me Your Youth’, `Stage Fright’, `Don’t Wear That Look’, `Mrs Robot’ and `Oh Yes, I’m Going To Be In Your Dreams Tonight’.
Striking again while their irony was relatively hot, Bid brush-stroked his 60s-styled croons to let loose another transcending list of MONOCHROME SET numbers a la FABULA MENDAX (2019) {*8}. And straight from the get-go it was a case of joining the dots to where one’d heard previously, the key-lines on opening psychedelic salvo, `Rest, Unquiet Spirit’. Maybe the clue was in the album’s Jeanne d’Arc thematic concept, which was based on the 15th century manuscripts of the French heroin’s runaway companion, Armande de Pange, as they travelled west into war. Which leads one nicely into the gothic, folky and medieval motifs running through `My Little Reliquary’, `Eux Tous’, `Come To Me, Oh, My Beautiful’ et al, that convert ye olde trips into tantalising modern-day jaunts; the exception to the rule, the bluesy `Sliding Icicle’. And reverting to the key-line “earworm” from the opening cut, the subconscious elephant in the room was indeed spawned from GENESIS’ `The Musical Box’.
© MC Strong 1999-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Oct2019

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