Alvin The Alien crash landed his spaceship on the strange industrial wastelands of Hornsey, London just a few short weeks ago. He set about learning the British way of life immediately, immersing himself in our culture, and learning, unprejudiced, about others. Of particular interest to Alvin was UK musical history. He learnt of The Clash, The Beatles and Radiohead, amongst others, and finished the day by listening to The Monochrome Set‘s second volume of rare and unreleased gems that comprises Volume, Contrast, Brilliance. Clearly, he concluded, if most of these tunes were out-takes, then the officially released singles and albums must have made them one of the most famous bands of all time.
Upon learning that the group never even achieved a solitary top 100 placing, Alvin tragically dropped dead from the sheer shock of it all. Poor Alvin.
In all seriousness though, listening to this compilation, it really IS baffling as to why Bid, Lester Square and the assortment of musicians that drifted in and out of the band over the years never became household names. It’s not like these songs weren’t commercial enough. Just witness the irresistible dancehall groove of 1986’s ‘Swing’, a wickedly funny satire that contains the quite majestic lyric “We’d like to bite into your face and suck out your soul / We need to feel the shivers running up and down your spine / and never forget that we’ll take that out some other time“. Is it just me, or does that sound to you like a perfect description of the present political climate in the UK?
Or there’s the previous year’s tremendous Marty Robbins meets The Smiths synth anthem ‘Reach For My Gun‘. Speaking of Mozzer and co, there’s not a shred of doubt that these boys were a huge influence on the young Steven Patrick. They pretty much WERE The Smiths before The Smiths existed. Some might even be tempted to argue that they did it better. Others may refute this suggestion by pointing out that, in the earlier days, they were clearly more indebted to The Velvet Underground, perhaps most obviously displayed on the two 1978 singles included here, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man‘ and ‘Fly Me To The Moon‘ (no, not THOSE two).
The Monochrome Set have more strings to their bow, though, than just being a template for future indie legends, ‘The Greatest Performance Artist In The World‘ even flirting briefly with AOR, while the short, spoken word ‘Wisteria‘ vignette is a brief, psychedelic art school foray into the world of Goth.
I can’t help thinking, too, that had the delightful ‘Cilla Black‘ broken before a certain dynamic four piece from Manchester, the landscape of British rock history may have been shaped rather differently. And I’m saying this as someone who believes The Smiths were probably the greatest band of all time. You know what though? Maybe it’s about time we saluted the true pioneers as well.