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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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's 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.
Up next are two Madness albums that slipped under many people's radars. I haven't dealt with them in as much detail as the others, but they still have plenty of regulation Madness fare on offer :-
Mad Not Mad (1985)
As I said above, this was an album that really went under people's radars and marked the end of "Madness Phase one". By 1985, people seemed to have tired of Madness and it would be nearly fifteen years before they returned in the role of national treasures. We even get some Madness-funk here on I'll Compete, clavinet to the fore and some More Specials-style lounge bar fare in Yesterday's Men. Sweetest Girl has a most infectious funky, soulful groove to it with bits of dub in there too. Both Uncle Sam and White Heat are more typical Madness in feel, however. Overall, it is a really good album, and somewhat unfairly under-appreciated.
After a long hiatus, Madness returned with their original line-up and production team and it sounded as if they had never been away, serving up more atmospheric and catchy London tales over their trademark easy ska beat, such as Lovestruck, 4 am and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Some great authentic-sounding ska can be found on The Communicator. The late, great Ian Dury features on the album's most charismatic cut, Drip Fed Fred.
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.
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 Supremes' You Keep Me Hanging On and The Kinks' Lola 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.
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, the now annointed "national treasures" 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 which connects the Bishopsgate area 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.
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.
Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da (2012)
After the monumental, varied The Liberty Of Norton Folgate album, Madness could not quite really match it with this more run-of-the-mill follow-up. Where the previous album was full of variety, atmosphere and comparative experimentation, both musically and lyrically, here we have a collection of familiar-sounding songs with that regular Madness sound. Not that that is a bad thing, though, I always enjoy hearing Madness but I am just being honest in comparing it ever so slightly unfavourably with its predecessor. That was a really hard act to follow, it has to be said.
My Girl 2 builds on the group’s classic 1979 single, updating the song to let us know how Suggs feels about his girl after all these years. He’s still with her, then. It has a nice organ backing to it as well. Never Knew Your Name describes a one night stand which doesn’t quite sit with the now middle-aged group. Its sound is archetypally Madness. La Luna continues the vibe of the previous album on a slightly Eastern-sounding number and some typically Suggs wry and witty lyrics. How Can I Tell You is brassy, upbeat and enjoyable. Kitchen Floor is a slow burner enhanced by a nice saxophone and some saucy lyrics. Misery is a typically jaunty Madness upbeat stomp as is Leon. So Alive is a bit of energetic ska and Small World has a nice bass line. The dubby Death Of A Rude Boy tries to recreate the Specials' Ghost Town in its sound. It is one of the album's best tracks.
Circus Freaks is pretty unremarkable, while Powder Blue slows the tempo down on a mournful lament. Suggs does these sad love songs so very well. Black And Blue finishes things off in regulation Madness fashion. Look, these aren't bad songs at all, and the album is perfectly listenable and enjoyable, it just doesn't contain quite as much stand-out material as the previous album had on it.
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.
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.
This is a collection of Madness singer-songwriter Suggs' (Graham McPherson's) solo work. While there are songs on here that are very "Madness", there are also considerable deviations into other styles. As always, Suggs' lyrics are acutely observational, evocative and often amusing. The album surprised me, however, with exactly how good it is. It really is excellent.
Green Eyes is a mysterious, European-sounding slow number with some Stranglers-style keyboards and lyrics about a girl roaming around the streets of Brighton. Fortune Fish has an infectious, rhythmic shuffling beat and a deep, understated vocal. It features some excellent organ too. Its lyrics use the "me and you and a dog named Boo" line from Lobo's seventies hit. So Tired is a big bassy number with some scratching sound affects and a deeply addictive beat. Lyrics about night buses, black taxis and dirty old river add to the atmosphere. I love this song. God bless you Suggs, old chap. Straight Banana is a lively bit of slow pace ska-influenced fun with a nice skanking riff to it. Invisible Man is a very early eighties Madness-type song. It could easily be off any of the albums from that era. Girl features a Get Happy!! era Elvis Costello & The Attractions organ riff and General Levy joining in on ragga toasting. That sumptuous trombone is back too. Our Man starts with some vinyl scratchy sounds and then a 1920s jazzy beat kicks in to back another very Madness song. On Drifting Sand has a catchy pounding mid pace beat to it. The Three Pyramids Club is a shuffling, Eastern-sounding groove. It is another example of the musical diversification present on this collection. No More Alcohol revisits the previous track, Alcohol. This is a most enjoyable collection of songs.