England 1979 — punk was morphing into the more experimental post-punk and saw landmark releases from PiL, Gang of Four, The Cure, Joy Division and The Pop Group. And then…then there was The Monochrome Set.
Instead of vitriolic and/or depressive lyrics, distorted guitars and dub and funk influenced bass The Monochrome Set played simple blues riffs, had a trebly bottom end and themes more in common with US satirists such as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
The Monochrome Set’s beginnings can be traced back to 1976 and the band The B-Sides whose chief claim to fame would be the brief tenure of Adam Ant. In late 1977 when Ant left to form the Ants The Monochrome Set came into being. At its nucleus was vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Bid (Ganesh Seshadri) a descendent of Indian royalty. Other members would come and go although guitarist Lester Square (Thomas W.B. Hardy) and later bassist Andy Warren were reasonably constant band mates for most of the material here.
The Independent Singles Collection, as the name implies, collates ten A-sides and their B-sides for an extensive, if exhausting twenty-five tracks. From the edgy debut “Our Frank” in 1979, to the final country-tinged 7-inch “I Love Lambeth” in 1995, this doesn’t attempt convey the full Set experience, as it only covers their releases on indie labels (there would be a dalliance with majors for three albums and several singles), but it provides an adequate introduction to this idiosyncratic, twisted pop group.
Musically The Set would go through many stylistic changes from rock, blues, jazz, psychedelia to pop and country, but it was Bid’s droll, deadpan delivery and lyrics that would establish the band with a cult fan base. Blacker than black humoured in tone and often disturbing in nature their grim satire is redeemed by clever rhyming couplets and cast of weird characters. Frank is “a peculiar boy” (“Our Frank”, apparently about Frank “Fad Gadget” Tovey), Silicon Carne is either an abused woman or an abused plastic doll; the latter would at least make its stomach churning violence slightly more palatable. Meanwhile there are no prizes for guessing what sort of gent Mr. Bizarro is — “Who’s the man who’s tall and slender?/who’s the man who changed his gender?”
The 1982 single “The Mating Game” with its description of sex in all its bodily fluid glory and its flipside “J.D.H.A.N.E.Y.” which “outs” their former drummer (“The first time that I saw you I knew you were no fool/you said you had a twelve incher but you didn’t use it as a rule”) showcase The Set’s balance of humour, wit and twangy guitar the best.
The Monochrome Set would disband in 1985 before reforming in 1990 and recordings from this latter era do see a marked improvement in production and musicianship, although the songs themselves are still hit and miss. Most successful are “Forever Young”, which recants the story of a woman trying to reverse the aging process, “I Love Lambeth” a bitter ode to the London borough and “All Over”, a slick slice of 70s soft rock.
Three years after their last recording The Monochrome Set would finally split for good in 1998, with Bid forming Scarlet’s Well soon after. While the Set never achieved significant fame in their lifetime echoes of Bid and the boys can be found in bands such as The Divine Comedy, Art Brut and most significantly David Devant and His Spirit Wife, whose guitarist Foz played in The Monochrome Set during the mid 80s. The Independent Singles Collection like the band themselves is an acquired taste, but not one easily forgotten.