I’m Gonna Take You to Ska City, NC

I became a fan of ska music in a distant foreign land where such music is unheard and unheard of: the mountains of western North Carolina. Madness was my entry point, which led to the English Beat, the Specials and the rest of the 2 Tone scene, and eventually brought me to ska’s Jamaican roots in the Skatalites and Prince Buster. Content with my many obscure interests, I knew ska was never going to be a thing in the land of my birth, and that was okay.

Fast forward to the spring of this year, when I was visiting my family in Waynesville and found some info my sister had printed about a free summer concert series in the neighboring town of Sylva. The scheduled acts for the Concerts on the Creek series ran the gamut of expected local tastes: classic rock, bluegrass, country, beach music, Jimmy Buffett covers. But hello, what’s this odd little listing?

Friday, Aug. 19: SKA City, ska music (7-9 p.m.)

ZOMG what in the…? Wait, that’s a typo, right? A ska band? Performing for my ancestral homefolk? Who are presumably meant to show up voluntarily? Is this real life? No, it couldn’t be… but yes it is.

Immediately I was determined to witness this show. More than that, I needed to connect with Ska City and find out what they’re all about. There was surely a kinship to explore here, a bond between geographically unlikely troubadours and blogger, each of us fighting the good fight for musical skappreciation in the wilds of North Carolina!

The history of Ska City dates back to 2019 when some Asheville-area musicians met up through Craigslist to form a small ska group that included Will Chatham (drums), Dennis Owenby (sax) and Vinnie Sullivan (guitar). The lineup shifted and expanded into the current population of nine Ska Citizens, rounded out by Julia Ruff (lead vocals), Rob Grace (keyboards), Garrick Smith (baritone sax), Dave Wilken (trombone), Gabe Holguin (trumpet) and Rob Heyer (bass). Rob Grace is an expatriate from Coventry, lending the enterprise a dash of authentic British ska cred. Out of the other members, Will is my only fellow native North Carolinian, with the rest drawn from various parts of the U.S. by Asheville’s renowned weirdo magnet.

So what gave Ska City the courage to skank it up in a ska-less land where black and white checkerboard means the NASCAR race is over with?

“One of the theories behind this group is that we’d either do well or go down in flames,” Vinnie says. “The reason being, is a ton of people we spoke to about doing a ska band would say, ‘SKA! Holy crap, I used to go to ska shows all the time!’ We knew the audience was there, just weren’t sure if we’d get people coming out. But we’ve been doing pretty good, getting bigger audiences and better gigs as we go along.”

Can it really be as easy as that? Ska bands are famously disrespected by the unenlightened, and us rude boys and rude girls have been subjected to simple rudeness. Has Ska City ever had to pacify a hostile crowd by resorting to “Rawhide” or “Stand by Your Man”? 

“Ha! Great question. No, never had to appease a crowd,” Vinnie says. “I assume we’re winning over anyone with an open mind, if they’ve never heard of or liked ska in the first place. We pepper the set with originals and classic ska and other covers, some covers that a country fan, for example, might recognize and get into.”

And what about covers that readers of this blog might get into? Of course I had to ask Vinnie, where does Ska City stand on Madness?

“We love Madness, a few of us have been ska fans since WAY back.” Unfortunately, there are no Madness or Prince Buster numbers in Ska City’s current set, but Vinnie suggests that could change. “I’d love to do ‘One Step Beyond’ or ‘Our House,’ classics for sure.”

The Ska City show took place at Sylva’s Bridge Park, which has a nice bandstand pavilion in front of scenic Scott Creek, with a big lawn where it’s BYO folding chairs and blankets. A paved patch in front of the stage serves as the dance floor. It turns out the band previously played here in 2021, so clearly it went over well enough for them to be invited back. The gathering all-ages crowd was already showing signs of interest during the sound check, which further boded well for the evening ahead. Ska City started the show proper will a peppy take on Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” widely recognized as the Blues Brothers’ opening theme. That made me smile in light of my earlier questions about any possible Bob’s Country Bunker nightmares.

The set list shrewdly kept the band engaged with a fair number of familiar songs without at all pandering: “The Tide Is High” (originally recorded by Jamaican rocksteady group The Paragons before Blondie made it a hit), Stevie Wonder’s “You Can Feel It All Over,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (rendered with the original lyric of “Brown Skinned Girl”), Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” and an inventive take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

But Ska City is no novelty cover band. They pride themselves on original compositions that slot in nicely beside the multi-genre standards in their set. A couple of drinking-related songs went down well with the crowd: Dennis Owenby’s “Raise Your Glass” and Dave Wilken’s “Pizza and Beer.” Another original (whose name I didn’t catch) addressed the challenges of finding romantic time with kids in the house, which must have resonated with the young parents of the rugrats running around all night. I enjoyed the band’s self-titled theme song, which Julia introduces as a primer on the meaning of ska. “There’s a little place (Ska City!) I’m gonna take you to (Ska City!) You’re gonna love it there! Bring your mama to (Ska City!)” The lyrics namecheck Prince Buster, 2 Tone, Coventry, The Specials, Selecter, The English Beat… but alas, not Madness. I has a sad. 😢

Ah well, I can forgive ’em that. I could still feel the archetypal presence of Madness at work, if only in my mind. Rob Heyer has a jazzy Bedders bounce in his bass, and Rob Grace conjures cool Barson energy in his porkpie hat and shades while laying down mellifluous organ. Most striking of all, saxman Dennis Owenby is the Lee Thompson of North Carolina, in stature as well as impish demeanor. “This next one’s a song we didn’t write,” Dennis quipped. “It’s still pretty good, though.”

Ska City had me hooked from the start. It was all over early in the set when the horn section heralded “Rudy, A Message to You” and I had to haul my ass straight to the dance floor. I did my best to exhort the crowd to take heed of Rudy’s cautionary tale, jumping around the concrete slab with some kids and a few senior citizens. (Plus the one dad in a ska T-shirt who joined in later, bless him.)

That huge classic led directly into the best moment of the night, a spectacular interpretation of “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. Ska City is far from the first ska or reggae act to tackle this revered jazz standard, but they really nailed it. The band got a serious Skatalites stretching-out groove cooking, with about everyone taking extended solos breaks in turn – just thoroughly impressive. The other high points for me were a blazing runthrough of Toots & The Maytals’ call-and-response colossus “54-46 (Was My Number)”, and the joyous shifting tempos of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” that closed the show with a suitable bang.

Here D. Trull shows the good people of Sylva how to ska.

All in all, Ska City delivered an evening of personal affirmation for me, and hopefully an entertaining discovery for other attendees. People always ask “What is ska?” But it’s something you can’t explain in words, or with YouTube videos, and maybe not even by playing great records. The only way to understand ska is to hear a good band play live. In this respect, my new comrades in Ska City are doing a fine public service.

Like the song says, I literally did bring my mama to Ska City – and my sister too. And I think now they know me a little better.


Thanks to Vinnie Sullivan and Rob Grace for graciously chatting with me for this article. Check out Ska City at Ska.City and on Facebook and YouTube.

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

The SSM Review: “Ooh Do U Fink U R?”

I’m totally biased about this one. Here we have my two favorite living male vocalists, both heroes of my youth, singing together on an original composition they co-wrote. Not gonna lie, Suggs and Paul Weller could fart the theme song from Gomer Pyle, USMC and I would wholeheartedly adore it. So take the following “critique” with whatever quarries of salt your cynicism may dictate.

That being said… “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is an amazing and delightful singularity of a single. I have played its brisk 2:24 on repeat over and over and over and over again, and every bit of this track puts a big stupid grin on my face. What a thing of joy it is.

The major standout and surprise to me is the deliberate misdirection of the title. In interviews over the past year or so, Suggs and Weller have teased “Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?” Such a colourful taunt evokes Cockney tough guys and criminals, suggesting a ballad along the lines of “Drip Fed Fred” or “Herbert,” or even “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” Maybe something in an Ian Dury vein, with Paul and Suggs trading spoken-word lines, conspiratorial and tongue in cheek. If the song had gone in this direction, it could have turned out really good or really silly. This project ran a high risk of yielding a disposable curiosity if the creative duo didn’t take it seriously.

But you know what? The self-styled “Neverly Brothers” opted for sincerity and plunged headlong into emotional honesty like I never expected. Suggs has told interviewers that the song is about the discouraging negativity he had to overcome as a schoolboy. It’s not other kids or hoodlums doing the abusive bullying, but the supposedly nurturing faculty.

“I think teachers are the best people in the world, I love them with all my heart,” Suggs says. “But you know all those great teachers you read about who dragged their pupils up, and encouraged them and made them into the best possible version of themselves they could be? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those!”

In studying institutional suppression of nonconforming youth, “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is reminiscent of Lee Thompson compositions like “Land of Hope and Glory,” “Idiot Child” and “I Believe.” But it may be more fair to call the song a dark spiritual sequel to Suggs’ own “Baggy Trousers.” It may be true that lots of fun was had, but it’s also worth pointing out how things can turn out bad… when teachers fail their students who don’t fit the standardized system. Clearly this is a theme that resonates with Weller as well, aligning with his lyrics from 1977’s “The Modern World.”

I've learned more than you'll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
And I'd look down upon the map
The teachers who said I'd be nothing

The really clever and subversive part of the song’s construction is the framing of one key word: Sunshine. Suggs and Weller transform it from a sarcastic epithet to a majestic blossoming of Small Faces harmonies, heralded by sparkling “Penny Lane” brass. Yes, Headmaster, as a matter of fact I do think think I’m sunshine. I’m pretty great and I’ll do just fine in life with or without your support, thank you sir. The concept works beautifully for me.

With the absence of liner notes for this digital single, full details on the personnel involved are unavailable. What we do know is that the songwriting credits are Graham McPherson and Paul Weller, indicating that this is different from the unfinished Chris Foreman lyric that Suggs reportedly forwarded to Weller for consideration. Weller reports that he recorded the instrumental track at his Black Barn studio, then Suggs came in to lay down the vocals with him. Paul is obviously the far more gifted vocalist, so it’s impressive how well their two voices blend together here, with Suggs given a comfortable range. Weller band members Andy Crofts and Ben Gordelier have both stated that they played on the track, so Steve Cradock and Steve Pilgrim are most likely on there too. I want to know if that’s Jacko Peake doing the reasonably good Thommo facsimile on sax.

As much as I admire it, I can admit “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is far from perfect. The song could really use another verse to define the schoolteacher antagonist more explicitly before rushing into the bridge. And the pronouns get confusing in the lyrical denouement: “But you never give up / No you never give in / ’Cause you are the one that set me free.” So the person who never gives up is also the one who comes to the rescue? On top of which, “Set me free / Set me free” is an awfully tired refrain to close out a track that’s otherwise rather inventive.  

I’m also disappointed in the goofy spelling of the song’s title with the lazy text message abbreviations. Paul and Suggsy don’t even pronounce “think” with an “F” in the chorus. But the worst part is leaving off the “Sunshine”! That’s the most crucial word in the whole song, fellas. Keeping it in the title would have been enough to distinguish it from the Spice Girls hit, with or without the illiterate inscription.

But in the end, none of that matters. For me this little tune will stand forever as the intersection of two creative pathways that I have tread along for the better part of my life. It’s a precious magical concoction. I know a great many listeners in the Madness and Paul Weller fan communities disagree, and that’s okay. To cite Weller’s own words from “The Modern World” once again, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I don’t give two f**ks about your review.

Thick as Thieves: Madness and Paul Weller’s Solid Bond

On March 24, 2022, Madness performed at the Royal Albert Hall supported by very special guest Paul Weller, as part of a concert series to benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust. Man, what a dream show that would have been for me personally. My two all-time favorite British acts together on one bill, at the magnificent venue where I was lucky enough to see Caro Emerald from the front row in 2017. It’s a lovely thing when your top music heroes happen to be friends who enjoy one another’s company.

There was plenty of fan carping about exorbitant ticket prices for the gig, which was after all a charity fundraiser. But if I’d had the wherewithal to fly back to London at this juncture, I would have gladly emptied my wallet. It doesn’t get much better than Madness and Weller at the Albert Hall.

Weller and his band played the unfamiliar role of opening act, serving up an acoustic set of 10 numbers spanning the whole of his 45-year career. Madness followed with a reported barnburner of a show, as per usual. I was hoping Paul might might join Madness for a rousing Motown classic encore as he’s done on occasion in recent years, but alas, it was not in the cards this time.

So let’s take a look at the longstanding history between the Modfather and the Nutty Boys, who seem to always have been good mates. I can’t find any evidence of The Jam and Madness ever performing on the same bill together, but surely they did at some point, at least on Top of the Pops or somewhere. Please let me know any details about any shared gigs I’m missing. In his memoir Growing Out of It, Lee Thompson relates an anecdote about seeing Jam-era Weller swimming naked at a Hollywood pool party, so the two young bands were running in the same sordid circles in those early days.

One interesting artifact where Madness and The Jam intersected, however indirectly, was the 1981 compilation LP Life in the European Theatre, a fundraiser to benefit the anti-nuclear peace movement. The stellar track list included “Little Boy Soldiers” from The Jam and “Grey Day” from Madness, alongside the likes of The Clash, The Beat, The Specials, Peter Gabriel, Ian Dury, and Echo & The Bunnymen. 

After Weller moved on to The Style Council, he interacted with Madness with more regularity. The two acts teamed up at a number of benefit concerts promoting political causes, including a 1984 Liverpool concert supporting a miners’ strike where Suggs and Paul duetted on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around.”

Madness later took part in the controversial 1986 Red Wedge tour, in support of the pro-Labour group organized by Weller, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Somerville and Rhoda Dakar. Chas was apparently the member of Madness most engaged with Red Wedge, and as it happened, he would later be instrumental in signing Weller to the Go! Discs label as a newly solo artist in the early ’90s.

In 2019, Weller guested on Suggs’ BBC Radio 4 series, Love Letters to London. The two discussed their shared fondness for Soho, then joined their voices in a Kinks song, “Nobody’s Fool,” known as the theme song from 1970s TV series Budgie.

Later that year Weller joined Madness at House of Common for another rendition of “Shop Around” along with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” Reportedly, the camaraderie at this gig led to Thommo appearing on Weller’s 2020 album On Sunset with a featured sax solo.

The mad/mod chumminess continued with Weller turning up as a surprise guest vocalist on Madness’s triumphant 2021 streaming event, The Get-Up! Along with Roland Gift, Paul gave a mock audition in Barso’s bedroom to replace Suggs (or were Madness auditioning for him?) with a knockout cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”

In their handful of musical collaborations to date, Madness and Weller have stuck to covers of classics from their mutual influences. As far as I know they’ve never tackled one of their own hits together. Weller has often mentioned his admiration for “Embarrassment,” which actually influenced the sound of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” I’m still holding out hope that Paul will cover “Embarrassment” one of these days, preferably live on stage with Madness in front of a raging crowd. Failing that, my runner-up nomination for Weller to sing would have to be “NW5.”

Conversely, Madness is superbly well-suited to take on any number of Weller’s songs. Mark Bedford’s expressive bass style is a lot like Bruce Foxton’s to begin with, and the late-period Jam hits with the horns and keyboards inch into the Madness instrumentation range. Just imagine Bedders and Woody barreling through “Start!”, Bedders and Barso owning “Town Called Malice,” or all members of the band getting a major workout on “Precious.” I can practically hear it.

But something even more enticing than those hypothetical Jam sessions is in the works. For the past couple of years, scuttlebutt regarding a new Weller/Suggs composition has been making the rounds. In a June 2020 “Chris’s Covid Cupboard” Zoom call (which I myself was honored to attend live), Chris Foreman related the following on the topic of songwriting in lockdown: “I actually sent one song that I’d thought up to Suggs because I thought he’d like it, and he forwarded it to Paul Weller, who added some lyrics and it’s sounding really good. So we’ll see what happens with that – I could have a new career writing songs for Paul Weller.”

In a Mojo interview in May 2021, Suggs spoke further on this intriguing collaboration. “I’vе written a song with Paul Weller called ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?’ [Whether this is the same song that Chris originated remains to be seen.] You know those people who say they had one teacher who turned their life around? I didn’t. I’m trying to couch that fact, not too negatively, that one makes one’s own path. We haven’t recorded it yet, no. But it’s there.”

Weller confirmed the story in a radio interview around the same time. “We’re still in the process of writing this song together, which is going to be great, but it’s just getting us both together in the studio. So I think we’re going to try and do it this summer anyway, and then whatever happens to it I’ve no idea. And I did that livestream gig, I did a song on that with them a couple of weeks ago at the Palladium as well. But they’re just great fellas, aren’t they? … I’ve always had a soft spot for all of them, for all the fellas in that band, and they’re just great characters.”

Asked about the vibe of the co-written tune, Weller offered, “It’s great. It’s called ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?’ so the title alone… [laughs] But the concept, I can’t tell you the concept. But the idea is good anyway, so yeah, we just gotta get in there and finish it.”

On a December 2021 installment of Dan Jennings’ The Paul Weller Fan Podcast, Weller’s tour manager Kenny Wheeler approvingly mentioned a demo recorded by his boss and Suggsy. So progress has continued. Sooner or later we can expect to hear “Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?” at last. Will it be a Weller guest spot on the next Madness album? Or a Weller track with vocals by Suggs? Or a Record Store Day single, or part of a fabulous Suggs & Paul Weller originals EP?

Whichever way they may choose, I would give these blokes anything, for just the smile they bring, for just a song to sing, stuck together for all time.

Update: “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” was released as a single by Suggs & Paul Weller about five weeks after this article was published.

B-side Myself with “The Business”

I’ve previously detailed my herculean labors to acquire the albums 7 and The Rise and Fall on imported vinyl, but tracking down the singles and B-sides was another magnitude of difficulty for us American fans. Mail-order catalogues and record shops seldom had anything on offer from Madness aside from the albums. I was only vaguely aware that the B-sides even existed.

I’d seen the occasional discography listing somewhere, peppered with exotic titles like Work, Rest and Play, “Nutty Theme,” “Stepping into Line,” and “That’s the Way to Do It.” No one ever talked about these phantom tracks in magazine interviews. Over here we had no idea what they might sound like. Or how good they were. In the best sour grapes tradition, I figured they must be inferior scraps and rejects, or else they wouldn’t have been B-sides, right?

But the nagging curiosity lingered in my mind. In 1986, when my cousin Regina went on a trip to London, I asked her to bring me back a couple of Madness singles so I could finally hear some B-sides. With the band’s career running down, I must have reasoned it was time to start rounding up the last bits of Madness I would ever get. Regina returned with a whole treasure trove of 12” singles snagged at the Oxford Street HMV.

  • “Wings of a Dove”
    b/w “Behind the Eight Ball” and “One’s Second Thoughtlessness”
  • “The Sun and the Rain”
    b/w “Fireball XL5”
  • “Michael Caine”
    b/w “If You Think There’s Something”
  • “Sweetest Girl”
    b/w “Jennie (A Portrait Of)”

She also brought me Furniture’s “Brilliant Mind,” a Stiff single in the UK charts at the time, because she thought it sounded like something I might like. Eh, it was okay, but almost entirely irrelevant next to real Madness B-sides! What an opulent collection of gemstones Cousin Regina had gathered for me, with the earthy musk of Lee Thompson sprayed all over them. “Fireball XL5” is surely the cult favorite of the bunch, and rightly so. But I was even more partial to “One’s Second Thoughtlessness,” where Thommo’s linguistic somersaults twist the concept of “one second’s thoughtlessness,” punctuated by his ominous gasps and whispers. (I recall gamely trying to convince my goth friends that this song had a vibe kinda like The Cure, circa “The Walk” and “Let’s Go to Bed,” but they weren’t having it.) And “Jennie” is a dazzling little pop nugget that totally should have been included on Mad Not Mad. You can tell Woody cowrote it, because the rhythm owns this song. So much good stuff.

As much as I cherished discovering this sampling of B-sides, you’d think I would have made it my mission to track down every Madness single. But I didn’t. Life got in the way as I left home and went to UNC in 1987. I didn’t own a turntable and it was a big hassle to get friends to copy vinyl records to tape. Besides, after getting my first CD player during freshman year, digital was where it was at. And honestly, I came to regard Madness as the sound of my high school days gone by. I still loved them, but the band was now over and it was time to move on. I was more into fIREHOSE and Screaming Trees, bands that were active and regularly came to play in Chapel Hill. Madness was receding into the nostalgia category, and while you’re a college student you don’t have much need for nostalgia. 

Of course, relics of the good old days do inevitably turn up. One afternoon when I was browsing at Schoolkids Records in my junior year, a zippy tune about getting caught shoplifting struck my ears. I’d never heard it before, but I knew it must be Madness. I went up to the counter to ask what they were playing, and the clerk pointed to a CD with a colorful sleeve: It’s… Madness. A brand-new 1990 Virgin import compilation of eight singles interspersed with eight B-sides “never previously available on CD.”

  1. “House of Fun”
  2. “Don’t Look Back”
  3. “Wings of a Dove”
  4. “The Young and the Old”
  5. “My Girl”
  6. “Stepping into Line”
  7. “Baggy Trousers”
  8. “The Business”
  9. “Embarrassment”
  10. “One’s Second Thoughtlessness”
  11. “Grey Day”
  12. “Memories”
  13. “It Must Be Love”
  14. “Deceives the Eye”
  15. “Driving in My Car”
  16. “Animal Farm”

Man, what a crazy surprise. “One’s Second Thoughtlessness” was the only B-side I already knew, so this purchase scored me seven “new” Madness songs in one fell swoop, all in sweet digital clarity. I have a strong memory of first hearing “Deceives the Eye” in the store followed by “Stepping into Line,” so Schoolkids must have been playing it on shuffle. Those turned out to be my favorite B-sides on the disc, along with “The Young and the Old.” For the collectors out there, my copy is the original pressing that incorrectly lists track 10 as “Behind the Eight Ball.”

It’s… Madness made a huge restorative impact on me. Madness on CD was still hard to come by in 1990, and probably about all I had at that point was One Step Beyond, Absolutely and Utter Madness, and maybe Keep Moving in the wrong order. Listening to It’s… Madness reminded me of how great Madness was, and of their mystery lost tunes I had yet to discover. Undoubtedly the Nutty Boys notched back up in my listening rotation, getting me primed for their incipient reunion.

I got the 1992 Madstock album from a mail order outfit called Worldwide CD, and not long after that I got a catalog from them with a typed listing for a 3-disc box set called The Business: The Definitive Singles Collection. All the B-sides collected on CD. My patience and/or procrastination had finally paid off.

I ordered that sucker and it had to be my biggest mind-blow Madness purchase since my seminal One Step Beyond/Absolutely 2-on-1 cassette. Even though I had acquired a fair number of B-sides before The Business, the sheer volume of unheard, career-spanning Madness corkers put me flat on my ass. The highlights being:

  • “Mistakes”
  • “Nutty Theme”
  • “Don’t Quote Me on That”
  • “Crying Shame”
  • “That’s the Way to Do It (Odd Job Man)”
  • “A Town with No Name”
  • “Never Ask Twice (Airplane)”
  • “Shadow on the House”
  • “Walking with Mr Wheeze”
  • “Guns”
  • “Sarah”
  • “All I Knew”
  • “Inanity Over Christmas”
  • “Please Don’t Go”
  • “Call Me”
  • “Maybe in Another Life”

It’s all eggs, bacon, beans and a friiiiied slice! You’ve got the early genius of the band’s first B-sides, any of which would be right at home on One Step Beyond, if the album wasn’t already transcendently perfect. You’ve got atmospheric, film-credits-worthy instrumentals. You’ve got a take on American gun culture with enough meat to write a whole blog post on. You’ve got thoughtful post-Barson compositions reflecting the band’s restless state of mind, including the “Here’s to everybody” toast reinvented to magical effect in the newly minted “If I Go Mad.”

As much as I dearly loved The Business, this definitive compilation simultaneously made me angry as hell, for two reasons. First, and most significantly, because of the godawful interview clips.

I get it, the producers wanted to add a little something extra for the fans who own all the singles and have friends of the band offer their personal commentary. But jeez Louise, what an ugly disruption. I don’t need to hear ruminations on Mike and Carl both being bullies every time I listen to these precious jewels. Most of the chats are terrible recordings with ear-splitting distortion, and some are even faded into the songs. WTF. Definitely not considerate for those of us without the full library of 45s. A few years later, when I learned how to edit audio files, I trimmed out all the interviews and compiled a 26-track set of just the B-sides, which is the only format in which I ever listen to The Business anymore. The very end of “Please Don’t Go” still has “What is your name?” croaking over the fading notes. As far as I know, there has never been a digital release of this track unsullied. It would be a blessing to see the recent I Do Like to Be B-Side the A-Side Record Store Day LPs arrive on CD.

The other thing the riled me up about The Business was defective discs. My set of CDs came down with some kind of bad disc rot within a year, sprouting spiderwebs of oxidation or delamination across the play surfaces. Playback became choppy and unlistenable. Replacing a costly import box set was no easy feat on my meager retail salary at that time, but of course I did. My second copy of The Business is still in fine shape today.

Of course, these are the quibbliest of quibbles in the Mad scheme of things. The major lesson this American fan learned – over the course of three installments – is that Madness did not put throwaway junk on their B-sides. Sure, there are a few pieces of dross on The Business like fan club flexi-disc ephemera and disc jockey jingles, but those are fun extras (one of which, “Inanity Over Christmas,” is a full-fledged delight). The proper B-sides comprise enough great material for a whole double album, and to me this was the seventh Madness album before Wonderful happened. 

Every track is finely crafted with pride and respect for their record-buying public. Each one is different and creative and utterly worthwhile. Madness has never done the same job twice. Listen to me, take my advice. They double the work for a single’s price. The finished job will sound… real nice.


More of Trull’s Mad Memories

Madness 2022 U.S. Tour Canceled

Will Madness ever come sailing across the sea to be with their Uncle Sam? Not in 2022.

The U.S. tour first slated for 2020 has now been scuttled for a third time. In contrast to the previous postponements, this time the dire word “cancel” is invoked and ticket refunds are being issued outright, despite a loose assertion of 2023 plans.

The official announcement:

Cheesesteaks Meet Bacon Sarnies: Madness in Philadelphia, 1980

This vintage article from a 1980 edition of the Aquarian Weekly newspaper documents Madness’ visit to Philadelphia to kick off their second U.S. tour. It’s amusing to note how journalist Asia Locke caught Woody’s surname as “Woods,” which is understandable given how often we’ve seen Suggs or Carl playfully introduce him as “Woody Woods Woodgate.” The driving thrust behind the article is exploring the confusion over what kind of music it is that Madness was playing circa 1980, and it’s impressive to see a regional American publication grant the band such in-depth consideration three years before “Our House” hit the our charts.

Big thanks to Stateside Madness follower Keith Lyle for submitting the article, presented below in full.

BRITISH BAND MIXES OFFBEAT JAMAICAN RHYTHMS WITH ROCK ’N’ ROLL AND R & B

Madness Rebels Against “Revival-Band” Label

from Asia Locke’s Philadelphia Dreamin’
Aquarian Weekly, March 5-12, 1980

PHILADELPHIA – It wasn’t just madness at the Hot Club on Feb. 21 – it was sheer insanity. Arriving from London the night before, the British band Madness made it to Philadelphia in fine time to open its second American tour. Unfortunately, the group’s equipment didn’t. It was well after the scheduled start of the first set that the doors of the Hot Club opened and the fans who had thronged the sidewalk on the mild winter night made it inside.

The wait didn’t seem to have bothered the crowd; the party had already begun during the wall outside. And if the delay had bothered Madness, it certainly didn’t show. The group drifted through the vacant club while it waited tor the truck to arrive, spending the time dancing and talking. When the equipment truck showed up, the members of the group wasted no time getting its system inside and set up.

Though two sets had been scheduled, the delay called for a change and Madness opened the show with a short set. The group was followed by scheduled opener Tina Peel, and then Madness returned to the stage to round out the rocking evening.

The show at the Hot Club proved that Madness, whose name has been linked with the Specials to a ska revival, was doing something a bit more original. The group combines the offbeat rhythms of Jamaican music with very raw rock ’n’ roll. The group’s music is infectious: what you hear on its self-titled album for Sire is, instrumentally, what you get live. But what’s missing from the record and what makes Madness come alive is its stage show.

Though there are six members of the band on the record, there are seven members onstage. Bassist Mark Bedford, rhythm guitarist Chris Forman [sic], organist Mike Barson, drummer Woody Woods [sic], sax player Lee Thompson and vocalist Suggs were joined by what must be the group’s most active member, Chaz [sic] Smash. Smash acted as the group’s cheerleader. urging it to push the limits of madness. He jumped around the stage, singing and clapping, and helped to create one of the craziest moments of the show. While the group played a bluebeat version of the theme from “Swan Lake.” Smash rhythmically butted skulls with Thompson; it lit right in to the manic feeling generated by Madness.

Madness’ appearance ranks very high on its list of priorities.

Punk. New wave. Reggae. Ska. Art bands. Rock ’n’ roll bands. Inspired by. Revival of.

With music being made faster than it can be labeled, groups are often lumped for the sake of convenience into categories that may not have a lot to do with their music.

“The first time around we were breaking new ground,” said drummer Woods, during an almost quiet moment between sets. “We were waking people up. The first time we were over, the influence was all punk. But things have been slowly changing.”

By now if everyone has not heard of ska, they have at least heard of its close relative, reggae. Though the sound is different – ska bands having a sparse, rock ’n’ roll sound and most reggae groups sticking closer to an easier, island-influenced sound – the distinctions can be confusing.

“The earliest ska groups came from reggae,” bassist Bedford explained, trying to clear things up. “What Madness is playing is a cross between reggae now and bluebeat with some jazz. All the music came from bluebeat, which is where playing the offbeat guitar started. Then they all picked up on the offbeat sound.

“We were all listening to Prince Buster; he had most of the hits in the ’60s. It was Jamaican music, but kind of rhythm & blues. The Mods in England were dancing to ska and bluebeat in ’64. “We can’t re-create that sound, even if we wanted to. That sound came out of the studio, out of a kind of technology that was in use.

“We’re not trying to re-create or revive ska. Of course. we were influenced by ska and the bluebeat sound. But what influenced us more came later on, in r & b.”

The revival-band tag has obviously frustrated Madness. The group realizes the limitations that such labeling imposes – limiting its audiences and not giving its music the benefit of an impartial listening.

“We’re not trying to copy anything,” said Bedford earnestly. “Over the years, listening to the music, we picked up on the sound. But it’s only one of the influences on our own material. And these influences come out in the material we write. Unfortunately,” he concluded, a look of resignation on his face, “it sounded to a lot of people like old-time music.”

Madness doesn’t deny its debt to ska; it just doesn’t want to be labeled as simply a revival band. And the group is very up front about its appreciation of Jamaica’s Prince Buster. The group does its own version of Prince Buster’s hit “One Step Beyond,” and a tribute Madness itself wrote, called “The Prince.”

Madness is well aware of its stage presentation, and the group’s appearance ranks very high on its list of priorities, second only to the group’s sound. Both Bedford and Woods laughed as they talked about the band’s “style” and its members’ proclivity for crew cuts.

“We get called ‘rude boys’ sometimes,” said Woods. “They were the Jamaican skinheads,” he explained, referring to a violent cult in England during the ’60s whose members were distinguished by their short hair and heavy boots.

Bedford broke in. “The rude boys were really villains, but they were slick. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sneaky, but they were a stylish set of villains.”

Continued Woods: “Madness has a lot of influence on style in London. The band always dressed smartly; we just liked the style of clothing. Now we find when the band wears something. It shows up on the streets.”

“When we started out,” Bedford elaborated, “we weren’t getting well known because of a revival of ska, but because people enjoyed dancing to our music. Then they started copying the fashion, and then they realized the look was part of ska. We’ve been looking like this for years.”

“We were always conscious of the style,” added Woods. “Now everyone looks like this. In London, we find we’re in the strange position of dictating fashion. The group itself is considered a fashion leader.”

“But don’t overemphasize the fashion,” intoned Bedford in a pleading tone, the same appeal in his voice as when he said “We’re not a revival band.” What should be emphasized? “It’s the beat,” he answered.

Old they have any words for their American audience? “Yes,” said Woods, right away. “Mohair is better than long hair.”

Not a bad motto for music with style. 

And as for the group’s plans? Woods again: “Shut up, listen, and dance.”

SSM at House of Fun 2021: Watch Poly’s Travelogue!

And so we face the final curtain – one year late. Yes, the tenth and concluding House of Fun Weekender is finally upon us, November 19-22, 2021. For a landmark Madness event this monumental and epoch-defining, Stateside Madness has dispatched a U.S. ambassador to Minehead: our very own Poly Collins, SSM managing director and beloved podcast co-host!

Poly’s getting up to loads of HOF mischief, mingling with fellow Madheads and making a general nuisance of himself. He’s even going to record a live on-location session for our popular podcast, as well as filing intrepid video reports from London to Minehead on the SSM YouTube channel. Those attending can catch Poly’s travelogue playlist below and get a good look at his ruggedly handsome face, so you can recognize our boy at Butlins. Walk right up to him for a hearty Maine-style greeting and see how long it takes for him to use the word “Absolutely!”

Go have a beer, Britside Poly!

Zombies (Are All into Brains)

Grrr-buhdurrr…
Hurr-buhdurrrr…

I’ve never had much cause for worry
And I’ve not got a home or bed.
You’ll never find me in a hurry
Because I live my life walking dead.

People say that I’m creepy,
But I crave human remains.
I know what I know from George A. Romero,
That zombies are all into brains.

Fresh cerebrums are all that I care for,
I believe I’ll crack open a head.
Fresh cerebrums are all that is needed,
Because I live my life walking dead.

People say that I’m creepy,
But I crave human remains.
I know what Return of the Living Dead told,
That zombies are all into brains.

Grrr-buhdurrr…
Hurr-buhdurrrr…

I’m happy the way that I do things,
Continually dealing bloodshed.
I’ve no worries on what tomorrow brings,
Because I live my life walking dead.

People say that I’m creepy,
But I crave human remains.
I know what I know, even on Game of Thrones,
That zombies are all into brains.

Well some men shoot at us with rifles,
Surviving in apocalypse days.
But I don’t have much indigestion.
Zombies are all into brains… 
Zombies are all into brains…
Zombies are all into brains… 
Scraps of brain washing down the dah-rain…

Hurrrrrrrrrrrr

Inspired by the sleeve artwork for the 1983 “Madness (Is All in the Mind) single, which was mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky, for some reason!