Madness on Saturday Night Live: Where’s the Band?

Madness on Saturday Night Live

I was a Madness fan for a full year before I got to hear them play live. By that, I don’t mean live in person for the first time. Heavens, no – that took another 25 years, which is a story for a whole other blog post. I mean, it took a year before I got to hear any audiovisual media transmission of Madness properly performing live. And this first listen also happened to be literally live. From New York. It’s Saturday Night!

Madness made their historic appearance on Saturday Night Live on April 14, 1984. Before this, I had seem them on American TV shows like Solid Gold and American Bandstand, but they were always miming to the recorded tracks, same as they had to do on Top of the Pops. It is possible that I’d been exposed to quick clips of Madness playing live on some MTV profile or on USA Network’s Night Flight. The producers of that show were clearly partial to Madness and British ska, airing obscure stuff like the “One Step Beyond” video a lot. But footage of Madness live on stage was seemingly on embargo in this country.

In these dark ages, there were no Madness live albums for me to buy, no black market of Madness bootlegs at my disposal, no concert films on VHS, and definitely no access to the Madness U.S. tour dates of 1983-84 that may as well have been on the moon. So here Madness was, crowned as my new favorite band, even though I had no idea what they sounded like on stage.

It’s quite remarkable, when you consider how Madness earned their rapid rise to notoriety in the UK on the strength of their live show. Blowing the roofs off The Dublin Castle and The Hope and Anchor garnered their first London fans through sweat-soaked, boot-stomping word of mouth. Then the 2 Tone Tour and their first headlining tours got the rest of the country jumping on the nutty train. The hit singles and Top of the Pops secured their success, obviously, but their explosive energy on stage was what made Madness. It was quite the opposite scenario in the States, where we embraced the catchy “Our House” pop tune with zero conception of how this unassuming troupe of ragamuffins could rock the ever-loving shit out of a live audience.

Madness on Saturday Night Live

So that’s why this Saturday Night Live gig was really a big deal. Even if it had been a whole year since their big hit in America, this was our chance to finally see and hear what Madness was capable of live, on U.S. pop culture’s most high-profile live stage. The band had played a few California dates and visited Dick Clark in February-March 1984, an eventful swing that saw Lee marry his wife Debbie in Los Angeles. Madness flew back from Paris to New York for Saturday Night Live in April.

The host for their week was no Steve Martin or George Carlin – it was 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, who ran against Nixon and lost. He was still relevant in 1984 since he’d been running for the Democratic nomination again, but had just dropped out in March. For some reason Dick Ebersol thought a failure-ridden politician with no discernible personality would be comedy gold. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t. 

Infinitely more in tune with the 1984 zeitgeist was SNL’s other special guest that night, none other than Clara Peller. For the benefit of the youngsters, the 81-year-old Mrs. Peller was the famed “Where’s the beef?” lady from the Wendy’s ad campaign that debuted at the start of that year. America was in the grips of “Where’s the beef?” fever when this show aired, and in fact Senator McGovern was fresh from participating in the Democratic primary debate where Walter Mondale borrowed Clara’s catchphrase as a zinger against Gary Hart. Good times. 

Clara Peller eats dinner with Madness

Clara got to meet Madness before their joint Saturday Night Live broadcast and even had dinner with the band. Presumably adequate cow meat was offered on the bill of fare. Believe it or not, a 2015 biographical musical called Clara and the Beef chronicled her stardom in song, with one number devoted to her SNL exploits. “Saturday Night In New York” is very much a pastiche of “Our House,” with a faux-nutty rhythm bounding along to stupefying lyrics like “I will wear my new mink, please please don’t blink, I can be so special it’s a rare treat, and quite a feat – you need to let me go, on with the show!”

On that big SNL show, Clara’s main bit was a cameo at the end of a blah sketch about unappetizing TV dinners for impoverished Reaganomics victims. “Where’s the beef? Where’s the beef?” she repeatedly inquired, to roars of adulation. Later Clara stepped out with George McGovern to co-introduce the musical guest.

George McGovern and Clara Peller introduce Madness

“Where’s the band?” demanded the marketing icon, squinting all around the studio. As raucous applause subsided, McGovern helpfully pointed out, “Clara, they’re right over there, and they’re called Madness.”

And now at last, the boys took the stage live in front of America. They dressed well for the occasion, with Woody in a middle-management necktie and short sleeves, Mark and Chris looking snazzy in their flat caps, Lee and trumpet sideman Dick Cuthell coordinated in white dinner jackets, and the gaudy duo of Suggs and Carl sporting Victorian tailcoats, lapel carnations and vintage costume hats. Suggs’s dark outfit was accented in red, while Carl opted for a monochromatic look complete with silvertone facepaint, making him look transplanted from a black and white film. The band was fleshed out with James Mackie manning Barso’s abandoned post and a trio of ladies on backing vocals. 

The first Madness tune of the evening was, of course, “Our House.” Even though it had grown old and gray by this point and they had new music to promote, they knew well enough to give the Yanks what we wanted. Indeed, the studio audience showered them with a warm reception, even working up enthusiasm for the dreaded new song, the title track from the spanking new Keep Moving – which maybe two people in that crowd had heard, along with the loyal fans tuning in like me. By now, you’re thinking I must have been pretty stoked, right?

To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. I came away from the SNL show with the disappointed assessment that Madness wasn’t that great of a live band. 

Madness on Saturday Night Live

Shocking, I know! Let me hasten to add, the performance wasn’t that bad. Unfortunately there are no clips readily available online, since NBC Universal guards their copyrights with an iron fist, so I can’t let you judge for yourself. I do have private recordings, though. Watching them now, I can say the band was rather solid instrumentally. Mackie is no Mike Barson on the keys, but of course no one is. What soured the Saturday Night Live spotlight for me was our vocalists. 

Suggs let me down because he didn’t seem to be into it. His charming expressiveness in the band’s music videos had made him my fast favorite member of the band, but live from New York, his affect struck me as flat and disinterested. Not much passion or dynamic range in his voice, compared to Madness recordings. Toward the end of “Our House,” Suggs went into “was our castle and our keep” one bar too soon. Perhaps a few too many beverages or other SNL vices before the show?

And Carl pissed me off, too. At this point in time, I regarded Chas Smash as just a backup vocalist who sang lead on a few songs. To me Suggs was THE singer of Madness. I didn’t much like seeing Carl showboating up front when it wasn’t one of his songs, like he was trying to crowd out Suggs as the frontman. With Suggs playing it so low-key, Carl’s voice was totally dominant at times. I wished Carl was hanging out back there with Lee and the backup girls instead. Speaking of whom, those ladies weren’t helping things. The one spot where they fit in was “Sister’s sighing in her sleep, ah-ah-ah ahhh.” Otherwise their chirps just cluttered up the vocal shambles even more.

Like dear Clara Peller, I asked myself, “Where’s the band?”

Madness on Saturday Night Live

Since I didn’t own a VCR until Christmas 1984, I had no record of that SNL show to play back. In my memories, this live Madness exhibition degenerated into a Rashomon grotesque of musical ineptitude. I recollected the whole band as sounding terrible, when that wasn’t at all true. This perceived blunder didn’t tarnish my opinion of Madness, though. I still loved them, I just decided they were a great studio band and not so hot on stage. No harm, no foul. I wasn’t disabused of this faulty notion for a couple of years – I believe it was finding the Dance Craze LP (yet another tale for a future blog) that demonstrated how Madness was without question an extraordinary live act. 

In my defense, I can offer the court three pleas for why Madness on Saturday Night Live hit me the wrong way. First off, I was just a kid. And mighty clueless in oh so many ways. At age 14, I hadn’t even been to a single rock or pop concert, just country music shows with my mom. My yardstick for grading live music was how closely it sounded like the record, lacking mature appreciation for nuances of rawness and spontaneity.

Secondly, there was a bit of sour grapes involved. With the prospects of me seeing a Madness concert seeming astronomically remote, I suppose some recess of my subconscious was glad to find fault with Madness on stage. Convincing myself that they maybe kinda sucked at playing live was a coping mechanism against teenage FOMO.

Most importantly, this is a case of what statisticians might call error from insufficient data sampling. When you’ve seen a performing artist a thousand times, you can readily identify and forgive a misstep here and there. But when making a critical evaluation based on one showing, you can jump to all sorts of false conclusions. So Suggs wasn’t on top form that night. So I was ignorant of Carl’s evolved stage dynamics. So the backup singers weren’t the best. It sure doesn’t mean Madness can’t play live, but I was working from the best evidence at hand. As a kid still learning about the wide world, I was prone to making sweeping generalizations based on my narrow personal frame of reference. Hell, I’m guilty of doing that nowadays, but hopefully not as often. Or as stupidly.

Looking back, it’s ironic that one of the first Madness songs I heard live (on TV) happened to be “Keep Moving.” Some thirty years later, when I went to the 2015 House of Fun Weekender, the first tune in the Friday night fan-service setlist was “Keep Moving.” A song I never, ever, EVER dreamed I would see Madness play live (in person). As I pumped my fist in Minehead and screamed mine head off, any foolish misgivings about this band’s live musicianship were forgotten like a silly old nightmare.

Don’t hide from past folly. Hold it high with a smile. Speak out loud with the mind of a child. If you’re lucky.


Special thanks to Declan McDermott for his archival assistance.
Other sources: Madness on TV, Bronwyn Douwsma

Trull’s Mad Memories

Madness on American Bandstand: Have You No Respect?

Madness on American Bandstand

As a kid in the ’70s, I always hated American Bandstand. Not so much because of the music or Dick Clark, but because every week it marked the dreaded end of Saturday morning cartoons. After the final Schoolhouse Rock lesson of the day, when you heard Barry Manilow crooning about goin’ hoppin’ today, where things are poppin’ (pop) the Philadelphia way, you knew it was over. Time to switch off the TV and scrounge up something else to do. American Bandstand was for dumb teenagers like my sister, with their inscrutable critical judgment of whether the new K.C. & The Sunshine Band single had a good beat that you could dance to.

Aging into that demographic in the ’80s, I began to tune into the Bandstand now and again, especially when prompted by TV Guide that bands I liked were going to be on. I recall seeing favorites like Men at Work, the Go-Go’s, Big Country, General Public, Katrina and the Waves… and Madness. 

When the boys turned up on America’s closest equivalent to Top of the Pops on March 3, 1984, it was a major event for me. They played (or more accurately, mimed) their current U.S. single “The Sun and the Rain” as well as “Keep Moving,” title track from the just-released album. I was head-over-heels in love with the U.S. Keep Moving album, and seeing Madness promote it on American Bandstand served to validate my loyalty to the band as more than a one-hit wonder.

Presumably because of copyright enforcement, Bandstand performances are hard to find on YouTube. But there is a video clip from Dick Clark’s 1984 interview with Madness, and it’s a right corker.

Analyzing this historical document, I first note how Dick addresses our dear frontman as Suggs McPherson (mispronounced like Elle McFEARson, to boot). This is what I always called him for many years: first name Suggs, last name McPherson. It wasn’t until his The Lone Ranger album in 1995 that I grokked that Suggs is properly a mononym. Tacking on his surname is like saying Cher Sarkisian or Bono Hewson. At the start and end of the interview you can spot Suggs doing his patented askew “glasses funny,” a stage move he repeated ad nauseam during the ’90s reunion era. How odd it is to hear him say “We’ve known each other for about six years.” Man, I’m wearing socks older than that.

Asking about the band’s notorious rendition of “God Save the Queen” on kazoos at the 1982 Prince Charles Trust Concert, Dick Clark randomly sticks his microphone in the face of the mustachioed trumpet player, and also his namesake, Dick Cuthell. Of course Cuthell wasn’t part of that royal command performance two years prior, but he gamely replies, “I didn’t have a kazoo at the time.”

At this point the interview is rudely thrown into disarray by the unruly Lee Thompson. Clad in red longjohns, sunglasses and fingerless gloves festooned with M logos, Lee circles around Dick Clark like a jaguar stalking its prey, feigning a Benny Hill grab-and-miss at Clark’s backside. Thommo settles down for a moment before going in for a second pass, and this time he hits the target, majorly. Although the camera is on Dick Cuthell at the moment of assault, as it were, it’s safe to say our Lee Jay Thompson indecently groped a beloved showbiz icon on national television.

“Have you no respect?” Clark bellows in mock outrage, over whoops and hollers from the underage eyewitnesses. I’ve read some tabloidy accounts of the Kix-Dick-Goose incident claiming that Clark was infuriated and cursed out the band afterwards, but that’s pretty clearly nonsense. Harmless fun was had by all, and Dick warmly thanks the band like they’re friendly old acquaintances.

Which, in fact, they were. 

At the tail end of the interview clip you can hear Dick say, “We’re delighted to have you back.” I did not realize until just recently that Madness first appeared on American Bandstand back in 1980! What, are you kidding me?

Yes, four years earlier, on April 19, 1980, our very young Nutty Boys capped off their second U.S. tour with an unlikely slot on the Bandstand. This was surely Madness’s American television debut, and I’m equally certain I didn’t see it broadcast. Their lipsynched performances of “One Step Beyond” and “Madness” are not to be found on YouTube, but once again the interview segment is.

You’ll catch that right off the bat, Lee pinches Dick Clark’s inner thigh – so clearly the man’s ageless derrière was an object of long-term enticement for Mr. Thompson. After that, Lee walks off camera and behaves himself for the remainder of the proceedings, leaving Mike and Carl to be the big cutups this time. As Dick questions Suggs about ska music, Barso angles for attention in the background with a bonkers “turkey neck” move. Carl mugs for the camera, joins Mike in a brief turkey mating ritual, then busts out some trademark nutty dance moves. Chrissy Boy and Bedders swing their guitar necks (in lieu of their own) and impishly prance about to dial up the pandemonium, while Woody and Lee mind their own business. And all this went down on ABC television in the year 1980. Unreal.

I just can’t imagine how Madness got booked on American Bandstand back then. No hit songs, utterly unknown except in hip New York/California circles where they had toured and got minor college radio exposure. Sire Records must have had a superhumanly persuasive booking agent, or else the Bandstand had to scramble to fill a last minute cancellation by Sister Sledge. I would dearly love to see how the unsuspecting crowd of dancers reacted to Chas Smash shouting out “Hey you! Don’t watch that, watch this!” I’d almost wager the show’s producers made them skip the intro and launch right into the song, lest the teenyboppers awkwardly stand by waiting for a good beat to dance to. What a strange little chapter in the band’s primordial history.

It actually upends my personal narrative as a Madness fan, a bit. I’ve always believed and maintained that I didn’t get on the nutty train until “Our House” was a hit in 1983 because I never had an opportunity to be exposed to Madness before that. But no. That’s all a lie now. I could have seen them on freaking Dick Clark’s American Bandstand back in 1980! Dang it, what a near miss and epic fail!

You can’t excuse me for having been too young or too unsophisticated in taste, either. In January 1980, I saw the B-52s play “Rock Lobster” on Saturday Night Live and became an instant fan at the tender age of 10, nearly a decade before “Love Shack.” I was into weird and crazy music as a kid, and if I’d seen Madness on TV at that juncture, I doubtless would have been set on my eventual path of musical appreciation much earlier in life.

What if, on that one pivotal Saturday afternoon, I had watched American Bandstand with my sister instead of going out to play with Star Wars figures? What if I had heard “One Step Beyond” and seen these hooligans clowning around with Dick Clark, talking about something mysterious called ska? What if them rockin’ on AB had led me straight to “Rockin’ in Ab”? What if I’d got my hands on The Rise and Fall right after its UK release, and “Our House” was already an old favorite by the time U.S. radio got clued in?

What an interesting alternate history some precocious parallel universe me got to enjoy, madly accelerated. Still, I’m happy enough with the way things played out. On a scale of 35 to 98, I rate it at least a 75.

Trull’s Mad Memories

Free in Your Bumper Pack: The American Exceptionalism of Keep Moving

Keep Moving USA

American Madness fans have always got the short end of the stick. Sporadic tours, loads of music unreleased on U.S. labels, and our general suffering from the band’s local reputation as a novelty ’80s one-hit wonder. But there is one notable category in which only the U.S. (and Canada) got the very best version of Madness. Because the North American edition of the 1984 Keep Moving album is infinitely superior to the original British release in every possible way. Fight me.

But before we step into the bloody ska-octagon to duke it out, let me rewind. Prior to Keep Moving’s appearance, “Our House” had made me a Madness fan, and I had tracked down the band’s domestic and imported back catalogue. In this interval I wondered what the future might hold for Madness. Would they go back to being an exclusively British phenomenon? I recall telling a friend my anxiety over possibly “losing” my new favorite band if they didn’t have more U.S. hits. “Do you think they’ll try again?” I asked with trepidation. At this point I would have had no idea of Mike Barson’s impending departure or the band’s internal tensions, but for some unfounded reason I feared there may not be a next Madness album.

Then one Saturday night in early 1984, as I watched Night Tracks on SuperStation TBS, I caught an unfamiliar piano melody being pounded out by an absurdly long-armed fellow. The piano spontaneously exploded, a distinctive rhythm section joined in, and my shocked brain sputtered “Wait, could this be Madness?” when Suggs McPherson himself appeared, singing in the rain with his sunglasses on. The music video credits gave me the lowdown:

The Sun and the Rain

MADNESS
“The Sun and the Rain”
Keep Moving
Geffen Records

Whoa! An unexpected new Madness song! A new Madness video! And better yet, a whole new Madness album! Unreal! I was so overwhelmed with sensory bombardment that I could barely absorb the song. All that registered was lyrics about inclement weather, that killer Barson piano riff, and the band wearing red bodysuits inside a mockup of Suggsy’s hollow head. How thrilling to see proof that Madness was indeed trying America again. One might say they were resolved to keep moving.

The next morning I mentioned to my dad that Madness had a new album out and I was anxious to hunt for it. I figured we’d need to run to Camelot Music in Hendersonville, where I had bought the One Step Beyond / Absolutely double cassette. Daddy ended up running some errands on his own that day, and to my surprise he called home from Pretzel’s Records in nearby Canton. He said he’d found a Madness tape at the store and wanted to make sure it was the right one. Yep, Keep Moving! That phone call was an unusual gesture from my dad, so I must have made a major impression about desperately I wanted this Madness tape. Teenage whining pays off sometimes.

Keep Moving USA

Oh, how delighted I was with Keep Moving! This was my first time getting a new Madness album upon its release, and it was spectacular. The one reservation I had at first was that the style of the vocals was now… different. Suggs had begun crooning, with a velvety tone all whispery and soft around the edges, compared to his cockney croak from early Madness. Carl got more honey-throated too, on “Michael Caine” and “Victoria Gardens.” Initially I thought their smoothed-out serenading sounded a tad posh and phony, but I soon accepted it as a natural consequence of maturity. 

That’s really the defining character of Keep Moving: rich, complex, sophisticated. Less zany and madcap, more artistic without veering into pretentious, still genuine and fun. A mature Madness. I found Keep Moving to be better than 7 and The Rise and Fall, and today it still ranks in my top three alongside One Step Beyond and Absolutely. The finest Madness albums have a consistent level of creative quality, no clunky fillers, each song building strength upon strength in a harmonious flow. The cover of the cassette stated “Contains two bonus songs not available on LP,” and even those were good. Altogether, 14 lovely tracks that belong right where they are.

Wings of a Dove

I finally got to hear “Wings of a Dove,” which had been intriguingly mentioned as their new UK single in a Trouser Press article. Madness plus steel drums plus hallelujah gospel choir? Totally loved it. The music video for that track became a lot more widely played in the U.S. than “The Sun and the Rain,” finding heavy rotation on Nickelodeon’s Nick Rocks video program. I remember their credits subtitled the song as “Wings of a Dove (A Celebrity Song)” instead of Celebratory. I think the gimmick with the van parachuting out of the plane helped to sustain the faint impression of Madness in the American consciousness, at least among teens and tweens. 

Funny thing about “Victoria Gardens” – listening to it, I thought the chorus sounded kinda like The English Beat, whose What Is Beat? greatest hits I had recently got. The liner notes cryptically credited “General Public: Back Vox,” which I thought literally meant they had recorded strangers off the street. It was a few months later that a catchy single called “Tenderness”  hit the airwaves, I learned the name of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger’s new band, and the penny dropped. 

Keep Moving has always been my Madness album for Sundays. Maybe in part since I actually got it on a Sunday, but mainly because it has that relaxed, easygoing lazy Sunday afternoon mood. Certainly compared to the caffeinated jump of most of their other records, Keep Moving is the one to chill out to. The album also has a pleasantly old-timey sound that’s hard to put in words. It reminds me of idyllic 19th century paintings of gents in barbershop quartet outfits on pennyfarthing bicycles and ladies with parasols strolling through the park, especially “Brand New Beat,” “March of the Gherkins” and “Prospects.” These are not typical pop songs of the ’80s. They are from another time. I remember many times mowing the yard with Keep Moving on my Walkman, and laughing to myself, “Man, no other kid in North Carolina is playing this kind of music.” I was proud to be weird, and still am.

Keep Moving USA

Years later, when compact discs came along, I was in for a long-overdue discovery. Getting a batch of Madness import CDs through mail order, I found to my dismay that the songs on Keep Moving were totally screwed up. And the two biggest songs, the ones with the great music videos, weren’t even on there at all! What the hell? What kind of lousy botched job had I got cheated on? Ridiculous!

And that’s when I figured it out. The original official Keep Moving had a totally different running order than the one I knew and loved. Most significantly, “The Sun and the Rain” and “Wings of a Dove,” which had been released as UK singles in 1983, were not included on the album. This was the dreadful truth. The real “two bonus songs” included on my Geffen cassette weren’t “Time for Tea” and “Waltz into Mischief” at all. AAAarrrghghhh! NOOOOOOO!

Well, damn. All I can say is that whoever the Geffen executive or producer was who assembled and packaged their release of the album, they were a total genius. They didn’t just arbitrarily scramble the running order, they clearly put constructive strategy behind it. Because like I said, the North American edition of Keep Moving album is infinitely superior to the original British release in every possible way. Just take a look.

🇬🇧 1. Keep Moving🇺🇸 1. Keep Moving
🇬🇧 2. Michael Caine🇺🇸 2. Wings of a Dove (A Celebratory Song)
🇬🇧 3. Turning Blue🇺🇸 3. The Sun and the Rain
🇬🇧 4. One Better Day🇺🇸 4. Brand New Beat
🇬🇧 5. March of the Gherkins🇺🇸 5. March of the Gherkins
🇬🇧 6. Waltz into Mischief🇺🇸 6. Michael Caine
🇬🇧 7. Brand New Beat🇺🇸 7. Time for Tea*
🇬🇧 8. Victoria Gardens🇺🇸 8. Prospects
🇬🇧 9. Samantha🇺🇸 9. Victoria Gardens
🇬🇧 10. Time for Tea🇺🇸 10. Samantha
🇬🇧 11. Prospects🇺🇸 11. One Better Day
🇬🇧 12. Give Me a Reason🇺🇸 12. Give Me a Reason
🇺🇸 13. Turning Blue
🇺🇸 14. Waltz into Mischief*
* U.S. cassette only
  • “Keep Moving,” “Wings of a Dove,” “The Sun and the Rain.” Boom, that’s an epic trilogy of an album opener. I’ve heard UK fans remark that the two singles clash with the tone of the album and don’t belong. Nonsense. I think they mesh splendidly with the band’s refined new sound.
  • The last fading notes of “Brand New Beat” ring in “March of the Gherkins” without a pause, like “Heartbreaker” segues into “Living Loving Maid,” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Separating them is sheer folly.
  • “Michael Caine” gets a comfortable buildup before its cinematic atmosphere unfolds. It’s a good song, but I don’t think shoulders the weight of the album’s #2 position. Sharing a sense of spy novel intrigue, “Time for Tea” feels right as an off-kilter epilogue. 
  • “Prospects” is a quintessential Side 2 starter, resetting the table for the album’s next movement. The song’s languid outro nicely tees up Dave and Roger’s merry bounce into “Victoria Gardens.”
  • The brooding “Samantha” turns the corner into the dark heart of Keep Moving, leading off a suite of four minor-key-type tunes that mean serious business. The emotional catharsis of “One Better Day,” the suspense-thriller soundtrack climax of “Give Me a Reason,” the urgent denouement of “Turning Blue.”
  • “Waltz into Mischief” supplies the much-needed cooldown and signoff, as a raucous pint-raising singalong chorus gives way to chuffed strings and brass winding down to a stop.

I just can’t listen to the UK Keep Moving. It doesn’t make sense to me, and the beautiful flow is not there. It’s amazing how much difference the sequencing of songs can make. When I gained the technology to burn my own CDs, the first thing I did was create a disc of the American Keep Moving. Geffen eventually issued it on CD in the U.S., thank goodness, almost matching the old cassette but with “Time for Tea” inserted as track 13 instead of track 6. Not perfect, but close enough to be serviceable.

All that being said, and as much as I relish chanting “USA! USA!” in this specific context, I freely admit that it’s all subjective. When a creative work comes in multiple variants, in films or books or music, you’ll always prefer the version that you fell in love with, whether it was the original or altered or what. I’ve actually had the exact same experience with another landmark British pop album from 1984: I’m biased toward the Style Council’s American My Ever Changing Moods album, even though Paul Weller fans almost unanimously revere the original Café Bleu. Fair play to all the other Madness fans who likewise feel their treasured edition of Keep Moving is flawless and unbeatable.

To borrow a phrase from the pen of Lee Thompson: Star-shaped badges that shine around, called “Wings of a Dove” and “The Sun and the Rain,” come free in your U.S. Keep Moving bumper pack. But if a different tracklist is left around too long, it’ll burn right through to your heart and your soul.

Keep Moving USA

Trull’s Mad Memories

Vinyl Answer: The Quest for 7 and The Rise and Fall

Most Wanted: 7 and The Rise and Fall

Back when I was a newly minted Madness fan, after “Our House,” One Step Beyond and Absolutely had won me over, I found myself on the horns of an international crisis. Pop journalism informed me that the band had another two full albums to its credit: 7 from 1981, and The Rise and Fall from 1982. But since Sire Records had dropped Madness before their big 1983 hit, those two most recent records remained the stuff of legend in the United States. That didn’t stop me from checking the “M” section at every record store in obsessive-compulsive vain, though I knew the search was going to require purveyors of exotic imported goods. And I would have to deal not only in foreign commodities, but also with a foreign format: the vinyl LP.

In all my music-loving life, I have never been a vinyl person. I did grow up in a home with a turntable, and my parents had a decent stack of country music LPs stashed in the closet by the likes of Conway Twitty, Hank Snow and Dolly Parton. But I never remember Mom and Dad playing records. They always just listened to the radio. My older sister had her vinyl collection with The Carpenters, Neil Sedaka and Frampton Comes Alive!, which of course she never wanted me messing with. I was raised on 8-track tapes and later cassettes. Only rarely did I ever own anything on vinyl beyond kiddie records. I demanded for my folks to get me the Kiss Alive II double LP, only because someone brought a copy to school and showed off all the cool scratch-off tattoos and goodies that didn’t come with the cassette. And I had a few odd 45 rpm singles like “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s (major crush on Belinda Carlisle) and “Rapture” by Blondie (which I got by mailing in Pop-Tarts box tops).

Frankly, I just never liked vinyl. The sound was all crackly and prone to skipping. It was a pain to flip the record over. They were so fragile and easy to wreck with a single scratch or stray wisps of dust. Vinyl lovers extoll the “warmth and richness” of the “superior dynamic analog” whatever, and more power to ’em. They can take those old records off the shelf and sit and listen to ’em by themselves. In my book, tapes sounded way better than phonograph platters then, and well-mastered compact discs sound way better now. Yep, I think vinyl sucks.

But if I ever wanted to obtain the elusive 7 and The Rise and Fall as a teenager, I was going to have to settle for the import LPs. With a bit of work, I ended up scoring them both. Looking back now, I see evidence that Stiff Records did in fact release them on cassette, which would have been a blessing beyond imagination to my younger self. I gather that the market share for cassettes was quite smaller in the UK than in America, and in my music collecting experience I can’t recall ever seeing, in person, import cassettes by artists I like. You’d have to turn to our friends at Retro Madness to procure such rare museum-class artifacts.

I actually found The Rise and Fall first, to make my reversed timeline of Madness catalogue discovery all the more knotty. The band’s fourth album turned up at an eclectic record shop in Asheville, North Carolina. It may have been a used copy, but if so it was in nice condition. Of course I was amazed to lay my lucky hands on it, but not unreservedly thrilled. For one thing, by that point we no longer had a record player in my house. Either we’d gotten rid of the old turntable for some reason, or my sister had taken it when she’d moved out. On top of that, I thought the price on the LP was outrageous. I don’t recall how much exactly, but it was probably around $15 – exorbitant by my financial standards at the time. The very idea of shelling out twice the cost of an average cassette tape, for a record I couldn’t even play at home, and half of whose songs I already had on the Geffen compilation? Sworn to Madness allegiance though I was, it was still a bitter pill to gulp down.

The Rise and Fall LP

Stirring further consternation was a little grocery-store-style sticker on the back of the LP sleeve: “MADE IN SPAIN.” Whoa! An import not from England’s mountains green, but shipped all the way from the land of tapas and toreros! It bore the Stiff Records label, though the fine print specified “Editado por Discos Victoria, S.A,, distribuido por Edigsa.” With grave concern I went to ask the shop clerk: “If this record’s made in Spain, will the singing still be in English?” He assured me with amusement it would be. It’s a good thing I was unaware of “Un Paso Adelante at that point. ¡Ay, caramba!

So I purchased my Spanish-but-not-Español Madness record and took it to my aunt’s house to give it a first listen, before getting a friend to make a good cassette recording on his stereo system. I recall my first impression was… underwhelmed. I could see why Geffen had fashioned a compilation for U.S. listeners instead of issuing The Rise and Fall. Tracks like “Mr Speaker (Gets the Word)” and “New Delhi” just aren’t very strong. “Sunday Morning” is charming enough, but it comes across as a less successful variation on the same themes as “Our House.” (Probably as evidence that only Chas and Woody contributed songs about their upbringings, per the album’s original concept.) 

I was more impressed with the clever verbosity of “Tiptoes” (rhyming “the door’s already shutting” with “to reach the 19th button”!) and the unusual musical structure of “That Face.” To me, Mike Barson’s piano and Mark Bedford’s bass are the quintessential elements of the Madness sound, and it’s remarkable how “That Face” arranges their parts in minimalistic bursts that create both tension and airiness in the gaps between. It’s a mature new style that points toward the direction of Keep Moving

In my 11th grade English class, we had an assignment to present a song of our choice to the class and analyze its lyrics like poetry. Mrs. Caldwell told us to find songs with more artistic or social relevance than “baby baby let’s party” or whatever. I chose to discuss “Are You Coming (With Me)” and dissect its bleak message of trying to reach a self-destructive friend in the throes of drug addiction. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t pick some other Madness tune like “Embarrassment” – another Lee Thompson composition with a meaningful story behind it, and a catchier melody. I believe in part I liked the idea of playing this tape recorded from a super obscure record that none of my captive audience would ever hear otherwise. And it was an opportunity to show that my favorite band could do something more serious and soulful than that “house in the middle of the street” ditty. 

7 LP

Not long after I got The Rise and Fall, I acquired the 7 album through mail order. My friends and I had discovered a company called Burning Airlines (still in business since 1978!) that sold music T-shirts and merch. We had sent away for their full catalog, and among the typewriter-keyed listings of import LPs I spotted “Madness 7.” I’m sure it must have cost even more than what I’d shelled out for The Rise and Fall, but price could no longer deter me. I had to gain the one remaining “lost” Madness album by any means necessary. I know one motivating factor was my OCD need for something to put on the blank side of my Rise and Fall tape. Less rewinding!

Once I finally got it transferred to the B-side of that cassette, I was generally more pleased with 7 at first blush than I’d been with The Rise and Fall – not least because it had a greater number of new-to-me tracks, a total of ten. And of the familiar ones, two were different mixes. Compared to the Geffen Madness album, “Cardiac Arrest” was shorter and “Shut Up” was longer. In both cases I prefer the extended outro versions. I became an instant fan of “Tomorrow’s Dream” (nothing at all like the Black Sabbath song), “Benny Bullfrog” (favored among my friends that I tried to convert to Madness), and “The Opium Eaters” (proof that the band could really do a brilliant film soundtrack). I’ve always thought “Day on the Town” is underrated and deceptively chilling, a dub-tinged spiritual cousin to The Specials’ “Ghost Town.”

One particular track holds dark personal memories for me. When was in my first fender-bender as a newly licensed young driver, 7 was playing in my Oldsmobile Cutlass tape deck. I got rear-ended on the highway, and just as I braked to a screeching halt, the opening bars of “Sign of the Times” chimed out, Barson’s plonked keys taunting “ding-ding-ding, ding-ding-da-ding!” at me like a game-show loser alarm. I couldn’t bear to listen to 7 for months from the PTSD flashbacks.

7 LP sleeve

Another thing I have to mention about 7 is the album cover. I still think it’s the best artwork on any Madness album ever, even better than the iconic nutty train. On the Divine Madness DVD commentary track, Chas and Mike argue about which one of them choreographed the 7 pose, which reminds me of a superhero team splash page. In fact, I had a poster of it on my bedroom wall since I first became a Madness fan, which surely predisposed me to like the album once I finally got it. And I love the inner sleeve with the 7×7 checkerboard grid of famous sevens, septets and sevenths: the 7 deadly sins, the 7 wonders of the world, the 7 seas, Seven Samurai, 7Up… so awesome! As I had done with The Rise and Fall, I finagled this album into another school assignment by drawing a detailed pencil study of that epic 7 cover. Poor Mrs. Williams also had to grade me on a rendering of Big Country’s Stuart Adamson in pastels, and a giant mural painting of Beta Ray Bill from The Mighty Thor.

Once I got my first CD player in 1987 as a college freshman, I was able to track down all the Madness albums on import CDs within a couple of years. And boy, did 7 and The Rise and Fall benefit from crystal clarity in place of the snap, crackle, pop of my LP recordings. Vinyl, I still hate your guts. But I thank you for making some important introductions and lasting connections in my life. To paraphrase that song that heckled me at the terrifying instant of my first car wreck:

This is disposable, throw it away
This is on vinyl, don’t let it play
That was the past, so leave it behind
I found the music, it’s all in my mind

Most Wanted: 7 and The Rise and Fall

Trull’s Mad Memories

Double Decker: Two-on-One Step Beyond / Absolutely

One Step Beyond & Absolutely Two-on-One

As a budding Madness fan in 1983, I was surprised to learn from music magazines that “Our House” was not, in fact, the band’s first hit song. It turned out they had four albums out in the U.K., where they had racked up a whole slew of hits with evocative names like “The Prince” and “Baggy Trousers.” What the what? How come we never heard any of this in America? My archeological mission to excavate that hitherto unknown Madness music was on.

I gleaned from the press articles that their first two albums had been released in the U.S. by Sire Records, who then dropped the band due to poor sales. So I knew those should exist somewhere within reach. The Tape Shack and Sky City in my hometown would never stock anything so obscure, though. I turned to Camelot Music at Blue Ridge Mall in nearby Hendersonville, NC – at that time surely the biggest and most awesome record store in western North Carolina. This place had everything, with rows upon rows flush with punk, new wave and underground rock, from Black Flag to Bauhaus, from Leonard Cohen to Siouxsie and the Banshees. This Camelot was not at all a silly place, and I spent many a happy hour browsing its wares and testing my parents’ patience. In later years I’ve shopped at major chain record stores in Los Angeles and London that were no more spectacular. It goes without saying that Camelot Music is long since defunct.

But back on that one cherished day I maneuvered through the “M” section of Camelot’s cassette bins, and there to my wonderment I spotted One Step Beyond and Absolutely. Both on one tape.

Two on One Cassette

Putting two complete albums on one cassette was a moderately popular trend at the height of the cassette era. The labels must have noticed how music lovers were recording two albums on 90-minute blank tapes, which was especially attractive with the advent of mobile music via the Sony Walkman. Warner Music Group (including Elektra, Atlantic and Sire) spearheaded the movement with their distinctive “Two on One” branding. The value proposition offered consumers double the product for a cost of one or two dollars more than a standard cassette. Some tapes combined two big hit records, while others disappointingly paired one classic with a lackluster later release. That’s marketing for ya.

Now in the case of Madness, here was a minor British act that Sire had taken a gamble on and didn’t pan out. The individual releases of One Step Beyond (1979) and Absolutely (1980) were big flops, and the combo cassette’s 1983 release date indicates it appeared only in response the success of “Our House.” This improbable duplex, nonexistent in the U.K., was devised for the sake of curious Stateside risk-takers like me.

And oh man, what a blessed discovery it was. Playing that tape in Daddy’s pickup truck on the ride home was nothing like my first exposure to Madness, when I grappled with whether or why I should embrace the nutty sound. Diving into both One Step Beyond and Absolutely all at once, I loved them all at once. I had drawn a double-decker Excalibur aloft from the enchanted Camelot stone.

One Step Beyond

I think the only hesitation I had at first was the rawness of the vocals, in comparison with Suggs’ relatively silky crooning on “Our House” and “It Must Be Love.” In fact, I was under the false impression that all of the singing on the first two albums was the younger 1979-80 Suggs – it took me a while to figure out which tracks were sung by Carl or Lee. To be fair, those three north London voices sounded pretty much the same to a 13-year-old American kid. Regardless, the vocal stylings grew on me soon enough, and the punchy zip of the music had me captivated from the bellowing call to attention that opened the first album to the quiet “Good night” at the close of the second one. The Geffen Madness compilation sparked my interest in the band, but it was this anthology of an older vintage that confirmed me a lifelong fan.

One Step Beyond and Absolutely have been reviewed and rated ad infinitum, and anyone reading this probably knows what they sound like. I just ask your indulgence to paint the picture of how this double cassette indelibly impressed my younger self. The only song on it that I knew previously was “Night Boat to Cairo” (a remix of which was included on the Geffen album). The other 28 tracks were entirely new, unfamiliar, and at times downright koo-koo, and yet I felt connected to them right away.

The sheer amount of musical invention was dizzying. One thing I quickly grasped was that Madness had an instantly identifiable sound, and yet no two songs sounded the same. They had a rock-solid, muscular rhythm section, and melodies anchored by deft piano (or non-synth organ), all punctuated with flinty guitar and boisterous saxophone, topped off with wry vocals whose charm compensated for technical skill. Yet within this formula, One Step Beyond and Absolutely presented a sumptuous buffet of variations. In addition to your standard pop music themes of heartbreak, nostalgia and good-time partying, there were songs about deviant behavior, racial prejudice and social anxiety.

From the magazine articles I learned that Madness’s style of music was something called ska. Even though it would take me a long time to learn that only a couple of their earliest songs bore any legitimate resemblance to real Jamaican ska, it was plain even to uninformed ears that there was more than one musical genre on display here. By turns the songs incorporated R&B, Motown, oldies rock & roll, dance hall, classical, and TV sitcom theme stylings just as much as ska. And such off-kilter song construction, where the chorus is semi-optional, or you might get a scrap of one verse or some random shouting tacked onto a wild instrumental. One Step Beyond and Absolutely were packed with fascinating contradictions. Any given track could be both cheerful and somber. Both simple and complex. Both silly and profound. Both stupid and clever.

With mind fully blown, I delighted in listening to the double-dose crash course in Madness over and over and over. I loved to lie in my bedroom with a boom box resting on my chest, cranking Madness into my face for the sort of analytical close listening that music connoisseurs would typically do with headphones. I fondly recall studying “The Prince” like this, mentally isolating each of the main instruments as well as all the little bloooorps and swishy-swishies and tok-toks that accrete in intricate layers as the track progresses. This tape was my Sgt. Pepper, my Led Zeppelin II, my Dark Side of the Moon

Absolutely

Speaking of favorite albums, it’s worthy of note that all of the most significant and influential music of my teenage years came on double-length cassettes. One Step Beyond / Absolutely (1979/1980), The Jam’s greatest hits Snap! (1983), Minutemen’s epic masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) and their compendium My First Bells (1985), the Skatalites’ live reunion Stretching Out (1987). A double album packed with great songs is inherently more listenable, since you can play it more without getting tired of it. And it plays right into a obsessive personality like mine: when I find something I love, I latch on with a rapacious appetite for mass quantities of it. You might logically argue I would have formed the same appreciation for One Step Beyond and Absolutely if I had bought them on individual cassettes. But I don’t think so. Being bound together in a single unit magnified the Madness energy exponentially and consecrated a holy talisman that felt less like two records and more like one big sprawling opus.

One thing’s for sure: any economic advantage I gained from buying the two albums on one cassette didn’t hold up in the long run, since I kept wearing it out mercilessly. I played it so much that the tape crinkled and started warbling like a broadcast from the innards of a dyspeptic whale. I suppose the two-on-ones may have used a thinner and less durable kind of tape in order to accommodate the longer running time. I went through three copies of the cassette: the original, a second I special-ordered from the local Tape Shack, and a third as a Christmas gift I requested from my sister. The final verse in “Believe Me” always reminds me of that holiday season – “Christmas comes but once a year, it’s a time of love and cheer.” With my One Step Beyond / Absolutely Mark III, I finally got wise and started making listening copies to leave the master tape in mint condition. This method served my rigorous demands until compact discs appeared.

Which brings us to the ultimate obsolescence that befell the beloved instrument of my Madhead education. Two-on-one CDs were never much of a thing, predictable given the traditional 74-minute capacity of the format. I have a nice edition of The Jam’s All Mod Cons and Sound Affects on one disc, as well as the Minutemen Post-Mersh collections, and how sweet it would be to own an official One Step Beyond / Absolutely CD, if the combined runtime weren’t a bit too long. Though I welcomed the superior digital audio (and ruggedness) of the compact disc, it was bittersweet to have One Step Beyond and Absolutely rent in twain by the grim march of technology. Still, my mind will always anticipate that school bell’s ring immediately after the Chipmunks finish their roar… and this, my friends, is precisely what iTunes playlists are made for.

Fans would generally say The Liberty of Norton Folgate was the first “double album” Madness ever released. Yeah, but not in my book.

One Step Beyond & Absolutely Two-on-One

Trull’s Mad Memories

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I Never Thought I’d Like Them Half as Much as I Do

(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.


Trull’s Mad Memories