Book Review: The Duff Guide to 2 Tone

The Duff Guide to 2 Tone

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.


The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is available from Amazon and other fine booksellers. 

Now Hear This: Stateside Madness Podcast

Stateside Madness Official Podcast

Can’t get enough SSM via this blog and our social media? Now you can listen to our American-accented take on the nuttiest sound around with our new Stateside Madness Official Podcast!

SSM team members Laurie Alfaro and Poly Collins are your hosts for our new audio venture. “We’re coming at this from a specifically American perspective,” Laurie says. “As American fans, there are things maybe we perceive a little bit differently, like in the lyrics and song meanings. Some weeks we’ll do an album review, a deep dive into the album tracks. Other weeks I’m hoping we can devote an episode to one specific member of the band. We hope to have some exclusive content as we get closer to the American tour dates.”

Stateside Madness Official Podcast is now available for streaming and download from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Podbean and Castbox. It will be turning up soon on Pandora and other popular podcast catchers.

The podcast is off to a fun start, so please check it out. Your humble blogmaster Donald may be making a future guest appearance or two, if they’ll have me. Pod up, listen, and DANCE!

In the Middle of Our Lawn: Miracle-Gro Madness

Miracle-Gro Madness Ad

The music of Madness has served as soundtracks and jingles in quite a lot of American TV commercials. We fondly recall the vintage kids’ Colgate Pump ad, imported from the UK, which surely got more airplay here than “Baggy Trousers” itself. (Anyone up for a sequel, “The Liberty of Brushin’ Colgate”?) Levi’s borrowed “It Must Be Love” for a baffling pantomime of romantic devotion between a guy and his best… jeans? And of course “Our House” has done its share of flogging U.S. brands, from a clever “Jingle Bells” mashup for Verizon to a severely not-clever bastardization for Maxwell House.

Now there’s a new “Our House” ad for Scotts Miracle-Gro that’s as surprising as it is timely. And it really does our band (house) proud. Take a look.

Created by New York agency VaynerMedia, the spot plays to our shared need for summertime fun during a global pandemic lockdown. The scenes of staycation festivities consist of real people, shot in backyards on their phones and cameras – “user generated content,” as they say in the marketing biz. Scotts Miracle-Gro ads usually focus on gardening and landscaping, but the current situation inspired the company to think in broader terms of what our lawns mean to Americans. They’re not just the grass and trees outside, they are valued as part of “our house,” and a safe haven where we make memories.

For Madness fans, what’s really significant about the ad is the version of the song used. It’s not the original hit single, and it’s not a cover version. It’s Madness themselves, putting a more contemplative spin on “Our House” from 2013. It’s known as The People’s Palace Version, recorded outside North London’s beloved Alexandra Palace with a chorus of fans as a gesture of thanks and appreciation to the band’s loyal supporters.

That Ally Pally recording has always given me goosebumps, stirring my emotional connection to my Madhead brothers and sisters. Look, there’s a woman wearing the same Madstock 2009 shirt I cherish from my first Madness show. I am one of them. This is my tribe. The only one thing I don’t love about this anthemic singalong is that it doesn’t include the whole of “Our House.” And I tell you, I never in a million years would have guessed it would end up being broadcast in an American commercial.

Consider this: Other than the odd appearance on a U.S. talk show, or high-profile special events like the Olympics or an NFL game in London, this amounts to the first time a post-1980s Madness recording has been granted a mass American audience! Surely some ad creative at VaynerMedia must be a legit Madness fan, because I can’t imagine the People’s Palace “Our House” is well documented in Madison Avenue music licensing libraries.

Kudos to whoever made that call, because the ad works brilliantly. It doesn’t matter if the majority of viewers don’t realize that’s Madness, the original artist, judging by the online comments about that melancholy “cover.” Even if Suggs’ matured and mellowed voice carries zero recognition or nostalgia factor, look at all the universal buttons being surgically punched. Father, mother, sister, brother, the kids are playing. British Madness fan voices transfigured into a surrogate choir of American families. Abundant summer fun without the beach or the highways or the Disneyland. Right in our own backyards, there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite loud. We remember way back then when everything was true and when we would have such a very good time, such a fine time. Such a happy time. 

Which is exactly what we all need once again, right now. 

Lee Thompson Goes Walkin’ with Weller

On Sunset by Paul Weller

Beyond Madness, my second favorite British act of all time is Paul Weller. Relations have been friendly and collegial among them over the decades, dating back to Weller citing “Embarrassment” as an inspiration for the Motown beat of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” Of particular note, while working as an early ’90s A&R rep at Go! Discs, Carl Smyth helped Weller launch his solo career. In the past year, Weller joined Madness on stage at House of Common 2019 to great acclaim, and he guested on Suggs’s Love Letters to London BBC Radio 4 series, which saw the pair of them duetting on “Nobody’s Fool” by Ray Davies.

And now Lee Thompson has turned in a guest spot on Weller’s high-profile new album. On Sunset went straight in at #1 in the UK, giving Weller the accomplishment of topping the album chart in five consecutive decades, a feat matched only by Lennon and McCartney. There’s no American angle in reporting this Weller and Thompson collaboration (safe to say On Sunset isn’t making history in the U.S. charts), but when anyone from Madness teams up with one of my other musical heroes, you better believe Stateside Madness will have something to say about it!

Thommo contributes a laid-back sax solo on the Weller-penned track “Walkin’.” Paul has been enthusiastic in his praise for Lee’s work. “I’ve seen Lee playing blinders in recent years, both with Madness and with his Ska Orchestra. He’s a terrific player.”

Have a listen to “Walkin’” (Lee comes in around 1:38.) 

So what do I think? Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing. The song isn’t the most interesting on the album, and it sounds a lot like a reworking of “Here’s the Good News” from 2005’s As Is Now (which wasn’t one of the most interesting on that album, either). Probably unfairly, I had imagined this would amount to something more like Lee’s brilliant guest sax on The Specials’ “Hey, Little Rich Girl,” where it’s 100% that inimitable Lee Jay Kix Thompson sound, whereas the “Walkin’” solo could be any decent session player.

I believe my reaction to On Sunset has suffered from too much anticipation and advance buildup. This is also the case with the 7-minute opening track “Mirror Ball,” which has been hyped as an epic creative watershed in every Weller article and interview for the past year, but hits me – as much as it pains me to say – as a boring swing and a miss. (Apologies, Paul.)

But new songs do often need to grow on you, and I will say that I’m warming up to “Walkin’” the more I listen to it. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a nice, breezy, easygoing summer tune. I’m happy Lee Thompson played on it. This partnership between Weller and Thommo gives me hope that someday I’ll get my fantasy wish of hearing Paul belt out a cover of a certain old Madness tune he rated back in the day. That one what Lee wrote. 

All the President’s Men: For Us American Cousins

All the President’s Me

In the course of their intimate Two Mad Men and a String Quartet performance shared online June 6, Suggs and Mike Barson debuted two new Madness songs. “Theatre of the Absurd,” a Suggs composition, appears to be a spiritual sequel to his solo track “The Greatest Show on Earth” with a more somber tone. The other new tune is of particular interest to us at Stateside Madness, for reasons Barso outlined in his introduction:

“This song is about the dire straits over the pond at the moment. No, not really at the moment. It’s a song about our cousins in America, yeah. Leaders of the world. And where they’re leading us, who knows?”

Running just over 90 seconds, “All the President’s Men” is a terse meditation on social and political turmoil in recent U.S. history, mourning the current tattered state of the American dream. Barson borrows the title from the Woodward & Bernstein exposé on Watergate (and the subsequent Redford & Hoffman film adaptation), which originated as an allusion the irreparable injury following Humpty Dumpty’s fall.

The song is bracingly relevant in the context of international protests in response to the death of George Floyd. The mood and message beautifully fit the string quartet format, and an eventual studio recording could likely prove to have a similar sparse arrangement. A fantastic new piece of work to suit our troubled times.

The year was 1963
The last one for Kennedy

In ’68 the Lorraine Motel
On the balcony 
Where the Doctor fell
From a single shell

A last shot at democracy 
Shining city on a hill
Land of the free 
Seventeen agencies 
Looking out for thee
The NSA and Homeland Security 

A shot rang out 
The sound of gunfire echoes ’cross the mall
The future sucked into a dark black hole
Short-sighted small minds clamour for control

But there’s no dream no more
Psyops are now running the score
And the money trickles upwards evermore 
You’d almost think it was 1984

Madness U.S. Tour Postponed to 2021

To no surprise, the Madness U.S. tour dates scheduled for May 2020 have been pushed to next year. The newly announced 2021 dates are as follows:

5/26/2021Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY
5/28/2021House of Blues, Boston, MA
5/30/2021The Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
5/31/2021Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival, Las Vegas, NV
6/2/2021
6/3/2021
The Fox Theater, Oakland, CA

Tickets booked for the 2020 dates will be honored at the rescheduled shows. The Madness Facebook page advises contacting your point of purchase if you will be unable to attend.

Everyone stay safe and stay tuned to Stateside Madness for any further updates as they become available!

UPDATE: On April 13, Madness was confirmed for the Las Vegas festival date added above.

History Lesson, Part I

Madness U.S. History

How many Madness albums have never been released on disc in the U.S.? Which states have they ever played in outside of New York and California? Where did they once share an amazing bill with David Bowie and the Go-Go’s? When were they on Saturday Night Live that one time, and what songs did they play?

Now you can find the answers to these scintillating questions and more on our new U.S. History page here on the SSM blog! We’ve pieced this archival inventory together from various online sources, including Discogs, Seven Ragged Men, Setlist.fm, Concert Archives, Fandom Concerts Wiki, and Madness on TV. It’s far from complete, and may or may not be 100% accurate, so we welcome your additions or corrections. Especially in terms of the concert calendars, there plainly must be a few gaps.

This will be an ongoing project, a living document with updates made as we get better and more comprehensive information. And let’s hope the band’s future holds plenty more U.S. history yet to be written.

Check out the Stateside Madness historical archive and comment below with your additions and corrections!

Exclusive: First Look at New U.S. Madness Hits Album

Courtesy of our friends at BMG, Stateside Madness is pleased to make the first public announcement of the forthcoming greatest hits compilation, Our House – The Very Best of Madness. The album is set for release exclusively in the U.S. on May 15, in conjunction with the band’s North American tour later that month.

Our House – The Very Best of Madness
Click to view full size

Our House will be available on CD, vinyl LP and digital bundle. See above for a first look at the album sleeve artwork, which is similar to (but slightly different from) the Full House compilation released in the UK in 2017.

The new collection consists of 12 tracks spanning the whole of Madness’s career (full list below). Of particular note to fans and collectors, this will mark the first physical release of any kind for “Bullingdon Boys,” which debuted as a digital-only single in November 2019.

Our House is clearly designed for the American market, named for and led off by the band’s biggest stateside hit, with the other familiar single “It Must Be Love” in the second slot. As a clever nod to the band’s U.S. beginnings, the track list also includes the subtly polished remix of “Night Boat to Cairo” that first appeared on the 1983 Madness album released by Geffen in the U.S. 

But this collection isn’t entirely stuck in the past – Our House is the band’s first-ever hits collection for the U.S. that encompasses their 21st century post-reunion output, making room for “NW5” and “Mr Apples” alongside the very recent “Bullingdon Boys.” Discovering these new tunes, casual American fans whose fond memories of the ’80s are rekindled by the 2020 tour will have the chance to learn that Madness is still very much alive and kicking in the present day!

Our House – The Very Best of Madness

Full track listing:

  1. Our House
  2. It Must Be Love
  3. House of Fun
  4. Baggy Trousers
  5. Embarrassment
  6. NW5
  7. One Step Beyond
  8. The Prince
  9. Wings of a Dove
  10. Mr Apples
  11. Bullingdon Boys
  12. Night Boat to Cairo (US Version)