WITHOUT THE MONOCHROME SET WE MAY NOT HAVE BANDS LIKE THE STROKES, BLUR AND FRANZ FERDINAND and, if it wasn’t for Johnny Marr finding one of their LPs in Morrissey’s record collection, we almost certainly wouldn’t have had The Smiths. Born, not from the ashes but from the ovulation of Adam and the Ants, the Monochrome Set are responsible for inspiring some of the greatest musicians of the past 30 years.
When Velvet Sheep’s Phil Knoxville sat down with band leader Bid to discuss his Lucky 7 songs, he had no idea of the fascinating direction Bid would take him in. Writing after an aneurysm, the direct link to creativity, Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, music as an art form and the band’s continued influence on the generations that followed are all discussed. Whether you’re a fan of the band, or just a fan of music in general this has to be a must read.
MONOCHROME SET – Lucky 7
How easy was it to pick your Lucky 7 songs, is this a list you already had in your mind?
No it was very, very difficult, there are thousands of songs as you know and in my day people used to look back to gain influence, to gain some sort of interest in music. To gain knowledge in music we’d look back quite a long time, to the 20s and 30s in the 70s, now days musicians don’t look back very far, you know one or two years [laughs].
Jacques Brell, ‘La Fanette’
Jacques Brell is one of the great geniuses of the last century and I could almost pick any Jacques Brell song, but I picked ‘La Fanette’ because it’s just a lovely, lovely song. As a songwriter he’s often dismissed. He’s from that Vegas era of singers where they’re simply standing there on a stage and singing a song. Young people aren’t interested in that, but they should be interested in Jacques Wells because he was a genius.
He’s a guy with a real twinkle in his eye.
Oh yeah, he was a brilliant stage performer. People should get into his music and see him perform his songs because he’s fantastic. This is an easier one to get into because the video’s got English subtitles.
Comedian Harmonists, ‘Der alte Cowboy’
The funny thing is they were really, really successful in Germany before the war and it’s a really interesting piece of music. It’s the German version of ‘The Last Roundup’, which is kind of an old fashioned American country song, and it’s just really, really interesting, a song that’s just a lovely thing to listen to.
Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any footage of them actually performing. I’ve got a whole load of load of songs by them and they’re just fantastic. I chose this just to show the wide range of things that I’ve listened to and the influences I’ve had.
So how do you consume music these days, how do you listen to older music?
I’m on news groups and I just go to old MP3 groups and people upload these old things from vinyl and you get these really fantastic, weird but interesting things. Things that people are crowing about, having done some fantastic new things last year or whatever, I’m not as interested in that. I mean for an old person you look at Lady Gaga and you think “well I’ve seen all that before but done better” and the thing is I always want to go back to the source, I want to go back to the time when people were creating these things for the first time.
Is it frustrating for you as a musician to listen to artists who are quite derivative but at the same time are being applauded for doing something new?
Yeah but it’s always been the case in the arts that someone boils down a great idea down to one slim little thing and presents it as a commercial entity to the public.
It’s the same in books and films. There’s a whole load of people that read the Harry Potter stuff but never read Lord of The Rings and the Potter stuff wouldn’t exist without Lord of The Rings, so it’s just like a boiled down version of Lord of The Rings. I’m not suggesting that I’m into either of them but it’s that kind of thing, it’s taking something and making it palatable to idiots [Both laugh]. And that’s fair enough, that’s the way it happens.
The Velvet Underground, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’
When I first heard that I was blown away, because everyone was listening to Prog Rock at the time in the early 70s, and I was listening to the Velvet Underground. When you listen to Prog Rock as a young musician, you listen to musicians who are absolutely brilliant and you think you can never do anything like that. Suddenly you’re listening to the Velvet Underground and you’re like “Wow I can actually write a song and make it sound good!” and it was influential in that sense.
They were the spirit of New Wave, and in 1967 they were doing something totally out of step with what was happening in what you would call the Indie scene in America. I guess you’d say that despite their success, people like Jefferson Aeroplane and 13 Floor Elevators were kind of the Indie scene at the time, Neil Young and all that. The Velvet Underground were very out of step with that but they carried on doing their own thing. At the time they weren’t successful at all and subsequent events they became massively, massively influential and successful, at least aesthetically successful. They’ve never had a huge wide range appeal but they were doing what you might consider art.
The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’
There’s loads and loads of bands where there’s two guitars and one guitarist just plinks around a bit, what’s the point of having him on stage? I mean, I know obviously there are people like Johnny Marr who actually do pretty complicated things, they kind of plink but they plink in a very complicated way and they keep the whole thing going, but bands where there’s kind of a rhythm guitarist bashing away on chords and the lead guitarist isn’t really doing much different, I don’t see the point in having them on stage.
The new album displays the lost art of the intro, an opening riff that hooks you in immediately and I really loved that.
It’s making the most out of a song, it’s like not being able to stop yourself and it’s just fun to do the song you know? We’re chucking everything in.
I take it you’re never afraid of running out of ideas?
At the moment I just seem to have a free flow of writing, and part of that is to do with the fact that about five years ago, I had that aneurysm and a small part of my brain burnt out. It’s really complicated but it’s just made it easier to song write.
It’s just broken down certain barriers. I’ve got an awful lot to say about that and I’m thinking of writing a book about where the creative part of the brain is and things, because I kind of found it if you like. I’m now writing songs and the lyrics sound very well thought out and intellectual and witty but I’m just automatically writing them and my brain is kind of switched off and the thing inside me that is doing all the writing is just writing these lyrics, and I’m looking at them and I’m not really understanding what I’m writing.
But it’s coherent.
Yeah it’s coherent and I know all songs are written in that way, except when you go into a commercial studio. I’m not really doing it with my conscious self if you like, I know that sounds really weird. Since the stroke my conscious self has kind of become a bit weaker and therefore there’s less of a barrier to let the artistic side of me to come out and write.
The artist if you like relies on a primal part of the brain which is to do with the lateral creative thinking and it’s primal because you need this part of the brain to get yourself out of tricky situations.
And do you think the aneurysm has given you a direct link to that?
Well I’ve just seen it work now because of the aneurysm and because of neuroplasty, which is the brain rewiring itself to go round damaged parts. It’s become incredibly tiring to write things, the writing part keeps going but it reduces the effectiveness of my consciousness, so that I become aphasiastic – which means I lose the power of speech after I’ve written two or three songs and I can’t understand speech anymore but I’m still writing songs. So my hand is moving and whole songs are coming out but I don’t know what I’m writing, and when I saw that happening I realised that my consciousness has never written any of the songs.
Cliff Richard and The Shadows, ‘Move It’
Cliff was the rock and roll pop star and it just shows again we’re kind of influenced by that as well and that sort of period, and it’s just guitar. It’s just a really, really perfect pop song.
I guess back then Cliff would have been seen as rebellious?
Yeah, yeah, I mean Cliff Richard himself is vaguely interesting, he is a performer basically, he isn’t an artist or a writer he’s a performer.
Sandie Shaw, ‘Long Live Love’
I love her performing that, it’s just “My God”. Even then whoever thought of her coming on and looking like an office clerk and just sort of looking wistfully at the ceiling and not doing anything at all while singing that, it’s just fantastic.
And it’s an interesting song – the way that the chorus and the verse tumble after each other, it’s sort of a calypso style. I was far more influenced by Martha and The Vandellas Motown stuff, but this is the perfect pop song.
This brings us nicely to your Lucky 7, one of your songs. Please introduce the song and tell us about it.
The Monochrome Set, ‘Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’
‘Eine Symphonie’?, well the thing is I don’t know what it means [laughs], people have been asking me for a long time “What’s that song all about?” and I keep saying “Well I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s about, I don’t really know”. I haven’t really analysed the lyrics and I don’t really understand it at all. Like I was just saying I don’t really write the songs and I didn’t write that song, another part of me did. Well I did but the part of me that’s not talking to you at the moment wrote that song.
It’s a kind of perfect New Wave pop song if you like. And I can’t write more ‘Eine Symphonies’, it was a complete one off.
The influence of the song on other artists are obvious, it could be said that if you were a litigious man you’d have your work cut out.
Yeah I know [Laughs]. Sometimes people say “Ah this band sounds like The Monochrome Set”, people say that and most of the time I can’t hear it, once or twice I really, really can hear it [laughs]. I’m not going to tell you who they are but I don’t really care, you know whatever, it doesn’t really make any difference to me.
Has anyone come up to you and said “Hands up, I think I’ve ripped your song off a little bit”
[Laughs] Yes! It’s an awful lot of bands that nobody would have ever heard of, only small bands and you know, the odd big band.
That’s why I’m interested in going to source songs, to source things when there wasn’t a genre, like starting with Leadbelly when before the blues came and he was still playing country folk and it started going into blues, it’s just that transition from one sort of genre into what would become another genre is really interesting to me. There’s so many creative things that happen in that period, before it becomes a boring Chicago blues or boring rock and roll, it’s a period of time when music can be so interesting, when people don’t know what they’re doing and I just kind of encourage song writers to investigate those periods.
To be boring must be horrendous.
Well we’ve had people walk out before [Laughs]! I don’t think people would say we’re boring but we’ve gone through periods where we haven’t made great albums and I think that’s absolutely fine. I think that’s what you get when we’ve gone in directions that people haven’t liked because they want us to be a certain thing but, you know, they can fuck off, if you don’t mind me saying so?
No I don’t [Both laugh].
The whole point of what we were, objectively what we were about is to be different. We were ourselves and I always thought that’s what the whole point of New Wave was, to come out and no longer be a genre, New Wave was kind of No Wave, to investigate new ways of doing things.
THE MONOCHROME SET’s new album ‘Spaces Everywhere’ is available on CD, LP (inc. CD) and download from Tapete Records and is available to buy now.