(Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Madness)
After cranking out hit after hit in the UK for about four years, Madness finally cracked the fickle American market in 1983 with “Our House.” That classic track took the band into the U.S. Top 10 and served as the primary entry point for their American fans, myself included. But I have to admit, I wasn’t convinced to jump aboard the nutty train right away.
I can recall with great clarity when I first heard ”Our House,” as a wee lad of 13. At the time my favorite band was Men at Work, and as a younger kid I was into Kiss and The B-52s. I was home alone after school, sitting at the kitchen table doing homework with the radio on. This very peculiar song came blasting out, a torrent of pounding piano and bombastic brass and swirling strings. No arena rock guitar riffs or electronic synth beats to be found. What we had here was something foreign, in more ways than one.
At first I thought it must be an advertisement. Some kind of real estate insurance jingle? An Olde-England flavored ditty for Merry Maids? A public service announcement on quality family time from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? But no, this jaunty little tune kept rollicking on and on past the :30 mark. It was no commercial… it was an actual music-song-type song, of some hitherto unknown variety.
I put my pencil down and stuck my head into the radio speaker to try and figure out what the heck I was listening to. So it’s this British guy urgently waxing poetic about his family unit and the daily routine activities transpiring in their domicile. How weird is that? I distinctly remember being confused about the chorus, which to me sounded like “Ah, house.” I reasoned that the nostalgia-ridden singer was wistfully addressing his old childhood home by name: “Ah, house. Ah, room. Ah, cow jumping over the moon.” In the middle of “Ah” street?
This moment left an impression on me, obviously. But I was not an instant fan. It was more like I’d been struck by a hit-and-run ice cream truck that went speeding away lickety-split with its jolly chime echoing in the distance. What in the world was that? The music was kinda catchy, but the vocal style and general cutesiness put me off a bit. My American Bandstand hot take: it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but it sounds like children’s music. I’d just become a teenager, after all, at that age when you’re out to prove you’re not a kid anymore. To those ears, “Ah, House” sounded childish next to the likes of The Police and Duran Duran, with their PG-rated songs of sex and obsession and adulting.
It wasn’t long after this first exposure that I gave the daft alien melody another round of scrutiny. And this time my judgment was far more charitable, thanks to the visionary genius of one Mr. Dave Robinson. Yes, it was the music video that won me over.
MTV doesn’t get the credit, because our backwater North Carolina cable provider didn’t add the channel until a year or so later. For music videos I depended on Night Tracks on SuperStation TBS, Night Flight on USA, and Friday Night Videos on NBC. It would have been on one of these beloved programs that I first saw the video for that oddball British song. By virtue of the credit captions, I learned that the name of the band was Madness, and of course they weren’t singing “Ah, House” at all. “Our” did make a lot more sense, didn’t it?
More to the point, the entire song made a lot more sense, given context by that completely brilliant video. Putting faces to the odd noises coming out of the radio, I suddenly got a better sense of who these guys were. And man, they were so cool! They were silly and clowning around, sure, but Madness no longer seemed juvenile once you got a look at ’em. Nor were they preening fancy lads like A Flock of Seagulls or Kajagoogoo. There was a grubby and working-class edge to their bouncy sound. Their humor shared points of reference with Monty Python, per the hirsute sax player in drag playing the pepperpot housewife, and the lot of them lounging in a hot tub with knotted Gumby handkerchiefs on their heads. And that lead singer! Flattop haircut, fingerless black gloves, snazzy gray suit jacket, all those frantic gestures and rubbery facial expressions. He was kind of ugly, but kind of handsome at the same time. Right away he was my favorite member of the group.
The sequence with the guitar solo most clearly crystalized the song’s meaning, moving from boyhood air guitar to Elvis phase to Beatles obsession to new wave rocker in the space of 15 seconds. It’s a song about growing up, and remembering all those things you miss in lots of ways.
Soon I bought my first Madness “album,” Geffen’s self-titled 1983 U.S. compilation with the billiards cover. Which, as best as I knew, was the band’s debut album, featuring their first hit song. But even that purchase was a complicated decision, because avid music video consumption had got me interested in both Madness and Eurythmics. Finances were limited back then, and I couldn’t just go out and buy two albums (cassette tapes, actually) at the same time like a Rockefeller. After much deliberation I decided Madness was the one for me to risk my allowance on. And yeah, you can probably guess where this is going. It wasn’t love at first listen.
Even though I was sold on how awesome “Our House” was, the other 11 tracks didn’t thrill me. Too much repetition of annoying little phrases (“Close your eyes and count to three… 1-2-3!” “Three cheers, hip hip hip!” “Welcome to the house of fun!”), too many annoying little sound effects (carnival noises, a thumping heartbeat, a foghorn). Again I found myself back in that initial radio-listener position of thinking Madness sounded immature and cringey. Drat it all, how I wished I had spent my precious dollars on Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) instead!
And once again, it was the music video that made the difference. As I recall, within the same week that I bought the disappointing Madness tape, I saw the video for “It Must Be Love.” Boom. The scales dropped from my eyes and the cotton unplugged from my ears. “It Must Be Love” no longer sounded so syrupy sweet, leavened by jogging undertakers, people in bird and bee costumes, and the guitarist and sax player playing their instruments underwater (swimming “with” a killer whale, for some reason). The lead singer, whose name I learned from the cassette liner notes was G. Suggs McPherson, was even cooler and more charismatic than in the “Our House” video. I’d never felt a real urge to “be” a given pop star before, but I wanted to be Suggs. In this particular case The Buggles were wrong: Video saved the radio star.
I went back to my Madness tape with renewed interest, incrementally calibrating my sense of this band’s identity and what their music meant. The idiosyncrasies in their sound ceased to seem childish or annoying. There was much to learn about Madness, and I was now an eager student.
When Madness pierced the veil of American pop culture in 1983, the rupture opened only a tiny pinhole for us to gaze through. The view was foggy, distorted and incomplete. I formed false first impressions, and most of my countrymen barely registered any at all prior to that ephemeral pinhole sealing back up. But I heard something and felt something on the other side of that trans-Atlantic barrier, so I clawed open my own damn pinhole with my bare hands. I worked at it, I kept listening, I scoured music magazines for scant precious information, I tracked down their past recordings, I became a loyally devoted fan, and I stretched that pinhole wide enough to climb though and tumble headlong into the realm of Madness. I put in the time and effort, digging to excavate the gold I knew was there beneath the surface.
Suffice to say, I found it. In the middle of “Ah” street.
The year 1986 was a tumultuous time of transition for all of us old-school Madness fans. And for myself even more so, since I was in my senior year of high school and facing big decisions about my future. It was a pivotal moment when I had more consequential matters to worry about than my favorite pop band breaking up. And yet somehow my pursuit of college admission got intermingled with my love of Madness, as I shall relate forthwith.
During my junior year, I entered a short story in a scholarship competition called the North Carolina Writing Award. It was a lark and I expected nothing from it, but I ended up winning first place in the county. So I was invited to the state finals at Duke University, where I squared off against the other finalists in writing an extemporaneous essay in a big intimidating auditorium. I won second place in the state, which scored me major scholarship funds to put me through either UNC or Duke, and cemented my confidence in writing as the skill I wanted to build a career around.
But that’s not why we’re here. The incident of musical interest took place on the night before the Duke finals. It was my first visit to Durham, which now has been my home for some 25+ years. That evening my Mom and I stopped at a big mall called South Square, long since demolished, and I browsed a Record Bar music store. In this prize wonderland I found a rare and amazing discovery: the Dance Craze soundtrack. I had read about the elusive 1981 concert film, but here was the music on vinyl LP in my hands for the first time. At the checkout I remember telling the cashier I was super impressed with Record Bar’s selection. I’m sure I sounded like a pimply little dork, but I meant it. I thought this city of Durham must be a happenin’ place. Maybe I did want to live there and go to Duke instead of Chapel Hill.
I spent that night in the hotel admiring the kick-ass album sleeve, glad of something to divert the stress of tomorrow morning’s writerly showdown. The triumvirate I knew as the giants of 2 Tone – Madness, The Specials and The (English) Beat – all together on one live album. It was a crossover team-up event like the Avengers of ska. I also knew Bad Manners, but I’d never heard The Selecter or The Bodysnatchers. How cool, how exciting!
Dance Craze was a real watershed in my development as a music fan. Most fans think of Dance Craze foremost in terms of the movie, but for me the soundtrack is forever more memorable and important. I’ve only seen the movie in crappy VHS bootlegs and on YouTube, since legal entanglements have prevented official home video releases. On the last night of a 2017 visit to London, I had a ticket to see a screening of a high-quality print at a club in Islington, with Rhoda Dakar doing a live set afterward. But I came down with pink eye on the trip and decided to stay in. Later came to find out the projector had broken and there was no show that night.
But anyway, what was so significant about the Dance Craze soundtrack? Unbelievably, it was the first opportunity I really got to hear how Madness sounded live. Think of that. Just as the band was packing it in, I finally learned how flippin’ amazing they were on stage, when it was too late for me to ever experience the nutty sound in person. (Or so it seemed.) But let’s set that thought aside for the moment, so I can first give the rest of the artists on the Dance Craze soundtrack their due.
The Specials dominate the album, taking the opening and closing tracks, and rightfully so given their status as the progenitors of 2 Tone. Terry Hall sings lead on “Concrete Jungle,” which songwriter Roddy Radiation sang on the album. I’d have to say Roddy sings it best with that rockabilly swagger, but Terry ain’t half bad. I first heard “Man At C&A” on Dance Craze, since I didn’t yet have More Specials at that point. I definitely prefer the live version without the Mickey Mouse voice. “Nite Klub” makes for a storming finale, with a merry Terry offering a more generous appraisal of the klub scene than usual: “All the girls are very nice and all the boys are pissed!” And his band introductions during the extended bridge have long been my mnemonic device for knowing my Specials members. “On drums, Brad! On bass guitar, Horace!”
The Beat is in fine form on their three tracks. My first album of theirs, the What Is Beat? compilation, contained bonus live versions of “Ranking Full Stop” and “Mirror in the Bathroom,” so I very much knew what to expect here. The band’s inclusion in Dance Craze left my younger self with the vague impression that The Beat had been on the legendary 2 Tone Tour, but of course they weren’t.
I was familiar with Bad Manners thanks to their minor novelty hit, “My Girl Lollipop.” The 1982 Forging Ahead is the only album I’ve ever had by Buster Bloodvessel and co., and only on a cassette I gave away long ago. It was interesting to find this “lesser” act elevated onto the same level as the big boys, and their “Inner London Violence” had a harder edge compared to their laddish goofball tunes I knew.
And then there’s the two girl-singer groups, The Selecter and The Bodysnatchers. Both of them blew me away. I pored over the little photos on the back of the album sleeve trying to figure out which one was Pauline Black and which one was Rhoda Dakar. For a while I guessed wrong and had them reversed. The Bodysnatchers made a huge impression in their one number, “Easy Life,” but it would be many years before I got access to any more of Rhoda’s music. I was more taken with The Selecter, especially Pauline’s shimmering vocals on “Missing Words” and the cute way she went “hey!” in the chorus of “Three Minute Hero.” After Dance Craze, I got my hands on Celebrate the Bullet and totally ate it up. I remember thinking it was like music from the future, despite the album being about six years old by then. My Stateside Madness cohort Poly Collins has proclaimed his longtime crush on Rhoda Dakar, but I’d have to say I’m a Pauline Black guy… even though Pauline shares the same name as my dear departed grandmother, which is kinda weird for one’s sexy pop idol.
And now back to the feature attraction of the Dance Craze soundtrack: Madness live. It seems hard to believe, but in those early years I had no exposure to what Madness really sounded like on stage. Like most U.S. fans, I lacked the means to attend their concerts, and TV appearances were nearly always mimed. Their live act, so renowned across the U.K., Europe and east Asia, had been systemically withheld from America. In 1984 Madness made a landmark live performance on Saturday Night Live, and as I detailed in my Where’s the Band? post, I found it lacking. I actually decided Madness must be a studio band not really suited for the stage, like Steely Dan or something. Boy howdy, did I have that wrong.
Listening to Dance Craze was the first time I ever got to hear a legitimate high-fidelity recording of Madness doing their thing wide-open. It was a revelation. Three top tracks from the One Step Beyond album that I so cherished, executed with dazzling energy and verve. Barson and Bedders dueling like fencing masters in the mind-blowing bridge of “Razor Blade Alley.” Chas screaming his head off in “One Step Beyond” (“Soul to soul, nation to nation! Madness is musical appreciation!”) as the band lays siege like an unstable nuclear reactor threatening to implode. Suggs making the most of “Night Boat to Cairo,” his one brief spotlight on the whole soundtrack, while Chris goes extra twangy, Woody goes extra bangy, and Thommo goes extra cranky. Every song a show-stopper.
When the Dance Craze soundtrack was first released on CD in 1990, it was a crushing disappointment to find the Madness tracks omitted because of legal issues. A first pressing with Madness included was immediately recalled, but a few copies that slipped out sold for astronomical prices on the collector market. When the three missing songs turned up on a 2009 anniversary deluxe CD of One Step Beyond, I tried to playlist them together with the rest of Dance Craze, but with the different sound mix and fade-outs, they would not blend seamlessly together. Ultimately this mess got resolved with the 2 Tone: The Albums box set in 2020, which includes the soundtrack in all its original unexpurgated glory at last.
I can’t overstate how much that Dance Craze album taught me. But not just the illumination of Madness’s full talents. Not just the introduction to The Selecter and Rhoda Dakar. Not just the beauty and harmony of these six quirky British bands all woven together at a singular moment in pop culture history. More than that, Dance Craze was a harbinger of the key role that live music was going to assume in my life going forward.
Back in 1986, live music was basically an abstract concept for me. The only shows I’d ever been to were country music stars like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. Late in my senior year I ventured to take a first “grown-up” night out with friends, going to see a local reggae band on an Asheville college campus. It was like touching a live electrical wire. I never knew music could have such visceral presence, hitting you in the chest and lighting up your whole nervous system. This was a whole new experience, and I liked it. A lot. I began to see that records and tapes were only like pictures of music, a second-hand accounting of music. As Mike Watt puts it, everything is either a gig or a flyer. Records are nothing but flyers to get people to the next gig. Live music is what matters.
I ended up choosing to attend UNC over Duke, thank goodness. My top extracurricular activity was seeing live music at Chapel Hill clubs and other area venues. Arguably that was more educational than all my English and sociology and poli-sci classes put together. In my freshman year alone, I got to see R.E.M., Echo and the Bunnymen, 10,000 Maniacs, Sting, U2, fIREHOSE, and many fine local bands like the Pressure Boys and Billy Warden and the Floatin’ Children. My college years fell within the dark hiatus without Madness, but there was no shortage of live music for me to absorb and savor and learn from.
Looking back, I consider the Dance Craze soundtrack to have been my first college course in both Madness and music in general. As Chas Smash aptly noted, “Madness is musical appreciation!” Everything before that was grade school, me with my little cassette tapes and pop music magazines. Many years later, following the band’s triumphant return, I would embark on my graduate studies by seeing Madness live for the first time at Madstock 2009. I think I finally earned my master’s degree at the Kenwood House Madness XL orchestral concert in 2019.
And this Stateside Madness blog you’re reading right now? It’s my ongoing doctoral thesis.
Editor’s Note: Welcome aboard our first guest blogger: Laurie Alfaro, Stateside Madness Social Media Director and Podcast Producer. Laurie has contributed this glossary in conjunction with her deep-dive podcast on The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Sit back, relax, and we’ll travel many a long dim silent street… together! – D. Trull
In 2009, Madness released their magnum opus The Liberty of Norton Folgate, a concept album referring to a small area in east London named after Norton Folgate Street. Historically, this area was known for its colorful immigrant population, especially in Victorian times. Rightly or wrongly, the Liberty of Norton Folgate had a reputation for lawlessness, crime, and prostitution.
The album concludes with the ten-minute, ten-second epic title track, “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.” The song references many people and places in Victorian England that may not be known to American audiences. In this article, I will outline the people and places mentioned in the song to give listeners some context so that they can truly appreciate this masterpiece.
“This is the story of the Liberty of Norton Folgate” (0:10)
As we learned in Episode #23 of the Stateside Madness Podcast, Norton Folgate was a liberty in Middlesex, England, adjacent to the City of London in what would eventually become the East End of London. A “liberty” is an area in which rights reserved to the king had been devolved into private hands; in other words, it was self-governed, ruled by a court of ten elected officers who derived their authority from the people. Notable for the time, the elected officers included women. It was an 8.7-acre site originally occupied by the Priory and Hospital of St. Mary Spital. Playwright Christopher Marlowe was a resident of Norton Folgate, and the first-ever staging of a Charles Dickens play was held at the City of London Theatre in Norton Folgate (titled The Pickwick Club or The Age We Live In). William Shakespeare himself reportedly lived and worked in the neighborhood as well.
A short time ago Old Jack Norris died suddenly and an inquest was held on the body, before Mr. Stirling, Coroner, at the Black Horse, George-street, St. Giles’s. It was reported the deceased had starved to death. The evidence proved, that latterly the deceased, who was nearly seventy years of age, was unable to pursue his occupation of a dealer in shrimps, which, from his peculiar cry, gained him the appellation of the “Musical Shrimp Man”….
Battling Levinsky versus Jackie Berg (0:42)
Battling Levinsky was the world light heavyweight champion from 1916 to 1920. Jack Kid Berg, or Jackie Kid Berg, was an English boxer born in the East End of London who became the World Light Welterweight Champion in 1930. Both were inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Since their boxing careers took place much later than Victorian times, their inclusion may seem like an anachronism; but after all, Suggs is taking a broad survey of Norton Folgate’s history that extends to street hucksters flogging bootleg DVDs.
Arnold Circus (2:00)
This area had once been one of the worst slums in London. In 1890, the entire area was razed, and a new housing development was built in its place. According to Atlas Obscura:
Rather than lifting London’s poorest from squalor, the Boundary Estate forced them into neighboring slums. The construction of the estate did, however, succeed in revitalizing the immediate neighborhood. Crime and violence in the area decreased substantially and Arnold Circus was viewed as a haven by London’s Jewish immigrant community.
Petticoat Lane (2:03)
A clothing market in Spitalfields. In the late 1800s, the area experienced a wave of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution. Many of these immigrants went into the garment industry and set up stalls in the clothing market.
The Well of Shadows (2:04)
According to author Ed O’Regan, the Well of Shadows is a play on words referring to Shadwell in London’s East End. (Shadwell = Shad Well, Well of Shadows.) In his book Well of Shadows, Underground London (AS Publishing, 2013), he writes:
The social history of London’s East End is that wave upon wave of poor and/or dispossessed immigrants: Hugenots [sic], Irish, Jews and, more recently, Bangladeshis.
The local gang of Bangladeshi youths called itself ‘The Shadwell Massive’.
In Victorian times, the Shadwell area was a slum where opium dens and prostitution were rampant.
Archipelago of Malay (2:33)
This refers to the island chain between Australia and mainland Indochina. The Malay Archipelago consists of 25,000 islands and islets, including East Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. Portions of the archipelago were ceded to the British Empire under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.
Shadwell’s Tiger Bay (2:39)
Shadwell, mentioned earlier in the song, was a popular docking location for ships traveling up the River Thames. The rough-and-tumble nature of the area surrounding the docks earned it the nickname “Tiger Bay.” According to Ed Fisher in The Dictionary of Victorian London:
During the Victorian times, “Tiger Bay” was used (mostly by sailors but by others as well) to refer to various of the worst slum areas or districts as well as a few actual streets near the east-end London docks. Allegedly, the nickname was inspired by the awful nature of the brothels (and their operators) in the worst areas where many of the sailors were so badly treated.
“The Welsh and Irish wagtails” (2:45)
A wagtail is a songbird. Here, the wagtail is a metaphor for the people from Wales and Ireland and their native music. This thought continues in the next line, as “The music hall carousal is spilling out into bonfire light.”
Mr. Truman’s beer factory (3:06)
Located on Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets, Truman’s Brewery was once the largest brewery in the world. “Giants dancing up the brick wall” refers to the shadows of drunken revelers cast across the building’s iconic brick exterior. Joseph Truman became owner of the facility in 1683 or thereabouts. (Records from this time are a bit sketchy.) The brewery was passed down over many generations in the Truman family. Its famous 160-foot chimney is now a historical landmark. Today, The Old Truman Brewery is an events space and cultural center.
Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets (3:14)
Spitalfields and Whitechapel are districts in the East End of London within the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Known for its dense immigrant population, in Victorian times this area was most famous as the hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper. Interestingly, the 2009 Madstock festival that coincided with the release of The Liberty of Norton Folgate shifted from the traditional Finsbury Park venue to Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets.
Due to its large South Asian population, Brick Lane is nicknamed Banglatown (as in Bangladesh). Suggs seems to mispronounce it as “Bangletown.”
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (3:48)
Dan Leno was a music hall comedian famed for his bawdy songs and drag routines. Author Peter Ackroyd wrote a 1994 murder mystery novel set in Victorian London, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The book’s fictional serial killer, a menace in the vein of Jack the Ripper, is named for the Limehouse district of Tower Hamlets. Though it was pure fiction, Ackroyd’s novel starred a number of historical figures including Dan Leno and Karl Marx. It was published in the United States as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and adapted into a 2017 film, The Limehouse Golem. Suggs cites the psychogeographic approach of Ackroyd’s London: The Biography as an influence in his conception of “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”
“Have a banana” (4:23)
“Let’s All Go Down the Strand” was a massively popular 1910 music hall song about having a night out on the Strand, a lively thoroughfare about 3 miles west of Norton Folgate. An ad-libbed audience singalong line got permanently tacked onto the chorus: “Let’s all go down the Strand, have a banana!” (much like various additions to “Sweet Caroline” popularized by American sports crowds). “Have a banana” has become an emblematic Cockney catchphrase much favored in the Suggs repertoire of stage patter.
In his recent guest spot on the Stateside Madness Podcast, Chris Foreman mentioned how he has profited as co-writer of “Our House,” a staple of the advertising circuit. “I do quite well out of sync licenses, you know,” he said with a laugh. “People want to use it. So yeah, it’s done me well!” The past year has seen the tune become a pandemic anthem in a lovely Miracle-Gro ad as well as spots for midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee and UK retailer Very.
And now it’s Allstate putting more U.S. dollars in Chrissy Boy’s pocket, thanks to their new “Our House” ad that steps beyond the coronavirus era. Contrary to the whole home-lockdown angle, this one proposes taking your castle and your keep with you on the go, in a manner of speaking.
The whimsical ad features comedic actress Erin Alexis hauling a whole house (albeit of the tiny variety) down the road hitched to her modest mom-mobile, over the familiar strains of “Our House.” The dulcet baritone of Allstate pitchman Dennis Haysbert implores viewers to bundle their home insurance with their auto policy to save a bundle. “You already pay for car insurance. Why not take your home along for the ride?”
It’s nowhere near as magical as the Miracle-Gro commercial, but it’s a good ad. There are two interesting things to note about the sociocultural mechanics that make it work.
First, it’s not until halfway through the ad that the song lyrics kick in. I think most “Our House” ads jump into a chorus or verse straightaway, but this one demonstrates patience. Likewise, we don’t see the whole visual gag at first, just tight shots of the house’s rumbling interior, a window box planter and curtains in the breeze, set to the instrumental overture. This shows that Allstate was confident enough that most people in their target demo would recognize the song and get the joke even before hearing Suggs and Carl. Just like when we hear the distinct bassline and cha-chings of Pink Floyd’s “Money,” we know an ad’s going to be about finances, and “We Are Family” telegraphs blood relations even without the Sister Sledge vocals, the “Our House” melody alone is enough to make us anticipate a commercial about home.
The other noteworthy thing about the ad is how it hinges on a common American misinterpretation of the chorus. “Our house, in the middle of our street.” This phrasing strikes U.S. listeners oddly, evoking nonsense images of a house erected right in the road itself, blocking traffic on both sides and violating of all sorts of zoning ordinances.
Even as a 13-year-old kid, I managed to figure out this meant the house was situated centrally along the length of the street, rather than across its width. Go halfway down our street, turn left at our house. Ten years ago, the blog Separated by a Common Language offered a thorough analysis of the British English idioms in “Our House,” wherein author Lynne “Lynneguist” Murphy astutely notes the following:
To my young American ears, this sounded intentionally funny. The house is in the middle of the street! Like where the manholes should be! No, no, no. This is the British English equivalent of in American English in the middle of our block. … But even if it weren’t in the middle of the street, ‘our house’ would still be in our street, because in British English addresses can be in the street or road.
Indeed, let us not forget that the earthquake was erupting but not in Orange Street. If Lee Thompson had an American editor, it would have been not erupting on Orange Street. And then we have Suggs’s new composition “In My Street,” which puts the Yank-baffling choice of preposition front and centre. Although it is interesting that Suggs also wrote of passing Amy Winehouse on Dean Street, rather than “in Dean Street”… perhaps because the scene of a personal encounter is different from a fixed address?
As a side note, the “Our House” lyric that always tripped me up most was “the kids are playing up downstairs.” I recall one of my friends postulating that the children were on a lower floor above the sub-basement. Murphy’s blog post helpfully explains that “playing up” means “behaving irritatingly or erratically,” which we might express as kids “acting up” or “cutting up” downstairs.
But back to the Allstate ad. Even if it it requires being thickheaded to think the house in “Our House” was literally in the road, where the lines are painted, and where the chicken crosses, that peculiar pinch of British flavour is inherent to our experience of the song in America. So much so that an ad agency selling the benefits of combining car and home insurance was able to find a nostalgic pop hit that expresses this specific concept to us. And Allstate was confident enough to let the music speak for itself, free of exposition by way of lyrics or President David Palmer, for the exorbitantly expensive duration of 15 seconds. It’s pretty cool that Madness still occupies its minuscule niche of American pop culture enough to pull that off. “Our House” is in good hands with Allstate.
And honestly, it makes for a better insurance ad than “Driving in My Car” or “Mrs Hutchinson” ever could.
What is the best way to do a music livestream without an audience? During the pandemic, artists have come up with many different approaches to performing for distant fans. We’ve seen unplugged living room sessions. We’ve seen bands looking embarrassed in silent rehearsal spaces. We’ve seen lavish special effects, camerawork and choreography yielding something more akin to a spontaneous music video than a concert. We’ve seen singers holding microphones down below face shields. We’ve seen masked orchestras and string sections lending gravitas to pop and rock. We’ve seen artists reading fan tweets between songs, or worse yet, walls of Zoom video faces staring from behind the band like creepy digital surveillance juries.
It’s all been awkward and weird. Musicians want to play and earn their living, and fans are ready and yearning to hear them, so livestreams are a noble pursuit. Everyone wants them to work and turn out great. But it comes down to a philosophical riddle like the tree falling in a forest. If a band plays live, but no one is there to hear them, is it really live music? Or just a studio session?
Back in June 2020, Suggs and Mike Barson teamed up for their Two Mad Men and a String Quartet livestream. As delightful as it was, slaking Madness fans’ thirst with an intimate set of old favorites and a couple of new numbers, there’s no denying it came off a bit flat. When they turned their attentions to a major online event with the full band unit, Madness dug deeper. A lot deeper. Fueled by the creative energy of writer/co-star Charlie Higson, The Get Up! presented a musical-comedy-variety extravaganza from the London Palladium on May 14. The Get Up! wildly succeeded by reassessing the possibilities of putting on a concert without a live audience and doing something wholly different.
Higson and the band clearly realized that they should focus on doing a production that would be impossible in front of a live crowd, instead of apologizing for the shortcomings. Without an audience present, you can edit. You can mix scenes from interiors and exteriors. You can use movie magic to put band members in multiple places at the same time. You can set up elaborate scenarios and gags. You can tell a story.
The promotional materials for The Get Up! draw inspiration from the classic old Ealing Studios comedies, plagiarizing paying tribute to the posters for Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob. Advance synopses revealed that Higson would be playing the ghost of the London Palladium. This led me to speculate that the plot might revolve around the band rehearsing in the empty concert hall, only to be plagued by ghostly interruptions and spooky Scooby-Doo hijinks. (And honestly, that sounds pretty good! Rut-roh, Thommo!) But it turns out the team cooked up something a lot more ambitious.
The Get Up! starts from the unspoken premise that “Madness live” does not compute without a live audience. It cleverly solves this conundrum by casting the band members as the audience at their own show, ushered by Charlie Higson’s grandiloquent compère Victor Marley. They’re all confused about what’s on for the evening’s bill of entertainment, and our first clue that all is not what it seems stems from Lee’s late arrival. Thommo is stuck outside hunting for the hall’s rear entrance, and yet there he is in the lobby, playing a catchy lounge arrangement of “The Return of the Los Palmas 7” with his bandmates in gold lamé suits. This “dramatic Madness” group turns up on stage, reenacting primordial rehearsals at Mike’s house, while the “real Madness” group fires off wisecracks at themselves from the fourth row.
This daft conceit results in a surprisingly multilayered dialectic. First off, it’s a celebration of the Madness mythology. All the old yarns about their Invaders days are thrown in there, the gospels fans have studied from music rag articles on down to the Before We Was We book and documentary. Mike bossing everyone around, Suggs being fired for missing practice in favor of football, Chris inadvertently coining the band’s name, everyone being crap at their instruments. And it’s all gleefully mashed together without regard to historical basis or chronology. Other names from the revolving-door band roster go ignored, and Chris, Bedders and Woody’s lines are mostly sitcom zingers on fabricated obsessions with rockabilly, disco and heavy metal. Most hilariously, the doorbell at the Barson house is the “Baggy Trousers” school bell! We feel the tension between “what really happened” and this cartoonish dramatization of the band’s legend, and for all practical purposes the legend wins.
The storied tale of Mike’s Melody Maker ad seeking to replace Suggs forms a natural pretense for bringing on the evening’s special guests. First there’s a welcome return for Roland Gift, who’s been far too scarce since the Fine Young Cannibals days. Then we get the Guvnor himself, Mr. Paul Weller, auditioning for the Nutty Boys prior to forming that marmalade-nicked group of his. As a total Weller fan, I nearly fell on the floor with delight. “I’ll let you know,” Paul sniffs on his way out the door. Perfect. Personal biases aside, I do appreciate how these two surprise guests were age-appropriate figures of that era, eschewing any upstart young bucks who weren’t even born when Madstock happened.
Being their own audience also gives Madness abundant opportunity to take the piss out of themselves. They observe how “the geezers playing us” are too old and untalented. Barbs fly about Suggs’s limited vocal skills. Yet the band laughs good-naturedly at this self-inflicted roast, not disputing their portrayal on stage but generally owning up to it. It’s a fair cop! Hats off to Mike Barson for overtaking Lee, Suggs and Higson as the comedy MVP of the show. From pounding clumsy proto-“Baggy Trousers” piano chords while belting out “My Girl,” to his star turn as HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Barso gamely puts himself out there and scores big laughs throughout.
And what are we to make of Lee’s side quest to get inside the Palladium? Ostensibly it references Thommo’s long history of not entering concert halls through the front door, choosing rear fire escapes and bathroom windows instead. At first I expected this to culminate in Lee swinging in from the ceiling on a wire or some such acrobatics. Instead the outcome was more suitably low-key, as Lee ends up unable to find the stage door, “Hello Cleveland” style. He banters with a smart-alec bartender (Higson again), a spoof of the ghostly Lloyd who serves Jack Nicholson in The Shining. When Lee asks how he can get to the stage, the bartender advises him to practice hard and follow his dream. That’s a perfectly fine Tommy Cooper sort of joke, but I think there’s more going on here. The problem is that Lee assumes he’s supposed to be performing on stage, but his mythical counterpart is already occupying that role. Lee doesn’t know his place for the evening is in the audience, and that’s the real reason why the bartender acts obtuse.
During a brief intermission, the real Lee finally takes his seat with his bandmates, more concerned with the overpriced drinks than having missed the first half. Victor Marley attempts to kick off Act II with a ponderous recitation of the band’s career achievements, but the guys impatiently boo him off. “Play some music!” Mike jeers. “Grandpa, we love you, but we want to hear something!” Here the band cannily serves as a surrogate for the punters watching from home, a certain segment of whom have surely grown weary of all the chatter and messing about up to this point. The boys happily undercut the whole premise and demand some real Madness music. Which they duly deliver. To themselves.
If the first half of The Get Up! sees the band being visited by the ghosts of Madness past, then the second gives us the ghosts of Madness present. Queen Barso issues a royal proclamation to start moving one’s feet to the rockingest rocksteady beat, and Madness erupts in their full showtime splendor. It’s striking how much you can hear without crowd noise. I’ve been irritated by yobbos at Madness shows shouting and scuffling and socializing amongst themselves, far more interested in drinking beer than drinking in the music. This format gives me the selfish opportunity to savor every unsullied note. Instrumentally the band’s sound is robust and in fine fettle despite the layoff, with Thommo in particular spewing forth a lusciously fat sax tone. Suggs, bless ’im, admittedly comes across a bit rusty. But he’s putting in the effort and seems more or less sober for a change. “House of Fun” gets a lovely church-organ coda that you’d never be able to discern at a Madness gig. On the other hand, you get to realize how much the “1-2-3” in “Shut Up” relies on audience participation.
It is a pity that “NW5” is the sole representation of the band’s rich recorded output post-1986. But I can easily forgive this in light of the three brand new tunes presented: “Baby Burglar,” “If I Go Mad” and “The Cruellest Comedy.” Completing the Dickensian trifecta, this is our glimpse at the ghosts of Madness future. For my money, “If I Go Mad” is the emotional high point and dramatic climax of The Get Up! It’s fresh and different, while making an immediately indelible impression as a great Madness song. Woody and the brass section dominate with a rollicking big-band jazz rhythm, as Suggs builds verses that fit his vocal range like a tailored suit. Then the chorus drops a call-and-response bomb destined go down a storm with live crowds: “If I go mad (if I go mad) / Without you (without you).” Just when it can’t get any better, Suggsy crams the middle eight with a double-time rendition of the “Here’s to everybody” toast from their cult favorite 1985 B-side, “Call Me.” Oh my God, I instantly love this song forever.
The band members in the audience mostly recede into the background during the dynamite second half, occasionally popping in for a Statler and Waldorf quip or two. To some extent they seem to swap roles with their onstage counterparts. Which Madness is more real, and which is the performance? In truth, both versions are equally theatrical and equally genuine, depending on your perspective. The band has attained the status of legends, and long after they are gone, it’s their works and their mythology that will live on.
One last important note. Even though The Get Up! hinges on Madness playing their own audience, this is not a solipsistic exercise that disregards us fans, who remain the audience that counts. Charlie Higson drives this point home in a poetic early exchange.
“I told you, Suggsy, this place is full of ghosts. Ghosts of all the audiences who ever came. And all the audiences who never came. All those people who should have been here during this time of pandemic. When this pernicious disease has closed all our theatres. Those people who should have been packed in those seats will be here with you tonight. A ghostly presence watching everything.”
In a program brimming with jokes and irony and outlandish tomfoolery, those are the most truthful lines spoken. The invisible spirits haunting the London Palladium were us.
Chris Foreman has recently claimed that when the band sat down to gather old stories for the Before We Was We book, he was the only one who could remember that they had toured America in 1979. Either Chrissy Boy was exaggerating his bandmates’ faulty memory or they’ve miraculously reversed their amnesia, because we’ve got new evidence of them recounting those early U.S. adventures on film.
The new documentary series inspired by that namesake autobiography, Before We Was We: Madness by Madness, is being released in the UK on demand on BT TV and exclusively on AMC from BT TV. Through the kindness of our friends at the Madness Information Service, SSM has taken an exclusive sneak peek at the third and final episode of the series, airing May 15 in the UK. In the snippets below, formatted in the style of the book, the band reminisce about those first visits to New York City and Los Angeles, and the distinctly contrasting and lasting impressions they formed there.
Full episodes of Before We Was We are being posted on the BT YouTube channel, although it appears these will not be playable in the United States. Word has it that the series will make its way to digital services in the U.S. later this year. Count on Stateside Madness to keep you informed of any official announcements. But for now, here’s what the band had to say about their maiden voyage to the land of the free and the home of the brave…
MIKE: So we left the 2 Tone Tour early because Dave Robinson had this idea, he wanted us to get to America before The Specials. He thought whoever got to America first was going to be the one that they all remembered, the one they thought started the ska thing. He wanted it to be Madness.
MARK: They got hold of Seymour Stein, who had Sire Records. He said that he would sign us for just America. So it was obvious then that we would go to America at some point to promote the record. But it came very quickly.
The Mean Streets of Manhattan
MARK: Like a lot of people in bands, I think, it was a bit of a dream to go to America. And we got the chance. It was incredibly exciting. It’s that moment, you make that drive in from the airport in New York, and you see the Manhattan skyline. It really is just mind-blowing.
WOODY: It was a mad city.
LEE: Everything was big. Massive. Buzzing.
SUGGS: New York in 1979 was just like in the movies. Steam coming out the subway vents. Street lights not working. Potholes.
WOODY: It was one of the first places where I noticed immense wealth right up against the shoulder of poverty.
MARK: It was pretty depressed. There was rubbish everywhere. They’d almost gone bankrupt. They were having strikes.
WOODY: So you could just walk down one road and go “What the fuck? This is just horrendous!”
CATHAL: I remember walking down the street and the vibe was scary.
MARK: We wandered through some of the worst areas fearless. All around the Lower East Side and Alphabet City, where it was really dodgy. We played three or four clubs in New York in pretty quick succession. We’d sometimes play two sets a night as well, so sometimes we’d go on at 2:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning. Weird times.
CHRIS: The first two shows nearly sort of killed us, because we went on late, we were kind of jetlagged, and we were drunk. I really thought I was going to die.
CATHAL: The drink measures were more than we expected.
SUGGS: Of course the other problem was they didn’t go out until 10:00 at night, but we’d have been started by 7:00. So we’d be absolutely fucked by 3:00 in the morning.
CATHAL: Me and Suggs went out early, too early. And we came back drunk and out of our minds.
SUGGS: We were definitely fish out of water. It was kind of like the audiences were coming to see this funny novelty band. Our accents, and what we were singing about, and the music we were playing were so out of step with what was going on in New York. And it just wasn’t making any sense being there.
MARK: But California was just completely different.
WOODY: We hit Los Angeles, and there were palm trees, sunshine. I just went “Ah, it’s just lovely.”
MARK: It was just sunny every day, and the people there had this sort of, not childlike but childish innocence to them. There was definitely a spillover from the hippie times there. Everyone was very laid back, nothing was a problem. Yeah, it was completely different.
MARK: We met the Go-Go’s, who were an all-girl group, and we did shows together with them. We got on very well with them. The great thing about that was that they took us around places, they showed us places to go. So we had a really nice time there.
CHRIS: So we hang out with the Go-Go’s, and Bedders is seeing the drummer, Gina. I thought, that guitarist Jane is very nice, so I sort of ended up with her. You know, we extended English hospitality.
LEE: My missus is convinced that I was knocking the lead singer off. Belinda Carlisle. But, ah… I was in her bedroom with Chrissy Boy, and I had a right old case of the wind. Yeah, she never invited me back in her bedroom again. The fucking bathroom tiles were sliding off the walls. (Laughs.) The wallpaper peeled.
SUGGS: We did two shows a night at the Whisky A Go-Go, wearing the same clothes that were still wet from the first show. The foolishness of youth.
MIKE: When you played in L.A. everyone was totally out of it. But does it matter? I don’t know. You got the feeling sometimes like it didn’t. You got the feeling you could do anything.
See Ya Later, Uncle Sam
WOODY: It was a brutal tour, really hard work.
MIKE: I guess the performances were good, but touring America takes its toll.
WOODY: Yeah, I’d already been frazzled to fuck on the 2 Tone Tour, and then in America I really felt dreadful most of the time. Hanging on for dear life.
MIKE: The whole thing was all getting a bit chaotic, really. People kept disappearing, meeting Americans, going off in their different directions. So we all had this sense of belonging together, but then everybody was getting into these different situations. Which was exciting and everything, but a bit dispersing at the same time.
WOODY: Being in these amazing places… but we were missing home.
Special thanks to Jon Young of the MIS for setting up this SSM exclusive preview.
Growing up in the ’80s, we didn’t have your fancy Spotify and Pandora and Deezer and whatnot, but we sure as hell knew how to share our music. And our social media platforms of choices were TDK, BASF and Maxell XLII-S. All y’all Gen-Xers know what I’m talking about. Blank cassette tapes were the bomb diggity.
In junior high and high school we swapped homemade tapes around like auditory STDs. These copyright violations amongst friends were way more influential on our musical tastes (and long-term musical spending) than what was popular on the radio and MTV. Thinking back to what I listened to as a teenager, the majority originated with traded cassettes. Trendsetting proto-goth Tim made me tapes of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and early U2. From Robby I got INXS, from Chris I got Tears for Fears (before their big hits), from Regina I got R.E.M., from Amy I got The Beatles. My good friend Ruffin gave me cassettes of Talking Heads, The Police and The Waterboys, introduced me to jazz with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and changed my life with tapes he brought back from a summer camp by a punk rock band called the Minutemen.
As much as I pride myself on being an independent-minded music connoisseur, the number of acts I discovered fully on my own is a fairly short list: Madness, The Specials, The English Beat, The Jam, Big Country, Modern English. Naturally these were the main artists I drew upon to inject my own influence into my friends’ collective music-swap canon. And Madness was the band I pushed the hardest, like a missionary spreading the nutty gospel. I racked up a respectable score of converts and contended with heretics through the course of my cassette crusade.
In my social circles we didn’t do a lot of trade in actual mixtapes. We were literally album-oriented rockers, capitalizing on the 90-minute cassette’s capacity to put one album on Side A and another album – almost always by the same artist – on Side B. I had a sweet dual cassette deck specifically made for copying tapes at optimum quality, with the priceless “high-speed dubbing” mode so you could seriously crank ’em out without real-time listening. The standard practice was to fill any leftover space at the end of each side with a bonus track or two, preferably a related non-album release or B-side you might have on hand.
Cherrypicking only the “good songs” and building party playlists was not the way we rolled. I think it was mainly because we respected the album as an artistic unit. If you were a fan of a band, it was incumbent on you to have their full albums, “bad songs” and all. On top of which, curating a various-artists mixtape was regarded as a more intimate gesture, reserved for teenage courtship rituals. Dubbing off a tape of Boy and October was not so apt to be interpreted as “he/she likes you.”
I distributed many a copy of One Step Beyond plus Absolutely, emulating the Sire 2-on-1 cassette release that blew my mind. Ready-made for tape sharing, that double dose of seminal Madness laid out a convincing case that this band had more to offer than that one “Our House” song. Quite a few of my friends were impressed. As you might guess, the lead track on One Step Beyond went down the biggest, though I managed to stir interest in some deep cuts as well. “Tarzan’s Nuts” was always an attention-getter, probably owing to the testicular double entendre as much as anything. I proudly recall one day in gym class while we were running laps, I led a small troop calling cadence with “Chipmunks Are Go!” I wonder what the P.E. coach thought about that crew of weirdos declaring themselves roaring chipmunks?
Of course, Madness didn’t win universal adulation from my peers. Chris and Ruffin ridiculed “In the Middle of the Night” for its trifling and pervy subject matter. “Better watch out, ’cause he steals your un-der-wear! Oh no!” they mockingly misquoted the tale of Nice Man George. I think “Baggy Trousers” didn’t land right, either. Since we didn’t share the frame of reference on British schooldays terminology, the bouncy tune came across more like kindergarten hijinks than juvenile delinquency.
Subsequent albums in the Madness catalog brought me diminishing returns on the tape-trading circuit. I learned from my own independent trials how right Geffen had been that 7 and The Rise and Fall did not appeal to general American tastes. No one else saw the relentless brilliance I found in Keep Moving, much to my discouragement, and Mad Not Mad met with “thanks no thanks.”
I cringe and howl with laughter to recall the most epic taping faux pas I ever committed. I was making a copy of The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry for my friend Stephen, a coal-black-dyed goth and not much of a Madness fan. There was some blank tape left at the end, and I had just got the spiffy new 1985 Madness album, so why not? I stuck “I’ll Compete” on as a bonus track! Just imagine it: the segue from Robert Smith wailing “Can you help me? Can you… help me?” into an over-caffeinated technicolor lasershow of synths, horns and bongos. Inevitably, when I asked Stephen what he thought about “I’ll Compete,” he grumbled that he had to erase that shit. I felt offended at the time, but of course who could blame him? I had broken the unwritten covenant of bonus tracks – make it something by the same artist, or any least in the same tone and genre. Idiot moves like that could sure ruin your reputation on the tape-trader scene.
There remained a small core of friends who continued to like Madness: Robby, Nick, Alex. None of them ascended to my rank in the Madhead ministry, but they remain loyal apostles even to this day. I fondly recall once when we were discussing what music to play, and Alex enthused “Let’s listen to the MAD Men of NESS!” Such a goofy but endearing thing to say. At one point we were feeling jealous of friends who’d started a couple of garage bands, playing punk and goth stuff, and we decided by golly, we’d form our own band – a ska band! The fragmentary notion was that I would be on lead vocals (ha), and Robby, Nick and Alex would learn how to play… something. This bullshit idea never went anywhere. All we managed was to pick out a Madness song to name ourselves after, just as they had named themselves after a Price Buster tune. We settled on something from the new Madness record to call our imaginary band: White Heat. Wet Fart, more like.
Ironically enough, the biggest threat to Madness in our cassette-sharing ring was a predator that I myself introduced to the ecosystem: The Specials. The Jerry Dammers combo proved way more popular to my friends’ varied tastes, whether punk or ska or goth or jazz or rock. Having bought the debut The Specials album, I was quite astounded at what I’d found, though I didn’t like all the songs at first. When I shared a tape with Ruffin, I warned him not to be put off by the weird first song, which was so slow with plodding harmonica and trombone. “Don’t worry, it gets better with the fast songs,” I promised.
Later he came back with glowing praise. “And you know which song I like best?” Ruffin said. “‘A Message to You Rudy’!” As a jazz listener, he was quite at home with Rico’s lead trombone, and equipped to tune into the song’s vibe much more readily than I could. In time I would learn this track was the closest thing to genuine Jamaican ska I had ever heard up to that point. To bring things full circle, Ruffin would later share with me The Skatalites’ phenomenal Stretching Out reunion album, exclusively released on cassette in 1987, and finally things started to piece together. So that’s what ska really was.
As I spread more tapes around, everybody loved The Specials. Compared to Madness, they were angrier, more political, more serious, and oh so much cooler. Never mind that the band was long broken up by the time of our belated discovery. Contrary to the fighting sentiment of that goth-repellant bonus track, Madness could not compete. My friends basically decided The Specials were their British ska band of choice, which I feel is the most popular opinion among American music fans who know the genre.
And you know, that’s okay. I can look back with pride on my legacy of spreading awareness of 2 Tone music from both London and Coventry across Haywood County, NC, on traded cassettes back in the day. I wouldn’t rewind a thing.
It’s a big day in Madness news with official confirmation of the re-rescheduled U.S. tour, plus a major livestream event coming in May. First we have this new slate of 2022 dates in America, following some piecemeal announcements and contradictory information. We look forward to welcoming our Nutty Boys at the following gigs:
The Fox Theater, Oakland, CA
The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival, Las Vegas, NV
House of Blues, Boston, MA
Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY
Tickets previously booked for the 2020/2021 dates will be honored at the rescheduled shows. Contact your point of purchase with any questions.
In the more immediate future, Madness will be presenting a global livestream event on May 14 billed as “The Get Up!” Direct from the London Palladium and featuring comedian Charlie Higson, the show promises “live music, new and classic Madness songs, comedy, some incredibly special guests and even Mike Barson playing the part of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.” With promotional graphics in the vintage style of Ealing comedy movie posters, “The Get Up!” looks to be a right old knees-up chock full of pure entertainment.
Tickets go on sale April 23. The UK livestream is scheduled for 3:30 PM Eastern Time, and later livestreams for the U.S. audience are set for the east coast and west coast, at 8:30 PM Eastern or Pacific. The ticket sales site states “There are no restrictions on which stream you can watch so please choose the most convenient one for you.” It further specifies that “The Get Up” will not be available on-demand afterward, so no do-overs for those who miss out. Get up, get in, got it?
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.