Album Review: The Monochrome Set – Radio Sessions

There was time when BBC Radio was the only game in town. From citizens of Great Britain, commercial radio didn’t exist. Notwithstanding the eventual dawn of pirate radio, Auntie Beeb was the public’s only opportunity to hear music, unless they bought a record or attended a live performance. But while BBC Radio had an effective monopoly on the airwaves – and decisions as to what received airplay – it certainly wasn’t all bad. And once competition entered the fray, BBC Radio adapted, expanded its offerings.

BBC Radio continues to this day. And with the benefit of hindsight, many worthy programs have brought great music to a wider audience. John Peel’s groundbreaking programs on BBC1, The Beatles’ own shows like Pop Go the Beatles and others are looked upon fondly, and with good reason.

Marc Riley was bassist – and later guitarist – in The Fall from 1978 to 1982. That enough would have been enough for Riley to gain a place of honor in the world of cutting-edge music. But within a decade of his exit from that group, he began a career in radio. First working on BBC Radio 5 and then Radio 1, Riley co-hosted programs until 2004. Moving to Radio 6 – a digital station focusing on alternative music – Riley took the popular 7-9pm slot. His program was nominated for awards and provided him an opportunity to champion bands that might not have otherwise got as wide a hearing. In the regard Marc Riley can be thought of as a kind of successor to John Peel.

One group that Riley favored during his time at Radio 6 was The Monochrome Set. The revolving-door cast of musicians led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Bid appeared live in the studio on many occasions. And the best form those performances have now been enshrined on a 2CD set with the lengthy (if accurate) title Radio Sessions: Marc Riley BBC 6 Music 2011-2022.

Drawing from seven appearances that neatly span that period, The Monochrome Set effectively documented a decade of their history. In performances that are sharp and crystalline, the group still plays with the passion and immediacy of live concerts. The varying lineups would also mean that there’s a different tonal character to each performance. The March 2012 sessions featured material from the band’s then-current release Platinum Coils, and the lineup featured violin and mandolin, giving a folk/gypsy jazz vibe to Bid’s pop-leaning alternarock.

The following year, a different, more streamlined lineup was in the BBC studio to promote Super Plastic City. In 2015, The Monochrome Set had released Spaces Everywhere, and – with an again-changed lineup – showcased four of that record’s tunes.

Every one of these shows would be a gem, and compiling them on a 2CD set makes all kind of sense. For listeners who have discovered the joys of the band’s music of that era – seven albums in all – having BBC 6 Radio versions of the tunes is a worthwhile addition. The warts-and-all nature of the performances – Bid almost loses his way through laughter on a reading of “Iceman” – only makes these songs better. And because this collection provides a kind of career survey of that era of Monochrome set music, it can serve as a tidy introductory to Bid and his musical mates. And the set’s liner notes – by Bid himself – provide some context for each of the sets of music. With thanks to Marc Riley for providing the succession of platforms for The Monochrome Set, this collection is highly recommended.