One sunny summer’s day around 1980, while browsing through the albums in my local record shop, I came across a striking and unusual cover. In the centre there was a large black and white photograph of a diver in mid flight, arms spread wide. This was surrounded by a wide silver grey border with the words The Monochrome Set above the picture and “Strange Boutique” below it.
That little record shop in Redcar on the north east coast of England was a favourite haunt of mine in those days and I recognised most of the covers in the racks. But this one had me stumped. Was this an LP by a band called The Monochrome Set? If so, it certainly wasn’t a band I’d ever heard of.
The back of the cover listed the personnel as: Bid, lead vocals and guitar; Lester Square, lead guitar and vocals; Andy Warren, bass guitar and vocals; J. D. Haney, drums, percussion and vocals. No-one christens their child Bid (unless they’re crazy) and Lester Square has to be a made up name. Somebody, perhaps everybody, was having a laugh.
Below the list of band members there was a track listing. It included the intriguing “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber” and the whacky “The Etcetera Stroll”. Bursting with curiosity I asked the sales assistant if he would play a track or two for me. He was happy to oblige and, as I continued to browse, the strains of the first track, “The Monochrome Set (I Presume)”, percolated through the shop.
It was like nothing I’d heard before. That first track started with the sounds of the jungle: cicadas, birds, monkeys. Soon a dull thud of African tom toms started to pound and then a thin, twangy guitar came in. It sounded like something by one of the early electric guitar tutors (anyone remember Bert Weedon?). After a while a bass guitar filled out the sound and then a voice began to sing: “The monochrome set, monochrome set, monochrome se e e et”.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Another quirky track came over the speakers and as it faded out I went back to the counter. Tossing a metaphorical coin in my head I decided to buy the album. At least it would give me time to listen to it properly and give a considered evaluation.
After about the third spin Strange Boutique had grown on me. It still had an unpleasantly thin, twangy tone and the chord progressions were simple, almost naive, but the end result was surprisingly fresh and original. The songs soon took root in my subconscious, surfacing from time to time, going round in my head in quiet moments.
Strange Boutique was released in 1980. It was followed by three more albums: Love Zombies (1980), Eligible Batchelors (1982) and The Lost Weekend (1985). I bought them all. Then the band split up and I heard no more about them. No more, that is, until a little research for this post (thank you Google and Wikipedia) turned up the startling fact that they reformed in 1990, split up for a second time in 1998, got back together again in 2011 and, amazingly, released another eight albums since I lost track of them in 1985. Not only that, they are currently touring on the continent and in the UK.
To give you the flavour of The Monochrome Set I’ve chosen R.S.V.P. from Love Zombies as my track of the week. The lyrics make no sense at all – they’re not meant to – they’re just French phrases that have been imported into English. “Ma chérie”, “savour faire”, “je ne sais pas”, “pâté de fois gras”. Mad? Yes. Amusing? Definitely. Surreal? Utterly. And thoroughly enjoyable, too.