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.”
- “House of Fun”
- “Don’t Look Back”
- “Wings of a Dove”
- “The Young and the Old”
- “My Girl”
- “Stepping into Line”
- “Baggy Trousers”
- “The Business”
- “One’s Second Thoughtlessness”
- “Grey Day”
- “It Must Be Love”
- “Deceives the Eye”
- “Driving in My Car”
- “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 Complete 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:
- “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”
- “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.