Stockholm Monsters \ Biography
The youthful Stockholm Monsters came together in South Manchester in the summer of 1980, initially coalescing around vocalist Tony France, bassist Jed Duffy and drummer Shan Hira. The unusual name was conjured by France, who spliced together David Bowie's then-current Scary Monsters album and the Swedish capital city.
Still in their teens, and with no settled guitarist, the band found it hard to find gigs and get noticed. However after linking up with the Manchester Musicians Collective the Monsters began to score local gigs at venues such as the Cyprus Tavern, then struck lucky supporting the Rezillos at Rafters. Rob Gretton and Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook were both in attendance and thought that standout song Fairy Tales could be a good on Factory. Hook in particular took the fledgling band under his wing, and would go on to produce almost all their recordings, albeit obscuring his identity behind the moniker Be Music.
By the time Fairy Tales was recorded in the spring of 1981 the band had recruited Shan Hira's sister Lita on keyboards, and in January and February supported New Order at several early dates around the north of England. As well as the single, the band also recorded three studio demos during their first year, although most of this material would not be heard by a wider public. Most of these early tracks (Catch Me In Confusion, We Are Nation, Copulation) were fairly raw, but several showed considerable promise, including Future and James (aka Systems Failing). A performance taped at Manchester venue Devilles in June 1981 also shows the band finding its musical feet.
Fairy Tales (FAC 41) eventually appeared - a year late - in February 1982, and revealed a melancholic band with a liking for strident drums and simple but affecting melodies. Whether Martin Hannett's production really suited the song is open to question, and the demo version from January 1981 released on the Last One Back CD is arguably better. Nevertheless, despite these travails the single drew deserved praise from NME writer Paul Morley and Mick Mercer of ZigZag (who compared France's vocals to Peter Gabriel), and attained the giddy heights of #43 on the indie chart. Spotters may care to note that the handsome Mark Farrow sleeve came in two colours: green, and purple.
Now joined by trumpet player Lindsay Anderson, in April 1982 the band supported New Order on a European tour which took in France, Belgium and Holland, followed in August by a second single (Fac 58), coupling busy pop nugget Happy Ever After with Soft Babies. Produced by Peter Hook, Soft Babies would also be graced with a wintry video short, later included on the compilation A Factory Video (Fact 56). During this period Jed Duffy left the band (soon forming Lavolta Lakota), to be replaced by Tony France's younger brother Karl. In September the band performed at the Futurama IV festival at Deeside, where Melody Maker praised their 'big sound and big tunes', though Sounds condemned the group unkindly as 'Factory failures.' That same month the first press interview with the group appeared in indie newsheet Masterbag, where reporter Mick Paterson ran up against their famously insular 'band as gang' approach:
The various members of the Stockholm Monsters are scattered around the room amidst piles of books; their rehearsal room doubles as a stockroom for the bookshop below. The books provide an interesting distraction to certain members of the band, who take little or no part in the conversation. It is their first interview, not for the reason normally associated with the less communicative Factory bands, but surprisingly, because they have never been asked. The band are all acutely shy, and it's primarily Tony who does the talking. The others, feeling no need to explain their music, are more concerned with the search for elusive tobacco and matches.
Lindsay Anderson, the 17 year old trumpet player who played bass on their recent recordings, remains rooted in her Bowie biography, only lifting her head when teased by the others. She has only been part of the band since January and seems still to remain on the outside of the family groupings which make up the rest of the group... They have been playing together for two years, although they were friends beforehand. Friendship proved important in their search for a new bass player.
'We only want someone who we know and like. That's how we and most bands - especially in Manchester - start. You don't start bands with strangers, but with your friends. It'll take a while to find the right person, people are hard to find. You think you know a person but it doesn't always work out that way.'
Until they find the right person they are borrowing Paul Kershaw, a friend from the Delhi Polo Club, to fulfil their immediate commitments. The band also put their relationship with Factory on a friendly rather than business level.
'We don't get any pressure, we have no real deadlines, although they do like us to rehearse. Mind you, at times I don't think they have enough confidence in us. Maybe they're just a bit too cautious. But we get on with them, and that's what's important. Then again, we don't like the idea of people buying our records just because they're on Factory, like the stupid collectors who buy the same record in four different colour sleeves!'
However, the Factory liaison did prove fruitful when they were looking for a producer. Although they do not publicise the fact, Peter Hook of New Order has been in charge of production on the majority of their recordings.
'We knew that by cashing in on his name we would probably sell a couple of thousand more records, but it's a Stockholm Monsters record, not Peter Hook's. Look at a recent review of 52nd Street - all it mentioned was Donald Johnson. Peter Hook is really good in the studio because he's learning like us, and experiments a lot, which we like. And if we don't like anything about it, we tell him and he stops it. We like working with him as he gives us more scope and more confidence. We have no plans to sack.'
This comment produces giggles from behind shaking books. The band are aware though of an inevitable comparison with New Order, but they shrug it off.
'Anyone who lived through the Manchester scene a few years ago can't help but be aware of them. We don't think we are influenced by them, but you can't help it. We can't see the comparison - maybe others do, but we can't help what they think. As long as you try to be different and to put everything into it. It's as it happens - what comes naturally - and if you change that then it's false. If what comes naturally is shit, then you're stuck with shit. Tough.'
The music of the Stockholm Monsters is as uncompromising as their naive cynicism, but they are aware of their inexperience and willing to persevere.
Paterson also reviewed a hometown show at Manchester Polytechnic in February 1983 in glowing terms. 'The fairytale keyboards are offset by the severe vocal delivery, the excellent surging drums and the spasmodic trumpet blasts. In many ways I wondered what they were doing on stage as they all seem acutely embarrassed by such elevation, the two guitarists kept their backs to the audience whilst the girls take every opportunity to leave the stage. Yet there is an honesty reflected in the lyrics that is endearing and illuminating, and when they have overcome this stage-shyness they will reap the benefit of their Factory status and the crowd pull that ensures.'
Following on from a European tour with New Order, the band recorded a three-track 12" single for Factory Benelux, released in March 1983 as FBN 19. Miss Moonlight, a Velvet-esque, organ-lead lament, might not have been an obvious single choice, but showed that the band were capable of stretching out. A clip for The Longing, a punchier track from the Benelux EP, also appeared on the Factory Shorts video collection.
The Monsters' debut album should have been recorded soon after, but was postponed after Factory decided that the band were not quite ready. Lita Hira departed, and the remaining four members were joined by a new guitarist, John Rhodes. Karl France switched to bass, though both Rhodes and France played occasional keyboards onstage, and Tony France took up the guitar. In September 1983 the band played a show in sunny Bournemouth, which was written up for local magazine Coaster. Defamation law demands some judicious editing of this splendid little article, which nevertheless it provides a candid snapshot of a supremely stroppy band:
Continuing the steady flow of Factory acts to the Midnight Express Club were the Stockholm Monsters, five scruffily-dressed individuals who looked more like a band of roadies than an actual band themselves.
Despite their appearance, the Stockholm Monsters' music was intensely powerful, forced upon the audience with a manic sense of urgency and at a painfully stupendous volume. Their well-constructed songs were hurriedly performed, with Tony France's desperate lead vocals accompanied by the obligatory drums, guitars, keyboards (precariously mounted on a stack of milk crates) and a miniaturised horn section comprising a solitary trumpet.
The audience received the Monsters with a variety of diverse reactions. For some the music was just too loud, others stood and watched with abating interest, while a few 'punks' expressed their extreme appreciation by pogo-ing and smashing into each other and the surrounding members of the audience. All watched by Tony France with what appeared to be incredulous contempt.
After the performance had ended and the repeated request for an encore had been emphatically denied, we made the mistake of going backstage to chat with the band. To say that they were stand-offish would be a gross understatement. They seemed to be staunch representatives of that enigmatic clique of the music industry, the reluctant pop stars. They seemed almost as embarrassed as we were, constantly looking at each other and giggling childishly.
Just as singer Tony France needed a bomb under him to get him moving onstage, he required the same prompting to be enthusiastic and obliging in conversation. From what we could gather from his patchy monologue, the band weren't really interested in making money, and didn't seem to be particularly bothered by their lack of fame, success or record company promotion. We had even less of a response from the celebrity at the mixing desk that evening, Peter Hook, bassist with big shot chart biggie band New Order. He informed us that it was his day off (from being famous), and sat back and giggled with the rest of the Monsters.
These Factory funsters seemed to take a great delight in ridiculing everything in sight from us and Bournemouth ('a one-horse town') to the audience, and even the Midnight Express... It's a shame that a band with such a strong musical personality can come across as such time-wasting individuals when it comes to talking about their music. For instance, when questioned about the derivation of their name, Tony France's reply was 'We thought Stockholm was a nice country' (country?), and 'We wanted something that was opposite to Stockholm so we chose Monsters.' Oh yeah? Unfortunately, he was being serious. Our verdict: music - marvellous, personalities - monstrous.
In January 1984 the band set about recording their debut album at Strawberry studio, with mentor Peter Hook again occupying the producer's chair. Engineered by Mike Johnson and Chris 'CJ' Jones, the sessions were mixed at Revolution in March and achieved a hard-hitting clarity absent from previous records, well suited to the robust yet melodic material written by the group. Songs such as Five O'Clock and Something's Got to Give had already been in the Monster's repertoire for some time, but it was the punchy new songs that really impressed. Indeed Terror, Life's Two Faces and Where I Belong might all have made strong singles, yet Factory released just one - and then left it off the album.
Backed with National Pastime, the energetic, effervescent All At Once drew deserved praise on release in June 1984 as Fac 107. Wrote NME: 'Dark, doomy, depressing... just a few of the qualities the Stockholm Monsters do not possess, further emphasising just how inaccurate most people's idea of Factory Records has become. The Stockholm Monsters always put me in mind of The Move before they discovered heavy metal, all regency horns and rushing drums. The indulgences that the sales of Blue Monday allowed Factory to make in tolerating their less successful acts are looking to have been worthwhile.'
Alma Mater ('bounteous mother') was released as Fact 80 in August 1984, housed in an exquisite sleeve by Trevor Johnson, nine copies of which can be arranged to form a jigsaw. Chock full of boisterous indiepop, the album sold some 4,000 copies worldwide and drew praise from Dave Roberts in Sounds: 'The Stockholm Monsters are fast becoming a very important cog in the Factory machinery. Developing an increasingly individual and varied sound, the Manchester monsters have recently put their horrifying hands to some nicely -terrifying tunes. Generally purveying simple, danceable rhythms with the bass drum holding down a driving disco beat, the music is made up by equally simple melodies, expressed by a keyboard-dominated sound, and delivered with some excellent vocals... It's a long way from Sweden, but once their horns are in riotous rein and the grinding guitars reach overdrive, the Stockholm Monsters will support the healthy fears of the Factory faithful.'
Although NME's reviewer damned the album as 'close to the worst thing I've ever heard', Alma Mater also drew praise from Melody Maker. Wrote Julian Henry (who also recorded as The Hit Parade): 'Their first LP is a powerful record brought down only by the occasional lapse into the solemn (some might say dour) and bleak (some might say dreary) mumblings that are typical of their spiritual forefathers and label companions, New Order. Produced by Peter Hook, Alma Mater is atmospheric, bass-heavy and geared to the group's highly melodic and dark poetic wanderings. Vocalist Anthony France is not the greatest singer in the world, but his voice does blend in well with the twinkling guitars and keyboards, though the tense edge that the group are capable of live is sometimes buried... As a debut album it stands up well, and promises good things for the future.'
Incidently, the title of track eight (E.W.) pays homage to writer Edgar Wallace. On August 15th the group played a showcase in London with Section 25 as part of a week of Factory premieres at Riverside Studios, which advertised the Monsters as 'raw power and fairgound melodies.' I was at the show, and much impressed by the intensity of the band despite the brevity of their set. Biba Kopf (aka Chris Bohn) hit the nail on the head in NME: 'Sometimes clumsy in their rush to a song's end, Stockholm Monsters at the very minimum have developed the speed to avoid the world's weight crushing them... With Section 25, Stockholm Monsters have grown into the most alluring livebait dangled from Factory's unshaken faith in unhyped quality eventually finding takers since Joy Division. If this trend-soaked wet and spoilt consumer-land continues to turn a blind eye to this lost generation, it will have truly proved itself a place unfit for heroes.'
Following the release of Alma Mater Lindsay Anderson left to attend college and was not replaced, leaving the band to soldier on as a quartet, and hone a more rock-orientated sound. In a candid interview with a local Manchester paper that autumn, the band revealed something of their philosophy (and predicament) to Robert Graham:
They gig more than any other Factory band (because they have to in order to survive) and when you meet them, they put you more in mind of the Fall's prole-art than New Order's student bop. They don't exactly seem like rock n' rollers, but claim to do a Buddy Holly song now and then...
Tony France: 'Because we took three years preparing it, and we'd already put it off once, because we'd always thought it'd be the breakthrough - I'm not saying it's a letdown, but we all thought the album would have done better.'
Andy Fisher (manager): 'Everything we'd done before was like geared towards it. You'd been led to believe that doors are opened to you - certain gigs, travelling abroad. Everyone had led us to believe that once the album was out, those doors would open. They've not. It's like banging your head against a brick wall.'
Shan Hira: 'It's got reviewed alright, but it still doesn't seem to have helped it that much. We don't put out posters or whatever, so the only way we can advertise is by gigs.'
Tony France: 'Yeah, that's what you do when you put an LP out. Because there's so much money involved, and because your future's involved, you try to do as many interviews as possible. You try to get your picture in as many things as you can, you try and get your posters up in as many places as you can and things like that...'
So to sum up, even though it's easier for a band with record company clout behind them, you still believe that the Factory strategy is right and good?
Shan Hira: 'We want to do it on the merit of the music, without doing interviews. We want the merit of the music, not the image, to do it. You've got to have faith in your music.'
Tony France: 'The way we work just fits in with Factory totally because we progress pretty slowly. If you do something at the wrong time, you know, if you go too fast, it just ruins it.'
Shan Hira: 'If you go to major label, you've got so long to do an LP or to do whatever. That doesn't happen with Factory. You can do it in your own time.'
So, I came away from the Stockholm Monsters' rehearsal room feeling quite a lot of admiration for their faith in the Factory way. But I don't think for a moment that that way can work except once in a blue moon - which has already happened. Any band wanting to make a living in pop has to hawk their wares like buggery, like Arthur Daley. That's showbiz, and that's all, folks.
For their next record the group returned to Factory Benelux, releasing provocative single How Corrupt Is Rough Trade? in June 1985 as FBN 46. Backed with Kan Kill!, the A-side managed to sound both haunting and violent, and deserved better than a lowly indie chart placing at 47. In truth, the single was in part an opaque publicity stunt. Interviewed for the 'facfacts' news sheet in May 1986, manager Andy Fisher revealed something of the thinking behind the record:
'How Corrupt Is Rough Trade? was put out for a reason. Rough Trade are bastards. It's the little things that niggle you, and they niggle everybody at Factory. For instance, the other week I was looking at sales figures and it said 'Rough Trade sales figures: Stockholm Monsters - none', it said this for about two or three months, 'none', so I thought... is it in stock, or what? And it's not been in fuckin' stock, plus we had a problem with the inner sleeves for it. All we do is play somewhere and it sells, it sells consistently. It could easily sell forty a month... It put the shits up 'em for a bit when they first heard about it, but it could have been a lot more slanderous.'
With the benefit of hindsight these criticisms were misplaced. The group released their records through Factory, not Rough Trade, and if RT failed to press and distribute records in sufficient quantities, it should have been down to the label to rectify the problem. True, Rough Trade Distribution could certainly be a frustratingly inefficient operation at times, but charges of corruption were wide of the mark. Not that it mattered: Rough Trade saved face by declaring themselves amused, besides which most of the declamatory lyrics were too muffled to comprehend easily.
In August 1985 the group played dates in Spain, but in September disaster struck when the band lost almost all their equipment in a theft from their Manchester rehearsal room. Although the kit was insured the claim was disputed, a dire state of affairs which left the band with little more than a drum kit. With the benefit of hindsight the ex-members agree that the theft knocked the stuffing out of the band, but at the time the Monsters struggled on as best they could with borrowed instruments. The following month the band travelled to Italy for a string of shows with The Durutti Column, and in November again travelled south to play a Factory showcase at the Hammersmith Clarendon in London, together with Section 25 and a then-unknown Happy Mondays.
Though the Mondays failed to perform, Fidel Ghandi of NME rather liked the Monsters: 'Stockholm Monsters are a riot and a half - such unruly gentlemen, such poise, such drunkenness. Four figures on a stage play sober whilst microwaving Alma Mater - singer swaying from scream to whisper via croaks, grunts, burps and coughs. The others switch instruments at will, improvising variations on a forgotten theme. Yep, FUN - haphazard, out-of-control, undisciplined fun(k).'
The arrival of the Mondays on the scene also hastened the demise of the Monsters. Initially sponsored by Rob Gretton, the older group had also became Tony Wilson's blue-eyed boys, in part due to a moderately hard, streetwise image which saw them variously labelled as Scallies and Perry Boys. By 1984 Stockholm Monsters were showing real promise with Alma Mater, yet the album was indifferently received by the critics, and failed to break out commercially. The group never made it to the States and would eventually find themselves overtaken by the Mondays, who quickly became press darlings and edged the Monsters from their niche at Palatine Road. Nor did it help that a somewhat emotional John Rhodes threw a punch at Wilson at The Haçienda in December 1986.
In February the band played a brace of European dates in Paris and Lausanne, in April formed the subject of possibly the briefest feature in the history of the NME, and in May played two dates in Dublin. The following month the Monsters performed their first hometown gig for two years at the Boardwalk, and in July supported The Smiths in Newcastle and Glasgow on the celebrated Queen Is Dead tour. It had been intended that the Boardwalk show would be filmed by Ikon for a live video, though this never saw the light of day. Another intriguing project from the same year was a Monsters musical, but once again neither the show nor the mooted mini-album soundtrack materialised. Indeed almost two years would separate the ...Rough Trade single and the next Monsters record. Shake It To the Bank, recorded as a single, simply never appeared, proof positive that Factory had largely lost interest in the band.
With motivation beginning to wane, the recording of final single Partyline took over a year. Hopeful of scoring a bona fide pop hit, this winning track was endlessly reworked at Cargo/Suite 16 (in which Shan Hira had become Hook's business partner), and in the process was transformed from a powerful Monsters classic into a somewhat cluttered electronic concoction. On release in April 1987 as Fac 146 the record failed to break, while the appearance of an EP on the Italian label Materiali Sonori with much the same tracks just a month earlier caused a degree of confusion.
The release of Partyline was promoted with a couple of live shows in February 1987, including a support slot with New Order in Belfast, and an excellent live rendition on Granada TV. A five-song studio demo was also recorded, with Stupid and House Is Not a Home in particular showing that the band still had some of their best material ahead of them. Within a few short months, however, the band had effectively split, two years short of the 'Madchester' explosion that would propel Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses onto Top of the Pops. Some have since cited the Monsters as a proto-Mondays, but in musical terms the comparison holds little water. Instead, the organ-lead Inspiral Carpets provide a better parallel, beginning with indie pop frailty and ending up an accomplished rock act. The difference being that the Inspirals sold records, whereas the Monsters suffered for being several hard years ahead of their time.
But in Burnage they were Gods among men. "I started to get into music early on because all the older guys that lived round our way were in a band from Burnage called the Stockholm Monsters," revealed Noel Gallagher in 2002. "They were the first band ever to come from Burnage and I think they had a hit with a song called Fairy Tales. From that you get into Joy Division, New Order and then it was The Smiths and then the Roses and then the Mondays - and then you start your own band."
That band being Oasis.