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.

1 comment:

Scott Sinfield said...

I very nearly went to see them in Manchester recently, but lack of time and money prevented me from so doing. Reading this, I very much wish I had done. The Monochrome Set are wrapped up with happy memories of listening to John Peel with my older brother as a kid. Those memories, alongside their wonderful music, mean that The Monochrome Set will always have a special place in my heart.