Beyond Madness, my second favorite British act of all time is Paul Weller. Relations have been friendly and collegial among them over the decades, dating back to Weller citing “Embarrassment” as an inspiration for the Motown beat of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” Of particular note, while working as an early ’90s A&R rep at Go! Discs, Carl Smyth helped Weller launch his solo career. In the past year, Weller joined Madness on stage at House of Common 2019 to great acclaim, and he guested on Suggs’s Love Letters to London BBC Radio 4 series, which saw the pair of them duetting on “Nobody’s Fool” by Ray Davies.
And now Lee Thompson has turned in a guest spot on Weller’s high-profile new album. On Sunset went straight in at #1 in the UK, giving Weller the accomplishment of topping the album chart in five consecutive decades, a feat matched only by Lennon and McCartney. There’s no American angle in reporting this Weller and Thompson collaboration (safe to say On Sunset isn’t making history in the U.S. charts), but when anyone from Madness teams up with one of my other musical heroes, you better believe Stateside Madness will have something to say about it!
Thommo contributes a laid-back sax solo on the Weller-penned track “Walkin’.” Paul has been enthusiastic in his praise for Lee’s work. “I’ve seen Lee playing blinders in recent years, both with Madness and with his Ska Orchestra. He’s a terrific player.”
Have a listen to “Walkin’” (Lee comes in around 1:38.)
So what do I think? Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing. The song isn’t the most interesting on the album, and it sounds a lot like a reworking of “Here’s the Good News” from 2005’s As Is Now (which wasn’t one of the most interesting on that album, either). Probably unfairly, I had imagined this would amount to something more like Lee’s brilliant guest sax on The Specials’ “Hey, Little Rich Girl,” where it’s 100% that inimitable Lee Jay Kix Thompson sound, whereas the “Walkin’” solo could be any decent session player.
I believe my reaction to On Sunset has suffered from too much anticipation and advance buildup. This is also the case with the 7-minute opening track “Mirror Ball,” which has been hyped as an epic creative watershed in every Weller article and interview for the past year, but hits me – as much as it pains me to say – as a boring swing and a miss. (Apologies, Paul.)
But new songs do often need to grow on you, and I will say that I’m warming up to “Walkin’” the more I listen to it. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a nice, breezy, easygoing summer tune. I’m happy Lee Thompson played on it. This partnership between Weller and Thommo gives me hope that someday I’ll get my fantasy wish of hearing Paul belt out a cover of a certain old Madness tune he rated back in the day. That one what Lee wrote.
In the course of their intimate Two Mad Men and a String Quartet performance shared online June 6, Suggs and Mike Barson debuted two new Madness songs. “Theatre of the Absurd,” a Suggs composition, appears to be a spiritual sequel to his solo track “The Greatest Show on Earth” with a more somber tone. The other new tune is of particular interest to us at Stateside Madness, for reasons Barso outlined in his introduction:
“This song is about the dire straits over the pond at the moment. No, not really at the moment. It’s a song about our cousins in America, yeah. Leaders of the world. And where they’re leading us, who knows?”
Running just over 90 seconds, “All the President’s Men” is a terse meditation on social and political turmoil in recent U.S. history, mourning the current tattered state of the American dream. Barson borrows the title from the Woodward & Bernstein exposé on Watergate (and the subsequent Redford & Hoffman film adaptation), which originated as an allusion the irreparable injury following Humpty Dumpty’s fall.
The song is bracingly relevant in the context of international protests in response to the death of George Floyd. The mood and message beautifully fit the string quartet format, and an eventual studio recording could likely prove to have a similar sparse arrangement. A fantastic new piece of work to suit our troubled times.
The year was 1963 The last one for Kennedy In ’68 the Lorraine Motel On the balcony Where the Doctor fell From a single shell
A last shot at democracy Shining city on a hill Land of the free Seventeen agencies Looking out for thee The NSA and Homeland Security
A shot rang out The sound of gunfire echoes ’cross the mall The future sucked into a dark black hole Short-sighted small minds clamour for control
But there’s no dream no more Psyops are now running the score And the money trickles upwards evermore You’d almost think it was 1984
American Madness fans have always got the short end of the stick. Sporadic tours, loads of music unreleased on U.S. labels, and our general suffering from the band’s local reputation as a novelty ’80s one-hit wonder. But there is one notable category in which only the U.S. (and Canada) got the very best version of Madness. Because the North American edition of the 1984 Keep Moving album is infinitely superior to the original British release in every possible way. Fight me.
But before we step into the bloody ska-octagon to duke it out, let me rewind. Prior to Keep Moving’s appearance, “Our House” had made me a Madness fan, and I had tracked down the band’s domestic and imported back catalogue. In this interval I wondered what the future might hold for Madness. Would they go back to being an exclusively British phenomenon? I recall telling a friend my anxiety over possibly “losing” my new favorite band if they didn’t have more U.S. hits. “Do you think they’ll try again?” I asked with trepidation. At this point I would have had no idea of Mike Barson’s impending departure or the band’s internal tensions, but for some unfounded reason I feared there may not be a next Madness album.
Then one Saturday night in early 1984, as I watched Night Tracks on SuperStation TBS, I caught an unfamiliar piano melody being pounded out by an absurdly long-armed fellow. The piano spontaneously exploded, a distinctive rhythm section joined in, and my shocked brain sputtered “Wait, could this be Madness?” when Suggs McPherson himself appeared, singing in the rain with his sunglasses on. The music video credits gave me the lowdown:
MADNESS “The Sun and the Rain” Keep Moving Geffen Records
Whoa! An unexpected new Madness song! A new Madness video! And better yet, a whole new Madness album! Unreal! I was so overwhelmed with sensory bombardment that I could barely absorb the song. All that registered was lyrics about inclement weather, that killer Barson piano riff, and the band wearing red bodysuits inside a mockup of Suggsy’s hollow head. How thrilling to see proof that Madness was indeed trying America again. One might say they were resolved to keep moving.
The next morning I mentioned to my dad that Madness had a new album out and I was anxious to hunt for it. I figured we’d need to run to Camelot Music in Hendersonville, where I had bought the One Step Beyond / Absolutely double cassette. Daddy ended up running some errands on his own that day, and to my surprise he called home from Pretzel’s Records in nearby Canton. He said he’d found a Madness tape at the store and wanted to make sure it was the right one. Yep, Keep Moving! That phone call was an unusual gesture from my dad, so I must have made a major impression about desperately I wanted this Madness tape. Teenage whining pays off sometimes.
Oh, how delighted I was with Keep Moving! This was my first time getting a new Madness album upon its release, and it was spectacular. The one reservation I had at first was that the style of the vocals was now… different. Suggs had begun crooning, with a velvety tone all whispery and soft around the edges, compared to his cockney croak from early Madness. Carl got more honey-throated too, on “Michael Caine” and “Victoria Gardens.” Initially I thought their smoothed-out serenading sounded a tad posh and phony, but I soon accepted it as a natural consequence of maturity.
That’s really the defining character of Keep Moving: rich, complex, sophisticated. Less zany and madcap, more artistic without veering into pretentious, still genuine and fun. A mature Madness. I found Keep Moving to be better than 7 and The Rise and Fall, and today it still ranks in my top three alongside One Step Beyond and Absolutely. The finest Madness albums have a consistent level of creative quality, no clunky fillers, each song building strength upon strength in a harmonious flow. The cover of the cassette stated “Contains two bonus songs not available on LP,” and even those were good. Altogether, 14 lovely tracks that belong right where they are.
I finally got to hear “Wings of a Dove,” which had been intriguingly mentioned as their new UK single in a Trouser Press article. Madness plus steel drums plus hallelujah gospel choir? Totally loved it. The music video for that track became a lot more widely played in the U.S. than “The Sun and the Rain,” finding heavy rotation on Nickelodeon’s Nick Rocks video program. I remember their credits subtitled the song as “Wings of a Dove (A Celebrity Song)” instead of Celebratory. I think the gimmick with the van parachuting out of the plane helped to sustain the faint impression of Madness in the American consciousness, at least among teens and tweens.
Funny thing about “Victoria Gardens” – listening to it, I thought the chorus sounded kinda like The English Beat, whose What Is Beat? greatest hits I had recently got. The liner notes cryptically credited “General Public: Back Vox,” which I thought literally meant they had recorded strangers off the street. It was a few months later that a catchy single called “Tenderness” hit the airwaves, I learned the name of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger’s new band, and the penny dropped.
Keep Moving has always been my Madness album for Sundays. Maybe in part since I actually got it on a Sunday, but mainly because it has that relaxed, easygoing lazy Sunday afternoon mood. Certainly compared to the caffeinated jump of most of their other records, Keep Moving is the one to chill out to. The album also has a pleasantly old-timey sound that’s hard to put in words. It reminds me of idyllic 19th century paintings of gents in barbershop quartet outfits on pennyfarthing bicycles and ladies with parasols strolling through the park, especially “Brand New Beat,” “March of the Gherkins” and “Prospects.” These are not typical pop songs of the ’80s. They are from another time. I remember many times mowing the yard with Keep Moving on my Walkman, and laughing to myself, “Man, no other kid in North Carolina is playing this kind of music.” I was proud to be weird, and still am.
Years later, when compact discs came along, I was in for a long-overdue discovery. Getting a batch of Madness import CDs through mail order, I found to my dismay that the songs on Keep Moving were totally screwed up. And the two biggest songs, the ones with the great music videos, weren’t even on there at all! What the hell? What kind of lousy botched job had I got cheated on? Ridiculous!
And that’s when I figured it out. The original official Keep Moving had a totally different running order than the one I knew and loved. Most significantly, “The Sun and the Rain” and “Wings of a Dove,” which had been released as UK singles in 1983, were not included on the album. This was the dreadful truth. The real “two bonus songs” included on my Geffen cassette weren’t “Time for Tea” and “Waltz into Mischief” at all. AAAarrrghghhh! NOOOOOOO!
Well, damn. All I can say is that whoever the Geffen executive or producer was who assembled and packaged their release of the album, they were a total genius. They didn’t just arbitrarily scramble the running order, they clearly put constructive strategy behind it. Because like I said, the North American edition of Keep Moving album is infinitely superior to the original British release in every possible way. Just take a look.
🇬🇧 1. Keep Moving
🇺🇸 1. Keep Moving
🇬🇧 2. Michael Caine
🇺🇸 2. Wings of a Dove (A Celebratory Song)
🇬🇧 3. Turning Blue
🇺🇸 3. The Sun and the Rain
🇬🇧 4. One Better Day
🇺🇸 4. Brand New Beat
🇬🇧 5. March of the Gherkins
🇺🇸 5. March of the Gherkins
🇬🇧 6. Waltz into Mischief
🇺🇸 6. Michael Caine
🇬🇧 7. Brand New Beat
🇺🇸 7. Time for Tea*
🇬🇧 8. Victoria Gardens
🇺🇸 8. Prospects
🇬🇧 9. Samantha
🇺🇸 9. Victoria Gardens
🇬🇧 10. Time for Tea
🇺🇸 10. Samantha
🇬🇧 11. Prospects
🇺🇸 11. One Better Day
🇬🇧 12. Give Me a Reason
🇺🇸 12. Give Me a Reason
🇺🇸 13. Turning Blue
🇺🇸 14. Waltz into Mischief* * U.S. cassette only
“Keep Moving,” “Wings of a Dove,” “The Sun and the Rain.” Boom, that’s an epic trilogy of an album opener. I’ve heard UK fans remark that the two singles clash with the tone of the album and don’t belong. Nonsense. I think they mesh splendidly with the band’s refined new sound.
The last fading notes of “Brand New Beat” ring in “March of the Gherkins” without a pause, like “Heartbreaker” segues into “Living Loving Maid,” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Separating them is sheer folly.
“Michael Caine” gets a comfortable buildup before its cinematic atmosphere unfolds. It’s a good song, but I don’t think shoulders the weight of the album’s #2 position. Sharing a sense of spy novel intrigue, “Time for Tea” feels right as an off-kilter epilogue.
“Prospects” is a quintessential Side 2 starter, resetting the table for the album’s next movement. The song’s languid outro nicely tees up Dave and Roger’s merry bounce into “Victoria Gardens.”
The brooding “Samantha” turns the corner into the dark heart of Keep Moving, leading off a suite of four minor-key-type tunes that mean serious business. The emotional catharsis of “One Better Day,” the suspense-thriller soundtrack climax of “Give Me a Reason,” the urgent denouement of “Turning Blue.”
“Waltz into Mischief” supplies the much-needed cooldown and signoff, as a raucous pint-raising singalong chorus gives way to chuffed strings and brass winding down to a stop.
I just can’t listen to the UK Keep Moving. It doesn’t make sense to me, and the beautiful flow is not there. It’s amazing how much difference the sequencing of songs can make. When I gained the technology to burn my own CDs, the first thing I did was create a disc of the American Keep Moving. Geffen eventually issued it on CD in the U.S., thank goodness, almost matching the old cassette but with “Time for Tea” inserted as track 13 instead of track 6. Not perfect, but close enough to be serviceable.
All that being said, and as much as I relish chanting “USA! USA!” in this specific context, I freely admit that it’s all subjective. When a creative work comes in multiple variants, in films or books or music, you’ll always prefer the version that you fell in love with, whether it was the original or altered or what. I’ve actually had the exact same experience with another landmark British pop album from 1984: I’m biased toward the Style Council’s American My Ever Changing Moods album, even though Paul Weller fans almost unanimously revere the original Café Bleu. Fair play to all the other Madness fans who likewise feel their treasured edition of Keep Moving is flawless and unbeatable.
To borrow a phrase from the pen of Lee Thompson: Star-shaped badges that shine around, called “Wings of a Dove” and “The Sun and the Rain,” come free in your U.S. Keep Moving bumper pack. But if a different tracklist is left around too long, it’ll burn right through to your heart and your soul.
Trouser Press was a legendary U.S. alternative rock magazine published from 1974 to 1984, perhaps best known for its comprehensive Trouser Press Record Guide books. The following is a fantastic article by Jim Green that ran as the cover feature in the magazine’s penultimate issue dated December 1983/January 1984.
This was the single most memorable and important piece of journalism I read on Madness in my first year as a fan. It taught me a lot of the fundamentals of the Madness backstory (how they got their name, the 2 Tone connection, Carl’s evolving role) and gave a peek into how the sausage of the Geffen U.S. album was made (how traumatizing for Suggs to spit “I don’t like it”!). This was the first time I ever heard of their “current British single, ‘Wings of a Dove,’” many long months before I would actually hear the song. And in retrospect, how amusing indeed to see young Suggs decry the horrific notion of a Madness concept album with 14-minute songs. So please enjoy this fine Trouser Press profile, in its transience and in its permanence…
The transatlantic telephone line is dominated by the muffled distortion and hiss common to calls made across a thousand leagues of water; the voice at the other end also cuts off intermittently for split-second intervals. At one point, though, the speaker obviously pauses, as if to gather his thoughts on a subject he rarely discusses, at least not with the press.
‘‘The image of the band is itself almost as strong as the music, if not more memorable, to the average person,” says Graham McPherson. He is referring to Madness, the group in which he is lead vocalist (and, true to form, in which role he is far better known as “Suggs”).
“I don’t know if it’s right or not,” he continues hesitantly, “but musically we’ve been looked on as something instant, not really worthy of analysis.”
Nobody would argue that, least of all McPherson’s bandmates – until the release of the septet’s fourth British album, The Rise and Fall. Madness has moved into new musical and lyrical ground, with the fullest realization of their capabilities to date. Yet the record incurred critical brickbats from the British music press, which characterized it as depressing, and – unkindest cut of all? – “said you couldn’t put most of the songs from it on the jukebox.”
What a switch from the days when Madness was branded too frivolous and lacking in the “socially relevant” virtues of the other outfits with which it was lumped: Selecter, the Beat and the Specials. (The last were the so-called vanguard of neo-ska and proprietors of the 2 Tone label on which the others got their starts.) But Madness has rarely received comment from the Britpress, positive or negative, that hasn’t been based on one prejudgment or another.
That the group suddenly matured isn’t, in the members’ own eyes, deserving of celebration by the press. Nor do they seek the critical scrutiny and interpretation inflicted on artists like Elvis Costello or even the Jam. They just want a fair shake.
If McPherson, bassist Mark Bedford and guitarist Chris Foreman (the latter two available to chat during this summer’s US tour) are representative of their bandmates, one of Madness’s most salient characteristics is a distinct lack of self-consciousness. Madness most likely would have entered the 2 Tone graveyard long ago if they’d been more calculating than what they’ve always been: a bunch of friends who like making music together.
Mark Bedford: “If anything, we’re more influenced by outside sources now than when we started. Back then” – when they were mostly in their late teens – “we, like most kids, thought we knew it all; no-one could tell us anything.”
When Madness started, as the North London Invaders in 1978, there was no “movement” or trend. The band did what they enjoyed, even if few pubs encouraged them.
Another band called the Invaders (from West Yorkshire) staked a claim on the name, necessitating a switch. No one was satisfied with Morris & the Minors (a pun on a British automobile). Then Foreman suggested rechristening the group after one of their songs. As a jokey example he mentioned “Madness”; Prince Buster’s ’60s ska hit was a keynote of their set.
To Foreman’s dismay, the others leapt on it at once. “I didn’t like it,” he says. “I thought it was the kind of thing for an Alice Cooper-type band. But it stuck.”
McPherson now is bemused by the group’s youthfully naive élan in those days. “Like anybody, you don’t really imagine or realize that you’ll be a great success. We always knew, when we were young, that anything we did would be brilliant. Every time we played we expected everyone to go mad, but it didn’t go beyond an immediate enthusiasm for impressing people, as opposed to becoming nationally successful.”
In early 1979 the Specials created 2 Tone and garnered lots of attention. When word got out that they were looking for other groups to put on their label, Madness jumped at the chance. “We sent them a cassette – a rehearsal tape, really,” Foreman says, grimacing.
“Jerry Dammers [the head Special] still has it!” Bedford laughs. “He told me he still listens to it once in a while and has a laugh.”
Still, Dammers and company heard something of merit in it. By September, Madness was enjoying its first bit with its tribute to Buster, “The Prince.”
“We weren’t mugs,” Foreman asserts. “We wanted to get an album out right away.”
“We wanted to do it with 2 Tone,” Bedford adds, “but [the Specials] only had money enough to do their own album.”
Label shopping resulted in their signing to Stiff. An LP, One Step Beyond, was quickly recorded and followed its namesake single into the UK Top 10; the album went platinum during its 64-week chart residency.
Other bit singles followed. Madness’s albums sold even better than most of their 45s, but English pundits jeered the group for being a “singles band” – as if that somehow cheapened the success. Image problems persisted. Madness suffered in the aforementioned comparisons with their former 2 Tone mates (or, for that matter, whichever “serious” new world-beaters were current press favorites).
“We never said, ‘We’re a ska band,’” Foreman claims. “We never put those limits on what we were doing.”
“That’s musical suicide, sooner or later,” Bedford says.
“Other people lumped us into that but we didn’t mind; we knew what we could do,” Foreman adds. “Calling our music the ‘Nutty Sound’ was a way to avoid categorizing ourselves. ‘Nutty’ was just a word Lee [saxman Thompson] used a lot, and someone picked up on it.”
The “Nutty Boys” might have smacked all too much of bubblegum-style merchandising, but even skeptics found it hard not to be taken in by Madness’s wacky antics in front of movie or video cameras. The group released a semi-autobiographical feature film, Take It or Leave It, in October, 1981, and then Complete Madness, a compendium of videos with added linkage and a pair of their Japanese TV commercials thrown in for good measure. And they remained overwhelmingly popular in the UK.
What could be wrong? Gradually, band members got married – notably McPherson to songstress Bette Bright, and drummer Dan “Woody” Woodgate to ex-Mo-dettes bassist Jane Crockford – and started families. But something was brewing.
Bedford admits the marriages have crimped Madness’s former camaraderie. And he and Foreman are both less than pleased with the band’s third album, Seven (despite its spawning “House of Fun,” Madness’s first Number One single).
McPherson remembers the situation more clearly: “I was satisfied with Seven, but the others weren’t. We didn’t have the best feeling when we recorded it, in Nassau in the Bahamas; I think we were pressin’ down there, which was very strange.
“It started feeling very professional. That side of things was becoming more prevalent than with the previous two albums, where it was pure luck we were there at all.
“Clive [Langer] and Alan [Winstanley], our producers all along, became scapegoats since they were in control of the proceedings.
“After we got back to London we were thinking of trying other producers. We met Trevor Horn, whom no one got along with. It made us realize how good Clive and Alan are as communicators, apart from everything else. It brought us closer together again.”
Madness then created their best album by far. What made the difference?Just a better atmosphere while it was being recorded?
Bedford and Foreman mention that the band’s working up different arrangements of the same number had a key effect. McPherson puts that new (for Madness) technique into a larger context.
“I think we realized that maybe we had been restricting ourselves, just like any bunch of kids will do. It’s like we weren’t ‘allowed’ to do certain things; none of us would have grown a beard, for instance, and musically it was probably the same. Certain things were ‘uncool,’ like to do introspective stuff. The Rise and Fall was generally more thought out. It’s the first album we’ve made that’s an album, not a collection of songs.”
Indeed. Would you believe a Madness concept album?
“It was gonna be about the rise and fall of a normal person in a particular area that was falling into bad times. ‘Rise and Fall,’ ‘Primrose Hill,’ ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Blue Skinned Beast’ were all linked together. But as other songs started to be written, it kind of lost its way. We realized you had to write songs to fill in bits of the story, to keep it moving, but that they might not be very good or able to stand on their own.” McPherson sighs at the thought of “14-minute songs” and such – heaven forfend!
The way the album jelled reveals the vital interaction of Madness’s members. Foreman and keyboardist Mike Barson have long been the songwriting mainstays as well as musical arrangers; Bedford, who’s now writing less, is getting into technical aspects.
“I saw him reading a technical book on engineering,” McPherson says, “and he’s produced singles by two bands, Bonsai Forest and Strawberry Switchblade. Now at least one of us understands what’s going on at that end of things.”
“Woody docs the sleeping for the band,” Bedford jokes, while pointing out that Woodgate did write “Sunday Morning.” McPherson mentions that everyone has taken a more active interest in writing – collaborating more than ever – and arranging.
“That’s part of the reason we’ve stayed together,” he explains. “There’s no pressure on any one person to think of a concept or do all the songs.”
The piece of the Madness puzzle that’s fallen into place is vocalist and trumpet player Carl Smyth – best remembered by early American fans of the group as the zany seventh member, “Chas Smash.”
Smyth got involved with Madness as a friend whose dance antics and vocal hijinks (he’s the voice on “One Step Beyond”) were worked into the group. But he seemed something of a fifth (or in this case seventh) wheel; he doesn’t appear on the cover of the first album.
“There was a funny period just after One Step Beyond that Carl didn’t have much to do with,” McPherson says. “He was a member of the band, but he wasn’t really involved with anybody else – particularly me, because we’re both singers. We talked about it between ourselves, and it must have been strange for him; I think he felt he was sort of outside us, yet felt changing that would be pushing me out. He didn’t push his position ’cause he didn’t know what it was. But we decided that whoever had the right thing, be it words or music or singing, we’d do whatever seemed right.”
Smyth’s enthusiasm is evidently catching. “He’ll have a million ideas when we start talking about videos,” McPherson says, “another million when we’re getting things together for it, and when we’re actually doing it he’ll have a million more. It’s like he had something bottled up in him and suddenly the cork sprang out. He’s brilliant. We probably wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t like he was, because out of every million ideas come 10 really good ones.
“And he’s always thinking of dance routines we can do, or whatever. If things start flagging a bit, he’ll pick us up.”
Now known within the group as “Mr. Bosh,” Smyth reverted to his given name for songwriting credits. Since co-writing “Cardiac Arrest,” a hit single on Seven, Smyth has made several important contributions – notably co-writing “Our House” (“Carl lives in one very much like that,” Foreman says), “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” and the current British single, “Wings of a Dove.”
Madness fans got a bonus with the British single version of “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day”: a guest lead vocal by Elvis Costello.
“I’d heard an old rockabilly song,” McPherson says, “which started out with a bluesy version, then faded out and back in to a rocked-up arrangement. I thought it’d be great to have something like that on ‘Tomorrow’s Just Another Day’ – an arrangement that sounded old and bluesy, just 20 seconds at the beginning of the song, and then cross-fading into the newer version, which we’d already done.
“The backing track was cut, slowed down a bit and quite good. But I couldn’t come to grips with real singing. So Carl had a go; he did a good version, jazzed up a bit in the phrasing, but it still didn’t sound quite right.
“By that time we’d finished the album and still had this backing track. Clive was soon going to be producing the new Elvis Costello album, and I think Chris suggested he ask Elvis to try it. He was really good; came in, did it and left. If he hadn’t, we’d still have that backing track sitting around! I think it was one of the best vocals he’s ever done.” Perhaps in deference to Madness, Costello sang with a British accent, which he also tried out on Punch the Clock.
In the US, Sire Records had released One Step Beyond and its follow-up, Absolutely; both albums promptly died the death. Sire didn’t bother with Seven, but Madness, hugely successful everywhere else, wasn’t too concerned. “We didn’t tum our back on America, really,” Foreman says. “We just kind of forgot about it.”
According to Geffen Records A&R man Danny Heaps, however, US labels didn’t forget about Madness – especially as the group racked up hit after hit in England and Europe. In early 1983, Heaps says, Madness approached Geffen – a hot new company that had just started the last time the band had an American release.
“They were a logical signing. Remember, at that time Dexy’s was number one here. And you know, that stuff about Madness being ‘too English’ for the US is nonsense.”
“We picked Geffen for the same reasons we signed with Stiff,” Bedford says, “because of the people we talked to. They accepted us for what we are – not saying, ‘You’re great but you’ll have to do this and you ought to do that.”‘
Geffen released Madness, a compilation drawn mostly from The Rise and Fall but digging as far back as the first album.
“I don’t like it,” McPherson states. “It’s a scrapbook, not an album.”
Foreman is more philosophic. “Programming the album that way is, well, the way things are done for the US. I didn’t used to feel this way about it, but now I realize it has to be.”
Heaps argues that Geffen’s track selection, “instead of putting out all of The Rise and Fall, was purely commercial logic. The stuff from Seven, which includes singles, has never been out here – and ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ [from One Step Beyond] is just a track someone in the company really wanted on there. We wanted to put on ‘Madness’ or ‘The Prince,’ but the group would allow only so much of our delving into the past.”
The “commercial logic” paid off. Madness has sold over 200,000 copies, and spun off two hit singles: the Top 10 “Our House” and a version of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love.”
Future plans? Typically, McPherson chuckles and quips that he’s anxious to “have some of the stew that my beautiful wife’s knockin’ up on the cooker.” More seriously, he’s looking ahead to the next Madness album. Recording began last spring, before an American tour, and resumed this autumn.
“Before we recorded The Rise and Fall,’’ Bedford says, “the mood of the country was pretty grey.” He mentions Britain’s economy and the Falklands war, referred to in “Blue Skinned Beast” – dead soldiers were put into blue body bags. In contrast, Madness’s spring studio session were much more uptempo.
“We’re looking out for our more introspective tendencies,’’ McPherson says, “even though we’re not sure we’ve been going into them that heavily, so we can balance that with our more flamboyant side.”
Madness getting self-conscious? Losing artistic innocence? Maybe… and maybe not. McPherson still believes in group dynamics.
“The Rise and Fall succeeded because there was so much collaboration. Everyone had to stay interested, or we wouldn’t know what was going on the record! People change and grow together when they get so intensely involved. I think we were all in the same groove, the same vein, when we made that record.”
That’s what he thinks makes Madness yield up its best work: democratic anarchy.
Back when I was a newly minted Madness fan, after “Our House,” One Step Beyond and Absolutely had won me over, I found myself on the horns of an international crisis. Pop journalism informed me that the band had another two full albums to its credit: 7 from 1981, and The Rise and Fall from 1982. But since Sire Records had dropped Madness before their big 1983 hit, those two most recent records remained the stuff of legend in the United States. That didn’t stop me from checking the “M” section at every record store in obsessive-compulsive vain, though I knew the search was going to require purveyors of exotic imported goods. And I would have to deal not only in foreign commodities, but also with a foreign format: the vinyl LP.
In all my music-loving life, I have never been a vinyl person. I did grow up in a home with a turntable, and my parents had a decent stack of country music LPs stashed in the closet by the likes of Conway Twitty, Hank Snow and Dolly Parton. But I never remember Mom and Dad playing records. They always just listened to the radio. My older sister had her vinyl collection with The Carpenters, Neil Sedaka and Frampton Comes Alive!, which of course she never wanted me messing with. I was raised on 8-track tapes and later cassettes. Only rarely did I ever own anything on vinyl beyond kiddie records. I demanded for my folks to get me the Kiss Alive II double LP, only because someone brought a copy to school and showed off all the cool scratch-off tattoos and goodies that didn’t come with the cassette. And I had a few odd 45 rpm singles like “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s (major crush on Belinda Carlisle) and “Rapture” by Blondie (which I got by mailing in Pop-Tarts box tops).
Frankly, I just never liked vinyl. The sound was all crackly and prone to skipping. It was a pain to flip the record over. They were so fragile and easy to wreck with a single scratch or stray wisps of dust. Vinyl lovers extoll the “warmth and richness” of the “superior dynamic analog” whatever, and more power to ’em. They can take those old records off the shelf and sit and listen to ’em by themselves. In my book, tapes sounded way better than phonograph platters then, and well-mastered compact discs sound way better now. Yep, I think vinyl sucks.
But if I ever wanted to obtain the elusive 7 and The Rise and Fall as a teenager, I was going to have to settle for the import LPs. With a bit of work, I ended up scoring them both. Looking back now, I see evidence that Stiff Records did in fact release them on cassette, which would have been a blessing beyond imagination to my younger self. I gather that the market share for cassettes was quite smaller in the UK than in America, and in my music collecting experience I can’t recall ever seeing, in person, import cassettes by artists I like. You’d have to turn to our friends at Retro Madness to procure such rare museum-class artifacts.
I actually found The Rise and Fall first, to make my reversed timeline of Madness catalogue discovery all the more knotty. The band’s fourth album turned up at an eclectic record shop in Asheville, North Carolina. It may have been a used copy, but if so it was in nice condition. Of course I was amazed to lay my lucky hands on it, but not unreservedly thrilled. For one thing, by that point we no longer had a record player in my house. Either we’d gotten rid of the old turntable for some reason, or my sister had taken it when she’d moved out. On top of that, I thought the price on the LP was outrageous. I don’t recall how much exactly, but it was probably around $15 – exorbitant by my financial standards at the time. The very idea of shelling out twice the cost of an average cassette tape, for a record I couldn’t even play at home, and half of whose songs I already had on the Geffen compilation? Sworn to Madness allegiance though I was, it was still a bitter pill to gulp down.
Stirring further consternation was a little grocery-store-style sticker on the back of the LP sleeve: “MADE IN SPAIN.” Whoa! An import not from England’s mountains green, but shipped all the way from the land of tapas and toreros! It bore the Stiff Records label, though the fine print specified “Editado por Discos Victoria, S.A,, distribuido por Edigsa.” With grave concern I went to ask the shop clerk: “If this record’s made in Spain, will the singing still be in English?” He assured me with amusement it would be. It’s a good thing I was unaware of “Un Paso Adelante” at that point. ¡Ay, caramba!
So I purchased my Spanish-but-not-Español Madness record and took it to my aunt’s house to give it a first listen, before getting a friend to make a good cassette recording on his stereo system. I recall my first impression was… underwhelmed. I could see why Geffen had fashioned a compilation for U.S. listeners instead of issuing The Rise and Fall. Tracks like “Mr Speaker (Gets the Word)” and “New Delhi” just aren’t very strong. “Sunday Morning” is charming enough, but it comes across as a less successful variation on the same themes as “Our House.” (Probably as evidence that only Chas and Woody contributed songs about their upbringings, per the album’s original concept.)
I was more impressed with the clever verbosity of “Tiptoes” (rhyming “the door’s already shutting” with “to reach the 19th button”!) and the unusual musical structure of “That Face.” To me, Mike Barson’s piano and Mark Bedford’s bass are the quintessential elements of the Madness sound, and it’s remarkable how “That Face” arranges their parts in minimalistic bursts that create both tension and airiness in the gaps between. It’s a mature new style that points toward the direction of Keep Moving.
In my 11th grade English class, we had an assignment to present a song of our choice to the class and analyze its lyrics like poetry. Mrs. Caldwell told us to find songs with more artistic or social relevance than “baby baby let’s party” or whatever. I chose to discuss “Are You Coming (With Me)” and dissect its bleak message of trying to reach a self-destructive friend in the throes of drug addiction. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t pick some other Madness tune like “Embarrassment” – another Lee Thompson composition with a meaningful story behind it, and a catchier melody. I believe in part I liked the idea of playing this tape recorded from a super obscure record that none of my captive audience would ever hear otherwise. And it was an opportunity to show that my favorite band could do something more serious and soulful than that “house in the middle of the street” ditty.
Not long after I got The Rise and Fall, I acquired the 7 album through mail order. My friends and I had discovered a company called Burning Airlines (still in business since 1978!) that sold music T-shirts and merch. We had sent away for their full catalog, and among the typewriter-keyed listings of import LPs I spotted “Madness 7.” I’m sure it must have cost even more than what I’d shelled out for The Rise and Fall, but price could no longer deter me. I had to gain the one remaining “lost” Madness album by any means necessary. I know one motivating factor was my OCD need for something to put on the blank side of my Rise and Fall tape. Less rewinding!
Once I finally got it transferred to the B-side of that cassette, I was generally more pleased with 7 at first blush than I’d been with The Rise and Fall – not least because it had a greater number of new-to-me tracks, a total of ten. And of the familiar ones, two were different mixes. Compared to the Geffen Madness album, “Cardiac Arrest” was shorter and “Shut Up” was longer. In both cases I prefer the extended outro versions. I became an instant fan of “Tomorrow’s Dream” (nothing at all like the Black Sabbath song), “Benny Bullfrog” (favored among my friends that I tried to convert to Madness), and “The Opium Eaters” (proof that the band could really do a brilliant film soundtrack). I’ve always thought “Day on the Town” is underrated and deceptively chilling, a dub-tinged spiritual cousin to The Specials’ “Ghost Town.”
One particular track holds dark personal memories for me. When was in my first fender-bender as a newly licensed young driver, 7 was playing in my Oldsmobile Cutlass tape deck. I got rear-ended on the highway, and just as I braked to a screeching halt, the opening bars of “Sign of the Times” chimed out, Barson’s plonked keys taunting “ding-ding-ding, ding-ding-da-ding!” at me like a game-show loser alarm. I couldn’t bear to listen to 7 for months from the PTSD flashbacks.
Another thing I have to mention about 7 is the album cover. I still think it’s the best artwork on any Madness album ever, even better than the iconic nutty train. On the Divine Madness DVD commentary track, Chas and Mike argue about which one of them choreographed the 7 pose, which reminds me of a superhero team splash page. In fact, I had a poster of it on my bedroom wall since I first became a Madness fan, which surely predisposed me to like the album once I finally got it. And I love the inner sleeve with the 7×7 checkerboard grid of famous sevens, septets and sevenths: the 7 deadly sins, the 7 wonders of the world, the 7 seas, Seven Samurai, 7Up… so awesome! As I had done with The Rise and Fall, I finagled this album into another school assignment by drawing a detailed pencil study of that epic 7 cover. Poor Mrs. Williams also had to grade me on a rendering of Big Country’s Stuart Adamson in pastels, and a giant mural painting of Beta Ray Bill from The Mighty Thor.
Once I got my first CD player in 1987 as a college freshman, I was able to track down all the Madness albums on import CDs within a couple of years. And boy, did 7 and The Rise and Fall benefit from crystal clarity in place of the snap, crackle, pop of my LP recordings. Vinyl, I still hate your guts. But I thank you for making some important introductions and lasting connections in my life. To paraphrase that song that heckled me at the terrifying instant of my first car wreck:
This is disposable, throw it away This is on vinyl, don’t let it play That was the past, so leave it behind I found the music, it’s all in my mind
How many Madness albums have never been released on disc in the U.S.? Which states have they ever played in outside of New York and California? Where did they once share an amazing bill with David Bowie and the Go-Go’s? When were they on Saturday Night Live that one time, and what songs did they play?
Now you can find the answers to these scintillating questions and more on our new U.S. History page here on the SSM blog! We’ve pieced this archival inventory together from various online sources, including Discogs, Seven Ragged Men, Setlist.fm, Concert Archives, Fandom Concerts Wiki, and Madness on TV. It’s far from complete, and may or may not be 100% accurate, so we welcome your additions or corrections. Especially in terms of the concert calendars, there plainly must be a few gaps.
This will be an ongoing project, a living document with updates made as we get better and more comprehensive information. And let’s hope the band’s future holds plenty more U.S. history yet to be written.
Courtesy of our friends at BMG, Stateside Madness is pleased to make the first public announcement of the forthcoming greatest hits compilation, Our House – The Very Best of Madness. The album is set for release exclusively in the U.S. on May 15, in conjunction with the band’s North American tour later that month.
Our House will be available on CD, vinyl LP and digital bundle. See above for a first look at the album sleeve artwork, which is similar to (but slightly different from) the Full House compilation released in the UK in 2017.
The new collection consists of 12 tracks spanning the whole of Madness’s career (full list below). Of particular note to fans and collectors, this will mark the first physical release of any kind for “Bullingdon Boys,” which debuted as a digital-only single in November 2019.
Our House is clearly designed for the American market, named for and led off by the band’s biggest stateside hit, with the other familiar single “It Must Be Love” in the second slot. As a clever nod to the band’s U.S. beginnings, the track list also includes the subtly polished remix of “Night Boat to Cairo” that first appeared on the 1983 Madness album released by Geffen in the U.S.
But this collection isn’t entirely stuck in the past – Our House is the band’s first-ever hits collection for the U.S. that encompasses their 21st century post-reunion output, making room for “NW5” and “Mr Apples” alongside the very recent “Bullingdon Boys.” Discovering these new tunes, casual American fans whose fond memories of the ’80s are rekindled by the 2020 tour will have the chance to learn that Madness is still very much alive and kicking in the present day!
As a budding Madness fan in 1983, I was surprised to learn from music magazines that “Our House” was not, in fact, the band’s first hit song. It turned out they had four albums out in the U.K., where they had racked up a whole slew of hits with evocative names like “The Prince” and “Baggy Trousers.” What the what? How come we never heard any of this in America? My archeological mission to excavate that hitherto unknown Madness music was on.
I gleaned from the press articles that their first two albums had been released in the U.S. by Sire Records, who then dropped the band due to poor sales. So I knew those should exist somewhere within reach. The Tape Shack and Sky City in my hometown would never stock anything so obscure, though. I turned to Camelot Music at Blue Ridge Mall in nearby Hendersonville, NC – at that time surely the biggest and most awesome record store in western North Carolina. This place had everything, with rows upon rows flush with punk, new wave and underground rock, from Black Flag to Bauhaus, from Leonard Cohen to Siouxsie and the Banshees. This Camelot was not at all a silly place, and I spent many a happy hour browsing its wares and testing my parents’ patience. In later years I’ve shopped at major chain record stores in Los Angeles and London that were no more spectacular. It goes without saying that Camelot Music is long since defunct.
But back on that one cherished day I maneuvered through the “M” section of Camelot’s cassette bins, and there to my wonderment I spotted One Step Beyond and Absolutely. Both on one tape.
Putting two complete albums on one cassette was a moderately popular trend at the height of the cassette era. The labels must have noticed how music lovers were recording two albums on 90-minute blank tapes, which was especially attractive with the advent of mobile music via the Sony Walkman. Warner Music Group (including Elektra, Atlantic and Sire) spearheaded the movement with their distinctive “Two on One” branding. The value proposition offered consumers double the product for a cost of one or two dollars more than a standard cassette. Some tapes combined two big hit records, while others disappointingly paired one classic with a lackluster later release. That’s marketing for ya.
Now in the case of Madness, here was a minor British act that Sire had taken a gamble on and didn’t pan out. The individual releases of One Step Beyond (1979) and Absolutely (1980) were big flops, and the combo cassette’s 1983 release date indicates it appeared only in response the success of “Our House.” This improbable duplex, nonexistent in the U.K., was devised for the sake of curious Stateside risk-takers like me.
And oh man, what a blessed discovery it was. Playing that tape in Daddy’s pickup truck on the ride home was nothing like my first exposure to Madness, when I grappled with whether or why I should embrace the nutty sound. Diving into both One Step Beyond and Absolutely all at once, I loved them all at once. I had drawn a double-decker Excalibur aloft from the enchanted Camelot stone.
I think the only hesitation I had at first was the rawness of the vocals, in comparison with Suggs’ relatively silky crooning on “Our House” and “It Must Be Love.” In fact, I was under the false impression that all of the singing on the first two albums was the younger 1979-80 Suggs – it took me a while to figure out which tracks were sung by Carl or Lee. To be fair, those three north London voices sounded pretty much the same to a 13-year-old American kid. Regardless, the vocal stylings grew on me soon enough, and the punchy zip of the music had me captivated from the bellowing call to attention that opened the first album to the quiet “Good night” at the close of the second one. The Geffen Madness compilation sparked my interest in the band, but it was this anthology of an older vintage that confirmed me a lifelong fan.
One Step Beyond and Absolutely have been reviewed and rated ad infinitum, and anyone reading this probably knows what they sound like. I just ask your indulgence to paint the picture of how this double cassette indelibly impressed my younger self. The only song on it that I knew previously was “Night Boat to Cairo” (a remix of which was included on the Geffen album). The other 28 tracks were entirely new, unfamiliar, and at times downright koo-koo, and yet I felt connected to them right away.
The sheer amount of musical invention was dizzying. One thing I quickly grasped was that Madness had an instantly identifiable sound, and yet no two songs sounded the same. They had a rock-solid, muscular rhythm section, and melodies anchored by deft piano (or non-synth organ), all punctuated with flinty guitar and boisterous saxophone, topped off with wry vocals whose charm compensated for technical skill. Yet within this formula, One Step Beyond and Absolutely presented a sumptuous buffet of variations. In addition to your standard pop music themes of heartbreak, nostalgia and good-time partying, there were songs about deviant behavior, racial prejudice and social anxiety.
From the magazine articles I learned that Madness’s style of music was something called ska. Even though it would take me a long time to learn that only a couple of their earliest songs bore any legitimate resemblance to real Jamaican ska, it was plain even to uninformed ears that there was more than one musical genre on display here. By turns the songs incorporated R&B, Motown, oldies rock & roll, dance hall, classical, and TV sitcom theme stylings just as much as ska. And such off-kilter song construction, where the chorus is semi-optional, or you might get a scrap of one verse or some random shouting tacked onto a wild instrumental. One Step Beyond and Absolutely were packed with fascinating contradictions. Any given track could be both cheerful and somber. Both simple and complex. Both silly and profound. Both stupid and clever.
With mind fully blown, I delighted in listening to the double-dose crash course in Madness over and over and over. I loved to lie in my bedroom with a boom box resting on my chest, cranking Madness into my face for the sort of analytical close listening that music connoisseurs would typically do with headphones. I fondly recall studying “The Prince” like this, mentally isolating each of the main instruments as well as all the little bloooorps and swishy-swishies and tok-toks that accrete in intricate layers as the track progresses. This tape was my Sgt. Pepper, my Led Zeppelin II, my Dark Side of the Moon.
Speaking of favorite albums, it’s worthy of note that all of the most significant and influential music of my teenage years came on double-length cassettes. One Step Beyond / Absolutely (1979/1980), The Jam’s greatest hits Snap! (1983), Minutemen’s epic masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) and their compendium My First Bells (1985), the Skatalites’ live reunion Stretching Out (1987). A double album packed with great songs is inherently more listenable, since you can play it more without getting tired of it. And it plays right into a obsessive personality like mine: when I find something I love, I latch on with a rapacious appetite for mass quantities of it. You might logically argue I would have formed the same appreciation for One Step Beyond and Absolutely if I had bought them on individual cassettes. But I don’t think so. Being bound together in a single unit magnified the Madness energy exponentially and consecrated a holy talisman that felt less like two records and more like one big sprawling opus.
One thing’s for sure: any economic advantage I gained from buying the two albums on one cassette didn’t hold up in the long run, since I kept wearing it out mercilessly. I played it so much that the tape crinkled and started warbling like a broadcast from the innards of a dyspeptic whale. I suppose the two-on-ones may have used a thinner and less durable kind of tape in order to accommodate the longer running time. I went through three copies of the cassette: the original, a second I special-ordered from the local Tape Shack, and a third as a Christmas gift I requested from my sister. The final verse in “Believe Me” always reminds me of that holiday season – “Christmas comes but once a year, it’s a time of love and cheer.” With my One Step Beyond / Absolutely Mark III,I finally got wise and started making listening copies to leave the master tape in mint condition. This method served my rigorous demands until compact discs appeared.
Which brings us to the ultimate obsolescence that befell the beloved instrument of my Madhead education. Two-on-one CDs were never much of a thing, predictable given the traditional 74-minute capacity of the format. I have a nice edition of The Jam’s All Mod Cons and Sound Affects on one disc, as well as the Minutemen Post-Mersh collections, and how sweet it would be to own an official One Step Beyond / Absolutely CD, if the combined runtime weren’t a bit too long. Though I welcomed the superior digital audio (and ruggedness) of the compact disc, it was bittersweet to have One Step Beyond and Absolutely rent in twain by the grim march of technology. Still, my mind will always anticipate that school bell’s ring immediately after the Chipmunks finish their roar… and this, my friends, is precisely what iTunes playlists are made for.
Fans would generally say The Liberty of Norton Folgate was the first “double album” Madness ever released. Yeah, but not in my book.