Mono – Life in Mono
It’s high time for a sixth entry drawn from my favourite musical sub-genre, Music for Spies – which to be honest is turning out to be yielding more amazing tunes than I had initially thought likely. So far we’ve had Yello, The Associates, Alisha’s Attic, kd lang, and Hooverphonic, and today it’s the turn of Mono, another pop act who were very good at lurking in the shadows, un-noticed by passers-by and, slightly unfortunately, singles buyers. Having said that, rule one of being a spy is not to tell anyone about it, so I suppose in this respect they were really rather successful.
I don’t know how they were for you, but I spent quite a lot of the 1990s in a bad mood, I think in large part because the 1980s were over. This turned out to be quite handy because there was an awful lot of faintly grumpy pop about to accompany my self-indulgent, self-inflicted misery. Portishead, Massive Attack and Lamb were all making amazing records, but very few of them were likely to get you doing the hokey cokey round your gran’s living room. These bands got a bit unfairly lumped together – and here I am doing it again – but my favourite of the bunch was Mono, a duo formed in London by Siobhan de Maré and Martin Virgo. They seemed to be particularly enamoured with John Barry and Burt Bacharach, low calorie bread from the 70s, and actual hummable tunes. These are all good things, (well, Slimcea wasn’t but their reference to it made me very happy) and I discovered them purely because I happened to be on the first floor of Tower Records in Glasgow when they put the album on. I was over by the imports section, which back then was quite far away from the counter, and by the time the first twenty three seconds of Life in Mono had played I was standing in front of the assistant asking “who is this please?” and hoping my Switch card would go through. It did.
The start of the record is probably my favourite thing about it because it sort of tricks you into thinking it’s the end of another one – in this case something from Twin Peaks – with beats that fade out before that sinister Ipcress File harpsichord sample kicks in, leading to a magnificent, doom-laden string intro that rises and rises before spilling out into the lovely analogue-y melancholy of the song. Its spooky first line “the stranger sang a theme / from someone else’s dream” is delivered in disarmingly dreamlike fashion by Siobhan, who I quickly decided was the second-greatest Siobhan in all of pop (pushed down to third when Siobhan Donaghy came along, obviously), and slightly further on she also gets to deliver one of my all-time favourite lyrics, the oh-so British “drowning past regrets / in tea and cigarettes”. The whole thing is a minor-key masterpiece and one of its greatest strengths for me is how under-played it all is – I should think there’s always a temptation with cinematic pop like this to go for a big dramatic vocal somewhere towards the top of the Bassey scale of bombast, but Life in Mono stays wonderfully secretive and whispery.
Life in Mono didn’t chart when it first came out in 1996, and nor did the album when it followed in 1997 – but thanks to Robert de Niro (who, for all we know, was also lurking in a branch of Tower) it ended up on the soundtrack to the 1998 movie of Great Expectations and got a re-release. This time around it got to no.60 (and no.70 on the Billboard Hot 100), and even pushed Formica Blues to no.71 in the album chart for a single week. Sadly, none of this mild momentum was enough to convince Mono to carry on, and they split up in 2000.
But wait! As with all the best spy stories, there is a twist in the tale: six long years later Life in Mono was covered by Emma Bunton (a woman whose name I often invoke when thinking of who could do Into the Popvoid entries), and I thought it was a really smart decision – she’d found her niche as a triller of slightly sexy sixties-influenced pop, and this was a way of retaining that style while updating it just enough to remain current. It would probably have worked had she not been strong-armed into a cover of Downtown immediately beforehand – the hit that basically killed her career.
As for the members of Mono, both appear to have retreated back into the shadows from whence they came – just like proper spies. They may walk among us even now. Gulp.
Entered chart: 02/05/1998
Chart peak: 60
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’d give it to Frida Sundemo, who could then peddle it to the makers of a spooky Scandinavian thriller.