Dusted Reviews

The Monochrome Set - Strange Boutique

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: The Monochrome Set

Album: Strange Boutique

Label: Water

Review date: Aug. 6, 2013

The Monochrome Set - Live

Strange Boutique, the 1980 major label debut from a band that will forever be associated with its offshoot (Adam and The Ants), begins in a stew of jungle sounds and a relentless pounding. “Monochrome Set (I Presume)” is still, 30 years later, the band’s calling card and the kick-off to its live set. It’s an idiosyncratic blend of punk aggression and new wave suavity, a Dada string of surrealist imagery set to irregular bursts of guitar jangle and syncopated drumming. “Monochrome Set (I Presume)” resides at the spikier end of the band’s continuum, more jitter than swoon, but still altogether too florid to really fit into early 1980s punk. It’s an intoxicating combination of eloquence and brute force, manicured and ironic but also explosively chaotic.

The Monochrome Set started out as Stuart Goddard’s all-covers band, the B-Sides, in London in the late 1970s. Goddard left the B-Sides in 1977 to form Adam and The Ants, taking with him Lester Square, Andy Warren and Paul Flanagan. By 1978, however, all three of them were back with Bid (a.k.a. Ganesh Seshadri), who had started singing with B-Sides in Goddard’s absence. They formed a new band called The Monochrome Set, named after a black and white television set. With filmmaker Tony Potts, the band was an early experimenter in multimedia, incorporating film into its live performance. A string of singles – “He’s Frank”/"Alphaville,” "The Monochrome Set," and "Eine Symphonie Des Grauens"/"Lester Leaps In" raised interest, and Virgin subsidiary Dindisc backed The Monochrome Set for Strange Boutique.

It is a remarkable album, heterogeneous to an extreme degree. There are languid interludes, angsty bursts of pogo-rhythms, looping, loping, surfy bass vamps, densely layered instrumentals and disconcerting surrealist tableaux. The elements may be constant – Bid’s fey lyricism, Square’s wandering, whammy-shimmering guitar licks, Flanagan and Warren’s hiccup-rhythmed cadences – but their permutations are endless. “I fascinate, infatuate, indefatiguably,” says Bid in the first sung line of the album, and he could well be speaking of Strange Boutique itself.

Bid has explained, in interviews, that he is unusually in tune with his subconscious, writing words that don’t always make sense, even to him. (He says that even now, he has no idea what early single “Eine Symphonie Des Grauens” means, for instance.) His words here have an automatic writing quality, strings of half rhymes and assonances that scan beautifully and parse with difficulty. There’s a lovely rhythm in his lines, but not a lot of linear sense. In “The Lighter Side of Dating,” for instance, he murmurs a string of perfectly synchronized, sexually suggestive phrases, “Monster multispeed vibrator/Eveready PP3/ Coffee, ginseng, percolator/ Love cream and vitamin E,” and ends with the Edward Lear-worthy couplet, “Miss Universe is not averse/ To bisexuality/ I think abortion is a caution/ And I like to ski.” It’s all very mannered and stylized, but also subversive. You have no idea where the line is going to end up.

Likewise, Lester Square’s guitar work wanders unpredictably into unexpected byways, at times jangling just off-kilter like Fire Engines-style C86, at others fading into a surf-ish, whammy-barred shimmer. There’s a fluid sense of time in his phrasing, as languid phrases turn into frantic tangles of notes. On the first all-instrument cut, “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber,” there’s a seductive flamenco flavor to the first part of the tune, which leads somehow into a straight-up, punk-style flare-up. Square is, in his way, just as much of a wild card as Bid.

The Monochrome Set resisted easy classification, and that’s probably why it was never as successful as the more cartoonish Adam and The Ants. The album sold poorly enough that Virgin took it out of circulation; before Water’s reissue, it had been out of print since the 1980s. As a result, even a bare bones reissue is welcome. This one has no bonus material, just a low-key historical essay by Alberto Umbridge and a few contemporary photographs.

The Monochrome Set released three more albums in the 1980s — Love Zombies, Eligible Bachelors and The Lost Weekend — before breaking up in 1985. A one-time reunion show for Cherry Red’s anniversary in 2008 got them together again. The singer, Bid, had a stroke in 2011, but he has since recovered enough to write and play and perform music. Platinum Coils, the band’s most recent album from 2012, is largely about this experience. It’s not a bad album – and in some ways it is sleeker and more accomplished than Strange Boutique — but it has less of the intriguing tension between suavity and unbridled racket of this debut full-length.

Even now, it is bracing to re-hear Strange Boutique’s eccentric synthesis of crooner pop and surrealist art and agit-punk. This mix may have been too thorny for casual listeners – the disc peaked at #62 on the British Charts – but it was not without impact. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and Morrissey are said to have first bonded over a shared fondness for The Monochrome Set, and you can easily see how their angsty, hyper-literate, romantic take on post-punk was shaped by records like Strange Boutique. The record’s oddity is, maybe, what keeps it fresh. Though certain guitar sounds are redolent of 1980s new wave production, the record feels less like history and more like a mysterious package dropped by UFO from some indefinable time, past or present, and infinitely exotic.

By Jennifer Kelly

Read More

View all articles by Jennifer Kelly

Find out more about Water

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.