A Momentary Lapse of Madness: 1986-1992

The breakup of Madness. A bleak, dispiriting time that all of us longtime fans had to suffer through in our own way. Of course 1986 wasn’t really the end, but we had no way of knowing that. For us it felt as permanent as the end of The Beatles or Led Zeppelin or The Jam. It’s going to be a challenge to write an essay on the years without Madness without being completely boring, but hey, being boring hasn’t stopped me so far. In my personal case, the breakup years coincided with a transitional growth period in my life that fortunately made the loss easier to cope with.

Certainly, no one who followed the band could say the breakup came as a shock. The writing was on the wall after the departure of Mike Barson. I’ve never written a blog post dedicated to 1985’s Mad Not Mad because I just don’t have much to say about it. I know a lot of fans love that album, and I respect that. But to me it was and still remains the low point of the Madness discography. I forced myself to play it with much dutiful enthusiasm, much like Homer Simpson’s hungry rationalizations over his runaway BBQ piglet: “It’s just a little synthesizery. It’s still good, it’s still good!”

More precisely, Mad Not Mad is analogous to the final season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus without John Cleese. Yes, there are moments of brilliance (see “Burning the Boats,” “Coldest Day,” “Michael Ellis,” “The Most Awful Family in Britain”), but the overall endeavor is a giant hemorrhaging wound with one indispensable creative contributor gone missing. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

Rumors were buzzing about that Madness was going to call it quits. I clearly recall how I got the confirmation in the most gentle and considerate way I could have asked for. One morning in 11th grade homeroom, I got a visitation from Julie Hale, a preeminent figure in our school’s punk rock community. She and I were by no means friends, just cordial acquaintances. But Julie Hale came to me that morning with her head held low, face hidden behind pink hair, hands clasped in fingerless gloves as she shared the grim news. “It’s true, Donald. Madness broke up. I’m so sorry.” And Julie Hale’s word on the alternative music scene was gospel, so this was a rumor no more. It was honestly touching that our gothic queen sought me out, in observance of my position as Tuscola High School’s #1 Madness fan, to serve as a solemn angel of mercy. The revelation sure could have gone worse delivered by others among my classmates: “Ha ha, stupid Madness broke up! You suck! In the middle of suck street!” Thank you for that kindness, Julie.

I’m kinda foggy on how I reacted from that point, reading that “(Waiting for the) Ghost Train” was their farewell single and finally getting to hear the song on MTV some months later. But I wasn’t devastated really. Looking back, I think I was inured by the tragic fate that befell my other favorite band of that era, the legendary California punk trio the Minutemen. I had discovered them in 1984, just a year after I got into Madness – but their mighty guitarist/vocalist D. Boon was killed in a car crash in late 1985. (Since then I have written creatively as D. Trull in tribute to him.) Within the space of a year, the two most significant bands of my high school years were both gone. In the case of Madness, though, all the members were still alive and well. And it was clear Suggs and the gang needed to find themselves new creative directions anyway. Exciting next chapters might lie ahead for them. So I was able to keep that breakup in perspective and carry on.

Contemporaneous with the end of Madness, in 1986 the surviving members of the Minutemen made a new start. Bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley formed fIREHOSE, fronted by a young Minutemen fan from Ohio named Ed Crawford. fIREHOSE swiftly filled the void in my life left by Madness’s departure. In my 1987 freshman year at UNC, fIREHOSE came to play in Chapel Hill and cemented their spot as my new favorite band. Their live shows were electrifying, and I got to chat with the gregarious Watt at gigs and even helped him write set lists. I felt more personally invested in and connected to the dudes from San Pedro than I’d ever felt with the boys from Camden Town. Madness had been my high school soundtrack, but fIREHOSE was my college music, no question about it. It wasn’t like I shunned Madness or quit listening to them. They just become a notch less important, a chapter of my past.

I got my first compact disc player in my freshman year, and that technological advance indirectly sustained my interest in Madness. Embarking on the obsessive (and expensive) scavenger hunt to repurchase my music collection on shiny silver discs, I found obscure acts like Madness were tough to procure in the new format. I believe the first Madness CD I got was an import of Utter Madness, or it may have been One Step Beyond. Whichever came first, I was sorely thirsty for them. It dazzled my ears to savor those nutty old tunes mastered in sparkling digital clarity. Toward the end of my college years I snagged the compilation It’s… Madness, as discussed at length in my post on B-sides. Hearing a whole slew of new-to-me Madness tracks reinvigorated my love for the band, now affirmed as more than a silly schoolboy phase I went through. Nope, that silly schoolboy phase never ended.

And all this time, I was entirely unaware of what the former members of Madness were getting up to. The Madness, Crunch!, Voice of the Beehive… all of their late ’80s projects were so low profile in the United States, they didn’t register on my radar throughout college. Reading an interview with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons in a comics fan magazine circa 1988, I saw these blocky illustrations of symmetrical cartoon faces captioned as his album artwork for “The Madness.” Well, that was bullshit, I thought. Some upstart band had the nerve to call themselves The Madness now? It would be another couple of years until I learned that these interlopers were in fact Suggs, Cathal, Chris and Lee.

Alas, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. I graduated from UNC in 1991, and as if turning on some cosmic calendar my musical constellations shifted once again. fIREHOSE was losing their pressure flow, so to speak, and they broke up a couple of years later. I would need a new artist to play the soundtrack of my twenties. Paul Weller, an old hero whose Style Council work I’d lost track of during my college years, roared back with a thrilling new solo career to assume that role.

And yet there was still another creative renaissance underway at this critical juncture. I got the message from a Worldwide CD mail order catalog that our beloved Julie Hale probably subscribed to as well, wherever she was. New import CD release: MADNESS AT MADSTOCK. Live recording from 1992 reunion at London’s Finsbury Park.

Our long dark tea-time of the Mad was ended.

Haaaaallelujah… Lay-loo-yah…!

More Mad Memories

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