Album Review: The Monochrome Set – 1979-1985: Complete Recordings

I realize that no one is keeping score, but The Monochrome Set seems to have formed and reformed a whole heck of a lot over the years. These resilient lads bounce back and forth like rock’s proverbial red rubber ball. Yet, the new wave/post punk band has produced a stream of charismatic albums and singles since 1978, just not consecutively, and while the interruptions have stunted the development of that catalog, the last four decades have been the source of more than a few triumphs and curiosities.

1979-1985: Complete Recordings is a 6 CD-set that captures The Monochrome set in the years prior to their first break-up, which was also their most chaotic for band line-ups. While guitarist and lead singer Ganesh “Bid” Sheshadri remained fixed in his position, every other spot in the band changed over and over again (with a brief appearance early on from the man who would become Adam Ant). Those seven years also saw the band bounce between small labels, from Cherry Red, Blanco Y Negro then to Din Disc.

It seemed for the Hornsey, England four-piece, stability was not in the cards.

Stability, however, is not a pre-requisite for ingenuity. Much of The Monochrome Set’s early output matches glitzy, smart jangle pop with Bid’s keen sense of wit and observation. The front man emerges like a lyricist is equally skilled in laughing at his own folly as well as yours. Often, listening to the brash singer’s lyrics, it seems as though he identifies members of his audience, groupies and fans and scenesters.

The earliest album, Strange Boutique is loose instrumentally. The band experiments with a variety of sounds, employing ska and dance hall beats throughout the record. On the first track, “Monochrome Set” they lead with pounding, militaristic percussion, while on others, like “Espresso” and “Love Goes Down The Drain” they lighten up to a nearly hushed beat. “Puerto Rican Fence Climber” brings out touches of surf rock, and of all the tracks on the record, it stands as perhaps the most imaginative.

On the next two records, Love Zombies and Eligible Bachelors The Monochrome Set’s song writing steps up a bold notch. The former title track has a garage feel, steeped in a little B-movie drive-in theater camp. The best of the early album tracks are on these records, “Adeste Fideles”, “I’ll Scry Instead”, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “The March Of The Eligible Bachelors”, which was one of the best instrumentals The Monochrome Set came up with during this period. These tracks shine because they are well produced, bringing out a fuller rock sound, while still maintaining that garage/old-time character. And Bid remains the focus of each sone, for better or worse, which I hate writing, but it’s true. Like fellow countryman, Morrissey, it’s hard to detach his sense of style from the band, but like the Smiths, it would be daft to call The Monochrome Set his backing band.

It becomes quite obvious that The Monochrome Set was just hitting their stride around that first break up. Tracks like “Silicon Carne” and “Surfing S.W. 12” and “Straits of Malacca” (to name a few) capture the band at their richest sound. They successfully straddle Bid’s mercurial delivery and simpering wit, and plunge deeper into their exploration of jangly rock song craft that would later become indie rock standard. It will be the last two discs of singles and new versions that break the burgeoning fan’s heart. Perhaps continuity could have made The Monochrome Set a special band, but alas, they splintered and broke apart after The Lost Weekend, and while later records were successful (2015’s Spaces Everywhere, for example) they rarely returned to this chemistry.

While The Monochrome Set isn’t exactly a band to time, they certainly missed their due. New acquaintances might find their level of involvement hinges on Bid who remains the unquestioned centerpiece but their determined reinvention makes them a band worth exploring and this treasure chest, the begin and end of a wickedly fun journey.

Purchase the album here.

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