Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Man Whose Head Expanded

THE MONOCHROME SET - Birmingham Hare & Hounds

I have been waiting to see The Monochrome Set for some time, four years to be precise. I had always regarded their three albums from the early 1980s to be lost classics and in 2008 I had just begun checking out their later work when I heard that they were back together for a one-off show to mark the 30th anniversary of their label, Cherry Red. At the time I was attending gigs around the country with someone who was possibly the world's biggest Monochrome Set fan. Keen to impress her, I went to desperate lengths in my effort to acquire tickets. I contacted the venue and the label, and promised to review the show, perhaps slightly overstating the audience of this blog. However, I was told that it was a private party for label staff and there were no tickets.

All of that now seems an eternity away as four years on, a lot has changed. The lady in question is no longer part of my life and my health in particular has given cause for concern. However, my problems seem insignificant when compared to those of frontman Ganesh "Bid" Seshadri. In 2010 he suffered a near-fatal aneurysm, putting the future of the band in doubt. With another of my musical heroes, Tim Smith, in a similar position and unlikely to play again, I'm relieved that Bid is back stronger than ever.

Tonight Bid is joined by original members Lester Square and Andy Warren, plus a new drummer and violinist. The set opens in the only way imaginable, with their eponymous theme tune, its pounding tribal drums more prominent than ever - perhaps a nod towards their shared ancestry with Adam and the Ants?

Amongst old favourites such as "He's Frank", "The Jet Set Junta" and their almost-hit, "Jacob's Ladder", they showcase half of the songs from new album "Platinum Coils". This is their first release for 17 years and not surprisingly, the main focus of the lyrics is Bid's recent spell in hospital. In some respects the subject matter is similar to the last Spiritualized album. But while Jason Pierce appeared to be re-evaluating his life, Bid's songwriting is as quirky as ever and takes a much more light-hearted look at life and death. Album opener "Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome" is one of the catchiest tunes the band have written and could easily have come from their 1980 debut. In the lyrics Bid appears to be using the kitten to represent his illness; perhaps by thinking of it as something cute and friendly it will seem less frightening.

Although it seems morbid, maybe the aneurysm should be viewed in a positive light as it certainly appears to have strengthened Bid as a songwriter and frontman. This is best represented by the album cover, which features Bid's head with a collage of people, insects and vintage paraphernalia spilling out of it. The chaotic contents of his mind suggest that his imagination is limitless when compared with those fortunate individuals who have not had a brush with death. Bid has clearly accepted his illness as part of what he is and it's possible that without it, these new songs would be far less interesting or may not have been written at all. This makes me reflect on my own health. Although my neurological problems have been disturbing at times, perhaps if I hadn't had that serious illness as a child then I would have grown up to be a "normal" person with average tastes and I wouldn't be writing this now.

Alongside Bid, the rest of the band put in a flawless performance throughout. The strings add a nice touch to many of the old classics, and (ignoring the fact that he appears to be using some kind of sex toy as a guitar pick) Lester Square reminds us, not that we should have forgotten, what an amazing player he has always been. I have long considered him to be one of the finest guitarists of his generation and it's a great travesty that he is not mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Marr and Squire. Just listen to 1979 single "He's Frank" and tell me that this didn't inspire The Smiths.

With such a wealth of material in their back catalogue I would have been happy for them to play all night, but things finally draw to a close with another early single, "Eine Symphonie Des Grauens". I'm left feeling invigorated, more so than I have been by a live gig for a long time. Some of their songs had come to represent a particular period of my life and the bad memories associated with it. Those memories have now been erased as I realise that Bid's songs are so wide-ranging they can be applied to just about anything I care to think of. With any band, I usually recommend their earliest releases, but if you are not familiar with The Monochrome Set then you could do a lot worse than starting with "Platinum Coils", available now through the band's website.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A change of speed, a change of style


It's been over a year since I last posted anything here. This is not because I've stopped listening to music, in fact just the opposite. I've been so busy buying records and going to gigs that I've not got around to writing about any of them. This excellent compilation has finally given me the incentive to get writing again.

"Fame" is released by Caroline True Records, a Shrewsbury-based label who specialise in digging up Peel-approved obscurities while also releasing new material by bands such as Birmingham stalwarts The Nightingales. I first came across CTR a couple of years ago when I was contacted by label founder John Kertland, who had noticed the music I had been listening to on and suggested I might like the compilation he had put together of long-lost Manchester act Manicured Noise. I usually ignore unsolicited emails but in this case I made an exception as I had always been curious to hear this band, who had until that point been just a name on the FAC1 poster. Needless to say, I bought the album; I was not disappointed and John is now a good friend.

Despite the huge amount of music in my collection, ranging from the mid-1950s to the present day, the era that most interests me is probably the late '70s/early '80s. If someone asks me which bands are most important to me I would mainly list acts from this period, such as Joy Division. But when asked what kind of music this is, I find it hard to give an accurate description, particularly when asked by work colleagues who are not big music listeners. I would typically use the term "post-punk", but then struggle to define it to someone not familiar with the bands. This could really mean any record from 1978 onwards. Although punk had a recognisable sound, post-punk had a more diverse style and seems to be a catch-all term for a wide variety of bands who had taken the DIY spirit of punk but dragged its sound, which many would admit was starting to become stale, into more experimental territories.

In an attempt to bring together some of the music that best represents post-punk, CTR have enlisted Jon Savage, one of the country's best journalists and the author of what is possibly the definitive text on the punk years. Savage has selected 23 acts (some well-known but most of them relatively obscure) and also written a compelling set of sleeve notes, clearly putting post-punk in a historical context.

It's clear that post-punk grew from the initial punk explosion. The bands most commonly classed as post-punk, such as Wire and Joy Division (both included here) had originally been punks. If I had to choose one album that could be called post-punk then it would be "Metal Box", a record made by the country's best-known punk. It's interesting that Savage has chosen not to include PiL on this compilation, but as he states on the sleeve, he has tried to avoid being too obvious.

While punk rejected everything that had come before, post-punk takes in a wide range of influences. Elements of psychedelia are evident on many of the tracks here, particularly on Chrome's contribution, "Chromosome Damage". This would have been rejected as "hippy music" by the early punks. Some of the bands included here seem to rebel against punk's insular approach in the same way. One of the more bizarre tracks is by Nigel Simpkins. This has to be the most un-rock 'n' roll name ever, but anyone who has read Julian Cope's autobiography will know that it is actually a pseudonym used by Cope's sometime manager, Cally Callomon. I suspect he chose this name as a reaction against those calling themselves Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious etc. His track "Times Encounter", consisting of a drum loop with treated guitars and chanting fading in and out, sounds like something from an early Faust album.

As well as embracing the past, bands began to look to the future and incorporate electronic elements. While punk was about youthful rebellion, post-punk generally had a bleaker outlook as the bands began to accept that the country was screwed and no amount of pogoing or safety pins would change that.

Two Sheffield bands, The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire, contribute instrumental tracks where they use technology that was groundbreaking at the time to paint a desolate picture of the future. With the Tories having recently come into power and the economy in decline, both bands create a foreboding atmosphere that suggests crumbling grey buildings, perhaps a depiction of the ruin of their hometown, a once-successful hub of industry. The Human League's "Dignity Of Labour", through both its title and 12" cover art, suggests a Soviet work ethic, possibly a statement on the unemployment that was starting to take hold of the nation. The League and CV went on to become successful in the fields of synthpop and techno respectively but even in their more commercial later works, their experimental roots are noticeable.

Many people say that punk was invented in England, and by the Pistols in particular, which is obviously incorrect. Similarly, post-punk is often thought of as a UK phenomenon. However, there are several US bands here, including Mars and DNA, who were both part of New York's No Wave movement and featured on Brian Eno's 1978 compilation. While the English post-punk acts were becoming more atmospheric, their US counterparts sound, on the whole, more abrasive. With scratchy guitars and lyrics that are sometimes surreal, sometimes indiscernible, it's apparent how this short-lived scene gave birth to longstanding bands such as Sonic Youth.

I am always searching for more music from this era and "Fame" has introduced me to several acts that I had not heard before. My favourite track is "Herpes Simplex" by Rosa Yemen, a project of NY-based French musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux. With its minimal yet at the same time melodic backing and plaintive female vocals, it brings to mind late-1980s bands such as A.C. Temple. Judy Nylon, another NY artist, treads similar ground but gives an altogether more relaxed delivery, thanks to the involvement of legendary dub producer Adrian Sherwood.

Another US band of note is Cleveland-based X_X, whose rant against unnecessary things in general, "No Nonsense", is reminiscent of their neighbours Pere Ubu. It seems that they only released two singles, which I imagine are hard to get hold of now. This is probably for the best as it would only cause confusion if I added them to a collection that already includes X, The xx and The Ex.

The most surprising song comes from Athens, Georgia's Method Actors, simply because it is catchy and has been stuck in my head since the album finished playing. "Do the Method" shows how post-punk can be more than minimal rhythm sections and cryptic lyrics. They released two albums and a number of EPs, brought together on the compilation "This Is Still It" in 2010, so I'm not sure why I haven't encountered them before.

After these unfamiliar artists, there is perhaps only one band worthy of bringing this album to a close; This Heat. One of the most perplexing acts in my collection, having owned the boxset of their complete works for many years I still have no idea how to categorise them. Although often described as post-punk, I hear more evidence of jazz, prog and... god knows what else. I enjoy them simply because I don't understand them, in much the same way that I read the writings of the Situationist International without being certain what they are talking about. This Heat's contribution, "A New Kind Of Water", voices environmental concerns that are common today but practically unheard of in songs of 30 years ago. They predict that consumer culture will ultimately be our downfall, just as Guy Debord had done in "The Society of the Spectacle" when he criticised our materialistic nature and craving for glossy objects. There is an obvious irony here, given my desire to own the physical copy of this album with its coloured vinyl and painstakingly designed gatefold sleeve.

After listening to "Fame" several times, I'm still not sure if I could accurately define post-punk. But now if someone asks about my favourite style of music, rather than trying to describe it I would simply point them towards this record.