Bid is ill. As singer and main songwriter of The Monochrome Set, there really couldn’t be a gig without him, though full of a nasty cold as he evidently is, by rights he should probably be tucked up in bed. As it is, their gig at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen is a defiant treat.
For the unaware, the band first formed in 1978 in the aftermath of punk, with a unique sound operating right at the tipping point between carnivalesque Eastern marketplace and Cockney boozer knees-up. Their current line-up isn’t quite the same, but this is no late-in-the-day reunion. In one form or another they’ve been touring and recording for most of the past 40 years. Technically then this is an anniversary date, tying in with a box set reissue of six classic albums as well as a brand new record, Maisieworld, which doesn’t let the side down at all. They’re a band at ease with their own legacy, too. The set list tonight draws from all points of their back catalogue, new songs such as I Feel Fine (Really) rubbing shoulders with the evergreen likes of Alphaville, I’m Frank and The Ruling Class.
They’re all underpinned by Bid’s velvety voice and his way with a bold, striking lyric. For instance, 1980s Martians Go Home opens in style with “Sterile seraphs in green satin / Swiss liqueurs and cherry brandy / Misty mystics whisper Latin / Mark, meet Jane, meet Sam, meet Sandy”.
In the confines of Soup Kitchen tonight the band are pretty glorious, all insistent beats and angular guitar, capable of stopping on a sixpence. They remain adept and cool at all times, song after song sounding sprightly, nimble and rocket-fuelled. The admiring audience is a proper gathering of the clans, bringing in everyone from your black-clad middle-aged indie footsoldiers to a young couple who appear to have come dressed as 19th Century Russian circus performers.
The set leapfrogs through the decades, right up to the inevitable encore of one of their earliest songs, their foot-tapping ‘theme’, The Monochrome Set. It’s all delivered with élan but if there’s a downside throughout it’s that Bid’s lyrics aren’t all that easy to make out tonight – is it the muddy sound or that blasted cold? – and as a show it could do with just a dash more pizzazz and charisma. Despite the air of good humour there’s hardly a word spoken to the audience between songs. Nevertheless, poorly Bid and co deserve serious Showbiz Trooper points for getting through it and, in the longer term, for ploughing a fine and distinctive furrow for a full four decades. They may never have been as enormous as they ought to be – perhaps their stuff is just a little too idiosyncratic for mass appeal? – but they remain a secret worth discovering and cherishing. Yes, after all this time they still fascinate and infatuate, emphatically.
Main image by Simon Hegenberg