Message In A Bottle

Or, Tales of the River Bank¹.

bottle on beachOne morning in the summer of 1979 Crotchety Young Man was on his way to work. At that time he was based in the Berkshire town of Reading and his route took him over the river Thames at Caversham Bridge. There were rather more people than usual in the streets heading towards the bridge that sunny day, many of them young, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and, seemingly, in high spirits. Where were they going, young Crotchety wondered? Were they students going to college? And why were they so enjoying their march through the wholly unexceptional streets of Reading at this early hour?

I began to wonder if I was witnessing an alien invasion. These creatures looked like humans but they seemed all too perfect. Then I began to notice that, as well as beads and bracelets, some of the invaders were decorated in badges. Actually, by and large, the girls wore the jewellery and the boys wore the badges. But the puzzling thing was that the badges were unappealing dark grey discs with white lettering spelling out ‘The Police’.

Crotchety was confused. Had the British police force updated their uniform? No, that couldn’t be right. Then the sleeping voice of reason woke up and yelled a silent, “Don’t be ridiculous!” in my inner ear. “The kids must be going to the rock festival”, it continued, “and ‘The Police’ must be the name of a band”. It was the only explanation that made any sense. But I’d never heard of that band. A sudden chill descended as I realised that I couldn’t have been more out of touch with current music trends if I had lived for many years on a desert island.

As we approached the bridge the music-loving aliens peeled off to the left heading down Richfield Avenue². Young Crotchety continued on over the bridge to the office, which was on the opposite side of the river, a few hundred yards downstream from the Festival site and just out of earshot of the bands. For the rest of that day ‘The Police’ kept cropping up – in conversation, on the news and on posters – the words mocking a Crotchety Man who, although still in his twenties, was no longer entitled to consider himself young.

the band

After that chastening experience Crotchety Man’s aural antennae became acutely sensitive to any mention of The Police. It turned out that things weren’t quite as bad as I had imagined. The Police had released a single, Roxanne, and the album, Outlandos d’Amour, the previous year but neither had made much of an impact on the charts until Roxanne was re-released in April 1979. It wasn’t until their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, was released a couple of months after that year’s Reading Festival that The Police became a household name.

Two of the singles taken from Reggatta de Blanc soon washed up on the shore of Crotchety’s Desert Island and have been carefully stored in the disc archive. I have chosen one of those, Message In A Bottle, for my Track of the Week³. That link is to the original version on the album. For those who like YouTube and/or live versions here’s Sting and his current band performing the song in 2017.

Notes

  1. Tales of the Riverbank was a British children’s T.V. programme originally broadcast in 1960. The first series used footage of live animals dubbed with human voices.
  2. The Reading Festival has been held at Little John’s Farm, Richfield Avenue since 1971.
  3. The other one is Walking On The Moon.

Road to Nowhere

talking-heads

The weather forecast for tomorrow and the next few days is lousy here, but there’s not a cloud in the sky this morning so let’s make the most of it. How about a drive through the glorious English countryside? We don’t have to go anywhere in particular. We’ll just point the car in a random direction and drive. Take a picnic, stop at a pub or two along the way, enjoy ourselves and escape from the real world for a few hours.
Talking_Heads_-_Road_to_Nowhere

Look! There’s a hitchhiker. “Going my way?”, he asks. “Sure”, I reply, “hop in”.

It’s David Byrne and he’s brought his band, Talking Heads. They know where they’re going (but they don’t know where they’ve been).

It’s all a bit cramped in our little car but there’s a party atmosphere and soon we’re all singing Road to Nowhere accompanied by an accordion and a dashboard beat ringing like the tramp of marching feet.

“What’s this song about, David?”, I ask. “It’s a joyful look at doom”, he replies, cheerfully. “At our deaths and at the apocalypse”.

Come on everybody, sing along!

We’re on a road to nowhere,
Come on inside.
Takin’ that ride to nowhere,
We’ll take that ride.

R.S.V.P.

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.

Monochrome Set - Strange Boutique

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.

Monochrome Set

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.