The Monochrome Set – “Strange Boutique”

Strange Boutique

(Released 1980)

If you didn’t know, The Monochrome Set are this Avant-garde English post-punk band who originally formed in 1978 and despite a changing line up over the years are still defying logic with their offbeat and upbeat  brand of music. Whilst other post-punk bands of the late 70s were singing about nihilism, love and sorrow, The Monochrome Set sang about what the hell took their fancy. From the dark side of love and sex, to the nonsensical, The Monochrome Set’s appeal was and still is enhanced by the posh arched brow quirkiness of singer Bid, likened to Noel Coward and Neil Hannon. Likewise, The Monochrome’s 1980s debut “Strange Boutique” wouldn’t be complete without the guitarist and backing vocalist Lester Square (whose tongue in cheek pseudonym pays homage to the Punk hangout Leicester Square), bassist Andrew Warren, keyboard player Bob Sargeant and drummer John D. Hane. With its eclectic range of contrary guitar riffs, tribal and upbeat drums, Strange Boutique still sounds as fresh today as it did all those years ago.

With its long-winded intro “The Monochrome Set” is the opening self-titled song whose dominant tribal drums kick-start the mayhem in juxtaposition against the aloof shimmering guitars. It’s whilst those guitars alternate between Bid’s madcap crooning that a Spanish guitar interlude unfolds, giving us a peep of what’s to come.

Next up is “The Lighter Side of Dating” which more or less captures the essence of the album illustrating once again the art of unconventional lyrics against a fragmented frenzy of sounds. For anyone listening to TLSOD for the first time, you wouldn’t expect that after the opening ominous bass that you would find yourself caught up in a whirlwind of metallic guitars which spin around the racing drums. It’s once the quirky and if not dark lyrics: “Miss Universe is not averse to bisexuality. I think abortion is a caution” then TLSOD takes on a cartoon-esque persona, through the  female singing the words  Miss Universe” in a mock-sexy voice and the zany B52s-esque farfisa organs. Like most of The Monochromes Set’s songs, TLSOD is full of twists and turns and subtle ironies cemented somewhere along the musical backdrop. Amongst the faltering drums and semi-shoegazing guitars lurks a stratum of darkness which prowls amongst the sexually awkward, if not camp lyrics.

Quick off the press, “Espresso” is a song which illustrates once again The Monochrome Set’s skill at producing songs whose dark lyrics are delivered in juxtaposition against the up-beat tempo of the song. With lyrics such as “And when I spoke to father’s ghost. He said he died by parcel post” delivered in Bid’s baritone vocals, Espresso craftfully croons with closet humour. As the title suggests Espresso is a fast mover, whose guitars change hands at a rapid pace. Whilst the busy bass and bongo drums boogie hand in hand, the jangly guitars sway and then over-lap into a duality of stomping, carefree and dead-pan arrangements. It’s during the out-tro that Espresso mutates in a cacophony of crowded sounds, reaffirming once again The Monochrome Set’s individualistic brand of pandemonium.

Just while you are all psyched up “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber”  breezes in with its summery soundscape, illustrating The Monochrome Set’s skill at producing instrumental gems. With its shimmering and dilly-dallying guitars, TPRF conjures up images of crescent shaped beaches and warm waves. With the undercurrent of subtle pianos, farfisa organ and descending bouncy bass, TPRF works up the heat in a Spanish flamenco interlude, before settling for a well deserved siesta.

Tomorrow Will Be Too Long” is one of The Monochrome Set’s more oblique songs, whose swirly whirly guitars chop and descend with a habit of taking a back seat to the heavy, pulsating bass. With a stomping piano arrangement likened to The Beatles’ Lady Madonna, TWBTL is like a hybrid of Baroque-post punk, whose sweeping violins conceal the subtle circus macabre lurking in the fabric of the song.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any quirkier, along comes “Martians Go Home” which steps out with a rock n roll jive, before crossing over to a laid back semi-reggae swagger. With a bouncy bass, MGH is one of The Monochrome Sets’ more zany songs, whose erratic guitars speed up, down-step and descend amongst the half-baked astrological themed lyrics. Despite the nonsensical lyrics, MGH display some skilful rifts which hang in anticipation, roll out and have a little dance between the energetic drum beats.

Love Goes Down the Drain” is one of those songs which illustrates The Monochrome Set’s skill at projecting dark humour in a bubble-cartoon format. With a reverberating and arching guitar intro, it’s not long before LGDTD unleashes its stranded, coiled guitars that braids and twists in and out of the shuffling drum beats. It’s once the chorus kicks in that the song adopts its signature off-beat interludes. With “…down, down and down I go” Bid’s vocals become more segregated, stranglers-esque in contrast against the fused, jangly guitars. It’s as if Bid has stepped out of himself and found himself in some parallel universe or suddenly in a surreal reality amongst the “monsters from way out in space”. It’s an infectious song, whose subtle space invader beeps and fleeting underwater vocals add to the zany, animated appeal.

Likewise “Ici Les Enfants” is the embodiment of a song whose dark lyrics are turned into a theatrical production. With its Lolita-esque lyrics, ILE could be an extract from a French tragedy or a 20th century piece of art. With its opening sombre Spanish guitars, you immediately feel swept away to some exotic place. However it’s once the aloof keyboard and bouncy bass surface that you feel a drama unfolding in front of your eyes. The suspense is heightened through the paradoxical soundscape. On one hand you’ve got the grounded guitars , then you’ve got these crazy, sexually dark lyrics repetitively being churned out against the kicking keyboards, all wandering down a perverse path. However, it’s once the out-tro emerges that the avant-garde madness steps up a notch with Bid repeatedly singing the lines: “Ici les enfants du paradis” fuelled by the textured and wayward farfisa tones.

So, just as you think you’ve got the gist of them, The Monochrome Set saunters by with the effortlessly cool “The Etcetera Stroll”. It’s a voyeuristic song, whose upbeat guitars jump and gallop like a heroic cowboy before they scintillate and side-saddle around the orbiting drums. It’s an excitable number which builds to a crescendo, bopping, riding down a contrary route. With its mosquito-bitten jerks, TES turns into frenzy, abandoning all signs of sanity, before climaxing in an exhausted heap.

Goodbye Joe” is The Monchrome Set’s most stripped down song on the album, which flirts with the obscure, reverberates and subtly echoes beneath the surface. With its shimmering guitars, GJ rolls in emotional discord against the crooning vocals of Bid. With its interval slamming riffs, GJ conveys a fleeting melancholy which is hijacked by the surreal lyrics and eerie circus insert towards the end of the song.

Strange Boutique” is a whirlwind of a song, which works itself up to a frenzy with unhinged guitars, spinning guitars and a Joy Divison-esque bass line, which maintains an alliance with traditional post-punk. It’s a loose cannon, whose farfisa organ squiggles its tones against the metallic, crunchy and shrieking guitars. Amongst the chaos Bid’s laconic tones deliver the sinister and destructive lyrics in and out of the adrenaline-pumping, spinning and chaotic soundscape. With lyrics such as “I coat your liver with lard. In cash or cheque or in credit card. I wanna be a devil”, The Monochrome Set illustrate yet again their genius at writing catchy songs, loaded with dark and quirky humour. As the album’s title track, TSB is definitely a signature track and perhaps one of post-punk’s most under-rated classics.  With fragments of bands such as Maximo Park, Real Estate and The Horrors, The Strange Boutique as an overall album has proven to be a cult classic, whilst influencing more contemporary bands and leaving a legacy of post-punk creativity.