I’m totally biased about this one. Here we have my two favorite living male vocalists, both heroes of my youth, singing together on an original composition they co-wrote. Not gonna lie, Suggs and Paul Weller could fart the theme song from Gomer Pyle, USMC and I would wholeheartedly adore it. So take the following “critique” with whatever quarries of salt your cynicism may dictate.
That being said… “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is an amazing and delightful singularity of a single. I have played its brisk 2:24 on repeat over and over and over and over again, and every bit of this track puts a big stupid grin on my face. What a thing of joy it is.
The major standout and surprise to me is the deliberate misdirection of the title. In interviews over the past year or so, Suggs and Weller have teased “Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?” Such a colourful taunt evokes Cockney tough guys and criminals, suggesting a ballad along the lines of “Drip Fed Fred” or “Herbert,” or even “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” Maybe something in an Ian Dury vein, with Paul and Suggs trading spoken-word lines, conspiratorial and tongue in cheek. If the song had gone in this direction, it could have turned out really good or really silly. This project ran a high risk of yielding a disposable curiosity if the creative duo didn’t take it seriously.
But you know what? The self-styled “Neverly Brothers” opted for sincerity and plunged headlong into emotional honesty like I never expected. Suggs has told interviewers that the song is about the discouraging negativity he had to overcome as a schoolboy. It’s not other kids or hoodlums doing the abusive bullying, but the supposedly nurturing faculty.
“I think teachers are the best people in the world, I love them with all my heart,” Suggs says. “But you know all those great teachers you read about who dragged their pupils up, and encouraged them and made them into the best possible version of themselves they could be? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those!”
In studying institutional suppression of nonconforming youth, “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is reminiscent of Lee Thompson compositions like “Land of Hope and Glory,” “Idiot Child” and “I Believe.” But it may be more fair to call the song a dark spiritual sequel to Suggs’ own “Baggy Trousers.” It may be true that lots of fun was had, but it’s also worth pointing out how things can turn out bad… when teachers fail their students who don’t fit the standardized system. Clearly this is a theme that resonates with Weller as well, aligning with his lyrics from 1977’s “The Modern World.”
I've learned more than you'll ever know Even at school I felt quite sure That one day I would be on top And I'd look down upon the map The teachers who said I'd be nothing
The really clever and subversive part of the song’s construction is the framing of one key word: Sunshine. Suggs and Weller transform it from a sarcastic epithet to a majestic blossoming of Small Faces harmonies, heralded by sparkling “Penny Lane” brass. Yes, Headmaster, as a matter of fact I do think think I’m sunshine. I’m pretty great and I’ll do just fine in life with or without your support, thank you sir. The concept works beautifully for me.
With the absence of liner notes for this digital single, full details on the personnel involved are unavailable. What we do know is that the songwriting credits are Graham McPherson and Paul Weller, indicating that this is different from the unfinished Chris Foreman lyric that Suggs reportedly forwarded to Weller for consideration. Weller reports that he recorded the instrumental track at his Black Barn studio, then Suggs came in to lay down the vocals with him. Paul is obviously the far more gifted vocalist, so it’s impressive how well their two voices blend together here, with Suggs given a comfortable range. Weller band members Andy Crofts and Ben Gordelier have both stated that they played on the track, so Steve Cradock and Steve Pilgrim are most likely on there too. I want to know if that’s Jacko Peake doing the reasonably good Thommo facsimile on sax.
As much as I admire it, I can admit “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is far from perfect. The song could really use another verse to define the schoolteacher antagonist more explicitly before rushing into the bridge. And the pronouns get confusing in the lyrical denouement: “But you never give up / No you never give in / ’Cause you are the one that set me free.” So the person who never gives up is also the one who comes to the rescue? On top of which, “Set me free / Set me free” is an awfully tired refrain to close out a track that’s otherwise rather inventive.
I’m also disappointed in the goofy spelling of the song’s title with the lazy text message abbreviations. Paul and Suggsy don’t even pronounce “think” with an “F” in the chorus. But the worst part is leaving off the “Sunshine”! That’s the most crucial word in the whole song, fellas. Keeping it in the title would have been enough to distinguish it from the Spice Girls hit, with or without the illiterate inscription.
But in the end, none of that matters. For me this little tune will stand forever as the intersection of two creative pathways that I have tread along for the better part of my life. It’s a precious magical concoction. I know a great many listeners in the Madness and Paul Weller fan communities disagree, and that’s okay. To cite Weller’s own words from “The Modern World” once again, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I don’t give two f**ks about your review.
I got my copy of Lee Thompson’s memoir upon its release in April 2021, the limited edition autographed hardcover. Growing Out of It: Machinations Before Madness looks very smart alongside the other Madness and Suggs volumes on my bookshelf, where I must confess the book sat untouched for months. The timing of publication wasn’t ideal, certainly, coming right on the heels of the Before We Was We book and three-part documentary, then being swiftly overtaken by the flashback-fueled The Get Up! streaming extravaganza in May. Even a big fan like me felt a bit satiated with the spate of Madness nostalgia trips. What more could Lee fill a book with that we haven’t just run through several time already?
What finally got me to get into Growing Out of It was actually the September release of the audiobook edition (about which more later). These days I can get through any book faster by listening on my walks and in the car that I can by sitting down to flip pages. I can now report it’s a fine book indeed, with Lee sharing memories of his early life and how Madness started in ways that stand apart from the band’s recent mutual retrospectives.
In his introduction, Lee’s co-author Ian “Snowy” Snowball relates that the genesis of the book dates back to 2017, so I’m guessing this was in the works well before Before We Was We. I can imagine how chastened Snowy must have been to learn the band was putting together a coinciding book very much like his project with Thommo. The two autobiographies even share the same designated historical span, covering childhood through the first Madness recordings of 1979, and ending there. In the case of Growing Out of It, the stated concept is “only going up to the release of ‘The Prince’.”
Of course, this being of product of the unruly mind of Lee Thompson, the subject matter discussed is not so rigorously contained. Lee’s observations skip across the decades, occasionally mentioning the band’s later hits and fame, the Crunch days, the Madstock reunion, the Buckingham Palace gig, and a number of quite recent anecdotes. There’s one corker about Thommo just the other day confusing his reading glasses with a pair of Suggsy’s to the point of shouting, so we get a dash of old geezer comedy mixed in with this portrait of the artist as a young man.
Growing Out of It dutifully checks off the legends that have been told and retold since Take It or Leave It: Lee’s early life of petty crime, his fascination with old ska and rock steady records (mostly shoplifted), his saxophone with the serial number scratched out, not knowing how to tune a sax through their first album, the 2 Tone Tour, anti-authority hijinks at Top of the Pops, etc. Some of these old canards are fleshed out with new insights from Lee… if he is to be believed. Take the familiar tale of Thommo climbing in through the bathroom window to get into a Kilburn and the High Roads show, only to be confronted by Ian Dury himself. Here Lee claims there was actually no cover charge for entry that night, and he was only breaking in the back way out of habit. I mean, really? Another yarn I had a hard time swallowing was when Lee claims he once ran into Omar Sharif and did a Jake Blues “How much for your women?” routine – which sounds more like a showbiz gag Buddy Hackett would have told Johnny Carson than our lad Kix.
The odd potential fib aside, the book is loaded with choice morsels that were new to me, if indeed they’ve ever been shared heretofore. I howled at the story of Lee’s first time meeting Paul Weller, which involves a ritzy Los Angeles rock & roll party and the leader of The Jam going for a swim fully naked. Then there’s an indelicate summary of Chrissy Boy advising Lee of a peculiar home remedy for easing venereal disease pain, which leads to disastrous results. We get a full-on diatribe wherein Lee denounces the vile sartorial pestilence of white socks. “I just never like that look of white socks on display beneath a pair of Sta-Prest, or poking out from a nice pair of brogues or loafers,” Lee seethes. “It was so common at the end of the 1970s, but I detested it.”
Toward the end of the book, Lee drops a significant gem in the form of an old unfinished lyric he penned in the band’s formative days. “Jump in the Back of the Jag” has the makings of a cracking gangster ballad in the mold of “Drip Fed Fred” and “Herbert.” “Suggs knows it and keeps pushing me to complete it, so that Madness can record it,” Lee notes. “Maybe we’ll get around to finishing it one day.”
Lee speaks about his bandmates in turn, sharing his admiration and fondness for each of them at length. We fans tend to have the impression that Thommo’s biggest friends in Madness are Chris and Mike, since they are the original founding trio, and Lee has such a history of fruitful collaborations with those two. So it comes as some surprise when Lee reserves the warmest regards for Carl Smyth, since I’d heard the two of them didn’t always get along so well. Lee refutes rumors that he had been opposed to Carl becoming the seventh member of the band. “We idolised each other,” Lee confides. “He was my Clark Gable and I was his… well, Hilda Ogden.” (Google tells me Hilda was a character on the Coronation Street soap, who pretty much looked like Lee in drag in the “Our House” video.)
The book’s meandering narrative gathers a potent dramatic arc through its telling of the story of “The Prince.” I didn’t realize Lee expressly wrote the song for the purpose of being the band’s single for 2 Tone, since the band felt none of their small body of original tunes fit the aesthetic of Jerry Dammers’ label. Thommo rose to the challenge, listening to dozens of Prince Buster albums to craft a suitably ska-seeped tribute number. I love how Lee waxes poetic about holding that checkered 7-inch disc in his hands for the first time. Most artists are either too modest or too jaded to dwell on such moments of first accomplishment, but after the adversities Lee had gone through in his young life, he entirely earned that burst of pride. “Just having ‘The Prince’ committed to vinyl was enough,” Lee recalls. “It didn’t matter if it was a hit or not.”
The audiobook of Growing Out of It is not narrated by Lee, and celebrity memoirs not read by their familiar voices are typically a chore to sit through. Not so in the case. Although Matthew Lloyd Davies exhibits a posh BBC accent on his other audiobooks, here he puts on an extremely commendable Lee Thompson impression, capturing not only his North London accent but also his speech cadence, like the distinctive way Thommo draws out… his worrrds… to underscore a wry or bitter remark. Kudos to the audio producer who cast Davies, who makes this such an enjoyable listen. The only downside is when Davies reads the many footnotes and side comments from Lee’s wife Debbie, sister Tracy, Mike Barson, Chrissy Boy and other assorted friends. It can be difficult to know when the aside is finished and we’re back to Lee talking again.
That leaves just one observation about the book. Why does the autobiography of such a vibrant, colorful and creative individual have such a drab and boring title? Growing Out of It is weak sauce for a fellow who’s graced his works with titles like “March of the Gherkins” and The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius. Given the heavy thematic focus on “The Prince,” I think the book should have taken its title drawn from those lyrics, like Shuffle Me Off My Feet, or Even If I Kept on Running. But then again, considering the sideways genius of Lee Thompson, Growing Out of It probably carries ironic layers of meaning that I won’t grasp until 15 years later.
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.
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.
Yes, we know. Yet another Madness greatest hits album. Who needs it? Why, as a matter of fact, America does! Uncle Sam welcomes BMG’s new Our House: The Very Best of Madness with open arms and a single proud Yankee Doodle tear.
Whereas the UK has seen approximately 2,847 Madness best-of LPs and CDs littering every corner Tesco and Sainsbury’s, we on the other side of the pond have merited but a piddly four. First came the biggie, the 1983 Geffen album. In 1997 Geffen put out their Total Madness (not to be confused with later namesake UK releases). Hip-O Records scraped the barrel with a couple of early 2000s budget releases, which took nary a choice picking from 1999 reunion album Wonderful.
That’s all we’ve had till now. Which means, shockingly, BMG’s Our House is the very first U.S. hits collection to acknowledge Madness’s prolific post-1986 career. For that reason alone, it’s well worth having and well overdue – and pushed back another whole year, thanks to coronavirus cocking up the original plans. Plus, this is the first physical release of the marvelous 2019 “Bullingdon Boys.” Take that, you limeys!
There’s surely no need to “review” this album in the conventional sense, but let’s just run down the tracklist and confirm what versions and mixes BMG has gathered together here, for the interested trainspotters.
Our House – Standard regulation version
It Must Be Love – The original UK mix, not the U.S. Geffen version (which has an extra little Thommo sax blurt before each “love, love” in the chorus and omits his squeaky solo during the bridge)
House of Fun – The original UK mix with the fadeout, not the fairground music ending that Geffen used
Baggy Trousers – Standard regulation version
Embarrassment – Standard regulation version
NW5 – The Norton Folgate re-recording
One Step Beyond – One Step Beyond album version with the unabridged Chas Smash intro
The Prince – One Step Beyond album version
Wings of a Dove – Standard regulation version
Mr Apples – Can’t Touch Us Now album version
Bullingdon Boys – Same version as the 2019 digital single
Night Boat to Cairo (US Version) – Yes! This is my favorite little nod to the American fanbase, with BMG reaching way back to the excellent remix from the 1983 Geffen Madness. More reverb everywhere! More twangy Chrissy Boy guitar! More Barson organ frills! More raw Egyptian pyramid POWER! Dance, Cleopatra, DANCE!
The track sequence flows nicely, too. I especially like “Embarrassment” segueing into “NW5” – two of Lee Thompson’s finest compositions, separated by nearly 30 years, fitting together like clockwork gears. And the whole of “Side 2” goes down a treat, with “Mr Apples” and “Bullingdon Boys” right at home amidst the red hot velvet box of showtime chestnuts.
Some may quibble, why only 12 tracks? Why put out a disc at all, when casual American fans are just going to download the $1.29 “Our House” single and blow past all those unknown filler tracks and yucky new songs, anyway? Well, my friends, because it matters. An act of Madness’s stature and creative longevity deserves to have its full career recognized with a nice little hits package like this. This band is not an ’80s relic. They are still at the top of their game today, and this album is proof you can hold in your hot little hands.
Besides, I think limiting the scope to just 12 tracks makes for an interesting thought experiment. Sure, it’s easy enough to go hog wild and sequence a 70-track avalanche like A Guided Tour of Madness, but choosing the most representative 12 songs is like writing a haiku. And I believe my own tracklist would be pretty close to the same.
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.