|Track||Album / Single|
|Fairy Tales||Factory FAC 41|
|Happy Ever After||Factory FAC 58|
|Miss Moonlight||Factory FBN19|
|All At Once||Factory FAC 107|
|Where I Belong||Alma Mater|
|Life's Two Faces||Alma Mater|
|Your Uniform||Alma Mater|
|Militia||Factory FAC 146 B-side|
|Partyline||Factory FAC 146 A-side|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
This has been the hardest Toppermost I’ve written so far. Not for any reasons to do with the music, but simply because there isn’t that much to say about the Stockholm Monsters. But I suppose that was always the problem with them – the fact that they were a quiet band who rarely did interviews and were infrequently mentioned by the music press at the time means that there isn’t that much to go on. No tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess or debauchery. Just a bunch of friends making music in Manchester in the early to mid Eighties. But sometimes the stories can be a distraction. So this will concentrate on the music – and what wonderful music it was.
Of course, being a band from Manchester in the Eighties they were signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. This would be both a blessing and a curse for the Stockholm Monsters. On the one hand they were guaranteed attention and a small amount of sales from those Factory Funsters who bought anything associated with the label. On the other hand they were often dismissed in the music press as typical miserable sub Joy Division Factory fodder – a total misconception which would be immediately dispelled by actually listening to their music.
Stockholm Monsters were formed in 1980 in Burnage, a small town on the outskirts of Manchester with a rough reputation. The town would later be made famous by a pair of brothers named Gallagher. But the Monsters were more interesting (musically at least) than them – though also based on a pair of brothers. Tony France sang and played guitar alongside his brother Karl on bass, with another four members playing guitars and drums and trumpet and keyboards. So a six piece band, a lot of noise surely?
Well no, not really. They came to the attention of Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson at Factory Records and recorded their debut single Fairy Tales with Martin Hannett in the producer’s chair in 1981. However, Hannett dragged his feet about mixing it, leading to its release being delayed until early 1982. Fairy Tales is strangely minimal – the first few seconds having the same drum machine sound as New Order’s Everything’s Gone Green before a simple piano line introduces the melody, followed by a simple stomping rhythm on bass and drums alongside a simple guitar riff played on single notes. Then Tony starts singing, accompanied by a recorder. Yes, a recorder, like you probably played in junior school. On a Factory record. But it comes across as totally charming – it’s as spindly and spare as any post-punk, just repeating the melody around the instruments, and Tony’s singing is heartfelt. “Why do they speak when there’s nothing to say?” he asks. Good question. A good debut – not perfect but full of potential.
A few months later a second single was issued entitled Happy Ever After. This chirpy little number rattles along at a brisk pace on a bed of fairground organ and octave jumping bass, while the chorus bursts out with trumpets and syndrums. And Tony France starts to make sense a bit. It’s a love song, but not quite – she’s left him or he’s left her and he can’t decide whether he’s happy or sad. He almost sounds happy repeating “I don’t understand! I don’t understand!” – a joyful confusion then. And the band clatter along behind him in joyful confusion too. The sound is clearer now as Peter Hook (bass player in New Order) had taken over production duties, taking the band under his wing and producing almost everything they issued from now on.
Stockholm Monsters’ third single was issued by Factory Benelux in 1983 – a three song 12-inch EP as opposed to the 7-inches so far issued on Factory – and if I could I would have picked all three songs for the topper-ten. Each of them shows the band’s style developing. As it is I’ve chosen the title track, Miss Moonlight. The song starts quietly, based on a simple organ part droning across two chords, but slowly the song builds up; there’s disturbed guitars in the background, the drums rumble ominously. And now Tony France and trumpet player Lindsay Anderson sing in unison: “I’ll never know which way to go, I’ll never know which way to turn“. More confusion, sung so passionately. “It’s too late now to start looking back“. There’s more trumpet, some sharp snare hits for a chorus, then towards the end Tony starts repeating “Little boys will play their games“, over and over, getting more agitated each time until he’s screaming himself hoarse and the band grind to a halt around him. It’s a highly emotional performance. The two other songs on the EP are almost as good; both The Longing and Lafayette are speedy blasts with lots of passion but sadly Tony France’s vocals are mixed down a little although you can hear he’s desperately trying to communicate.
This desperation to communicate comes across best on their one and only album, Alma Mater, issued in 1984. The musical format is established now – simple song structures, a mixture of guitars and an array of cheap keyboards (I was pleased to hear my first Casio – an MT45 – being played on a number of songs), occasional trumpet blasts, and Tony’s vocals upfront – still trying to get his message through to the listener. Opener, Terror, is bright and clear, while Tony introduces himself: “Listen now and I will tell you everything you need to know“. Yet by the next song, Where I Belong, he’s screaming “Everything’s wrong, I will stay where I belong“. On Five O’Clock his frailty is on display: “I’m lost” he murmurs at the end, after being overwhelmed by the music. There are times when Alma Mater sounds like the best mid 80s New Order record you’ve never heard. The medley of Life’s Two Faces into Your Uniform is tremendous. Life’s Two Faces races along like Age Of Consent with sharp single note guitar lines and rich layers of synths and constant rolling tom toms, but Tony’s not happy: “I can’t take this any more” – but the joyous music belies his words. The song closes as instruments fall away and Tony’s line “Don’t look down” echoes as the tom tom rolls continue. Someone shouts “I’m trying to finish“, someone else shouts “Uniform” and frantically strummed guitars introduce Your Uniform. More joyous noise but Tony’s pointedly tearing into someone: “I think I’ll close my eyes now and turn my back on you“. The second verse is more considered, at least lyrically, while guitars scrub away to the close on a synth chord. The medley sounds so natural, the transition so perfect.
There’s moments like that throughout the album. Each song is a little gem. Even the single, All At Once, released at the same time as the album, is cheerful with parping horns, clattering drums, very New Order-ish guitar lines and Tony gleefully proclaiming, “They knock me down but I won’t fall over” like a Mancunian Weeble.
There should have been enough momentum with the album and single to reach some level of success, even if only in the independent charts. But this was 1984 – everyone wanted the Smiths, nobody was interested in Factory bands. Tony Wilson himself said that he felt bad for the Stockholm Monsters; their record releases coincided with periods when Factory were the height of uncool and were thus misunderstood or ignored by the music press. Alma Mater struggled to sell 5,000 copies and slipped away to be cherished by the few who heard it. I picked up a second hand copy from a market stall in Exeter in May 1986 and played it over and over again, amazed that it had slipped through the cracks.
Perhaps the problem of getting their music heard lay elsewhere. There were tales of their records being unavailable from the distributors, Rough Trade. The Stockholm Monsters felt so, hence their next single, How Corrupt Is Rough Trade? (1985) was a tirade against the label and distributors. While it was heartfelt it was a little inward looking and sounded messy. The clarity of the previous year’s album had dissipated, the band’s line-up had changed – no more trumpet blasts, more emphasis on guitars and keyboards. Around this time all the band’s equipment was stolen and they had trouble getting any recompense from their insurance. They carried on regardless, playing support at gigs by New Order and The Smiths, but slightly unsure of their direction, working on material for a new single eventually released in 1987.
Partyline is one of the many great lost Factory singles; lots of drum machines and Emulators, but still with the characteristic guitars and vocals. Tony turns on untrustworthy politicians and others who have failed him? “Just sit down and listen to me – why is it you do these things?” he declaims, still trying to communicate, trying to understand people’s motivations. The chorus is a huge surge of melody, there’s lots going on in the song. And then there’s the ending. As the music rises to a peak, two members scream thanks to everyone who’s helped them along the way – a roll call of Mancunians, Factory associates, friends and family, people they love, Strawberry Studios (where so many Factory records were made), “New Order’s equipment and Emulators”, even the “robbing bastards” who took their equipment … It goes on and finally in unison: “And the last goodbye from the Stockholm Monsters!“. Even now it still brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. As good a farewell single as Saturday Gigs – and that’s saying something!
Militia may have become the B-side but was just as good as the A-side, a thrilling janglefest of guitars, upfront basslines and Tony France still trying to communicate. Towards the end he sings “Let’s go out for a walk, somewhere we can talk, oh I love you oh so much” with so much passion you can’t doubt his commitment. Even a third song, Dumbstruck, only released on an Italian 12-inch EP, is crazy genius, Tony screaming, “Don’t you know I love you? It tears me apart“. Again, I wish I could have included it. So many good songs from such a small canon …
The band made their first and last TV appearance on a Granada TV show to promote the single, performing Partyline live. Yes that’s New Order’s Emulator they’ve got, and Tony France is playing a Fender Strat bought by Tony Wilson in San Francisco in 1973 (it’s a long story how it got to the Stockholm Monsters – see Wilson’s sleeve note to The Sporadic Recordings by the Durutti Column. But it was all too little too late. The band had reached the end of their line.
And that was indeed the last goodbye from Stockholm Monsters. Their moment had passed by 1987. There were a new bunch of scallies in the Factory roster making a name for themselves in the music press – Happy Mondays – and it felt like the right time to say farewell. The band members disappeared, and the records garnered a cult following and were comprehensively reissued by LTM Records in 2002 – Alma Mater and all their singles on two CDs. Even now when so much music from the past is feted and loved they don’t have much of a reputation but the passion, the immediacy, the urge to communicate and understand the world is still there in the songs. Give Stockholm Monsters your time, you may just find something new to love.
Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves at his website A Goldfish Called Regret. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost – check out his post on Stockholm Monsters Factory labelmates The Durutti Column here.