Tuesday, March 06, 2007

An Illustrated Guide To... Madness

There's something not quite right about Madness' new single, their first self-penned fresh material in nearly eight years. It's not that Sorry, released on their own Lucky Seven imprint, is being released without an album in immediate sight, or that it comes out in two versions, 'proper' or one featuring Sway and Baby Blue phoning raps into the middle, it's that it doesn't sound like a Madness record should. Featuring the involvement of dance producer Tim Deluxe, there may well be all six current members on it but beyond Suggs' vocals it seems processed like one of Deluxe's dance hits, so much so that we require evidence that there's actually any other members on it. Apparently an album is being produced by Liam Watson at the famously analogue Toe Rag Studios alongside long time associate Clive Langer possibly for late summer release, which is promising. The other problem with it is its fairly basic structure suggests the withering of the thing that has made Madness not just 'another eighties band' over the past 28 years, the ability to mix social comment and reflection with the patented Nutty Sound and attendant Train, Dance etc. We love Madness, much as everyone loves Madness, which is why Sorry pains us, and this is why.

As Cathal Smyth, more commonly known as Chas Smash, has admitted this most laddish, streetwise, working class voice of bands actually comprised six-sevenths middle class kids, coalescing around Hampstead, Highgate and Islington having grown up around Kentish Town, Camden, Islington and Muswell Hill, although Suggs was born in Hastings and Smash himself in Rainham. Their first incarnation was as The North London Invaders, apparently because the members liked to invade other people's parties, formed by guitarist Chris Foreman, art school dropout pianist Mike Barson and reform school alumni saxophonist (stolen, natch) Lee 'Kix' Thompson along with drummer John Hasler and an American actor called Dikron on vocals. Their first gig was at a house party on Compton Street, Islington on 30th June 1977. Among the few people there were Barson's friend Smyth and Hasler's sixteen year old school bunking mate Graham McPherson, who had adopted a nickname from jazz drummer Pete Suggs. He wasn't yet interested in permanently becoming singer, though, which instigated a roundabout set of lineup changes in which main writer Hasler became singer, Smyth left after a row with Barson, new drummer Gary Dovey introduced bass playing acquaintance Mark Bedford before walking out after a fight with Thompson and Suggs returned when Hasler decided that he didn't want to sing after all and became de facto manager. Bedford's drummer school friend Daniel 'Woody' Woodgate became the sixth full time member of a band who toyed with Morris And The Minors around 1978 before taking their name from a Prince Buster song released in 1963.

Although the members had a wide range of tastes, they came together in certain areas - music hall, the Kinks, Fats Domino, Motown, Ian Dury's pub rock outfit Kilburn And The High Roads and the very English humour that gave itself to what Thompson called "the nutty sound". Crucially, they were also fully aware of the bluebeat, rocksteady and ska music that came with Jamaican immigrants in the later stages of Windrush before being overtaken by reggae at the start of the seventies. Hanging around the influential Hope & Anchor and Dublin Castle pubs they also picked up on the skinhead and mod fashions of the day of Harrington jackets, Ben Sherman/Fred Perry shirts, Doc Martens and pork pie hats, as much inspired by Miles Davis as Jamaican rude boys. It was the Hope & Anchor's manager who saw the potential in their demo tape and pointed out that sixty or so miles north another band, the Specials, were working off much the same influences. When they played the pub in early 1979 Jerry Dammers stayed at Suggs' parents' house overnight, and a support slot in the Nashville Rooms, Kensington shortly afterwards awakened the band to the spread of the same sounds and fashions that had also partly come down from the Midlands and partly grown out of the seperate mod revival and later stages of punk scenes.

Dammers has said their demo tape "was a mess and that no other label would have signed them". Luckily, he was about to start one of his own. 2-Tone kicked off with the Specials' Gangsters in July 1979, and investment from Chrysalis Records helped it go top ten and aided funding of a second release a month later from his new mates. On the B-side was a cover of the song that gave the band their name; on the A-side a Thompson-penned tribute to its performer loosely based on another Prince Buster song, Earthquake, which also namechecks several of his other songs.

The Prince (album version)

Having only signed a one single deal with Dammers, there was no way they could continue on the label once it had reached number 16 and got them onto Top Of The Pops. Despite major label interest the band's heart was always set on Stiff, the eclectic label set up by Dave Robinson, whose wedding Madness had played at in lieu of an audition, and Jake Riviera in 1976 were noted for their releases' artwork, slogans, T-shirts and marketing campaigns, but at the time Riviera had just left and taken Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe to his new Radar Records start-up. They however still had band hero Ian Dury and the Blockheads, which surely forced their hand. It was round about this time that Smyth/Smash was welcomed back into the fold permanently, mostly as the audience's representative on stage, and it was he whose opening to the next single became one of the most instantly familiar refrains of the era - "Hey you, don't watch that, watch this..." One Step Beyond scorched to number 2 despite the band being unwilling to record the live staple as it was another Prince Buster cover - Robinson has claimed he took the master tape of the 30 second version the band had recorded, looped it, added some studio trickery and there was a two and a half minute single. November 1979 saw their debut album, also One Step Beyond, released, fifteen songs pretty much recorded as per the live show, featuring Lee and Chas on lead vocals on two tracks each. Although full throttle nutty, it had its share of almost straight pop moments, third single My Girl Barson's attempt to write in the style of Dury, while Thompson's sharp, often obtuse lyricism formulated not least in this song about a schoolkid losing his virginity to a prostitute and contracting VD.

Razor Blade Alley

In the same month Madness joined the Specials and The Selecter on the pinnacle of 2-Tone's spell as a proper British youth movement, the 40 date sellout 2-Tone Tour, although due to American commitments Madness only played 29. Parts were tarnished by violence and it was well known that the National Front and BNP were recruiting at shows, which doesn't strike us as a logical step given the bands and their musical parentage involved. My Girl opened 1980 with a number 3, and after a matinee gig at the Hammersmith Odeon for younger fans the Work Rest And Play EP, Night Boat To Cairo plus three new songs, went to 6 in April. By this time the intention was to step out of the shadows of 2-Tone now that Dammers was manoevuring his band onto pastures new, so out went the rock'n'roll and ska covers on October's Absolutely, named after a favourite phrase of their tour manager. Not that the nuttiness had been exhausted by any means, first single Suggs and Chris' answer to Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall, Baggy Trousers, coming with a famous video featuring Lee attached to wires to a crane. The video's fame - it was even spoofed by Little & Large - helped it to number 3 and the album to 2. Overall it's a more reflective collection, the first where everyone had a hand in the songs (although Suggs and Chris do most of the lyrics), covering a wider range and far more socially acute, full of uncertainties and reflectiveness, a lot of smiling through gritted teeth behind the ever infectious songs. While instrumental Return Of The Los Palmas Seven was apparently written for the European market and loosely based on Shirley Bassey's What Now My Love, ending up being playlisted by Radio 2, second single Embarrassment was Thompson's riposte to his family's reaction to his younger sister Tracy fathering a mixed race child. The following spring saw work begin on a film, financed by Stiff, directed by Dave Robinson and released in October 1981, named after a track on that album which acted as a biopic of their formation up to The Prince. With band members past and present playing themselves on location, it's not a great cinematic work but better than you might expect.

Take It Or Leave It

By now beloved entertainers, an old North London Invaders song was dusted off and reworked for the next single, the doomy dub of Grey Day. By contrast Nassau in the Bahamas was Madness central throughout the summer as the band went to Compass Point Studios to record Seven. Peaking at number 5 in October 1981, it's a Barson credit-heavy just about equal balancing act between vaudeville and maturity, subtle politicising entering the equation for the first time, encompassing the nuts Benny Bullfrog, the irked Sign Of The Times and later single Cardiac Arrest, a jaunty heart attack tale that was banned from Radio 1 and hence missed the top ten for the only time between The Prince and the end of 1983. In between came Shut Up, the piano coda on which is a particular favourite Madness moment of ours, and standalone Labi Siffre cover It Must Be Love, the video for which featured Lee and Chris playing underwater in a swimming pool and hence required a warning to impressionable children to be added to the start. Dave Robinson told them that if it didn't get to number one they could have Stiff for themselves. It peaked at four but Robinson never paid up.

April 1982 saw the compilation Complete Madness released, breaking the band's chart topping duck, and during the second of its three weeks at number one the band did the double as House Of Fun, a jaunty number about a sixteen year old buying his first condoms, headed to the top of the singles chart for two weeks. Driving In My Car didn't do so well in July, despite TV appearances which Suggs couldn't do due to becoming a father and so was replaced by a ventriloquist's dummy. It still gave the band the opportunity to take a Morris Minor onto Top Of The Pops, shortly before they get to act in the Boring episode of The Young Ones, where they perform House Of Fun in the Kebab And Calculator and Suggs gets the only line ever given to a musical guest in the series. They came back to do Our House on series 2's Sick and Chris reports that Madness had been asked to record a version of the titular song for the show, while it's well known that Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were draft scripting a Madness sitcom which had been piloted in a ten minute form when Mike...well, we'll get to that in due course.

The Rise And Fall has been called Madness' Sgt Pepper, which might be slightly off mark but it's definitely their most ambitious work. Fronted by a picture of the band on Primrose Hill dressed and posed to represent a song from the album each, it's a loose concept album dealing with the members' childhood memories of London, featuring strings and full brass sections for the first time, arranged by avant-garde composer David Bedford, with writing experiments and excursions into jazz influences and ornate chamber pop. It doesn't get past number ten, partly due to Complete Madness' continuing sales, but gets their best critical reaction. This track is about Suggs' memories of a spell living in Liverpool.

Rise And Fall

Both singles, Our House and Tomorrow's (Just Another Day), which they got to do on Jim'll Fix It, continue the top ten run, the former, written by Foreman, winning the Best Song Ivor Novello award and even cracking America, peaking at number 7 in 1983 after being picked up by Geffen. Domestically it's a quieter year pepped up in the second half by two singles, gospel chorused number two Wings Of A Dove, the video to which famously finishes with a plane being dropped from an aircraft, and The Sun And The Rain, which makes number five in November. Just as things looked to be carrying on their very even keel, Mike Barson announced that he wanted to leave the band, having just relocated to Amsterdam, and he played his last gig with them at the end of the year.

Understandably, Keep Moving was a difficult album to record even with Barson still on board, first single Michael Caine ending the top ten run by a place. Featuring the thespian on the taxing lyric "my name is Michael Caine" - he didn't know the band but his daughter talked him into accepting the offer - it's sung by Chas Smash, who later revealed he wrote it about the Irish Troubles. Suggs has described the album's production as "polishing a turd", but if one is prepared to get past the syn-drums and ever present in 1984 Afrodisiac backing vocals it's a mutedly intriguing album, Bedford again backing the wide ranging ideas up with inventive arrangements. It peaked at number 6, even if second single One Better Day sets a new chart low position. Saturday Night Live, American Bandstand and The Tube come calling, but in Britain Madness were labelless after Stiff is swallowed whole by Island Records, the One Better Day video being self-financed after it, their last single on the label, was changed from a remixed version of this, which features vocals from Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, once of the Beat but then of General Public, at the last minute.

Victoria Gardens

Madness instead signed to Virgin, who gave them their own imprint, Zarjazz (a 2000 AD reference), whose first release was Feargal Sharkey's Chas-written Listen To Your Father, featuring the band on backup. Two more Zarjazz releases came in early 1985 - the Fink Brothers' Pop Will Eat Itself-esque curio Mutants In Mega City One (the Brothers were Fink Angel and Mean Machine Angel, as they weren't known to their families, the McPhersons and the Smyths) and Ethiopia charity single Starvation, a cover of the Pioneers song under the same band name also featuring Jerry Dammers and assorted ex-Specials, UB40, General Public, the actual Pioneers and others, recorded before but released after Do They Know It's Christmas? The first proper Madness single on the label was the much admired Yesterday's Men in August, followed by Mad Not Mad, more downbeat and cynical than what had gone before and sometimes at the mercy of that still evolving production sound both in terms of clinical synthy sounds and early programming but still a strong lyrical offering. Costello sideman Steve Nieve was one of quite a few Barson replacements. Uncle Sam missed the top 20, Scritti Politti cover The Sweetest Girl the top 30 despite hooking up with the Red Wedge tour. The end was nigh, and although demoing and rehearsals started in late summer musical differences took hold and the decision was made to end the band. The announcement was made in September 1986, (Waiting For) The Ghost Train seeing them off with a number 18 a month later. Second half retrospective Utter Madness didn't make it past 29.

Suggs, Chas Smash, Chris and Lee promptly reformed as The Madness, releasing singles I Pronounce You and What's That and a self-titled album in 1988, featuring Jerry Dammers and Attractions Steve Nieve and Bruce Thomas among many others, but only the first charted and the plan was over pretty much as soon as it had started, everyone now regretting ever conceiving it. Suggs managed The Farm and produced their 1990 number one album Spartacus before recording two solo albums, 1995's The Lone Ranger and 1998's The Three Pyramids Club (partly co-written by Barson), and dipping his toe into the profitable world of telly work; Chas Smash became A&R man at Go! Discs, had a spell fronting The Velvet Ghost with Morrissey sideman Boz Boorer and briefly ran RGR Records which put out Just Jack's first album; Lee and Chris formed the Nutty Boys who released an album in 1990 and later regrouped as Crunch; Woodgate drummed for Voice Of The Beehive and rap-metallers Fat; Bedford was also in Voice Of The Beehive for a time and sessioned for Morrissey before forming the Butterfield 8 with inimitable ex-Higsons sax man Terry Edwards while opening his own graphic design business. That would have been it, except in February 1992, shortly after Chas Smash had organised a rapproachment, Virgin issued a greatest hits compilation, Divine Madness, that a month later reached number one for three weeks, totalling 202 weeks in the top 75, 12 in the top ten, last appearing in the chart in 2001. On the back of that and three single re-releases, It Must Be Love making number 6, Fleadh organiser Vince Power offered the band a weekend in Finsbury Park for what was christened Madstock. While it was here that Morrissey famously produced a Union Jack and was accused of flirting with right wing imagery (other supports were Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Flowered Up and Gallon Drunk), the day belonged to Madness, all seven together for the first time in eight and a half years. The reaction to One Step Beyond measured just over 4.5 on the Richter scale, the same as the average tornado and slightly more than the average nuclear test. Three more Madstocks followed every couple of years afterwards, the reaction encouraging the band to get back together permanently. Another greatest hits, The Heavy Heavy Hits, followed in June 1998, but hearteningly charted lower than Wonderful, mostly the work of Smash, Thompson and Barson, which struck a balance between the two eras, if you want, of the band, the melancholy Elysium matched up with Ian Dury duet Drip Fed Fred. First single Lovestruck went to number ten; the second single didn't make the top 40, but then songs about tramps getting kicked to death don't really settle on playlists as a rule.

Johnny The Horse

Buoyed by the reaction, pretty much annual Christmas tours and the odd mid-ranking festival took up the next few years apart from Our House: The Musical, written by Tim Firth, whose other credits include Calendar Girls and All Quiet On The Preston Front. Described by the writer's synopsis as "the story of Joe Casey, his mates, his girlfriend Sarah and the night he commits a petty crime to impress her. Following the two courses his life would have taken had he stayed to face the music when the police appear on the scene or bunked the law and made a run for it", it ran from October 2002 at the Cambridge Theatre in west London. The band were joint executive producers and Suggs played Joe's father for a short time, getting to deliver One Better Day mid-show. Despite an Olivier Award for best new musical it closed in August 2003.

With a new deal inked with V2, Madness went back to old haunt the Dublin Castle in 2004 to play a series of gigs as The Dangermen ahead of The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1, an album of covers largely of roots reggae favourites, many of which they covered live in their early days, produced by Dennis Bovell (their first non Langer/Winstanley effort) which made number 11, although Shame And Scandal only got to 38 in the singles chart while Girl Why Don't You missed the top 75 completely. Foreman quit again in May 2005, citing "the petty time-consuming bollocks of being in a band", although he returned for 2006's Christmas shows. What happens now we'll have to see - Chas told The Word "I want us to be the working man's Pink Floyd" - but a special legacy is theirs for keeps.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the re-cap and reviews...I always enjoy reading about music thats new to me. Best wishes with your future musical adventures!

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