Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Madness




One Step Beyond (1979)


One Step Beyond/My Girl/Night Boat To Cairo/Believe Me/Land Of Hope And Glory/The Prince/Tarzan's Nuts/In The Middle Of The Night/Bed And Breakfast Man/Razorblade Alley/Swan Lake/Rockin' In A Flat/Mummy's Boy/Madness/Chipmunks Are Go!
                                     
Madness arrived as part of the “Two Tone” ska revival movement in the late seventies that branched off from punk and new wave. Although obviously ska-influenced band with their Prince Buster covers and frantic danceable beat, they were a quite different animal to others in the genre. They did not have the punk anger of The Specials, the attitude of The Selecter or the sincere social conscience of The Beat. Neither were they are multi-racial band. They were all working-class London white boys. In their early days, skinheads formed a considerable part of heir audience, often to the displeasure of some band members. However, over the years, they managed to shake this unfortunate connection off and become “national treasures”.

Their influences were clearly ska reggae, and rock steady but they also took from punk a frenetic musical delivery. They had a schoolboy-ish cheeky, grinning humour and a penchant for the madcap. Like Ian Dury, they also had a liking for hints of traditional English music hall and vaudeville. There were even a few classical influences. They could certainly put on a show and they could also play. Their albums were an intriguing, appealing mix of the joyful, the “nutty” and, sometimes, the genuinely moving and surprisingly sensitive.

 

Their debut album from 1979 introduced itself with a hard-hitting slap to its listeners in that now iconic “hey you, don’t watch dat, watch dis…” hammed up vocal before launching into some hundred mile an hour running on the spot ska. One Step Beyond was basically an instrumental, but what a tune. Everyone loved it and they still do. Top quality saxophone on it too. My Girl is just a lovely song. A wryly observant “relationship” song sung by Graham “Suggs” McPherson in an affecting London accent over a reggae beat augmented by some bar-room piano from Mike BarsonNight Boat To Cairo was another delicious, upbeat piece of fast-paced ska and some weird lyrics about going off down the River Nile.

Believe Me is a remarkably astute, amusing ditty for a band still so young. Beneath the fun and the breakneck rhythm, there was always a subtle, knowing humour. Land Of Hope And Glory is an Ian Dury-esque romp complete with Cockney, semi-spoken, musical hall style vocals. Then it is back to genuine ska with the authentic The Prince tribute to Prince Buster, with its early seventies Dave & Ansel Collins-style piano. This was Madness’s first hit single, and an excellent one it was too. A credible inclusion on any Two Tone playlist. Of course, the nutty fun is never far away and Tarzan's Nuts is a get those knees up ska instrumental with a few silly noises. Great fun. As always, though, the fun is immaculately played. The sound is superb on this remaster, by the way.

 

In The Middle Of The Night is a hilarious Dury meets The Small Faces tale about an old man who goes round stealing underwear from people’s washing lines! It never ceases to make me smile. Madness just had a great gift for coming up with these sort of songs, in a way that few others could. Madness had developed a loveable, wacky world that few could resist. Bed And Breakfast Man continues in the same vein. All great fairground fun. Remember that this was released at the time of punk rages and new wave introspection. For every Clash or Magazine album, it was a breath of fresh air to also have Madness.

A rich, throbbing bass intro leads us into the darker, urban Razor Blade Alley and Swan Lake is an affecting, instrumental pastiche of the classical ballet. Rockin' In A Flat is a bit of a punky throwaway that is far less accomplished than the rest of the material. Mummy's Boy is another of those wry social observations that is also rather sad, actually. The cover of Prince Buster’s Madness is simply irresistibly joyful. One of my favourites of theirs. The US Marine-style chant of Chipmunks Are Go is, as you would expect, delightfully silly.

This album is a rollicking, roller coaster ride, like revisiting a late seventies funfair and stuffing yourself with hot dogs and candy floss.




Absolutely (1980)


Baggy Trousers/Embarrassment/E.R.N.I.E./Close Escape/Not Home Today/On The Beat Pete/Solid Gone/Take It Or Leave It/Shadow Of Fear/Disappear/Overdone/In The Rain/You Said/Return Of The Las Palmas 7     

After the breakneck, frenetic ska on e-numbers pop of their debut album, One Step Beyond. This was more of the same from North London's self-styled and lovable "nutty boys". It wasn't quite as frantic as the first album, showing signs of the group's burgeoning and maturing wry, witty social observation. The distinctive ska rhythms are still there, they had yet to become more intricate as yet, and songs like Shadow Of FearE.R.N.I.E. and Take It Or Leave It are classic examples of that, but lurking underneath them is a cynical but appealing realism and melancholy. This is certainly not simply a throwaway piece of nutty fun, despite the largely upbeat musical tone. The clever lyrics and broad appeal would soon rid the band of the unfortunate skinhead following they had initially attracted as well, to the group's relief.

The hit singles from the album are memorable - the schoolyard romp of Baggy Trousers and the lounge bar groove of the instrumental The Return Of The Los Palmas 7, although Embarrassment hides a dark, sad tale of implicit in-family racism behind its catchy melody. It is based on the true life experience of saxophonist Lee Thompson's sister. Madness had an ability to write often cynical social comment dressed up in irresistible, singalong melodies. So many people sang along with that song, without really knowing what it was about.


You Said is a typical piece of Madness ska in the My Girl vein, so they were still doing that sort of thing, which was not wrong as therein lay their appeal, but eventually they would probably need to branch out lyrically from down-to-earth boy/girl break-up tales. They did, soon enough. There is a great dubby bass bit at the end of the track. On The Beat Pete is an Ian Dury-esque upbeat song about a London policeman. It has a sort of goofy music hall appeal. Solid Gone has some fifties, fairground rock 'n' roll boogie-woogie backing showing that they could diversify away from ska if necessary. Crying Shame is ska-ish but also thumping and bassy too.

The album is basically still, with a few diversions, though, an upbeat ska one - full of saxophone and lively melodies, but the songwriting is developing and Madness are rapidly showing that they were more than simply a bunch of nutty lads in it for a laugh. They could play and they knew what was what.

The "deluxe edition" has a virtually full concert's worth of superb, rough and ready, kicking live material.




7 (1981)


Cardiac Arrest/Shut Up/Sign Of The Times/Missing You/Mrs Hutchinson/Tomorrow's Dream/Grey Day/Pac-A-Mac/Promises Promises/Benny Bullfrog/When Dawn Arrives/The Opium Eaters/Day On The Town/Missing You    
Before they seriously showed that they could diversify on 1982's excellent Madness - The Rise And Fall album, Madness started to show promising signs on this, their third outing. Yes, they could still be delightfully and lovably silly (nutty) such as on the energetic goofiness of Benny Bullfrog and Pac-A-Mac (about a portable mackintosh), but where the obvious skill of Madness was now showing through was on the dark subject of other songs, even popular hit singles. They were starting to prove that they were far more than a bunch of cheery lads out for some fun. The Kinks, Squeeze and Ian Dury influences are all there, particularly in the characterisation of people from British society. However, Madness, for me, do it best. Their characters are often not comic ones, but tragic everyday ones, like poor Mrs Hutchinson.

Cardiac Arrest is about someone having a heart attack, yet they turned it into a singalong hit single. Similarly, Grey Day celebrates a miserable (probably February or November) day. Only Madness could make a soulless grey day something worth singing about. Mrs Hutchinson is a stark, heartbreaking song about a middle-aged woman becoming seriously ill. These are dark, solemn subjects, yet somehow Madness manage to pull it off. The songs are also impressively played, too, check out the bass and keyboards on Grey Day and that almost classical piano riff. Shut Up is a fun song about criminals being chased by the police, but, again, it betrays a dark side of petty crime and arrest. It also has a hint of The Jam's Start! in its "what you give is what you get" lyric.

  

Missing You has jazzy influences, full of saxophones and dubby echoes. This is more than a simple ska song. The Opium Eaters again experiments with jazz piano and percussion rhythms on an infectious instrumental. Sign Of The Times, though, has a lively Motown-style bass riff. The Beautiful South would use rhythms like this a lot, and I am sure they were influenced by the lyrics in places too. Promises, Promises sticks to that traditional Madness sound, but the lyrics are wry and somewhat cynical beneath the saxophone-driven fun. Day On The Town is a bleak, dub-drenched Ghost Town-style tale of "riots in London".

Basically, as far as I'm concerned, all Madness albums are good. One can enjoy each and everyone of them. They are lyrically astute and musically increasingly clever and inventive within their basic framework. It is difficult to say one is any better than any of the others, they all have their good moments.




Madness Presents The Rise And Fall (1982)


Rise And Fall/Tomorrow's Just Another Day/Blue Skinned Beast/Primrose Hill/Mr. Speaker (Gets The Word)/Sunday Morning/Our House/Tiptoes/New Delhi/That Face/Calling Cards/Are You Coming (With Me)/Madness (Is All In The Mind)    

This was where Madness made efforts to break slightly away from the madcap "nutty" sound of their first three albums. There had always been hints of The Kinks and Squeeze in their wry, often witty social observation songs, but on this album they really went for it, producing a series of mini-masterpieces, kitchen sink pop at its best. The now iconic, and oh-so British, Our House was the stand-out track, of course (it is marvellously evocative and singalong). Otherwise, however, the songs are far more well-crafted and even reflective and laid-back, while still retaining that archetypal Madness ska/accessible reggae sound. A great example is the little-mentioned, but excellent Are You Coming (With Me) and also the comparatively sombre Rise And Fall.

Lots of the songs are influenced by the characters of London life, and lower class London life at that, similar to the "riff-raff" that populated Ian Dury's songs. Great characterisation within three minute pop songs. A skill Madness never lost. They are such a London band, full of all the atmosphere of the city. They briefly go abroad, however, in the infectious New Delhi, with its Eastern musical influences. What a great song. Blue Skinned Beast has a few echoes of something like My Girl from their debut album, except that it is about Margaret Thatcher.

Tomorrow's Just Another Day was a single, but not a nutty, frenetic dancing one. It was a solemn, philosophical one from a vast-maturing band. If some liveliness was still needed, though, Tiptoes is a staccato and infectious number, with some great piano and percussion.

There is such a lot of music-hall style wit and clever observation in this swirling cornucopia of songs. It has the very first seeds of their eventual masterpiece, 2010's The Liberty Of Norton Folgate within it. Listen to Primrose Hill (pictured) as an example and the rumbustious, almost pantomime fun of Mr. Speaker Gets The Word.

It is often overlooked just how good a band Madness were instrumentally and on this album, there is more intricacy than on the first few albums. They were definitely learning their trade and improving on it. Overall, this is an effervescent and big-hearted album from a group that were becoming more inventive, lyrically and musically, with each album.

The "deluxe edition" contains some excellent quality "BBC Sessions" material.




Keep Moving (1984)


Keep Moving/Michael Caine/Turning Blue/One Better Day/March Of The Gherkins/Waltz Into Mischief/Brand New Beat/Victoria Gardens/Samantha/Time For Tea/Prospects/Give Me A Reason 
            
The halcyon days of "nuttiness" were long gone now, Madness's albums had been getting ever more inventive, reflective and diverse (while still retaining the basic ska foundations most of the time, not much on this album, though). This was probably their least accessible album so far, with no real stand out "singalong" hits, but, as all Madness albums are, is still a good, enjoyable listen.

It was the mid-eighties and, if it wasn't layers of synthesisers, or gloomy post-punk mannerisms, it was production by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, utilising Afrodiziak on backing vocals and The TKO Horns, just as they had done on Elvis Costello's Punch The Clock. The production afflicts Madness with the disease of the eighties (pretty much every group's mid-eighties albums are questionable, comparatively, with other works).

Keep Moving is almost funky and horn-driven but with the same typical Suggs vocals.

Unfortunately the drum sound seems more slick and almost programmed in that horrible mid-eighties style. Nowhere near as incisive as their earlier sound. This was Madness trying to go "dance-y". It is pleasant enough, but not that convincing. It is also lyrically wanting, shorn of the wry, observational wit that had become their trademark. The one hit single, Michael Caine has echoes of traditional Madness, although the Madness is more typical eighties stuff and not much ska to be found. It does have a great hook, though. To this day, I haven't got a clue what the song is about, however.

Turning Blue suffers from the same production. It does have a rhythmic appeal, it has to be said. One Better Day sounds like something from Sade'Diamond Life. It is very relaxing and soulful, but turning Madness into Sade? Madness were anything but "wine bar music". The oddly, irrelevantly titled March Of The Gherkins is more like it - not much ska around but a familiar Madness melody and some punchy horns. Brand New Beat sounds just like Elvis Costello & The Attractions.

The evocative, nostalgic Victoria Gardens and the tuneful Samantha are good songs, although the waltz experiment of Waltz Into Mischief. Overall, this was an album of its time, and although it certainly had hidden depths, it has to be said the previous four albums were much better.




The Dangermen Sessions, Vol. 1 (2005)


This Is Where/Girl Why Don't You?/Shame & Scandal/I Chase The Devil/Taller Than You AreYou Keep Me Hanging On/Dangerman/Israelites/John Jones/Lola/You'll Lose A Good Thing/Rain/So Much Trouble in The World   

Now, I love Madness, and have done since I first saw them in 1979, but I have to say that, pleasant though this album of classic reggae covers is, I feel they are a bit wasted on this. Madness use ska and early seventies-style reggae wonderfully in their own sound, better than anyone, in fact. However, when they try to apply it here to classic songs of the genre, it surprisingly doesn't really work, for me.
              
Their versions of an iconic song such as Israelites is a fine example. You can't really better Desmond Dekker's original. If I want to listen to Israelites, I will listen to Desmond Dekker. If I want to listen to Madness, I will listen too their great early material, or 2010's remarkable The Liberty Of Norton Folgate album. Similarly Rudy MillsJohn Jones, although I find their version irresistibly catchy, I have to admit. Bob Marley'So Much Trouble In The World suffers in comparison with the original, although Bruce Ruffin's Rain is ok.

Shame And Scandal is amusing and wryly delivered and Prince Buster's Girl Why Don't You? is appealing too. However, their covers of Diana Ross & The SupremesYou Keep Me Hanging On and The KinksLola just don't cut the mustard for me. Sorry lads.

Despite my reservations about this album, I still play it every now and again, so there you go.


The Liberty Of Norton Folgate (2009)


Overture/We Are London/Sugar And Spice/Forever Young/Dust Devil/Rainbows/That Close/Mk II/On The Town/Bingo/Idiot Child/Africa/NW5/Clerkenwell Polka/The Liberty Of Norton Folgate   

This really was a remarkable and totally surprising album. After years drifting around, reuniting for summer festival appearances to run through their old "nutty" hits from the glory days of the late seventies/eighties, "national treasure" Madness returned with a type of "concept album" that proved to be possibly their best ever piece of work.

It is a delightful collection of songs loosely based around London and, in particular, the small area of Norton Folgate in North-East London, connecting Bishopsgate with Shoreditch. It is atmospheric, mature and deeply nostalgic. Madness were now middle-aged men and this is very much a comforting, thoughtful, middle-aged album. The great thing about Madness is they don't really feel they have to move with the times and experiment with dance music, hip-hop or whatever. They stick pretty much to their ska/accessible reggae/rock rhythms and clever, insightful, often witty lyrics.



We Are London is an infectious journey through the capital. "Down to Chinatown for duck and rice...". It is packed full of atmospheric lyrics, especially for anyone who has lived in or near London, or visited it regularly. The same applies to NW5Sugar And Spice is excellent too, with Squeeze-style down-home social observations - "you got a job in Marks & Spencers...". The Kinks are never far away in their influence, either. Forever Young has some intoxicating ska-style horns and keyboards and Suggs' nostalgic lyrics about ageing. I don't need to run through every single track, I am sure you have the picture now. Basically there is not a duff song on the album. Nostalgia, wry observational wit and great music is all over the album. Special mention has to be reserved, however, for The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, its tour de force and a strong contender for Madness' best ever song. It is a ten-minute opus that listens like a Dickens novel, full of characters, images and overflowing with atmosphere. What a song. Kudos to them for it. Seriously.



Musically, it is impressive too. Madness' musical adeptness is often overlooked. Listen to the keyboard break on Rainbows, or the melodious bass, or some of the orchestration. Great stuff. Madness master the three minute pop-ish song so well, both musically and lyrically. Check out That Close for a great example.

There is no stand-out, obvious "hit single" on this album. It doesn't need one. All the tracks are great. It is a beautifully-crafted piece of work. An impressive thing is that it never sounds like a band desperately trying to recapture their glory days. It sounds like a mature group affectionately looking back at those days, musically, and at society in general, through the city in which they live. As someone who used to live in London and now lives 350 miles from it and would not worry if I never went there again, it makes me feel nostalgic for the old place. I can't speak highly enough about this album. Highly recommended. Great cover too.

The black and white photo above dates from 1960.


Can't Touch Us Now (2016)


Can't Touch Us Now/Good Times/Mr. Apples/I Believe/Grandslam/Blackbird/You Are My Everything/Another Version Of Me/Mumbo Jumbo/Herbert/Don't Leave The Past Behind You/(Don't Let Them) Catch You Crying/Pam The Hawk/Given The Opportunity/Soul Denying/Whistle In The Dark    

Forget all that One Step Beyond nutty stuff that many expect Madness to serve up on stage, this is, like all their post-2000 work, a very mature and impressive album. As always, the group's keen eye for the minutiae of ordinary, urban (London) British life is reflected loud and clear in their clever, often dryly amusing lyrics. People mention The Kinks or maybe Ian Dury as being the masters of that sort of thing, but, for me, nobody has ever done it as well as Madness. Their intelligent and irresistibly catchy, melodic songs are often overshadowed by their "nutty" image, which is to pay their talent a true disservice.

 
                                  
Can't Touch Us Now starts the album in instantly recognisable Madness fashion, that clunking piano  underpinning its lively tones. Good Times has Suggs reflecting on what it may be like living on life's bottom rung. "Where did all the good times go.." he questions. Where they ever here, Suggs? I can't remember any, that's for sure. Mr Apples is a wry, observational number about a reactionary bureaucrat hiding some unsavoury secrets. I Believe has an infectious My Girl-style bass beat.

Grandslam is a solid typically Madness skank, overflowing with great guitar and organ, while Blackbird is an evocative and atmospheric song semi-sung, semi-spoken by Suggs packed full of London atmospheric, name-checking Dean Street in Soho. It has some jazz overtones about it too, referencing Ronnie Scott's and using the "vibes" keyboard instrument.



You Are My Everything has a dense, vaguely funky beat, some nice buzzy guitar and a deadpan Suggs vocal. It is a typical Madness love song, brutally honest and with no sense of self-consciousness whatsoever. Another Version Of Me is a big, brassy punchy number and Mumbo Jumbo is sort of like The Specials meeting Dexys Midnight Runners with Suggs taking shots at political hypocrisy. It quotes the line "propaganda ministers" from the group's early  Prince Buster cover, MadnessHerbert does the whole Ian Dury thing in its rhyme scheme and lyrical couplets. It is also has that Klezmer-style keyboard backing used on The Liberty Of Norton Folgate.

Don't Leave The Past Behind You has some solid brass breaks and a strong set of guitar riffs. A deep, throbbing bass introduces the late night jazzy feel of (Don't Let Them) Catch You Crying which is full of excellent saxophone and another slightly funky beat. The organ breaks are very Elvis Costello & The Attractions. This is a really good track.

Pam The Hawk is also full of London images in the sad tale of a woman who walks the streets of Soho, begging. She was a real character, known to many (including Suggs, no doubt) - Pamela Jennings (1964-2012). Suggs is so good at writing compassionate real life songs like this. The track ends with some suitably moving saxophone. Given The Opportunity is archetypal Madness and would have fitted it quite well on their early eighties albums.

Soul Denying is one of those quirky love songs Madness have always done so well. Whistle In The Dark is a theatrical number with a slow waltz-style beat.

This is yet another of Madness's intriguing, finely-crafted albums. The older they have got, the better their work has been, in many ways.



Full House: The Very Best Of Madness


This is a superb collection of some of the best music from Madness from 1979-2016. It is largely singles releases. After all, they were a great "singles band". Their albums are fantastic too, and well worth checking out, but if one great single after another is your thing, then this is one hell of a compilation. It doesn't just cover the "glory years". Disc one does that. Disc two is full of the group's impressive later material.

The great thing about Madness is they don't really feel they have to move with the times and experiment with dance music, hip-hop or whatever. They stick pretty much to their ska/accessible reggae/rock rhythms and clever, insightful, often witty lyrics.

Madness were more than just good-time "nutty boys". Yes, their infectious brand of ska is something you can't keep still to, but, as I said, they also specialised in wry, observational lyrics, often concerning "ordinary" London characters. Their subject matter was not always happy either - heart attacks, depression, petty crime, wet London streets and miserable humdrum days spent under grey skies are all on the menu. Their songwriting is much under-rated as indeed was their musicianship, which is top notch throughout.

I have to say that the sound quality on this album is truly superb - warm and bassy but with crystal clear percussion. Wonderful. Highly recommended. You can't help but love Madness.





2 comments:

  1. Actually, I like Absolutely better than the first one. To me they were never better than Embarrassment or Baggy Trousers or Las Palmas 7. Well actually, except for Our House of course. I never get tired of that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Check out The Liberty Of Norton Folgate album.

    ReplyDelete