November Music #4

November 1984 – “Love Zombies” LP by The Monochrome Set

It was all Mrs C’s fault. She was our English teacher in the third year in secondary school. The first two years we had Mrs D, who I liked a lot. We understood each other. But Mrs C was an unknown quantity. She was prone to wearing long tartan skirts and frilly blouses which made it hard to take her seriously. But she liked my stories and poems, and entered my work into competitions. I remember we had an assignment to write a poem and I’d ignored it for a week until I could ignore it no longer – the lesson was first thing in the afternoon. So during lunch I quickly wrote down some ideas about a burglar, gave it the title “The Professional” and gave it in to her. She loved it and ended up reading it to the class, who dutifully sang the theme tune to the TV show “The Professionals” at her.

But it was all her fault that I started writing a diary. Towards the end of 1982 she gave everyone in our class an exercise book and told us to use it as a diary and once a week she’d take it in and mark it. Because the best thing about keeping a diary is that your English teacher marks it for you. Nobody took it seriously except me. I finished my first exercise book in a few weeks, then she gave me a second book. When I wrote a single line critique of every teacher in the school in there – what became known as “The Teacher Files” – she ripped the offending pages out and told me to be more careful about what I wrote about. Instead I just stopped letting her read it, and the diary became my own. Books 3 to 5 go up to summer 83 and do a fine job of documenting me falling into my first crush and discovering the joys of record buying. And so it went – I would buy exercise books from WH Smiths when I needed them and wrote my thoughts and feelings all in there. And over time this diary became legendary amongst my school mates. They all wanted to know if they were in it, what I was saying about them, who I was crushing on and what I was saying about who I was crushing on. C’mon, we were all fifteen, it’s what you do. Well it’s what I did.

In the Autumn of 1984 I was crushing on R, who told her friend to tell a friend of mine to tell me “R is going out with a rugby player now and unless you stop getting at her, he’ll smash you in”. That’s a direct quote from my diary, 1st November. October had seen the school grind to a standstill as everyone prepared for the school production of “My Fair Lady”. R had a minor part in it and her boyfriend had a major part and it was during rehearsals that their relationship developed. Previously R had been at least cordial to me, tolerating my attention whilst turning me down at every opportunity. Now tolerance turned to disdain and idle threats were passed on to me every couple of days. “My Fair Lady” took place in early November and one of my friends was working backstage and every day would report back to me – “They had a huge row, they could be breaking up, this is your chance…”. Lies of course. They were set in stone, those two. Nothing would tear them apart. (In reality, it was K seeing someone else behind R’s back that would do that, but that was still a year away). A whole gang of our friends would walk into school together and sit on the wall outside before being let in, talking about music and girls and boys and teachers and putting the world to rights before assembly. Then at the end of the day we’d slowly amble home in the same group, losing people along the way as they reached their houses – plotting music with imaginary bands and who to ask out and did you see her hair? and will Wham! be on TOTP? And isn’t it getting dark early now? And that was every day. R was part of that group of friends, and everyone knew I fancied her and everyone knew I stood no chance next to K, but sometimes she’d treat me nicely and I would write it up in my diary, recording our every interaction – good or bad. Everyone kept saying that I should form a group and R should sing in it.

(Ironic side-note. I joined a group in late 85 called Final Ecstasy and sort of took them over In 87 we found a new singer who was better than me and rehearsed all summer. At the end of the summer he asked if he could bring his girlfriend along to hear us – and it was R herself!)

Oh, and I’d started writing songs around this time. Not just tunes but words, slightly bitter words about embarrassed silences, awkward situations, people not liking me, people going out with the wrong people. OK, very bitter. One song “Embarrassing situation” was directly written about R and during a rehearsal for “My Fair Lady” one of her friends showed her my lyrics. She read them, walked over to me and tore them into little shreds then stomped away enraged. It probably wasn’t an endearing trait – writing songs about someone. A friend pointed out that I should write a musical about my “love life” and it is all planned out in my diary, including which songs were about which people and my suggestions for casting. The suggestion was that it would be the school’s next big production after “My Fair Lady”.

The question that must be asked is this : didn’t I have better things to do, like preparing for my mock O levels. Well yes there was that and the mocks do get mentioned in Book 14 but in a very vague manner – “German – easy. Chemistry – hard” – but other than that the diary is just “R said this, someone did this, that happened that happened…”. November was odd, because everyone wanted to read my diary and eventually they did. I took Book 11 into school and showed it to someone who then told R about it. It was then stolen from my bag and did the rounds of the 5th form for a day or two and annotations were made to some pages – “I think X and Y are slags” was crossed out and “No we’re not” written on top of it. I did a deal where I would provide another book of my diary if Book 11 was returned and on Monday 5th November there was a stand-off in a classroom in the Old Block – one friend of mine and myself on one side of a table, about four boys on the other side. Books were produced and placed on the table, then a scramble and a fight to get them. My friend grabbed one, the other went under the table where I found it then we ran like hell to hang on to them. It was agreed that I would record myself reading these tape interspersed with recordings of my songs like “Embarrassing situation”, “The way we were” and “Fond regards to the bitter end”. I did indeed record these tapes – a C90 no less – and they were distributed around school in late November. Everyone wanted to hear them, and pretty much everyone did. I wish I still had a copy to be honest, there was a brilliant section where I say about how songs are reminding me of people and things and I cross-cut between speech and the songs themselves, ending on a wonderful collage of me saying “Well the possibilities are” – straight into a vocoder-ed “Endless” from “Endless Endless” by Kraftwerk. Again, I think I’ve mentioned before that the last surviving copy was seen with L in Germany in 1985.

As the “diary tapes” were distributed around the school in late November, there is one incident that stands out regarding the tape. We had a double German lesson one afternoon and this one day half the class – myself included – were taken into another classroom for half the lesson and taught by the auxillary German teacher. We then returned to the main classroom for the second half of the lesson but for some reason the door was locked and we couldn’t join the other half of our class. The reason why soon became clear. Looking through the window from outside I could see the teacher had set up a tape player and within seconds I heard my voice booming out across the classroom, followed by the three songs on the diary tape. The class hearing the tape started to dance and cheer and boogied along to the primitive Casio chug of my songs, except for R who sat at her table looking more and more pissed off. Once the songs were finished the door was unlocked and we all returned to the classroom where I got a standing ovation from my classmates. One comment stood out from one of the girls – “You could be the next Howard Jones”. Thanks.

(OK Rob, we get the picture. Isn’t this a blog about music?)

Well yes, of course it is. But I do like to set the scene, y’know.

November I was listening to John Peel every night, and almost every night’s show was a classic. I’d have my tape deck ready to record anything interesting, and there was plenty of great things. This was the era of “Treasure”, the era of early Yeah Yeah Noh, “The wonderful and frightening world of the Fall”, “Step forward”, Perfect Vision. Microdisney, Hard Corps… All classic stuff and all on tape. As for records, well I didn’t buy that many in November. I’ve spoken about “Zoolook” in “Synthesisers in the rain”, but there was one single and one album that remind me of those days. I always thought I’d first seen the video for “Sensoria” by Cabaret Voltaire on “Max Headroom”, but that show didn’t start until 1985, so maybe the video was shown on “The Tube”. But I definitely saw it before buying the single, which I got on 12 inch. Again a flimsy piece of vinyl inside a very flimsy sleeve, and a b-side that was repetitive to the point of tedium. But on the other hand “Sensoria” was tremendous stuff. Seven and a half minutes of pure propulsion, chattering drum machines, pulsing sequencers and the simplest guitar line of four descending notes, while Stephen Mallinder whispered quiet threats and promises. It sounded like they were trying to go for the “big drum sound” – the gated snare – that was prevalent in pop music at the time but in trying had achieved something else instead. It was one of the many great electronic singles of ’84 – not just the ones I liked at the time like “Rough justice” by Portion Control and “Dirty” by Hard Corps but also ones I heard on the radio like “Just be good to me”… And the video was crazy and innovative too. That was my introduction to Cabaret Voltaire and I would work backwards from there over time.

As for the album for November ’84… It’s “Love Zombies” by The Monochrome Set. Earlier in the year I had bought a compilation LP called “Dindisc ’80” which had an exclusive OMD track – a rerecording of “Electricity” from the “Organisation” album sessions. I rather liked some of the other acts on the LP – it had “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, there was some songs by The Revillos, and two songs by The Monochrome Set. I’d not heard of them before and I liked the two songs – “405 lines” was a speedy Shadows styled instrumental and “Apocalypso” was a tongue-in-cheek view of the oncoming end of the world. (Note – my copy of “Dindisc 80” featured a fold out game board where players travel around the country doing tasks with the different bands on the Dindisc label. I’ve only just realised this is like a larger version of Sarah Records’ “Sarapoly” game from ’91). I wanted some more, so in early November I tracked down a copy of “Love Zombies” – £3.99 in HMV – my copy still has the sticker on it.

It’s a curious album, this one. There are sounds that date it to the cusp of the Eighties – the Wasp synth used on a few tracks is the giveaway – but beyond that, the songwriting, arrangements and performances are pretty much timeless. It was odd hearing the album in late ’84, a year when The Smiths had been unavoidable, to hear jangly guitars, spritely rhythms and clever lyrics sung in a slightly effete voice – and this album was four years old? Yet even in ’84 nobody knew about The Monochrome Set. I can remember asking a friend in school who I thought knew everything about music if he’d heard of them. “No, never heard of The Monochrome Set, but I’ve heard of The Bloomsbury Set…” And he proceeded to sing me their one ‘hit‘ single. I was disappointed, I wanted to know where they’d sprung from, why they were so quirky and what the hell they were up to in 1984. None of this information was forthcoming from the music papers (and jumping ahead slightly, when they did return in ’85 with “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Wallflower”, trying to have hit singles on Blanco Y Negro, nobody took any notice of them anyway). It looked like The Monochrome Set were a cult band, and that’s pretty much how they’ve remained over the years.

“Love Zombies” is a slightly schizophrenic album, there’s lightness in the arrangements and musical styles, but also darkness in some lyrical areas. The opening title track is mostly instrumental, like the overture to a show, with a skewed riff sliding sidelong into a carnival atmosphere – then towards the end vocalist Bid enters: “Can someone tell me what is that we’re doing under the night?”. It’s off centre and odd and I like it. “Adeste Fidelis” is a curious song – I still can’t tell if Bid’s words are ironic, sarcastic or honest – he’s taking religious words and putting them into a pop song. Even so it was a bonus for my Latin ‘O’ level. “405 lines” is a different and inferior version to the version on “Dindisc 80” – which appears to be the single version – but is OK. “B I D spells Bid” sees the lead singer singing his own praises in a most humble way, sometimes. Bid throws words around that were most uncommon for 1980 – “charming” for a start – and again hearing this song now I wonder if Morrissey was listening and taking note. If Moz had been born the son of an Indian prince, with the confidence that inspires…. “RSVP” flies by with a lyric full of those French phrases that have slipped into the English language like “raison d’etre”, “je ne sais que”, “ma cherie” and more and manages to rhyme “melange” with “blancmange” before the band get into a groove at the end and competiting guitar solos spiral off.

Side two starts with “Apocalypso”, a breezy ode to nuclear annihiliation, and the spoils that Bid will help himself to afterwards – “All I require is a Swiss bank account. Given an OBE and made a Count…”. It’s a grim humour though, but the joyful music – all marimbas and Hawaiian slide guitars – mask the reality. “Karma Sutra” is probably the best song on the album – the neo-psychedelic hints become fully fledged with a raga rock guitar line (very easy to play too once you know how) and harmonies and Farfisa organ and a middle eight with plentiful phasing. However the lyrics…. It deals with a young lady’s fall from grace, it’s sympathetic and everything but in this day and age it sounds dodgy as hell. Still, the psychedelic coda helps. “The man with the black moustache” tries to be Kinks style whimsy but out-stays its welcome by about a minute, “The Weird, Wild And Wonderful World Of Tony Potts” is a tribute to the fifth member of the band – Potts was their visual director, making vidoes for them and creating films to screen behind their live performances. It’s another speedy song with musical hints at Morricone – which makes sense. Lyrics are a list of film terms and phrases, most of which means nothing to me. Finally “In love, cancer” is another instrumental, like a 60s spy theme, more Farfisa organ jabs and a myriad of guitar effects on show, ending with a phone call to announce the song title.

As I said before, it was an odd record to be listening to in November ’84 and it does point in directions I would investigate in the next few years, the post-punk psychedelia of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, which would then lead into Love and the 60s psych bands (A Rolling Stone Record Guide saying that “Forever Changes” was an influence on the Teardrops, Bunnymen and Monochrome Set pushed me into buying that wonderful album in May ’86). In later years I would buy more Monochrome Set records and enjoy them as much as this one, if not more – I bought the CD of “Eligible Batchelors” on the day before my wedding! – but this album is special. I’ve really enjoyed listening to it again to write this and … What’s that? They played Brisrol a few weeks ago? Drat! The eternal cult band plays on.

How did November ’84 end? Well it ended with me announcing to everyone that I was ending my diary, and nobody believing me which is just as well because I didn’t anyway. I wrote a new version of “The teacher files” and expressed my bile in a new addition – “The pupil files”. That would come to backfire on me years later, but that’s another story. And R? She was blissed up with K, but that story didn’t have a happy ending either. Oh, and she forbade me from writing songs about her. Like that was going to happen! Only when I came to record all the songs about her she forced me to change the lyrics so apart from the diary tape version – which I don’t have – “Embarrasing situation” doesn’t exist. Shame. Good song, that.

Next time – One song for November 2007 and one song for November 1998.

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