In the late 1980s, I was a college radio DJ, and there was no band I loved more for a few years than a Bay Area group called The Sneetches. I was just figuring out the connective tissue between bands from the 1960s, and the Sneetches unabashed love for bands like the Easybeats, the Zombies, and Left Banke were revelatory. Those guys listened to the same records I did! (Side note: Sneetch bassist Alec Palao ended up as a major figure at Amoeba Records and as a writer/rock historian; he’s been nominated multiple times for album liner notes and the like.)
Anyway, in 1990 or so, The Sneetches put out an EP called “He’s Frank (Slight Return)”, and I didn’t recognized the credited songwriters. It wasn’t the guys in the band, so it was a cover. And then seeing them live a few weeks later, I asked them about it after the show. They tipped me off that the song was a Monochrome Set cover. They further told me that, unequivocally, The Monochrome Set was the greatest band from England in the early 1980s. Period.
I will admit that living then in an age of grunge, sample-heavy hiphop, and loud and experimental indie noise rock…when I went to discover The Monochrome Set shortly after this conversation, the band bounced off me. Hard. I didn’t get it at all.
Over the next decade or so, I kept seeing bands I loved occasionally name-dropping The Monochrome Set as being influential to them. It didn’t really register though. I love a lot of artists who name drop Dylan…but I don’t really like Mr. Zimmerman all that much, even while recognizing empirically his qualities and massive artistic footprint. (It’s not him, it’s me.)
And so flash forward to the early 2000’s. I’m working on a mix CD ('member those?) for a Halloween party, and I hit up some friends on an email listserv (remember those?) for suggestions of anything I may have missed. Someone mentions a song called “Eine Symphonie Des Grauens” by The Monochrome Set. I think “What? A symphony by a band I kind of only like one song by?” But Google is now a thing. I google the song title. And it turns out “Eine Symphonie Des Grauens” is not just a Monochrome Set single from 1980, it’s also the original tagline for F. W. Murnau’s legendary vampire film, “Nosferatu”.
And now The Monochrome Set have my attention. That kind of snappy, referential wordplay is exactly in my wheelhouse. And I hear the song…and I think I play it in all its two-minute glory about 20 times in a row on repeat. It is the most amazing 2-minute song I have ever heard. It is an amazing thing of rock and pop craftsmanship, full of droll lyrics, bridges, codas, and a chorus so memorable I’ll never forget it. And then shortly after that, I hear “Jet Set Junta”, and holy shit. It might be as good as “Symphonie”.
I am starting to “get” The Monochrome Set.
And so over the intervening years, more and more of their output has started to appear on Spotify, from their initial years as postpunks descended from the same family tree as Adam & The Ants in the late 1970s to being XTC’s slightly more educated (meaning “a little too smart by half”) cousins in the early and mid-1980s. And then their 1990s resurrection, and even their excellent albums in the 2000s and 2010s.
I have heard the apocryphal stories about them. That young Stephen Morrissey in a typically dramatic act claimed to have “burned” his entire record collection, save 10 records, one of which was by the Monochrome Set…and when he me young Johnny Marr, the two bonded because of those 10 records, the Monochrome Set disc was the only one the two had in common, but both loved it desperately.
And I love the way Monochrome Set main man Bid (born Ganesh Seshadri) writes lyrics that clearly demonstrate that an early life as a 2nd generation immigrant in Britain and going to the finest schools where he was likely immersed in Christian theology and symbols went to good use. I mean, I guess there are those who’ll be offended by a song like “Cloud 10” about an angel who is clearly in lust in the most human of ways with God, but it’s so damned clever (and the majestically beautiful, yearning chorus: “Jesus, Jesus give me your answer do…” and that callback to “Bicycle Built For Two” helps) that it totally works. See also the incredibly droll, yet beautiful “Adeste Fideles”, and realize that yep, our man from India hilariously cribbed a song title from one of the most turgidly serious Christmas songs in the canon…and yeah, the lyrics to that are clever, if exceptionally lewd double entendres that make XTC’s “Dear God” sound perfectly acceptable in comparison. You can almost imaging 15-year old Bid sitting in a private school class being forced to learn Latin scripture and thinking his revenge would be using phrases like “Fons amoris, spiritus” and “Amor quam ecstaticus” in song lyrics.
And all of this long-windedness is to say: I really, really love The Monochrome Set. I think you might, too.
And so I made a playlist of their songs covering lots of the various eras of their existence. It’s the mix CD I’d have made for myself back in the day to win me over to The Monochrome Set immediately. They’re an amazing band, utilizing a songwriting craftsmanship and attention to detail that is incredibly intoxicating to me. And I saw an interview with Bid and original Monochrome Set (and frequent returnee to the band) guitarist Lester Square (get it?) perfectly articulate something that I don’t think gets enough credit: this is a band with a lead guitarist who uses their lead guitarist to actually play leads. Like constantly. To paraphrase Bid, why have two guitarists in a band if they’re just going to both play the same chords throughout a song? On almost ever Set song, Lester Square goes off on some fascinating guitar thing that is rarely ever showy, but almost always adds to the song as a whole.
Man. I typed a lot. Didn’t mean to. I love these guys. Maybe you will too. I made a playlist. Here it is. Enjoy!