The Monochrome Set
Photo: Steve Brummell / Tapete Records

The Monochrome Set’s ‘Radio Sessions’ Is a Superb Live Survey

The Monochrome Set are a cult band par excellence, but if you don’t know them, Radio Sessions is a great album to get an introduction.

Radio Sessions (Marc Riley BBC 6 Music 2011-2022)
The Monochrome Set
Tapete Records
18 August 2023

Radio Sessions: Mark Riley BBC 6 Music 2011-2022 is a de facto Best-Of, a two-CD survey of the music the Monochrome Set have been making over the last decade. It also captures the sound and energy of an excellent live act, and it’s an outstanding introduction to a still relatively unknown band—now in their 45th year of existence—for those who don’t know their music.

The Monochrome Set are a treasure—hidden for the most part, to be sure, especially from American audiences who haven’t had enough exposure to the group. Those who are familiar with the Monochrome Set tend to regard them either as something like an English Feelies or as the band without whom there might have been no Smiths as we knew them—Marr and Morrissey often made a point of crediting the Monochrome Set, who were founded in the late 1970s, with establishing the kind of musical sound and direction they wanted to pursue.

Neither of these characterizations is especially apt. Yes, the Monochrome Set sometimes sound a little like the Feelies—but that’s mainly because they both have roots in the Velvet Underground. The Monochrome Set’s sound is certainly audible in the Smiths. However, the Smiths were always dominated by Morrissey’s extravagantly performative emotionality (or, if you prefer, his indulgent, aggrandized, lachrymose self-pity, spiked with occasional lashing-out at the people he perceived to have caused the emotions that led to the self-pity).

By contrast, the Monochrome Set were, from the start, dry, angular—indeed aesthetically monochrome—and committed to what their mononymous leader Bid once called “intellectual rigor”. No doubt his lyrics have always had plenty of that, but he directed the description at his bandmates’ musical craft. The part-writing for each instrument (and the playing itself) was always precise, tuneful, and full of verve, and the whole band was a taut and propulsive vehicle for Bid’s coolly affectless baritone (he’s also an excellent rhythm guitarist). His deadpan, but by no means inexpressive, vocal presence made the difference between him and Morrissey—which is also to say the distance between the Monochrome Set and the Smiths—quite large.

In any case, the Smiths were done after just four albums, barely half a decade after they’d begun, around 1988. The Monochrome Set split up around the same time, but another stark difference is that they’ve regrouped twice since then and persist to this day. Their output over the last decade, after Bid survived a major aneurysm in 2010, might even be the best of their career.

Whether Bid’s brush with death deepened his songwriting, only Bid knows. Or maybe he doesn’t. He has said any number of times that he regards the part of himself who composes lyrics as a sort of separate creature, inscrutable to Bid himself, and perhaps even more so since the aneurysm made him aphasic for a while in the early 2010s. Certainly, his voice has deepened. It’s now an assured low baritone, occasionally pushed into the tenor range, where it can deliver surprisingly emotive power. Over time, his singing and songwriting have made room for a seam of tenderness and pathos (just a little, to be sure).

Try, for example, the Radio Sessions rendition of “Streams” from 2012’s Platinum Coils (the title explicitly references Bid’s aneurysm; platinum coils are used in the treatment). A far cry from the early bite of songs like “The Mating Game” or “Jet Set Junta”—whose oblique but unmissable political commentary got the music banned by the same BBC that recorded Radio Sessions many decades later (a live version of the song is included here)—”Streams” is a gently strummed piece of wistful, vulnerable, folkish longing for everything that “never can come back”.

It’s also an improvement on the original album version, and the same could be argued for many of the Radio Sessions tracks. Notwithstanding the usual comings and goings of band members over the years—these eight sessions comprise five different lineups, with Bid and bassist Andy Warren the only constants. The Monochrome Set are an assured unit with strong musicianship and a very poised live presence. The arrangements for the BBC sets don’t diverge notably from the original recordings. Still, many of them have a little more directness than the studio versions and tend to sound a little sharper cut: the live setting highlights the “monochrome” in the band’s name and aesthetic, a black-and-white clarity that Mark Riley—a legend in himself, dating back to his early days in the Fall—captures beautifully in the BBC studio.

The Monochrome Set’s last seven releases have all been on Tapete. This German label mainly works with artists from their own country but they have assembled a cheering roster of English legacy acts, including Lloyd Cole, Robert Forster (co-founder of the Go-Betweens), the Lilac Time, and others. The label’s packaging for Radio Sessions is simple but eye-grabbing, and the chronological sequencing of the two discs is apt: six four-song live sessions drawn from each of the band’s prior releases on Tapete, prefaced by a quartet of much older tunes from the Monochrome Set’s early years. Bid has contributed loopily arch liner notes that do nothing to explain the songs but sound instead like a loving dad making up bedtime stories for his kids, e.g., “We arrived at the [BBC] 6 Music Studios accompanied by six little blue penguins…”

There’s indeed a childlike innocence that manages to emanate from Bid despite his sometimes jaundiced persona, the intellectual rigor that defined the Monochrome Set from the start (they had to fend off unwarranted accusations of pretension early in their career), and the aging that can set in over nearly half a century in the music business, especially if it’s accelerated by a midlife aneurysm. The industry failed to hear the Monochrome Set accurately in the 1980s, a misapprehension that helped turn them from a failed major-label contender (which they should never have been asked to try to be) into a cult act rather than the potent transatlantic indie force they might have been.

Yet the mysterious alter ego who writes Bid’s lyrics has a quality of whimsy and lightness about him that never fails to breathe life into the Monochrome Set’s songs: a little blue penguin, say, who can’t be stopped from making up songs and stories—the very title “Fantasy Creatures” (an infectious track which appears on Radio Sessions; it’s from the band’s 2015 release Spaces Everywhere) speaks to Bid’s fabulist side. The group’s excellent 2019 album Fabula Mendax is also represented by a quartet of its songs on Disc Two of Radio Sessions. Fabula Mendax was marketed as a sort of concept album evidently based on “lost” medieval manuscripts from France, but the “mendax” in the title was a suggestion, if not quite a confession, that Bid may have made the whole thing up. (He insisted in an interview that the manuscripts were real. Internet searches are, let’s say, less persuasive.)

That’s not to say that the Monochrome Set have become cheerful softies, academic naïfs, batty antiquarians, or spaced-out-everywhere fantasists. Their most recent release, Allhallowtide (2022)—the title refers to the day on the Christian calendar dedicated to the remembrance of the martyrs—offers oblique but bleak laments for the current state of the world, as though Bid has put the little blue penguin aside and come out from within himself to sing more directly about what he really feels. There are ominous references to an uninhabitable world around us: poisoned fish, indoor rooms we can’t leave because of climate change, and possibly Brexit; the lead track, “Really in the Wrong Town”—also represented in live form on Radio Sessions—takes the gloom to an extreme with one of the most hopeless and nihilistic lyric sets I’ve ever come across. Yet it’s set to a lively melody and chord progression the Smiths would have killed to have written. (And it’s supported by a hilarious hand-animated video made by Ruth Tidmarsh, with Bid’s creative involvement.)

I’ve recently been listening to Where Were You?, a new reissue compilation of music from Leeds that dates to the same era from which the Monochrome Set emerged. Not one of the 60-plus bands on its three CDs sounds like the Monochrome Set. They’re a singular band that never belonged to the period from which they came. As Bid himself has correctly objected, the Monochrome Set were neither post-punk nor new wave, unless by “New Wave”, you intend the French cinema movement of the 1960s led by filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut. That’s really the period in which the Monochrome Set were born. Their music was “a reaction to the hippie era, so it is part of it,” Bid once said. The Monochrome Set were syncretic reinventors of the wide diversity of music that came out of the 1960s, from American rockabilly to French Yé-Yé.

To be sure, echoes of David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Ray Davies are clearly audible in Bid’s vocals (although so are Jim Morrison and even Elvis Presley), and the Monochrome Set are quintessentially English. That’s precisely why they still sound so fresh. Their authentic and rich Britishness is planted on deeper, mostly American musical roots, fed by seminal musical idioms that tended to eschew ornamentation—they’re monochrome, too, in their own way. That’s not to say the Monochrome Set aren’t an art band. They certainly are; their very name derives, at least semi-consciously, from Yves Klein’s “Proposte Monocrome” paintings of the late 1950s.

Something elemental in the Monochrome Set’s influences keeps them sounding fresh even after all these years, perhaps nowhere more consistently—and insistently—than on Radio Sessions. These two CDs are a delight to listen to on their own and an inducement to seek out the group’s rich back catalogue, not to mention to await what they’ll give us in the future. They’re a cult band par excellence, so their fans likely already own Radio Sessions, but if you don’t know the Monochrome Set, it’s a great place to get an introduction.

RATING 8 / 10