What is the best way to do a music livestream without an audience? During the pandemic, artists have come up with many different approaches to performing for distant fans. We’ve seen unplugged living room sessions. We’ve seen bands looking embarrassed in silent rehearsal spaces. We’ve seen lavish special effects, camerawork and choreography yielding something more akin to a spontaneous music video than a concert. We’ve seen singers holding microphones down below face shields. We’ve seen masked orchestras and string sections lending gravitas to pop and rock. We’ve seen artists reading fan tweets between songs, or worse yet, walls of Zoom video faces staring from behind the band like creepy digital surveillance juries.
It’s all been awkward and weird. Musicians want to play and earn their living, and fans are ready and yearning to hear them, so livestreams are a noble pursuit. Everyone wants them to work and turn out great. But it comes down to a philosophical riddle like the tree falling in a forest. If a band plays live, but no one is there to hear them, is it really live music? Or just a studio session?
Back in June 2020, Suggs and Mike Barson teamed up for their Two Mad Men and a String Quartet livestream. As delightful as it was, slaking Madness fans’ thirst with an intimate set of old favorites and a couple of new numbers, there’s no denying it came off a bit flat. When they turned their attentions to a major online event with the full band unit, Madness dug deeper. A lot deeper. Fueled by the creative energy of writer/co-star Charlie Higson, The Get Up! presented a musical-comedy-variety extravaganza from the London Palladium on May 14. The Get Up! wildly succeeded by reassessing the possibilities of putting on a concert without a live audience and doing something wholly different.
Higson and the band clearly realized that they should focus on doing a production that would be impossible in front of a live crowd, instead of apologizing for the shortcomings. Without an audience present, you can edit. You can mix scenes from interiors and exteriors. You can use movie magic to put band members in multiple places at the same time. You can set up elaborate scenarios and gags. You can tell a story.
The promotional materials for The Get Up! draw inspiration from the classic old Ealing Studios comedies,
plagiarizing paying tribute to the posters for Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob. Advance synopses revealed that Higson would be playing the ghost of the London Palladium. This led me to speculate that the plot might revolve around the band rehearsing in the empty concert hall, only to be plagued by ghostly interruptions and spooky Scooby-Doo hijinks. (And honestly, that sounds pretty good! Rut-roh, Thommo!) But it turns out the team cooked up something a lot more ambitious.
The Get Up! starts from the unspoken premise that “Madness live” does not compute without a live audience. It cleverly solves this conundrum by casting the band members as the audience at their own show, ushered by Charlie Higson’s grandiloquent compère Victor Marley. They’re all confused about what’s on for the evening’s bill of entertainment, and our first clue that all is not what it seems stems from Lee’s late arrival. Thommo is stuck outside hunting for the hall’s rear entrance, and yet there he is in the lobby, playing a catchy lounge arrangement of “The Return of the Los Palmas 7” with his bandmates in gold lamé suits. This “dramatic Madness” group turns up on stage, reenacting primordial rehearsals at Mike’s house, while the “real Madness” group fires off wisecracks at themselves from the fourth row.
This daft conceit results in a surprisingly multilayered dialectic. First off, it’s a celebration of the Madness mythology. All the old yarns about their Invaders days are thrown in there, the gospels fans have studied from music rag articles on down to the Before We Was We book and documentary. Mike bossing everyone around, Suggs being fired for missing practice in favor of football, Chris inadvertently coining the band’s name, everyone being crap at their instruments. And it’s all gleefully mashed together without regard to historical basis or chronology. Other names from the revolving-door band roster go ignored, and Chris, Bedders and Woody’s lines are mostly sitcom zingers on fabricated obsessions with rockabilly, disco and heavy metal. Most hilariously, the doorbell at the Barson house is the “Baggy Trousers” school bell! We feel the tension between “what really happened” and this cartoonish dramatization of the band’s legend, and for all practical purposes the legend wins.
The storied tale of Mike’s Melody Maker ad seeking to replace Suggs forms a natural pretense for bringing on the evening’s special guests. First there’s a welcome return for Roland Gift, who’s been far too scarce since the Fine Young Cannibals days. Then we get the Guvnor himself, Mr. Paul Weller, auditioning for the Nutty Boys prior to forming that marmalade-nicked group of his. As a total Weller fan, I nearly fell on the floor with delight. “I’ll let you know,” Paul sniffs on his way out the door. Perfect. Personal biases aside, I do appreciate how these two surprise guests were age-appropriate figures of that era, eschewing any upstart young bucks who weren’t even born when Madstock happened.
Being their own audience also gives Madness abundant opportunity to take the piss out of themselves. They observe how “the geezers playing us” are too old and untalented. Barbs fly about Suggs’s limited vocal skills. Yet the band laughs good-naturedly at this self-inflicted roast, not disputing their portrayal on stage but generally owning up to it. It’s a fair cop! Hats off to Mike Barson for overtaking Lee, Suggs and Higson as the comedy MVP of the show. From pounding clumsy proto-“Baggy Trousers” piano chords while belting out “My Girl,” to his star turn as HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Barso gamely puts himself out there and scores big laughs throughout.
And what are we to make of Lee’s side quest to get inside the Palladium? Ostensibly it references Thommo’s long history of not entering concert halls through the front door, choosing rear fire escapes and bathroom windows instead. At first I expected this to culminate in Lee swinging in from the ceiling on a wire or some such acrobatics. Instead the outcome was more suitably low-key, as Lee ends up unable to find the stage door, “Hello Cleveland” style. He banters with a smart-alec bartender (Higson again), a spoof of the ghostly Lloyd who serves Jack Nicholson in The Shining. When Lee asks how he can get to the stage, the bartender advises him to practice hard and follow his dream. That’s a perfectly fine Tommy Cooper sort of joke, but I think there’s more going on here. The problem is that Lee assumes he’s supposed to be performing on stage, but his mythical counterpart is already occupying that role. Lee doesn’t know his place for the evening is in the audience, and that’s the real reason why the bartender acts obtuse.
During a brief intermission, the real Lee finally takes his seat with his bandmates, more concerned with the overpriced drinks than having missed the first half. Victor Marley attempts to kick off Act II with a ponderous recitation of the band’s career achievements, but the guys impatiently boo him off. “Play some music!” Mike jeers. “Grandpa, we love you, but we want to hear something!” Here the band cannily serves as a surrogate for the punters watching from home, a certain segment of whom have surely grown weary of all the chatter and messing about up to this point. The boys happily undercut the whole premise and demand some real Madness music. Which they duly deliver. To themselves.
If the first half of The Get Up! sees the band being visited by the ghosts of Madness past, then the second gives us the ghosts of Madness present. Queen Barso issues a royal proclamation to start moving one’s feet to the rockingest rocksteady beat, and Madness erupts in their full showtime splendor. It’s striking how much you can hear without crowd noise. I’ve been irritated by yobbos at Madness shows shouting and scuffling and socializing amongst themselves, far more interested in drinking beer than drinking in the music. This format gives me the selfish opportunity to savor every unsullied note. Instrumentally the band’s sound is robust and in fine fettle despite the layoff, with Thommo in particular spewing forth a lusciously fat sax tone. Suggs, bless ’im, admittedly comes across a bit rusty. But he’s putting in the effort and seems more or less sober for a change. “House of Fun” gets a lovely church-organ coda that you’d never be able to discern at a Madness gig. On the other hand, you get to realize how much the “1-2-3” in “Shut Up” relies on audience participation.
It is a pity that “NW5” is the sole representation of the band’s rich recorded output post-1986. But I can easily forgive this in light of the three brand new tunes presented: “Baby Burglar,” “If I Go Mad” and “The Cruellest Comedy.” Completing the Dickensian trifecta, this is our glimpse at the ghosts of Madness future. For my money, “If I Go Mad” is the emotional high point and dramatic climax of The Get Up! It’s fresh and different, while making an immediately indelible impression as a great Madness song. Woody and the brass section dominate with a rollicking big-band jazz rhythm, as Suggs builds verses that fit his vocal range like a tailored suit. Then the chorus drops a call-and-response bomb destined go down a storm with live crowds: “If I go mad (if I go mad) / Without you (without you).” Just when it can’t get any better, Suggsy crams the middle eight with a double-time rendition of the “Here’s to everybody” toast from their cult favorite 1985 B-side, “Call Me.” Oh my God, I instantly love this song forever.
The band members in the audience mostly recede into the background during the dynamite second half, occasionally popping in for a Statler and Waldorf quip or two. To some extent they seem to swap roles with their onstage counterparts. Which Madness is more real, and which is the performance? In truth, both versions are equally theatrical and equally genuine, depending on your perspective. The band has attained the status of legends, and long after they are gone, it’s their works and their mythology that will live on.
One last important note. Even though The Get Up! hinges on Madness playing their own audience, this is not a solipsistic exercise that disregards us fans, who remain the audience that counts. Charlie Higson drives this point home in a poetic early exchange.
“I told you, Suggsy, this place is full of ghosts. Ghosts of all the audiences who ever came. And all the audiences who never came. All those people who should have been here during this time of pandemic. When this pernicious disease has closed all our theatres. Those people who should have been packed in those seats will be here with you tonight. A ghostly presence watching everything.”
In a program brimming with jokes and irony and outlandish tomfoolery, those are the most truthful lines spoken. The invisible spirits haunting the London Palladium were us.