City Paper is not for tourists
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of the Stockholm Monsters. It’s been 15 years since they broke up, having released only a single album, Alma Mater, and a fistful of singles in a seven-year run. They never played a U.S. date or had a stateside release. Even when such second-tier Factory comrades as the Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio wound up in the import bins next to label standard-bearers Joy Division and New Order, the Stockholm Monsters were nowhere to be found. Back when all I had of their output was a homemade tape, I thumbed through about three-and-a-half linear feet of record guides—rock, New Wave, ’80s—without turning up a mention of the band.
When I finally hit on a brief entry in The Great Alternative & Indie Discography, by Martin C. Strong, a Scottish discographer better known for enthusiasm than for accuracy, I wasn’t sure whether to believe that brothers Tony and Karl France hailed from New York and relocated to Manchester at the behest of Factory boss Anthony Wilson. Now that the British LTM label has undertaken to set the record straight, with an ambitious three-disc retrospective that includes everything you could wish for from the Stockholm Monsters—as well as much that you might hope never to hear again—many questions are put to rest, among them that of provenance, which was, in fact, thoroughly Mancunian.
The group’s first single appeared in February 1982 on Factory, a brand that was established through consistent visual and sonic presentation rather than any uniformity of musical style among the bands in its stable. It was a designer’s and producer’s label. The packaging of Peter Saville set the tone—clean, modernist, mysterious, and slightly forbidding, revealing little about the performer—for other graphic designers, such as Trevor Johnson, who worked on Stockholm Monsters sleeves. With his preference for prominent, midrangy bass and submerged, textural guitar, for thin timbres and deep reverb, Martin Hannett built multilayered soundscapes that prized hollowness and separation (among all instruments, but particularly between band and singer) over density and coalescence, creating the template for producers such as Peter Hook, the Joy Division/New Order bassist who manned the boards for most Monsters sessions.
Hannett himself produced the inaugural “Fairy Tales,” passing the mantle to Hook for the flip, “Death Is Slowly Coming,” and with these sides the band’s identity was forged: half-synthetic, half-organic, splitting the difference between danceable synth-pop and rockist post-punk, its signature sounds carnivalesque keyboards and the half-sung, half-chanted vocals of Tony France, which ranged from sour to morose, often only flirting with musicality. The one element of the mix not to be picked up on later recordings was the eerie descant of what sounds like a schoolboy’s overblown recorder.
The split between the band’s perky hyperkinesis and France’s anguished vocalizing, which has the open-cut urgency that only tortured youth can muster, was never so pronounced as on “Happy Ever After,” the follow-up single. When the rejected singer moans, “I love you forever,” over the artless keyboards of Lita Hira, the mariachi trumpet of Lindsay Anderson, the rubber-band bass of Jed Duffy (soon to be replaced by Karl France), and the cutlery-clatter drumming of Lita’s brother Shan Hira, it sounds as though Feargal Sharkey is assaying doo-wop for the tone-deaf while the house band at a club in some sci-fi Lilliput lays down the latest dance-floor smash. It alone is worth the price of All at Once (Singles 1981-1987).
If the music/vocals mismatch at times made Tony France seem lost in his own band and his own songs, it was an effect that the Monsters turned to their advantage, as on the later “National Pastime,” “Militia,” and “Dumbstruck.” But this uneasy synthesis was managed best on 1984’s Alma Mater, which finds the Monsters catering to an audience that can’t decide whether it’s tormented or carefree. Though it was never released as a single, the thrillingly conflicted “Where I Belong” would indeed have been a natural, with buoyant horns and guitar that could have come from an early Psychedelic Furs LP and a busy percussive bed that evokes a cross between cowbells and xylophones, typewriters and toy pianos. On top of it all, France asks, “Why is it you can’t let go?” before the group takes up the cry “Everything’s wrong!”
Elsewhere, France continues trafficking in themes of alienation and betrayal, liberally abusing the second person, delivering free-floating accusations in the classic indie manner. He also captures the intense nostalgia felt by young adults for the childhoods they left abandoned on the far side of adolescence. He isn’t particularly deft about it—singing, “But now the years have made you older,” as if anything besides time could get the job done—but “Decalogue” is cut from the same emotional cloth as Joy Division’s “Insight.” On “Five O’Clock,” he claws after his innocence (“They say tomorrow’s ended; we’ve found a place to stay/Where moments last forever and never go away”), as the band mocks him with naive melodies.
Casting a similar plight in noirish guise, “E.W.” pays tribute to English pulp novelist Edgar Wallace; the band pulls together, for once bolstering France’s black mood with sonics that play with it instead of against it, a sinister bass line cutting across the minor-key atmospherics of keyboard and guitar. “Life’s Two Faces” might as well be the band’s theme song. Struggling with resigning himself to despair, France protests, “I just can’t throw my life away.” Cascading tom-toms, pealing guitar, and fun-house keyboards build to a frenzy, daring him to catch up to the roundabout and jump aboard. “Don’t look down,” he advises himself, before leaping headlong into the next song.
Alma Mater should have been the Monsters’ breakout platter, but it moved only 4,000 copies worldwide. After manager Andy Fisher noticed that the LP wasn’t selling because it had been permitted to go out of stock, the band members laid the blame squarely at the feet of their distributor, retaliating with a blistering, sample-laden single, “How Corrupt Is Rough Trade?” LTM head and essayist James Nice protests that the oversight was Factory’s responsibility, but a vexing question remains: How is it that a group that regularly landed in the support slot for New Order, the band behind the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time, couldn’t get the time of day? The answer may lie in the Monsters’ relative inabilities as a performing unit; though they are supposed to have toured more than any of their labelmates, the road didn’t give them the polish one might expect.
There may never be a more trenchant apologia for the producer’s art than The Last One Back (Archive 1980-1987), which collects essentially unproduced demos and live tracks from across the Monsters’ career. Stripped bare, the band could be positively unlistenable. We could have guessed that the 1981 studio demo for the previously unreleased “Copulation” would be little more than an interminable two-chord vamp pointlessly filigreed with keyboard arpeggios and trebly guitar, but the ragged, dropout-filled live recording of “Hand Over Fist,” made nearly five years later, shows remarkably little improvement.
And it’s difficult to believe that France had so completely failed to learn his way around a tune by 1987, when five demos were cut at Suite 16, the Manchester studio that Shan Hira and Hook had started a couple of years earlier, taking over the reins from punk favorite Cargo Studios. The only giveaway that these are later tracks is that the Monsters were by that point attempting to become a much more conventional group, with France’s slurring, mumbled game of melodic pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey being directed toward longer vocal lines, and less frenetic rhythms being supplied by Shan Hira and Karl France. God only knows why they saw fit to participate in a full release of this material, rather than authorize it for a first-100-buyers bonus disc.
I’ve often wished that ’80s music could have been made with ’90s technology: The out-of-the-box early-digital-keyboard voicings that plagued everyone from Prince to New Order wouldn’t have seemed so irksome. But nothing short of a Pro Tools overhaul could have turned a last-gasp Stockholm Monsters number into a pop-chart threat. The Suite 16 tracks make for a particularly ignoble end to a band that, in its best moments, made getting everything wrong a new way of getting it all right.
If the great indie tide of the ’80s can be cursed for all the useless flotsam it dragged to shore, it must be noted that there were some worthy vessels that would have floated under no other circumstances. It was an era conducive to music-making by people who otherwise might never have entertained the thought. With the exception of Shan Hira, who maintained ownership of Suite 16 and would go on to have a career as a producer and sound engineer, including doing live mixes for the latest Chemical Brothers tour, none of the Monsters forged a future in music.
For seven years, they had remained amateurs, in both the best sense—as those who do something for the sheer love of doing it—and the worst. Tony France was kidding himself when in 1987 he told an interviewer, “We just seem to get better…” but not when he finished the thought: “…you know, ’cause it takes a long time.” Although some bands labor long and hard to come into their mastery, others never do. As the case of the Stockholm Monsters proves, some do pretty well without it. CP