The title of Lee Morris’s book 2 Tone – Before, During & After is quite specific in its meaning. The author is principally concerned with the legendary and influential 2 Tone Records label, as opposed to the looser use of “2 tone” as a generic term for the ska revival subgenre. In stating “Before, During & After,” the book makes explicit the brief lifespan of the label, an extraordinary moment in time circa 1979-1986, and Lee Morris is here to chronicle the details behind the rise and fall of a remarkably unlikely success story.
2 Tone Records was of course the brainchild of mad genius Jerry Dammers, also known as the founder and keyboardist of The Specials. As a former hippie, Dammers followed an idealistic vision to set up his own record label to release his fledgling band’s music and support like-minded new artists. Instead of being locked down in ironclad contracts and signing their rights away, 2 Tone artists were always free to move on to major labels and chart their own course. “The General,” as Lee fondly refers to Dammers, set out to create a musical movement, a British answer to Motown that would change the world – and by gosh, he did it. The small but significant 2 Tone catalog includes albums by The Specials, The Selecter, Rico Rodriguez and The Special AKA; seminal singles by Madness, The (English) Beat and The Bodysnatchers; and tangential links to Bad Manners and Elvis Costello.
The basic outlines of the 2 Tone story are familiar to any serious fan of The Specials, Madness and the related crew. We all know the key touchstones of lore: Jerry Dammers’s fascination with Prince Buster. The creation of the 2 Tone rude boy mascot Walt Jabsco, based on a Peter Tosh photo. The Bernie Rhodes “confiscated guitars” tour fiasco chronicled in “Gangsters.” The signing of Madness for one-off single “The Prince.” The fabled 2 Tone Tour. The explosive personality conflicts that made The Specials prematurely implode. Jerry’s years of obsessive, Brian Wilson-like isolation poured into the In the Studio album’s long gestation. Where Lee’s book excels is filling in all the connective details between the commonplace legends, explaining how these situations in 2 Tone history came about, dispelling myths and misconceptions, and weaving together a vast, coherent narrative.
Given that I’m a Madness specialist running a Madness blog, the chapter on my favorite band doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. It’s a solid account of their nutty career, but nothing earthquake-erupting for diehard Madheads. On the other hand, the formidable remainder of 2 Tone – Before, During & After serves to make me realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did about the rest of the 2 Tone bands. I especially had fun absorbing Lee’s details about the various acts’ early years. Now I understand how the Special AKA name came about between The Automatics and The Specials, and why it occasionally resurfaced before the In the Studio era. I learned that Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox sowed the seeds of The Beat not in Birmingham, but on the Isle of Wight. And I was a bit chastened to realize I had no idea at all how The Selecter got their start, assembled by longtime Jerry Dammers associate Neol Davies. Likewise, it was illuminating to read up on the history of Rhoda Dakar, beyond knowing that her Bodysnatchers bandmates become the Belle Stars while Rhoda joined The Special AKA.
The book even delves into the most obscure characters in the 2 Tone saga: Swinging Cats, The Higsons, The Apollinares, The Friday Club, JB’s Allstars. Previously these folks were only known to me from the weird songs on The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past compilation. Aside from Swinging Cats (whose “Mantovani” and “Away” are pretty awesome), I’ve never cared much about these 2 Tone also-rans, but here you will find their stories duly told.
2 Tone – Before, During & After is a fun and easy read for any fan of this musical era. Lee Morris writes in an energetic, conversational style that strings thoughts together with abundant comma splices, breathlessly he gallops through fact nuggets jamming in asides and wry personal observations, you got to jump on the Morris train to skaville and strap yourself in my son cause he ain’t slowing down for nobody no! I also want to give him big kudos for his fantastic Facebook page. Whereas most small-press authors who promote their work on Facebook are only there to sell books, Lee runs a smashing page that’s like getting your daily dose of 2 Tone history in your Facebook feed. I think the vast majority of the cool factoids and tidbits he posts aren’t in the book, and he’s not pushing a hard sell at all. So please, whether you’re interested in buying the book or not, go follow 2 Tone – Before, During & Afteron Facebook. You’ll be glad you did.
The story of 2 Tone is a crazy Coventry Cinderella tale, packed with enough drama, comedy and suspense to fill a Netflix binge series. Consider the ignominious history of bands starting their own record labels: it’s usually a late-career folly, a symptom of too much money and runaway egos, ending in financial ruin and bitter lawsuits. Jerry Dammers had the gumption and the lunacy to start 2 Tone at the beginning of his career, with no money and no grand business plan except to make good music. 2 Tone – Before, During & After does a brilliant job of helping readers appreciate the scope of what The General achieved by overcoming the odds and creating something really special. Pun intended.
Madness guitarist/songwriter Chris Foreman recently honored us as a guest on the Stateside Madness Podcast, chatting with hosts Laurie Alfaro, Poly Collins and Bobby Rubin. In the following excerpts from the rollicking interview, Chrissy Boy discusses the band’s plans and hopes to get back to touring and recording, the new American greatest hits album, the process of writing “Our House,” memories of early visits to America, and the real important scoop here, which is the untold origins of his ever-popular “Showtime!” solo cabaret routines.
Poly:Chris, thank you for joining us, and if you’d be so kind, why don’t you tell us what the last year’s been like for you?
Oh yeah, pretty normal. Up in my loft. Has something been going on that I missed? (Laughs.) No, it’s been terrible, of course.
Last March, we were going to go to Dubai and get some hot weather. And suddenly our tour manager calls it off. And it’s been like that ever since, really. Yeah, it’s kind of like I had all this stuff in my calendar, obviously coming to the USA. So this stuff will come up in my diary, you know, like I’m supposed to be in Paris. And I’m in a shopping mall.
But yeah, it’s been difficult for everyone, hasn’t it? So you know, I’ve got a nice house, big garden, sort of on the outskirts of Brighton. So it’s okay, you know, for me.
Poly:I suppose that’s the same for very nearly all of us. We were so looking forward to the American tour. But we’re willing to hang in there.
I don’t know if we’re going to come, I’m afraid. This year, anyway. You know, Punk Rock Bowling’s been put off again. I’ve written a few songs, so that’s good. And we’ve met up a few times, the band. We started renting this unit. There was a kind of thing here where, “It will calm down a bit, you can almost go back to normal.” And we’ve rented this kind of industrial unit and we’ve put a load of equipment in, and we met there, yeah. We came up with a couple songs, so you know. We’re ready. (Laughs.)
Poly:Great! We’ll be looking forward to that.
Laurie:So Chris, so why are you releasing an American compilation at this time, and what’s your favorite song on the compilation?
Well, the compilation was supposed to tie in with the tour. So I guess they kind of had it on the spreadsheets for a while and we have to release it at some point, because I suppose they must have manufactured it. And that’s the kind of business side of things.
My favorite track? I don’t know, gee… You know, it’s kind of all about the hits, isn’t it? I mean, I always really liked “The Prince,” you know. And I enjoy playing it live, it doesn’t get too tired. There’s something about that song. So let’s go with that. It is on the compilation, I assume? (Laughs.)
Laurie:I do hope you guys get to tour America, because I’ve never seen you live, and this was going to be the year. I was gonna go to Vegas and finally see you.
Oh, Vegas! I love Vegas.
Laurie:So do I. So fingers crossed.
We were, as you say, stoked. Because, you know, you get loads of cheap clothes. (Laughs.) It’s fantastic. Yeah, stuff like Penguin, not to promote a brand. I went in the Penguin shop last time I was there, and I was wearing a Penguin shirt. And the guy said, if you come in wearing Penguin, you get a discount. So you know, win-win.
Bobby:Just echoing what Laurie said, I’ve been really looking forward to you all coming to the States. I’ve not seen you before. I do have tickets for the Boston and New York shows. Back to the compilation album, what’s your hope for the album? Is it meant to reconnect with U.S. fans, or is it meant to bring in new U.S. fans?
Yeah, it’s kinda like keep the wheels, you know, the big wheels going. And yeah, maybe people think “what’s this, it looks pretty cool” and discover us, you know, that kind of thing.
Poly:Do you guys have any influence on what gets selected for the tracks, or do you feel it was just kind of obvious what the songs are going to be?
It’s kind of really difficult, because we were originally on Stiff Records in England for pretty much all our career. But we did an American deal with Sire Records with Seymour Stein, who’s kind of legend. We really liked Seymour and we liked Sire Records. So we kind of went along with that, for a few years. And then the Geffen thing came about because a guy from Geffen called John Kalodner, who’s another legend. He came to England and he heard “Our House” and he said, “This is a hit.” So that Geffen thing is kind of like Frankenstein’s, you know. It was based on the album we had out, The Rise and Fall. That was that, and they licensed some other tracks.
So I suppose this is the first kind of comprehensive… Look, you know I’m going to throw it out that we’ve done loads of greatest hits albums, everybody does. It’s kind of like that Walt Disney thing, you know. They used to re-release the films every few years. (Laughs.) You know, I’m not “anti” it. So you know, we try and make sure that the artwork’s good, and stuff like that. Because actually we kind of did a similar album in England, with a similar artwork, and I thought that might go down well with our American friends. But yeah, that’s it. It’s not like, you know, some master game plan. (Laughs.) Yeah, that was to accompany the tour, you know. Maybe we’ll release another one next year, eh?
Laurie:So one of the things that’s notable about this particular compilation is this is the first time that you’ve released the song “Bullingdon Boys” on a physical medium.
Oh yeah, of course.
Laurie:I wanted to ask you to explain a little bit for American fans who might not understand what that song is about.
In America you’ve got Harvard and places like that, haven’t you, I suppose? And it’s about a group of people that became very influential, and there’s this club [at Oxford] called the Bullingdon Club. Yeah, a lot of them, you know. The Prime Minister, he’s one of the Bullingdon boys. So that’s kind of what it’s about. You know, the elite, as it were. So it’s kind of good to have some contemporary stuff on it as well.
Bobby:This Go-Go’s documentary that was released fairly recently has a lot of people talking, and I’m wondering what it was like to hang out with the Go-Go’s? What can you tell us?
Yeah, it’s a shame, because I really wanted to be in the documentary, but I live in Brighton and for one reason or another I didn’t make it. But I mean, we came to L.A., it’s the first time we’ve been there, you know. And we played at the Whisky, and I was at the hotel and the rest of the band went to see the Go-Go’s. And they came out like, “Whoa, these girls! This girl Charlotte, she had the old whammy on!”
They were great fun and a great band, they really were, you know. They had some good songs and you know, they rocked. And, erm, we had great affection for them, shall we say.
Poly:Chris, while we’re on that time around the early ’80s, what was your favorite other band from that era?
It’s difficult really. (Pause.) I’d have to say Van Halen (laughs). No, it’s because, I don’t know when that album came out and they did “You Really Got Me.”
And it was on the radio in heavy rotation, and I went and got the album that’s got that on. And I kind of really liked that. But I didn’t go and see them. I mean I liked a lot of things, but really, yeah, it’s hard to say because a lot of the time we’d be playing with The Specials and those kind of bands. I liked quite a lot of stuff in the ’80s. I mean, hip hop came out, I really like Run-DMC, Schoolly D, LL Cool J. But yeah, I’m quite eclectic, so I didn’t really have a favorite per se.
Poly:I’m glad you mentioned Van Halen, because I try to ask everybody about the Kinks every time I get. When you mentioned “You Really Got Me,” the Van Halen cover, how formative would the Kinks have been in your sound or just for you as fan?
Yeah, I wrote a song called “E.R.N.I.E.,” which is on our second album, and classed it as really like the Kinks, you know. And when I grew up, the Kinks were around. They were absolutely brilliant, and at that time in my life, everything I’m writing sounds like the Kinks, you know.
Even that song was about quite a strange thing, you know. E.R.N.I.E. is a machine that picks these numbers like a lottery. It’s a kind of government lottery. There are these things called premium bonds, I’ve got some actually. Last year I won like, not a lot, about four or five times I won £25. And that’s not a fortune, but you don’t get anything with your money in the bank.
But The Kinks, and some of these things, it’s like… you sort of write a song and then you think, “It does sound a bit like this.” I never set out thinking, “I’m gonna write something like this,” you know. I did one the other day that’s a bit like Bryan Ferry or Roxy, later Roxy, who we obviously liked a lot.
Laurie:So speaking of songwriting, you and Carl co-wrote the band’s biggest international hit, right? “Our House.” When you guys recorded it, when you did the video, was there ever any kind of feeling that that was gonna blow up internationally, the way it did?
I’ve been talking about this recently. Sort of like, I came in with this song, it wasn’t really very good. And you know he did the lyrics, and then the band slowly, you know, we got it a bit Motown. I suppose we did used to think, especially the first couple of albums, “Get a song, right, but do it ska.” (Imitates ska rhythm.) You do it kind of offbeat, we were always sticking that thing in. And then we kind of got away from that. We thought when we did this, we did it kind of Motown. I think our producer, he’s the one that really made (sings chorus)“our house,” you know that, it kind of changes the rhythm. Which I didn’t really think at the time.
But yeah, I didn’t think… I thought this is good, you know. I thought “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day,” that’s the one. I thought it was so good it would be a bigger hit. This one, yeah, it’s done very well, and (laughs) I do quite well out of sync licenses, you know. People want to use it. So yeah, it’s done me well!
Laurie: I have to make a confession. I grew up watching your videos on MTV, and when I first saw the video for “Our House,” I absolutely fell in love. But the scene, where you’re playing, first you’re playing on the tennis racket and then you’re going through like the the ’60s and the ’70s glam, I honestly thought you were three different people. I didn’t realize that it was the same person!
It’s just a costume, innit? Yeah yeah, because, for once, we’ve got a song that hasn’t got a sax solo. Because Lee’s always you know, “I want to be flying!” I thought, “Yeah, I want to be like a kid with a tennis racket,” you know, starting off and going through those eras of music. Rockabilly, you know, another favorite of mine. It was fun doing that, yeah.
Bobby:I’m really interested in knowing about any of your past experiences on U.S. tours. What’s one of your favorite memories or experiences?
The first time we ever came to America, we went to New York. And we’ve been told it’s going to be quite cold, so we had those coats, those crombie coats. So we kind of go around a bit like this gang. And we had this manager at the time, and he said “Guys, I know you’re busy. Go to this bar, there’s this bar everybody goes to. All the musicians go there.”
So we kind of walk in this bar, and I was thinking, “Hey, there isn’t many chicks.” And it was a gay bar, you know. And it was just hilarious, we had such a laugh. Because it was that kind of thing where, you know, the kind of lumberjack kind of thing, “Oh, you know, we’re not…” And I don’t want to get into bad territory or be un-P.C. or something. I mean, we didn’t realize that that everybody is this bar was gay.
That was like one of the earliest experiences we had of going to New York. And we stayed in this hotel called the Iroquois Hotel. And it’s just like you’ve seen in the films, you know. It’s all marble, there’s some old black guy cutting people’s hair. We thought, this is great. Then you got up to the rooms (laughs), all the doors have been jimmied open, I mean it was like such a dodgy hotel.
So yeah yeah, we love New York and Boston and flipping you know, we took to America, you know. Because you guys kind of talk English, you know. (Laughs.) We’re not talking about Canada. But New Jersey, yeah, what was it? “We’ll deliver anywhere except New Jersey.” We kind of got all the references, you know. Yeah, I think that first tour was great. We were in these cars and all they had was FM radio. That’s probably where I heard Van Halen, you know.
But I mean that was our first tour, it was great because we liked New York, the kind of new fans, the cool clubs. And L.A. was, you know, the Whisky. But then in between there’s some fun places. Boston’s great, there’s the Paradise Club in Boston. Yeah, we had a lot of fun. I don’t think you can beat that first experience of everything that we’ve seen on television.
You know, to us it was so exciting. I suppose you guys, maybe you see England and Big Ben and all that, I don’t know if you’ve been to England, and then you get there and “Whooo!” (Laughs.) It’s like that. You know, “It’s Times Square! Look at those taxis!” You know those big yellow New York cabs, which Travis Bickle of course had in Taxi Driver. We were like obsessed with them and we’re only getting in them. No, it’s always been fun, really, America yeah.
Poly:So our friend Donald, who does our blog and website, part of the admin team, is dying to know about “Showtime.”
(Laughs.) What happened there was… In fact, it was in America. There was me, Lee, Carl and Suggs – yeah, we’re quite a little gang, you know – and we went to see The Matrix, the first Matrix film. And it’s quite mind-blowing. And there’s this guy in front of me with his girlfriend and he’s getting really agitated, you know. He’s loving it, he’s really one of those New York guys. So there’s a bit in The Matrix, if you haven’t seen it, where he says “We need guns, lots of guns,” and all these guns appear.
And this guy went, “Yeah! Showtime!” And you know why the guy said it. Because he knew it was going to be absolute mayhem, all right?
So you know, going many years later, we’re doing this show somewhere, and I was a little bit, you know… “refreshed.” (Laughs.) And I looked at the setlist and I thought, you know what? After this song, it was all hits, you know, right at the end. All hits. And I thought, “It’s showtime.” It’s showtime, you know. And I said, “Suggs, gimme the mic!” And I went, I dunno, I think I just said, “IT’S SHOOOOW-TIME!” you know?
Because me and Suggs generally have a lot of fun onstage, making fun of each other, or I try and make him laugh – sometimes I’m really annoying. But he thought it was really funny, so the next gig we do, he goes, “What time is it?” So I went “SHOWTIME!” And then I started going “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
One day, I thought you know, I’ve gone as far as I can with this, so I got “Highway to Hell.” And I put it in a music thing, so I just had the beginning (imitates guitar riff), you know. And I kind of just spliced in the choruses. And we’re in Amsterdam and I hadn’t told any of the band, so I got the sound guy to play it onstage. So Suggs says “What time is it?” and then “Highway to Hell” comes out of the PA, and I started singing “Highway to Hell” and the band are like…?
And “Highway to Hell,” it’s like, I think you could go to the Amazon rainforest and people there would know it. You know, the most remote, anywhere in the world, everybody knows that song. So yeah, they were like mind-boggled.
And then I kind of like really ran with it, and started doing “Livin’ on a Prayer.” That was one of my favorites. Same kind of method. (Laughs.) But then a few years ago, I kind of stopped doing it. But between me and you, I’ll tell you… when we come back, we’re gonna do it. Yeah, the first show, and I’m not telling them. (Laughs.) You know there’s some things you do, there’s some really good ones where the audience filmed it. Then there’s people like booing, obviously.
I mean, you know that guy in that band, The Hives? They are flippin’ brilliant. Check them out, Bobby. They’re sort of kind of punky, but they’re really not. And they do things like, they’ll all wear top hats, they kind of look really good. And we played with them a few times and I really like them. And I was having a drink with them, and the singer went, “Hey, why the karaoke?” I said, “That is not karaoke!”
But yeah, that’s where it came from. From watching The Matrix, you know, to my looking at that setlist. And I was doing that “Let’s get ready to rumble” and then somebody said, you know, if you come to America and say that you could – because that guy owns the rights to it or something – I could probably get sued for a billion dollars.
Poly:All right, Chris, on many of our earlier podcasts I am always hypothesizing about how young British folks got into ska. So my question to you is, early on in the formative days of the band, who of the members were really bringing ska into your sound? And did any of you, once you did get going, did any of you really feel like there was a real movement happening?
I always say this to anyone starting a band. Find some sort of songs that you like and learn them, and play them – unless you’re just geniuses and you’ve got your own songs straight away, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s what we did. So we started this band and we’re playing like the Coasters, Fats Domino, Elvis, “Tequila.” We’re doing all those kind of old standards, right?
And I think it was probably Suggs. He said “Oh, I’ve got this,” I think it was actually Georgie Fame doing “Madness,” and I thought this is good, you know. I think we kind of started doing that and we started doing “One Step Beyond.”
And it was just like, ’cause we liked it. We liked those songs. And to tell the truth, I never thought we really played that music brilliantly, compared to a lot of the other bands. And then we started writing our own songs, some which would be reggae. But something like “Land of Hope and Glory” isn’t, or “Bed and Breakfast Man,” so we had this kind of weird little thing going.
And then this band Specials started getting pretty big. And then we met them, Suggs met Jerry Dammers and said we’ve got this band. They put a single out. So we kind of became part of this thing, and I think it’s because all of those bands, they were all kind of round about our age, you know. (Mutters) I’m older than some of them.
But we can remember when that music first came out, you know. We liked it, but you know, we also liked glam rock, everything. That’s one of the things about our band – I think everybody’s got very varied tastes, not just one thing. You know, we never said, “We are a ska band.” In fact, if you look at the second album, I kind of said that in an interview. I don’t think we were. But it was a great thing to be involved with, you know. I mean, every now and then, I wrote this really good kind-of-reggae song the other day, actually. I’ve done a couple. It’s very good.
And that’s kind of what happened and that’s that. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Anyone from our band, because they don’t know what they’re talking about. They can’t remember anything. We just did a book called Before We Was We, you may have read it? Before we did the book, we were on tour and we were discussing it. And I said, “Oh yeah, when we went to America…” and you know, most of them couldn’t remember that we went to America in 1979. I mean how you couldn’t remember that? I had to go and Google it. “Yeah, boomers” and show them. I won’t say who – it was about all of them. (Laughs.)
It was crazy times. The other day I was thinking, oh, you know when you think if you could go back in time, anytime in your life, I thought L.A. 1979. Walking around to get some beer from this liquor store. And this girl came along, like lycra trousers on, you know, sort of hair and roller skates on, and she collides into me. It doesn’t happen in Camden Town, you know.
Laurie:All right, you’ve mentioned that you’ve been working on writing a few new songs. Are there plans for a new album anytime soon?
Oh yeah, we’ll be doing a new album, we’re always doing a new album. I’ve done a lot of songs that aren’t any particular genre. Here’s one that’s kind of reggae-ish. (Plays part of a demo.)
Honestly I was like, sitting on the john. You know, just contemplating. I was probably on Instagram. I wasn’t actually, you know, going to the toilet. And I thought of this tune and I sung it into my phone. That’s what I do. I sing it into my phone and email it to myself, and I drag it into a music thing. That’s a good one, that. And I’ve been writing some lyrics. So you know, it could be a few changes round here when you come see Madness. If Suggs is just on maracas, you know. (Laughs.) Sorry, kidding. He’s a good singer, yeah. He’s one of the best.
Hey Stateside Madness fans, we’re giving away advance copies of Our House: The Very Best of Madness, the new U.S exclusive hits compilation. The album consists of 12 choice nutty tracks:
It Must Be Love
House of Fun
One Step Beyond
Wings of a Dove
Night Boat to Cairo (US Version)
Of course, 12 songs is never enough Madness for any true Madhead, so we ask: if you could choose a 13th bonus track to make it a baker’s dozen, which other one song would you choose? Join the Stateside Madness Facebook Group (or visit if you’re already a member) and comment your 13th pick on this post for your chance to win a copy of the album!
Entries accepted through March 12, 2021. This promotion and our Facebook group are open to U.S. residents only.
To learn more about Our House: The Very Best of Madness, see my recent review. I’m not eligible to enter the Baker’s Dozen contest myself, but if I could choose a 13th track, it would have to be “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”
Yes, we know. Yet another Madness greatest hits album. Who needs it? Why, as a matter of fact, America does! Uncle Sam welcomes BMG’s new Our House: The Very Best of Madness with open arms and a single proud Yankee Doodle tear.
Whereas the UK has seen approximately 2,847 Madness best-of LPs and CDs littering every corner Tesco and Sainsbury’s, we on the other side of the pond have merited but a piddly four. First came the biggie, the 1983 Geffen album. In 1997 Geffen put out their Total Madness (not to be confused with later namesake UK releases). Hip-O Records scraped the barrel with a couple of early 2000s budget releases, which took nary a choice picking from 1999 reunion album Wonderful.
That’s all we’ve had till now. Which means, shockingly, BMG’s Our House is the very first U.S. hits collection to acknowledge Madness’s prolific post-1986 career. For that reason alone, it’s well worth having and well overdue – and pushed back another whole year, thanks to coronavirus cocking up the original plans. Plus, this is the first physical release of the marvelous 2019 “Bullingdon Boys.” Take that, you limeys!
There’s surely no need to “review” this album in the conventional sense, but let’s just run down the tracklist and confirm what versions and mixes BMG has gathered together here, for the interested trainspotters.
Our House – Standard regulation version
It Must Be Love – The original UK mix, not the U.S. Geffen version (which has an extra little Thommo sax blurt before each “love, love” in the chorus and omits his squeaky solo during the bridge)
House of Fun – The original UK mix with the fadeout, not the fairground music ending that Geffen used
Baggy Trousers – Standard regulation version
Embarrassment – Standard regulation version
NW5 – The Norton Folgate re-recording
One Step Beyond – One Step Beyond album version with the unabridged Chas Smash intro
The Prince – One Step Beyond album version
Wings of a Dove – Standard regulation version
Mr Apples – Can’t Touch Us Now album version
Bullingdon Boys – Same version as the 2019 digital single
Night Boat to Cairo (US Version) – Yes! This is my favorite little nod to the American fanbase, with BMG reaching way back to the excellent remix from the 1983 Geffen Madness. More reverb everywhere! More twangy Chrissy Boy guitar! More Barson organ frills! More raw Egyptian pyramid POWER! Dance, Cleopatra, DANCE!
The track sequence flows nicely, too. I especially like “Embarrassment” segueing into “NW5” – two of Lee Thompson’s finest compositions, separated by nearly 30 years, fitting together like clockwork gears. And the whole of “Side 2” goes down a treat, with “Mr Apples” and “Bullingdon Boys” right at home amidst the red hot velvet box of showtime chestnuts.
Some may quibble, why only 12 tracks? Why put out a disc at all, when casual American fans are just going to download the $1.29 “Our House” single and blow past all those unknown filler tracks and yucky new songs, anyway? Well, my friends, because it matters. An act of Madness’s stature and creative longevity deserves to have its full career recognized with a nice little hits package like this. This band is not an ’80s relic. They are still at the top of their game today, and this album is proof you can hold in your hot little hands.
Besides, I think limiting the scope to just 12 tracks makes for an interesting thought experiment. Sure, it’s easy enough to go hog wild and sequence a 70-track avalanche like A Guided Tour of Madness, but choosing the most representative 12 songs is like writing a haiku. And I believe my own tracklist would be pretty close to the same.
BMG will release a new U.S. exclusive greatest hits compilation entitled Our House: The Very Best of Madness. Originally announced for May 2020, then postponed along with the band’s North American tour, the album is now set for release on March 12.
Our House will be available on CD, vinyl LP and digital bundle, and preorders are up on Amazon. 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 most recent “Bullingdon Boys.” Discovering these new tunes, casual American fans who only know the ’80s hits will have the chance to learn that Madness is still very much alive and kicking in the present day!
As Stateside Madness reaches its first anniversary, it’s an opportune time to present a fun discovery worthy of the Oxford English Dictionary: possibly the earliest use of our name in print (albeit in reverse), complete with our stars & stripes graphical motif! This article ran in Pop83 magazine in spring 1983, reporting on the breakthrough U.S. chart success of “Our House.”
For me this article is an interesting insight, since I’ve always been curious about what the British press and fans made of the band’s belated popularity in America. Did they notice? Were they glad to hear we caught on? Did they really even care? It’s amusing to note the backhanded remarks about “Our House” being kind of an old song by that point, so out of step were those hapless Yanks. And I personally delight in seeing Madness lumped in with The Jam as top stars that fizzled on our side of the pond, given that Paul Weller happens to be my second favorite UK act. I have a nose for obscure wonders from distant shores.
This Pop83 issue also included a feature on Madness’s evolving style and image, previews of upcoming single “Wings of a Dove” and the LP that would be Keep Moving, and a lengthy list of trivia tidbits that could surprise even the most knowledgable Madheads among us. All of these historic contents are presented below for your reading pleasure. I have annotated them with YouTube links to some of the less familiar vintage-1983 songs and artists referenced. Our fond thanks to Jon Young, our esteemed MIS ambassador and advocate, for sharing the magazine scans with us.
Now for the latest in Madness news.
The big news comes from America. Madness went to the States back in their early days. While music-mad Yanks on the east and west coasts took an interest in their nutty image, the group failed to sell a lot of records. Like The Jam, they gave it a few more tries and then concentrated their energies on places where their music was accepted.
Earlier this year Madness signed up with a new American record company, Geffen. In addition the success of groups like the Human League have helped the Americans to turn their heads in the direction of British bands. The Americans have cable television and MTV, a 24 hour a day video station, which has a huge and influential following. Madness’ marvellous videos have always transcended any cultural problems, like language barriers. Because the group relies on their music and not their hairdressers to create an impact, their videos have not dated as quickly as some new romantics have.
“Our House” has become the group’s first top ten smash. Mark and Chris went over to the States during the heatwave we had in July to try to help the Americans understand the Madness philosophy a bit better. In some ways, their delayed success is an advantage.
When they first went to America as part of the Two Tone movement, Madness had to fight to be treated separately from The Specials and The Selecter. Americans had little experience of ska in the ’60s. So, how could they understand references to rude boys and pork pie hats? In trying to explain themselves, everyone got confused. Now, with a sound all their own the group has a fresh start. Since they are gradually moving from their “nutty” image, Madness can convey whatever they want to this brand new audience who knows only one Madness song, “Our House.” Wonder how the group likes hearing it sung in American accents?
The surprise American success means that Madness have to drop their proverbial pushbikes and hop on a plane to the States quickly. August will find them on a hectic five week tour of one end of the 3,000 mile wide country to another. The highlight will be a supporting spot for The Police at one of those giant American stadiums that often holds the population of a small city.
In the meantime, Madness release their new single “Wings of a Dove.” Jamie at the Stiff Office, one of the first lucky people to hear it, described as having a “carnival” feeling to it. “There’s a choir and steel drums and Suggs’ vocals have a new mellow feeling to them,” he reported enthusiastically.
The single was recorded in the late spring and then the group headed off for their separate holidays. Mike Barson, his wife and dog decided to see Europe the caravan way. “He rang in every few weeks to say which country he was in,” laughed Jamie. “Sometimes the only way to know where he was, was to check with his mum because he kept in contact with her.” Barson managed to get back to British shores 24 hours before the group set to work recording the video for “Wings of a Dove.” No sooner was the film edited than did the group head off for the states.
A New LP for Christmas
It’s not certain what their plans are once they return. (A good night’s sleep will be in order!) There are tentative plans to go in the studio and record tracks for their next album. Stiff Records would love to be able to have a new album ready for fans by Christmas, but as yet there is no certainty of when Madness will complete their sixth album.
Mark describes the upbeat new effort as “A song that will open a few eyes.” No doubt Madness are a bit fed up with hearing that their music has stagnated and that they’ve grown apart. “If you can afford to buy yourself a place, of course you’re not going to keep living with mum,” said Mark. “That’s only natural.”
It’s also natural that with seven members in a group that the group enjoys more quiet company in their spare time plus the companionship of some females. When together there’s plenty of energy and madness in Madness. And when it’s time to down tools, uh instruments, the magnificent seven are free to go their separate and more quiet ways. Their individuality can only give their music more texture and variety. Now, let’s see how they fly the flag in the former colonies. Will America have any effect on Madness? We shall see.
In the meantime, the group moves towards the fourth anniversary of their debut hit “The Prince.” It’s remarkable how Madness have survived Two Tone, Adam Ant, New Romantics and rapping funk records. It just seems that whatever music is on the radio, there’s nothing to brighten up the airways like a bit of Madness. They may not be as loony as they first were. But it’s reassuring to see that they haven’t lost their vitality and spirit either.
ALL CHANGE – IT’S MADNESS
Greetings music lovers. Today’s lecture in pop music concerns a new vocabulary word. It’s “longevity.” It comes from the word “long” and the dictionary sitting here says that it means “long life.”
Longevity is not a word that often crops up in pop music circles. Pop music, like the socks you wore two years ago, Is meant to have temporary appeal. If you last more than two years pop music, you must be quite skilled.
To back up this point, let’s look at Exhibit A: the charts. When Madness had their first hit in September of 1979 the charts were topped over the months by groups like Buggles, The Jam, Dr. Hook, Gary Numan, The Specials, Blondie and The Police. Oh, yes and let’s not forget that smash hit “One Day at a Time” by Lena Martell!
If you can remember Lena Martell and Madness’ first hit you are part of the first generation of Madness fans. If you don’t remember Lena Martell consider yourself very lucky and a second generation Madness fan! (Just for the record Lena Martell did for 1979 what Renee and Renato did in 1982 — upset a lot of stomachs.)
Four years after Madness’ first hit and look what’s happened. The Buggles, The Specials and The Jam have split up. Dr. Hook and Blondie have lost their chart appeal. Gary Numan spends more time crashing planes than making hit records. Only The Police remain superstars. Lena Martell has hopefully returned to Radio 2 where she belongs.
Madness are still together and still breaking new ground while trying to hold on to the essense of nuttiness that made them popular in the first place. If they don’t change musically, the fans will get tired of the same thing. (Look at Bad Manners.) If the group changes too drastically, the fans may not follow either. (Remember “YMCA” by the Village People? They went “new wave” and stopped making hits.)
“The Wings of a Dove,” the new Madness single, represents a new change for the band. As with their 1982 album Rise and Fall the group have taken a lot of time to get a different sound going.
Because of their longevity (ah ha, there’s that word again), a lot of people have got it in for Madness. They’re waiting for the group to split up. They’re predicting that the fans won’t change and abandon the group’s new efforts in favour of their old nutty stuff. There are rumours that the group are out of touch with the fans, the times and the music scene.
Madness aren’t the only group to have these rumours. Back in the ’60s The Beatles got flack every time they tried something new. In the ’70s there were always people who wanted David Bowie to stick with one image for the rest of his life. If David Bowie had kept a small segment of his fans happy by playing at Ziggy Stardust forever, he would have probably died of boredom. It took a lot of courage for artist and fans alike to come to expect change from Bowie. Long term Bowie fans favour certain phases of his career over others. But because they like Bowie, they always like to hear his newest music to decide for themselves. Likewise, some Madness fans may prefer their nutty music to the new music. But have you given the new music as much of a chance?
When Madness toured earlier this year, I got to talk to some of the fans outside the concert halls. Several of them admitted that Rise and Fall was not what they would have described as typical Madness music. But in giving the new music a chance, one fan in particular found that he changed too.
“I love to hear the earlier stuff when I’m first out of school.” he explained. “I don’t remember when Madness first came out. My older brother does and I used to get very jealous when he used to go out to see them and Mum said I was too young. He gave me his old singles when my aunt gave him the Complete Madness album for Christmas. I got Rise and Fall. First I didn’t like it. But, now I find in the evenings I enjoy it in a different way from the singles. It’s hard to explain. But I like the words. I listen to them when I’m listening to the album. With the singles, I don’t pay much attention to the words, just the beat. Because of that album, I find I’m listening to the words more. I wouldn’t have done that a year ago.”
New Sounds — New Fans
Just as the fans change, so too does the group change. During this year’s Madness tour there were fans representing every phase of Madness music from little skinheads to loons decked out in garage overalls. “There will always be a nutty element in Madness.” said Suggs. “But we’re not just smiling puppets. There’s a sharp side too. Listen to the words and you’ll hear it. We’re not Buck’s Fizz, but we’re not what the Fun Boy Three were either.”
What Suggs and his six fellow musical mates are certain of is that there are plenty more changes to come. In pop music there’s no longevity without change. Think of what you were like four years ago. Look how you’ve moved up and on. You only have to listen to “Wings of a Dove” to hear how Madness have changed too.
MAD MUMBLINGS FROM MADNESS!
Lee Thompson likes to listen to “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac when he can’t sleep.
Chris Foreman rates UB40 and Blue Rondo among his favourite groups.
The total cost of the Madness movie Take It or Leave It was £400,000.
The art work for the “Our House” single was done by six year old Karen Allen.
When Suggs is in Japan, he feels like a giant.
The group were toying with getting Trevor (ABC) Horn to produce their new single. But Trevor Horn likes the Madness sound as it is.
Suggs’ wife Bette Bright hails from Liverpool.
Lee Thompson’s favourite breakfast haunt in Hampstead has been converted into a pizza restaurant.
Bette Bright (Mrs. McPherson to you) loves old ’30s movies which may explain why their daughter is named Scarlett (after Gone with the Wind).
The Yanks made up a car bumper sticker that says “Honk If You Like Madness” and have a chain of coffee shops called Chock Full of Nuts.
There are sixteen tracks on the Complete Madness album.
Madness have made an ad for motorcycles in Japan and crisps in Britain.
Madness are fans of Bad Manners.
Among the things they used to do but can’t anymore — roller skating up at Alexandra Palace, speeding on the motorways, announce where they used to live, eat in peace outside of Camden, live with mum, walk by a bunch of schoolkids.
When Madness made their film Take It or Leave It they wanted cinemas to remove the first ten rows of seats so the fans could dance. They later admitted this idea was a bit impractical.
The latest Madness single, “Wings of a Dove,” was held up because Mike Barson was on holiday in Yugoslavia and was not near a telephone.
Suggs is not a big fan of glossy groups like Duran Duran.
Woody is a vegetarian. He calls people who eat meat “cannibals.”
Days after they got married, Jane spent six weeks on tour in America, returning on the same day that Woody set off for a European tour.
Keep an ear open for Bonzai Forest, a new Camden group that several members of the band have taken an interest in.
Can Madness last for ten years more? Chas says yes. “We’ve got a lot in front of us…”
Originally published by SB Publishing & Promotions Ltd. in England, 1983. Acknowledgement to writer Robin Katz.
SUGGS: Another big turning point for the band was when we put out ‘My Girl’ as the third single. ’Cause we hadn’t really appealed to girls up to that point.
WOODY: We moved very quickly from doing sweaty clubs with a lot of scary-looking skinheads, and then the crowds got younger. At first, it was a bit kind of, ‘Oh my God, we’ve become a boy band.’ But it was alright.
LEE: It’s gone from boneheads in string vests to teeny-boppers. Now we’ve got the handbags replacing the beer bottles and a waft of fucking Charlie perfume coming up towards the stage! I mean, it was just one of those things. Directly after ‘My Girl,’ because it was moving so fast, we had a moment where at the gigs, you did see gooey-eyed girls at the front. But it was briefly lived.
Excerpts from Before We Was We: Madness by Madness
Before New Kids on the Block, before Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, before One Direction and BTS, Madness blazed the hunky trail as one of the pop world’s original boy bands. Kinda sorta. Well, not really. I guess you might consider Chas Smash to have been the boy-bandiest of the lot, with his slick dance moves and flashy fashion sense. And there could be multiple applicants for the role of The Cute One, right ladies?
Just so there’s no confusion, the fabricated Tiger Beat cover above comes from an alternate universe where Madness somehow became American teen idol sensations back in the day. But there does exist some legitimate evidence of their fleeting brush with boy band noblesse.
The profile pinups below were published in Look-in, a UK weekly for young readers focused on TV shows and music. The magazine boasted a long-running Madness comic strip called “It’s Madness,” and in early 1981 the band’s members were individually spotlighted in the “Collect-a-Page” feature. Look-in readers had to come back every week to get the whole set of seven, but Stateside Madness has helpfully gathered them for you here. We added the totally radical ’80s frame designs, but the rest is like real to the max.
So which nutty dreamy boy do YOU fancy the most?
The Bad Boy
The Older Brother
The Cute One
The Boy Next Door
The Shy One
The Crazy Clown
Fun Fact: According to Look-in, in 1981 Madness had a combined weight of 450 kg (987 lbs.). Madness still weighs about the same 40 years later, considering that the six remaining members between them have gained at least the equivalent of one 22-year-old Chas Smash.
I was a Madness fan for a full year before I got to hear them play live. By that, I don’t mean live in person for the first time. Heavens, no – that took another 25 years, which is a story for a whole other blog post. I mean, it took a year before I got to hear any audiovisual media transmission of Madness properly performing live. And this first listen also happened to be literally live. From New York. It’s Saturday Night!
Madness made their historic appearance on Saturday Night Live on April 14, 1984. Before this, I had seem them on American TV shows like Solid Gold and American Bandstand, but they were always miming to the recorded tracks, same as they had to do on Top of the Pops. It is possible that I’d been exposed to quick clips of Madness playing live on some MTV profile or on USA Network’s Night Flight. The producers of that show were clearly partial to Madness and British ska, airing obscure stuff like the “One Step Beyond” video a lot. But footage of Madness live on stage was seemingly on embargo in this country.
In these dark ages, there were no Madness live albums for me to buy, no black market of Madness bootlegs at my disposal, no concert films on VHS, and definitely no access to the Madness U.S. tour dates of 1983-84 that may as well have been on the moon. So here Madness was, crowned as my new favorite band, even though I had no idea what they sounded like on stage.
It’s quite remarkable, when you consider how Madness earned their rapid rise to notoriety in the UK on the strength of their live show. Blowing the roofs off The Dublin Castle and The Hope and Anchor garnered their first London fans through sweat-soaked, boot-stomping word of mouth. Then the 2 Tone Tour and their first headlining tours got the rest of the country jumping on the nutty train. The hit singles and Top of the Pops secured their success, obviously, but their explosive energy on stage was what made Madness. It was quite the opposite scenario in the States, where we embraced the catchy “Our House” pop tune with zero conception of how this unassuming troupe of ragamuffins could rock the ever-loving shit out of a live audience.
So that’s why this Saturday Night Live gig was really a big deal. Even if it had been a whole year since their big hit in America, this was our chance to finally see and hear what Madness was capable of live, on U.S. pop culture’s most high-profile live stage. The band had played a few California dates and visited Dick Clark in February-March 1984, an eventful swing that saw Lee marry his wife Debbie in Los Angeles. Madness flew back from Paris to New York for Saturday Night Live in April.
The host for their week was no Steve Martin or George Carlin – it was 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, who ran against Nixon and lost. He was still relevant in 1984 since he’d been running for the Democratic nomination again, but had just dropped out in March. For some reason Dick Ebersol thought a failure-ridden politician with no discernible personality would be comedy gold. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t.
Infinitely more in tune with the 1984 zeitgeist was SNL’s other special guest that night, none other than Clara Peller. For the benefit of the youngsters, the 81-year-old Mrs. Peller was the famed “Where’s the beef?” lady from the Wendy’s ad campaign that debuted at the start of that year. America was in the grips of “Where’s the beef?” fever when this show aired, and in fact Senator McGovern was fresh from participating in the Democratic primary debate where Walter Mondale borrowed Clara’s catchphrase as a zinger against Gary Hart. Good times.
Clara got to meet Madness before their joint Saturday Night Live broadcast and even had dinner with the band. Presumably adequate cow meat was offered on the bill of fare. Believe it or not, a 2015 biographical musical called Clara and the Beef chronicled herstardom in song, with one number devoted to her SNL exploits. “Saturday Night In New York” is very much a pastiche of “Our House,” with a faux-nutty rhythm bounding along to stupefying lyrics like “I will wear my new mink, please please don’t blink, I can be so special it’s a rare treat, and quite a feat – you need to let me go, on with the show!”
On that big SNL show, Clara’s main bit was a cameo at the end of a blah sketch about unappetizing TV dinners for impoverished Reaganomics victims. “Where’s the beef? Where’s the beef?” she repeatedly inquired, to roars of adulation. Later Clara stepped out with George McGovern to co-introduce the musical guest.
“Where’s the band?” demanded the marketing icon, squinting all around the studio. As raucous applause subsided, McGovern helpfully pointed out, “Clara, they’re right over there, and they’re called Madness.”
And now at last, the boys took the stage live in front of America. They dressed well for the occasion, with Woody in a middle-management necktie and short sleeves, Mark and Chris looking snazzy in their flat caps, Lee and trumpet sideman Dick Cuthell coordinated in white dinner jackets, and the gaudy duo of Suggs and Carl sporting Victorian tailcoats, lapel carnations and vintage costume hats. Suggs’s dark outfit was accented in red, while Carl opted for a monochromatic look complete with silvertone facepaint, making him look transplanted from a black and white film. The band was fleshed out with James Mackie manning Barso’s abandoned post and a trio of ladies on backing vocals.
The first Madness tune of the evening was, of course, “Our House.” Even though it had grown old and gray by this point and they had new music to promote, they knew well enough to give the Yanks what we wanted. Indeed, the studio audience showered them with a warm reception, even working up enthusiasm for the dreaded new song, the title track from the spanking new Keep Moving – which maybe two people in that crowd had heard, along with the loyal fans tuning in like me. By now, you’re thinking I must have been pretty stoked, right?
To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. I came away from the SNL show with the disappointed assessment that Madness wasn’t that great of a live band.
Shocking, I know! Let me hasten to add, the performance wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately there are no clips readily available online, since NBC Universal guards their copyrights with an iron fist, so I can’t let you judge for yourself. I do have private recordings, though. Watching them now, I can say the band was rather solid instrumentally. Mackie is no Mike Barson on the keys, but of course no one is. What soured the Saturday Night Live spotlight for me was our vocalists.
Suggs let me down because he didn’t seem to be into it. His charming expressiveness in the band’s music videos had made him my fast favorite member of the band, but live from New York, his affect struck me as flat and disinterested. Not much passion or dynamic range in his voice, compared to Madness recordings. Toward the end of “Our House,” Suggs went into “was our castle and our keep” one bar too soon. Perhaps a few too many beverages or other SNL vices before the show?
And Carl pissed me off, too. At this point in time, I regarded Chas Smash as just a backup vocalist who sang lead on a few songs. To me Suggs was THE singer of Madness. I didn’t much like seeing Carl showboating up front when it wasn’t one of his songs, like he was trying to crowd out Suggs as the frontman. With Suggs playing it so low-key, Carl’s voice was totally dominant at times. I wished Carl was hanging out back there with Lee and the backup girls instead. Speaking of whom, those ladies weren’t helping things. The one spot where they fit in was “Sister’s sighing in her sleep, ah-ah-ah ahhh.” Otherwise their chirps just cluttered up the vocal shambles even more.
Like dear Clara Peller, I asked myself, “Where’s the band?”
Since I didn’t own a VCR until Christmas 1984, I had no record of that SNL show to play back. In my memories, this live Madness exhibition degenerated into a Rashomon grotesque of musical ineptitude. I recollected the whole band as sounding terrible, when that wasn’t at all true. This perceived blunder didn’t tarnish my opinion of Madness, though. I still loved them, I just decided they were a great studio band and not so hot on stage. No harm, no foul. I wasn’t disabused of this faulty notion for a couple of years – I believe it was finding the Dance Craze LP (yet another tale for a future blog) that demonstrated how Madness was without question an extraordinary live act.
In my defense, I can offer the court three pleas for why Madness on Saturday Night Live hit me the wrong way. First off, I was just a kid. And mighty clueless in oh so many ways. At age 14, I hadn’t even been to a single rock or pop concert, just country music shows with my mom. My yardstick for grading live music was how closely it sounded like the record, lacking mature appreciation for nuances of rawness and spontaneity.
Secondly, there was a bit of sour grapes involved. With the prospects of me seeing a Madness concert seeming astronomically remote, I suppose some recess of my subconscious was glad to find fault with Madness on stage. Convincing myself that they maybe kinda sucked at playing live was a coping mechanism against teenage FOMO.
Most importantly, this is a case of what statisticians might call error from insufficient data sampling. When you’ve seen a performing artist a thousand times, you can readily identify and forgive a misstep here and there. But when making a critical evaluation based on one showing, you can jump to all sorts of false conclusions. So Suggs wasn’t on top form that night. So I was ignorant of Carl’s evolved stage dynamics. So the backup singers weren’t the best. It sure doesn’t mean Madness can’t play live, but I was working from the best evidence at hand. As a kid still learning about the wide world, I was prone to making sweeping generalizations based on my narrow personal frame of reference. Hell, I’m guilty of doing that nowadays, but hopefully not as often. Or as stupidly.
Looking back, it’s ironic that one of the first Madness songs I heard live (on TV) happened to be “Keep Moving.” Some thirty years later, when I went to the 2015 House of Fun Weekender, the first tune in the Friday night fan-service setlist was “Keep Moving.” A song I never, ever, EVER dreamed I would see Madness play live (in person). As I pumped my fist in Minehead and screamed mine head off, any foolish misgivings about this band’s live musicianship were forgotten like a silly old nightmare.
Don’t hide from past folly. Hold it high with a smile. Speak out loud with the mind of a child. If you’re lucky.
You could say there are three categories in which non-musicians can write about music: music journalism, music criticism, and music essays. Something I’ve learned in my years as a consumer and producer of music writing is that its level of value depends largely on who the reader is. In general, journalism and criticism are most useful to neophytes unfamiliar with the given musical subject, who are just getting into a band or wondering if a new release is worth a listen. Articles and reviews serve as invaluable touchstones for all of us to become fans – but once you’re a seasoned devotee of whatever artist or genre, you reach a point where you know just as much or probably more than the average music hack. You can nitpick their ignorant misstatements about a band’s lineup and discography, or rail against their clueless ★½ rating of a brilliant album. At this stage, a matured fan can largely cast aside journalism and criticism like old training wheels.
On the other hand, personal music essays have the exact inverse relationship with the audience. If you want to write about what a given performer’s music means to you and detail your experiences as a fan, you pretty much need to assume your readers share in that fandom. Stories about that band’s first concert you saw, or fond high-school summer memories from when that big song was popular, or hunting down that elusive import 12” holy grail may make delightful reading for those who can relate, but they’re more likely boring and self-indulgent in the eyes of the uninitiated. And sure, music essays can be just bad, period. But when they’re good, they’re a marvelous way to partly capture the ineffable joys of music in written words, to connect new insights and moments of recognition among your far-flung brothers and sisters of similar dispositions.
In his new book, The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, Stephen Shafer deftly does all three kinds of music writing: journalism, criticism and essays, all swirled together to a brisk skanking rhythm. The book largely consists of reviews and articles culled from Steve’s popular blog, The Duff Guide to Ska, which has covered ska and ska-related music since 2008. Being from New York, Steve shares a mission in common with us at Stateside Madness: appreciating music of Jamaican and British origins from an American point of view. The Duff Guide has been something of a role model for me in developing the SSM blog, so it’s been an honor for Steve to find us and give us a number of kind shoutouts in our first year on the scene.
The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is organized into sections covering the primary acts with singles and/or albums released on Jerry Dammers’ legendary 2 Tone Records: The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, The (English) Beat, Rico Rodriguez, The Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners, and a few choice “2 Tone adjacent” artists at the end. The result is one of those nice, sumptuous compendiums that you can flip through and read swatches of interest in whatever order you like. That’s an experience you can’t replicate by clicking links in a blog, giving me flashbacks to hours spent with my beloved Trouser Press Record Guide – only here in an all-ska all-stars edition.
The Madness section covers the band’s output from 2009 to 2019 quite comprehensively, including the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, “Bullingdon Boys” and the Before We Was We book. Steve gives a fine accounting of what Madness has been up to over the past decade, but like I said before, I really don’t need someone to tell me how good they think Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da and Can’t Touch Us Now are. What I like reading most is Steve’s personal asides.
Though it may seem anathema for someone with my obvious bias, I found myself especially enchanted with Steve’s confession that he was never the hugest fan of Madness. In his ranking of the top 2 Tone acts back in the day, Madness came in at number four, with The Specials/The Special AKA being his big favorite. He explains that he was drawn to the strong political views expressed by the Dammers crew from Coventry (as well as The Beat and The Selecter), moreso than the comparatively sunny pop sensibilities of the Nutty Boys. That’s fair enough, an opinion shared by many of my friends who have showed appreciation for British ska. Americans tend to deem The Specials the “coolest” band in the genre, I know. But when The Liberty of Norton Folgate came along in 2009, Steve had to reconsider his former assessment.
“When it seemed like their 2 Tone peers had run out of things to say,” he writes, “Madness were delivering the songs of great meaning that I had wanted from them in my youth – a concept album that promotes multiculturalism as the only path to real freedom, and the notion that the history of a place and its people has an extraordinary impact on making this possible.” This he follows with a thorough unpacking of “We Are London” and the epic title track, dissecting them with rigorous wonder. It’s some of the finest Madness analysis I’ve ever read.
The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is chock full of personal fan nuggets that elevate it above a mere collection of record reviews. I relish Steve’s finding of the exceptionally rare Rico Jama LP. I envy him for seeing Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar play together in New York City in 2019. I admire his heartfelt reflections on the occasion of Ranking Roger’s passing. I relate to his interview with Roddy “Radiation” Byers, whom I myself had the pleasure of chatting with at length before a North Carolina gig a couple of years ago. I love that Steve mentions his favorite album by The Beat is Wha’ppen? No way, I think he and I must be the only two fans who share that oddball opinion! And indeed, his reviews have a thing or two to teach a crotchety old know-it-all like me – for instance, I had vaguely heard of The Specials’ Live at the Moonlight Club but never bought it. After reading Steve’s reverential praise for the 1979 bootleg-turned-legit release, I had to go grab it. I’m sure glad I did. Thanks, buddy.
If I had to criticize one thing about The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, it would be the editorial presentation. The professional copy editor in me wishes I could have taken a pass at assembling the manuscript in a more orderly fashion. The reviews are largely in reverse chronological order for whatever reason, with miscellaneous essay and interview pieces coming at the end of each section. I would have arranged things more strictly from oldest to newest. I also would like to see a brief intro at the start of each new section profiling the given artist by listing their 2 Tone bona fides and outlining their career up to the point in 2008 when The Duff Guide blog began, just as orientation for newbies. Doing so wouldn’t require a lot of new writing. Prime example, the first review in The Bodysnatchers section starts with about three pages on their background, making a really excellent capsule recap of Rhoda Dakar’s body of work. You could just lift it out and have a nice Bodysnatchers preamble ready to go.
But I’m probably just being too finicky and pedantic in my publishing ethos. A book as niche as The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is best aimed at full-fledged fans, those who already know their Price Buster from their Buster Bloodvessel – and any interested novice worth their salt will accept a good challenge above their reading level. No doubt, Steve Shafer scores high marks as a music journalist, critic and essayist. I’m more focused in my own ambitions here at Stateside Madness, favoring the “let me tell you my story” essay end of the spectrum, and in that capacity I’m proud to have Steve as a virtual mentor of sorts and comrade-at-arms. Here’s to hoping we can meet up for a super-nerdy fanboy conversation at a ska concert some fine day.