The world needs more bands like Madness. One of the original London perpetrators of the ska revival, they grew from a silly novelty group into full-scale international superstars, beloved by seemingly everyone in Europe, from tot to pensioner. Though diversity in contemporary music is generally laudable, the factionalism it sometimes engenders isn’t; Madness’ ability to appeal to different audiences suggests that pop needn’t always polarize listeners into incompatible camps.
Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, Madness’ records tend to sound the same, which testifies more to their lighthearted, bubbly style of execution than any actual uniformity of material. The band’s inspirations originally came (less later on) primarily from ska and the music hall — i.e., singalong music — though you’re likely to find classic rock’n’roll, Arabic overtones, utterly insipid jokes, easy-listening pop, incisive observations on society (not unlike Ray Davies) and just about everything else.
Highlights of One Step Beyond include the titular instrumental, “Night Boat to Cairo,” “Chipmunks Are Go!” and Prince Buster’s “Madness.” (The subsequent Work Rest & Play 7-inch EP has four cuts, including “Night Boat.”) Absolutely features the giddy “Baggy Trousers” and “Return of the Los Palmas 7.” 7 contains “Grey Day,” an uncharacteristically somber ballad, and “The Opium Eaters,” a tinkly movie-music instrumental. (The first three albums have been re-released as two-disc sets, adding B-sides, outtakes and videos. The reissue of One Step Beyond includes the three long-out-of-print live tracks from the Dance Craze soundtrack. The reissue of Absolutely adds a complete 1980 live performance at the Hammersmith Odeon.)
Complete Madness is highly recommended because it collects the band’s many hits, but in reality any Madness LP guarantees lively and — dare it be said? — wholesome fun.
Displaying added maturity and creative breadth, The Rise and Fall is another fine crowd-pleaser, with such likable fare as “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” and “Our House,” a virtual sociology primer on English family life.
The nutty boys finally did themselves a favor and signed in the US with Geffen Records, who managed to scare up a hit single for the band in the form of “Our House.” That track is also included on Madness, a compilation of previously released UK tracks dating back to 1979. (Madness contains about half of The Rise and Fall in addition to oldies like “Night Boat to Cairo” and the tender “It Must Be Love.”) Good stuff.
What followed was a period of tumult: Madness left Stiff, keyboardist Mike Barson left Madness and the band set up their own Zarjazz label. Keep Moving, their final LP as a septet, offers a full platter of typically tuneful, thoughtful, lightweight pop songs covering familiar ground, musically and lyrically. “Wings of a Dove” incorporates a gospel choir; “Michael Caine” uses a cute pop-culture gimmick to sell an otherwise weak number. The growing vocal skills of Carl Smyth (aka Chas Smash) and Graham (Suggs) McPherson have made them the band’s most recognizable trait; the others’ seemingly effortless playing is easy to take for granted.
Although it has its moments, Mad Not Mad is an uneasy, odd record, sounding a bit like Bryan Ferry in more than one spot (“Yesterday’s Men,” “Coldest Day”), offering a quizzical look at America (“Uncle Sam”) and covering Scritti Politti’s beautiful “Sweetest Girl” with little élan. With Barson gone, keyboards are played by Steve Nieve and Roy Davies; a lot of guest musicians add strings, horns and backing vocals. Not unpleasant, but unsettlingly out of the Madness mainstream.
Having achieved far more success in eight years than these north Londoners ever imagined, Madness announced its breakup in September 1986. But late ’87 brought the return of a slimmed-down band rechristened The Madness and early ’88 saw the release of a self-titled new album. Further than ever from their ska roots, the semi-reunited group (McPherson, Chris Foreman, Lee Thompson and Carl Smyth, with help from, among others, Specials leader Jerry Dammers and Attractions Nieve and Bruce Thomas) comes up with low-key, almost dour adult techno-pop that, like Mad Not Mad, gains in force with repeat listenings. The CD includes four extra tracks.
Following the dismal failure of The Madness (it spent one week in the British Top 100), Foreman (guitars, keyboards, programming) and Thompson (sax and, after a fashion, vocals) alone had the stamina to continue. The duo adopted Madness’ old nickname, the Nutty Boys, and made a new album on their own. The self-produced Crunch! upholds the old group’s standards of pop craftsmanship, returning to ska beats (not the full 2 Tone environment) with only slightly less imagination and a bit more casual aplomb. (The CD adds two.)
Following the original band’s breakup, a flood of compilations appeared in British shops. Utter Madness contains all of the band’s UK hits (“Wings of a Dove,” “Our House,” “Michael Caine”) from 1982 to 1986, including the non-album single “(Waiting For) The Ghost Train,” Madness’ last studio recording before the split. The CD adds “Seven Year Scratch (Hits Megamix).” The John Peel EP dates from the first year of Madness, 1979. It’s…Madness and It’s…Madness Too collect most of the band’s singles in two separate volumes, adding a selection of B-sides to each disc. Divine Madness contains 22 songs, all of which appeared as singles (although some appear in their album versions). Heavy Heavy Hits goes that disc one further, adding “The Sweetest Girl” to an otherwise identical track listing.
Whether all these compilations were feeding demand from the group’s fans or just from its record label, breaking up didn’t cost Madness any of its popularity in the UK: a re-issue of “It Must Be Love” topped the British singles chart in 1991. The following year, the original septet reunited for a weekend concert festival in London’s Finsbury Park. Madstock! documents 18 songs from the two-night stand, closing with a joyous cover of “The Harder They Come.” Captured in sparkling sound, the band sounds tight and in top form; the sing-along enthusiasm of the crowd makes the disc particularly infectious.
The Madstock Festival became a biennial event through the remainder of the ‘90s, as Madness undertook sporadic tours in the UK and on the Continent. After the 1998 Madstock, the nutty boys toured America for the first time since 1984. Universal Madness presents 13 songs from an April 1998 show at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. The musicianship is tight as ever (Thompson sounds particularly inspired on sax) and the sound quality is good, but McPherson’s singing falters more and more as the disc goes on. (It sounds as if he barely made it through “Our House” and needed the break that the instrumental “Swan Lake” provided.) Madstock! is the better choice for anyone searching for a disc of live Madness.
If four compilations in six years wasn’t enough, Virgin released The Business: The Definitive Singles Collection, a three-disc box set of all the singles (with, again, a few appearing in their album versions) and B-sides to date. The box also offers such rarities as the seasonal tracks “Visit to Dracstein Castle” and “Carols on 45”; an Italian rendition of “One Step Beyond”; covers of “God Save the Queen” and the Ray Price / Kitty Wells classic “Release Me”; and jingles that the group recorded for BBC personalities Terry Wogan and David Hamilton. A great set for die-hard fans and collectors.
At least one member of Madness wasn’t content just to trade on past glory: McPherson tried a solo career in the ‘90s. Lord Suggs’ albums deliver much the same ska-pop mixture and music-hall jollity as the band, but with more weight to the production. The Lone Ranger (produced by Suggs, Mike Barson and Sly & Robbie) includes dancehall-styled covers of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Christmas EP combines “The Tune” (from The Lone Ranger) with a cover of Supergrass’ “Alright” and the traditional “Sleigh Ride.” Producer / multi-instrumentalist Steve Lironi adds more modern flourishes to The Three Pyramids Club (such as distorted vocals on a few tracks, and turntable scratching on “So Tired”), but also includes more overt reminders of the singer’s legacy: “On Drifting Sand” includes an intro that sounds a lot like “One Step Beyond,” not to mention an organ riff that echoes “House of Fun.” The Platinum Collection excerpts generously from both albums, adding “Blue Day,” the theme Suggs recorded for Chelsea Football Club, and “No More Alcohol,” a goofy remake of the Champs’ “Tequila.”
Just as Madness seemed to have settled comfortably into permanent nostalgia, the band regrouped with Langer and Winstanley and recorded Wonderful, its first album of new material in 13 years. The septet doesn’t stray from its signature sound, nor does it try to update it. The few trendy touches that showed up on Suggs’ solo recordings don’t even peek around the margins here. Instead, the group puts its energy into the songwriting, and comes up with a clutch of winning tunes that truly live up to the album’s title. The lead-off “Lovestruck” could almost be the Great Lost XTC Single, with a melody that ascends beautifully through minor and major keys. (Come to think of it, McPherson sounds a lot like Colin Moulding, too.) “Saturday Night Sunday Morning,” “Elysium,” “No Money” and the terrific “Johnny the Horse” offer more of Madness’ classic pop stylings. “The Communicator” is a Chas Smash rave-up in the “One Step Beyond” mode. “Going to the Top” and the mobster spoof “Drip Fed Fred” bring more of the choice ska; the latter includes a charming guest vocal by Ian Dury (which gave Lord Upminster, who died the following year, one final chart appearance). The band reclaims the song “4 A.M.” from Suggs’ The Lone Ranger; its cover of the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care” is more introspective, à la Mad Not Mad. Wonderful showcases a group with much more to offer than cozy reminiscences…even if all the recent compilations make the group’s past seem almost contemporary.
Fans may have hoped that Wonderful would herald a new period of creativity for Madness, but the band members apparently weren’t eager to return to the pace they kept up in their younger days. (Even Suggs chose to put his solo career on the back burner.) After a tour to support the new disc, they went their separate ways again. Meanwhile, the reissues kept right on coming. The Lot, another box set (with similar cover art to The Business), gathers the band’s first six original albums, from One Step Beyond to Mad Not Mad, adding a few videos to each disc. No B-sides, rarities or surprises on this one. In 2002, Our House, a musical based on Madness’ songs, opened a year-long run in London. The soundtrack disc includes 21 songs from the production — mostly the well-known hits, but also songs that might be less familiar to casual fans (“White Heat” from Mad Not Mad, “Prospects” from Keep Moving, the title track from The Rise and Fall) and two new tunes, “Simple Equation” and “Sarah’s Song.”
Labels on this side of the Atlantic jumped onto the compilation wagon too. Total Madness adds “One Step Beyond” to 11 songs culled from the three Geffen releases; The Millennium Collection offers another selection of Incomplete Madness, gathering a dozen scattershot choices. At 19 songs, Hip-O’s Ultimate Collection is a much better deal — the most comprehensive Madness compilation available on the American market.
To commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2004, the band booked a series of concerts as the Dangermen, performing songs by many of its original inspiring heroes. A dozen of those tunes showed up the following year on The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1. (Guitarist Chris Foreman left the group during these sessions, but rejoined the following year.) With reggae legend Dennis Bovell at the board, the band all but drops its pop and music-hall leanings in favor of a faithful rock-steady approach. Even its selections from outside the bluebeat canon — the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On,” the Kinks’ “Lola,” and “High Wire,” the theme from the ‘60s British TV series Danger Man — get the classic ska treatment. The musicians sound confident and relaxed on these songs…and why shouldn’t they? They’re on holiday. The Dangermen Sessions is a good disc for a laid-back afternoon — about as satisfying as UB40’s Labour of Love (and a lot better than UB40’s sequels to that breakthrough hit). But fans hoping for “the heavy, heavy monster sound” won’t find it on this album.
They won’t find it on The Liberty of Norton Folgate, either. What they will find is a mature, remarkably complex, brilliantly realized album, in which Madness explores London’s history and culture, the band’s place in it and its sound in greater depth than ever before. (The title refers to an obscure section of northwest London.) After a brass-and-chamber-orchestra overture, “We Are London” kicks in with a jaunty, instantly appealing strut, as the band takes the listener on a guided tour: “Down to Chinatown for duck and rice / Along old Compton Street, the boys are nice / On Carnaby you can still get the threads / If you wanna be a mod, a punk, a Ted or a suedehead / You can make it your own hell or heaven / Live as you please.” “NW5,” “That Close,” the young-love-gone-wrong tale “Sugar and Spice,” “On the Town” (with a cameo by former Bodysnatchers / Special AKA vocalist Rhoda Dakar) and the delightful “Rainbows” are charming examples of classic Madness pop. “Bingo,” “Forever Young” (not the Dylan song) and the radiant “Dust Devil” show that the septet’s grasp of ska, and the ability to integrate it seamlessly into a more eclectic sound, has only deepened with time. “MK II” paints a haunting picture of a fugitive’s girlfriend who remains loyal even in abandonment: “They’ve made enquiries / They’ll make it easy / But she won’t answer / ‘Cause she’s not really there.” “Idiot Child” tells the familiar story of an irrepressible child: “Lo and behold, two gherkin men / With their military stance did shout / ‘Mark my words, Mrs. Hutchinson / We’ll sort this laddie out.'” The disc-closing title track extends the “We Are London” tour concept through a suite of four distinct musical movements, touching upon ska, waltz, Bollywood-style soundtrack music and the ever-reliable music-hall (right down to the “Have a banana” lyrical aside), blending in everything including the kitchen sink — and the sink from the loo while they’re at it. Yet the end result is that rarest of pop-music artifacts: a ten-minute song that breezes by like a three-minute single. Hands down, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is Madness’ most consistent, creatively advanced album — its own version of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. (The deluxe British release includes a DVD, in the PAL/Region 0 format, of a 64-minute concert film shot by Julien Temple. An earlier premium release includes seven additional finished tracks from the sessions, plus a third CD of demos, rehearsal takes and live performances. If you find a copy of this version, don’t hesitate.)
After such an impressive new album, what could we expect next from the lads? How about another best-of? Total Madness — not to be confused with the Geffen release of the same name — compiles 23 singles, updating the story with “Lovestruck” and “NW5” (at the expense of any selections from Mad Not Mad). The package includes a DVD of videos, in PAL/Region 0. Madness is unquestionably one of the best-loved bands in British history, but by this time, the group has joined the ranks of classic rock’s elite in the most dubious way: like the Beatles, the Who, the Doors, the Byrds and Hendrix, Madness now has more compilation albums in its discography than original ones.