The year 1986 was a tumultuous time of transition for all of us old-school Madness fans. And for myself even more so, since I was in my senior year of high school and facing big decisions about my future. It was a pivotal moment when I had more consequential matters to worry about than my favorite pop band breaking up. And yet somehow my pursuit of college admission got intermingled with my love of Madness, as I shall relate forthwith.
During my junior year, I entered a short story in a scholarship competition called the North Carolina Writing Award. It was a lark and I expected nothing from it, but I ended up winning first place in the county. So I was invited to the state finals at Duke University, where I squared off against the other finalists in writing an extemporaneous essay in a big intimidating auditorium. I won second place in the state, which scored me major scholarship funds to put me through either UNC or Duke, and cemented my confidence in writing as the skill I wanted to build a career around.
But that’s not why we’re here. The incident of musical interest took place on the night before the Duke finals. It was my first visit to Durham, which now has been my home for some 25+ years. That evening my Mom and I stopped at a big mall called South Square, long since demolished, and I browsed a Record Bar music store. In this prize wonderland I found a rare and amazing discovery: the Dance Craze soundtrack. I had read about the elusive 1981 concert film, but here was the music on vinyl LP in my hands for the first time. At the checkout I remember telling the cashier I was super impressed with Record Bar’s selection. I’m sure I sounded like a pimply little dork, but I meant it. I thought this city of Durham must be a happenin’ place. Maybe I did want to live there and go to Duke instead of Chapel Hill.
I spent that night in the hotel admiring the kick-ass album sleeve, glad of something to divert the stress of tomorrow morning’s writerly showdown. The triumvirate I knew as the giants of 2 Tone – Madness, The Specials and The (English) Beat – all together on one live album. It was a crossover team-up event like the Avengers of ska. I also knew Bad Manners, but I’d never heard The Selecter or The Bodysnatchers. How cool, how exciting!
Dance Craze was a real watershed in my development as a music fan. Most fans think of Dance Craze foremost in terms of the movie, but for me the soundtrack is forever more memorable and important. I’ve only seen the movie in crappy VHS bootlegs and on YouTube, since legal entanglements have prevented official home video releases. On the last night of a 2017 visit to London, I had a ticket to see a screening of a high-quality print at a club in Islington, with Rhoda Dakar doing a live set afterward. But I came down with pink eye on the trip and decided to stay in. Later came to find out the projector had broken and there was no show that night.
But anyway, what was so significant about the Dance Craze soundtrack? Unbelievably, it was the first opportunity I really got to hear how Madness sounded live. Think of that. Just as the band was packing it in, I finally learned how flippin’ amazing they were on stage, when it was too late for me to ever experience the nutty sound in person. (Or so it seemed.) But let’s set that thought aside for the moment, so I can first give the rest of the artists on the Dance Craze soundtrack their due.
The Specials dominate the album, taking the opening and closing tracks, and rightfully so given their status as the progenitors of 2 Tone. Terry Hall sings lead on “Concrete Jungle,” which songwriter Roddy Radiation sang on the album. I’d have to say Roddy sings it best with that rockabilly swagger, but Terry ain’t half bad. I first heard “Man At C&A” on Dance Craze, since I didn’t yet have More Specials at that point. I definitely prefer the live version without the Mickey Mouse voice. “Nite Klub” makes for a storming finale, with a merry Terry offering a more generous appraisal of the klub scene than usual: “All the girls are very nice and all the boys are pissed!” And his band introductions during the extended bridge have long been my mnemonic device for knowing my Specials members. “On drums, Brad! On bass guitar, Horace!”
The Beat is in fine form on their three tracks. My first album of theirs, the What Is Beat? compilation, contained bonus live versions of “Ranking Full Stop” and “Mirror in the Bathroom,” so I very much knew what to expect here. The band’s inclusion in Dance Craze left my younger self with the vague impression that The Beat had been on the legendary 2 Tone Tour, but of course they weren’t.
I was familiar with Bad Manners thanks to their minor novelty hit, “My Girl Lollipop.” The 1982 Forging Ahead is the only album I’ve ever had by Buster Bloodvessel and co., and only on a cassette I gave away long ago. It was interesting to find this “lesser” act elevated onto the same level as the big boys, and their “Inner London Violence” had a harder edge compared to their laddish goofball tunes I knew.
And then there’s the two girl-singer groups, The Selecter and The Bodysnatchers. Both of them blew me away. I pored over the little photos on the back of the album sleeve trying to figure out which one was Pauline Black and which one was Rhoda Dakar. For a while I guessed wrong and had them reversed. The Bodysnatchers made a huge impression in their one number, “Easy Life,” but it would be many years before I got access to any more of Rhoda’s music. I was more taken with The Selecter, especially Pauline’s shimmering vocals on “Missing Words” and the cute way she went “hey!” in the chorus of “Three Minute Hero.” After Dance Craze, I got my hands on Celebrate the Bullet and totally ate it up. I remember thinking it was like music from the future, despite the album being about six years old by then. My Stateside Madness cohort Poly Collins has proclaimed his longtime crush on Rhoda Dakar, but I’d have to say I’m a Pauline Black guy… even though Pauline shares the same name as my dear departed grandmother, which is kinda weird for one’s sexy pop idol.
And now back to the feature attraction of the Dance Craze soundtrack: Madness live. It seems hard to believe, but in those early years I had no exposure to what Madness really sounded like on stage. Like most U.S. fans, I lacked the means to attend their concerts, and TV appearances were nearly always mimed. Their live act, so renowned across the U.K., Europe and east Asia, had been systemically withheld from America. In 1984 Madness made a landmark live performance on Saturday Night Live, and as I detailed in my Where’s the Band? post, I found it lacking. I actually decided Madness must be a studio band not really suited for the stage, like Steely Dan or something. Boy howdy, did I have that wrong.
Listening to Dance Craze was the first time I ever got to hear a legitimate high-fidelity recording of Madness doing their thing wide-open. It was a revelation. Three top tracks from the One Step Beyond album that I so cherished, executed with dazzling energy and verve. Barson and Bedders dueling like fencing masters in the mind-blowing bridge of “Razor Blade Alley.” Chas screaming his head off in “One Step Beyond” (“Soul to soul, nation to nation! Madness is musical appreciation!”) as the band lays siege like an unstable nuclear reactor threatening to implode. Suggs making the most of “Night Boat to Cairo,” his one brief spotlight on the whole soundtrack, while Chris goes extra twangy, Woody goes extra bangy, and Thommo goes extra cranky. Every song a show-stopper.
When the Dance Craze soundtrack was first released on CD in 1990, it was a crushing disappointment to find the Madness tracks omitted because of legal issues. A first pressing with Madness included was immediately recalled, but a few copies that slipped out sold for astronomical prices on the collector market. When the three missing songs turned up on a 2009 anniversary deluxe CD of One Step Beyond, I tried to playlist them together with the rest of Dance Craze, but with the different sound mix and fade-outs, they would not blend seamlessly together. Ultimately this mess got resolved with the 2 Tone: The Albums box set in 2020, which includes the soundtrack in all its original unexpurgated glory at last.
I can’t overstate how much that Dance Craze album taught me. But not just the illumination of Madness’s full talents. Not just the introduction to The Selecter and Rhoda Dakar. Not just the beauty and harmony of these six quirky British bands all woven together at a singular moment in pop culture history. More than that, Dance Craze was a harbinger of the key role that live music was going to assume in my life going forward.
Back in 1986, live music was basically an abstract concept for me. The only shows I’d ever been to were country music stars like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. Late in my senior year I ventured to take a first “grown-up” night out with friends, going to see a local reggae band on an Asheville college campus. It was like touching a live electrical wire. I never knew music could have such visceral presence, hitting you in the chest and lighting up your whole nervous system. This was a whole new experience, and I liked it. A lot. I began to see that records and tapes were only like pictures of music, a second-hand accounting of music. As Mike Watt puts it, everything is either a gig or a flyer. Records are nothing but flyers to get people to the next gig. Live music is what matters.
I ended up choosing to attend UNC over Duke, thank goodness. My top extracurricular activity was seeing live music at Chapel Hill clubs and other area venues. Arguably that was more educational than all my English and sociology and poli-sci classes put together. In my freshman year alone, I got to see R.E.M., Echo and the Bunnymen, 10,000 Maniacs, Sting, U2, fIREHOSE, and many fine local bands like the Pressure Boys and Billy Warden and the Floatin’ Children. My college years fell within the dark hiatus without Madness, but there was no shortage of live music for me to absorb and savor and learn from.
Looking back, I consider the Dance Craze soundtrack to have been my first college course in both Madness and music in general. As Chas Smash aptly noted, “Madness is musical appreciation!” Everything before that was grade school, me with my little cassette tapes and pop music magazines. Many years later, following the band’s triumphant return, I would embark on my graduate studies by seeing Madness live for the first time at Madstock 2009. I think I finally earned my master’s degree at the Kenwood House Madness XL orchestral concert in 2019.
And this Stateside Madness blog you’re reading right now? It’s my ongoing doctoral thesis.