This vintage article from a 1980 edition of the Aquarian Weekly newspaper documents Madness’ visit to Philadelphia to kick off their second U.S. tour. It’s amusing to note how journalist Asia Locke caught Woody’s surname as “Woods,” which is understandable given how often we’ve seen Suggs or Carl playfully introduce him as “Woody Woods Woodgate.” The driving thrust behind the article is exploring the confusion over what kind of music it is that Madness was playing circa 1980, and it’s impressive to see a regional American publication grant the band such in-depth consideration three years before “Our House” hit the our charts.
Big thanks to Stateside Madness follower Keith Lyle for submitting the article, presented below in full.
BRITISH BAND MIXES OFFBEAT JAMAICAN RHYTHMS WITH ROCK ’N’ ROLL AND R & B
Madness Rebels Against “Revival-Band” Label
from Asia Locke’s Philadelphia Dreamin’ Aquarian Weekly, March 5-12, 1980
PHILADELPHIA – It wasn’t just madness at the Hot Club on Feb. 21 – it was sheer insanity. Arriving from London the night before, the British band Madness made it to Philadelphia in fine time to open its second American tour. Unfortunately, the group’s equipment didn’t. It was well after the scheduled start of the first set that the doors of the Hot Club opened and the fans who had thronged the sidewalk on the mild winter night made it inside.
The wait didn’t seem to have bothered the crowd; the party had already begun during the wall outside. And if the delay had bothered Madness, it certainly didn’t show. The group drifted through the vacant club while it waited tor the truck to arrive, spending the time dancing and talking. When the equipment truck showed up, the members of the group wasted no time getting its system inside and set up.
Though two sets had been scheduled, the delay called for a change and Madness opened the show with a short set. The group was followed by scheduled opener Tina Peel, and then Madness returned to the stage to round out the rocking evening.
The show at the Hot Club proved that Madness, whose name has been linked with the Specials to a ska revival, was doing something a bit more original. The group combines the offbeat rhythms of Jamaican music with very raw rock ’n’ roll. The group’s music is infectious: what you hear on its self-titled album for Sire is, instrumentally, what you get live. But what’s missing from the record and what makes Madness come alive is its stage show.
Though there are six members of the band on the record, there are seven members onstage. Bassist Mark Bedford, rhythm guitarist Chris Forman [sic], organist Mike Barson, drummer Woody Woods [sic], sax player Lee Thompson and vocalist Suggs were joined by what must be the group’s most active member, Chaz [sic] Smash. Smash acted as the group’s cheerleader. urging it to push the limits of madness. He jumped around the stage, singing and clapping, and helped to create one of the craziest moments of the show. While the group played a bluebeat version of the theme from “Swan Lake.” Smash rhythmically butted skulls with Thompson; it lit right in to the manic feeling generated by Madness.
Punk. New wave. Reggae. Ska. Art bands. Rock ’n’ roll bands. Inspired by. Revival of.
With music being made faster than it can be labeled, groups are often lumped for the sake of convenience into categories that may not have a lot to do with their music.
“The first time around we were breaking new ground,” said drummer Woods, during an almost quiet moment between sets. “We were waking people up. The first time we were over, the influence was all punk. But things have been slowly changing.”
By now if everyone has not heard of ska, they have at least heard of its close relative, reggae. Though the sound is different – ska bands having a sparse, rock ’n’ roll sound and most reggae groups sticking closer to an easier, island-influenced sound – the distinctions can be confusing.
“The earliest ska groups came from reggae,” bassist Bedford explained, trying to clear things up. “What Madness is playing is a cross between reggae now and bluebeat with some jazz. All the music came from bluebeat, which is where playing the offbeat guitar started. Then they all picked up on the offbeat sound.
“We were all listening to Prince Buster; he had most of the hits in the ’60s. It was Jamaican music, but kind of rhythm & blues. The Mods in England were dancing to ska and bluebeat in ’64. “We can’t re-create that sound, even if we wanted to. That sound came out of the studio, out of a kind of technology that was in use.
“We’re not trying to re-create or revive ska. Of course. we were influenced by ska and the bluebeat sound. But what influenced us more came later on, in r & b.”
The revival-band tag has obviously frustrated Madness. The group realizes the limitations that such labeling imposes – limiting its audiences and not giving its music the benefit of an impartial listening.
“We’re not trying to copy anything,” said Bedford earnestly. “Over the years, listening to the music, we picked up on the sound. But it’s only one of the influences on our own material. And these influences come out in the material we write. Unfortunately,” he concluded, a look of resignation on his face, “it sounded to a lot of people like old-time music.”
Madness doesn’t deny its debt to ska; it just doesn’t want to be labeled as simply a revival band. And the group is very up front about its appreciation of Jamaica’s Prince Buster. The group does its own version of Prince Buster’s hit “One Step Beyond,” and a tribute Madness itself wrote, called “The Prince.”
Madness is well aware of its stage presentation, and the group’s appearance ranks very high on its list of priorities, second only to the group’s sound. Both Bedford and Woods laughed as they talked about the band’s “style” and its members’ proclivity for crew cuts.
“We get called ‘rude boys’ sometimes,” said Woods. “They were the Jamaican skinheads,” he explained, referring to a violent cult in England during the ’60s whose members were distinguished by their short hair and heavy boots.
Bedford broke in. “The rude boys were really villains, but they were slick. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sneaky, but they were a stylish set of villains.”
Continued Woods: “Madness has a lot of influence on style in London. The band always dressed smartly; we just liked the style of clothing. Now we find when the band wears something. It shows up on the streets.”
“When we started out,” Bedford elaborated, “we weren’t getting well known because of a revival of ska, but because people enjoyed dancing to our music. Then they started copying the fashion, and then they realized the look was part of ska. We’ve been looking like this for years.”
“We were always conscious of the style,” added Woods. “Now everyone looks like this. In London, we find we’re in the strange position of dictating fashion. The group itself is considered a fashion leader.”
“But don’t overemphasize the fashion,” intoned Bedford in a pleading tone, the same appeal in his voice as when he said “We’re not a revival band.” What should be emphasized? “It’s the beat,” he answered.
Old they have any words for their American audience? “Yes,” said Woods, right away. “Mohair is better than long hair.”
Not a bad motto for music with style.
And as for the group’s plans? Woods again: “Shut up, listen, and dance.”
As Stateside Madness reaches its first anniversary, it’s an opportune time to present a fun discovery worthy of the Oxford English Dictionary: possibly the earliest use of our name in print (albeit in reverse), complete with our stars & stripes graphical motif! This article ran in Pop83 magazine in spring 1983, reporting on the breakthrough U.S. chart success of “Our House.”
For me this article is an interesting insight, since I’ve always been curious about what the British press and fans made of the band’s belated popularity in America. Did they notice? Were they glad to hear we caught on? Did they really even care? It’s amusing to note the backhanded remarks about “Our House” being kind of an old song by that point, so out of step were those hapless Yanks. And I personally delight in seeing Madness lumped in with The Jam as top stars that fizzled on our side of the pond, given that Paul Weller happens to be my second favorite UK act. I have a nose for obscure wonders from distant shores.
This Pop83 issue also included a feature on Madness’s evolving style and image, previews of upcoming single “Wings of a Dove” and the LP that would be Keep Moving, and a lengthy list of trivia tidbits that could surprise even the most knowledgable Madheads among us. All of these historic contents are presented below for your reading pleasure. I have annotated them with YouTube links to some of the less familiar vintage-1983 songs and artists referenced. Our fond thanks to Jon Young, our esteemed MIS ambassador and advocate, for sharing the magazine scans with us.
Now for the latest in Madness news.
The big news comes from America. Madness went to the States back in their early days. While music-mad Yanks on the east and west coasts took an interest in their nutty image, the group failed to sell a lot of records. Like The Jam, they gave it a few more tries and then concentrated their energies on places where their music was accepted.
Earlier this year Madness signed up with a new American record company, Geffen. In addition the success of groups like the Human League have helped the Americans to turn their heads in the direction of British bands. The Americans have cable television and MTV, a 24 hour a day video station, which has a huge and influential following. Madness’ marvellous videos have always transcended any cultural problems, like language barriers. Because the group relies on their music and not their hairdressers to create an impact, their videos have not dated as quickly as some new romantics have.
“Our House” has become the group’s first top ten smash. Mark and Chris went over to the States during the heatwave we had in July to try to help the Americans understand the Madness philosophy a bit better. In some ways, their delayed success is an advantage.
When they first went to America as part of the Two Tone movement, Madness had to fight to be treated separately from The Specials and The Selecter. Americans had little experience of ska in the ’60s. So, how could they understand references to rude boys and pork pie hats? In trying to explain themselves, everyone got confused. Now, with a sound all their own the group has a fresh start. Since they are gradually moving from their “nutty” image, Madness can convey whatever they want to this brand new audience who knows only one Madness song, “Our House.” Wonder how the group likes hearing it sung in American accents?
The surprise American success means that Madness have to drop their proverbial pushbikes and hop on a plane to the States quickly. August will find them on a hectic five week tour of one end of the 3,000 mile wide country to another. The highlight will be a supporting spot for The Police at one of those giant American stadiums that often holds the population of a small city.
In the meantime, Madness release their new single “Wings of a Dove.” Jamie at the Stiff Office, one of the first lucky people to hear it, described as having a “carnival” feeling to it. “There’s a choir and steel drums and Suggs’ vocals have a new mellow feeling to them,” he reported enthusiastically.
The single was recorded in the late spring and then the group headed off for their separate holidays. Mike Barson, his wife and dog decided to see Europe the caravan way. “He rang in every few weeks to say which country he was in,” laughed Jamie. “Sometimes the only way to know where he was, was to check with his mum because he kept in contact with her.” Barson managed to get back to British shores 24 hours before the group set to work recording the video for “Wings of a Dove.” No sooner was the film edited than did the group head off for the states.
A New LP for Christmas
It’s not certain what their plans are once they return. (A good night’s sleep will be in order!) There are tentative plans to go in the studio and record tracks for their next album. Stiff Records would love to be able to have a new album ready for fans by Christmas, but as yet there is no certainty of when Madness will complete their sixth album.
Mark describes the upbeat new effort as “A song that will open a few eyes.” No doubt Madness are a bit fed up with hearing that their music has stagnated and that they’ve grown apart. “If you can afford to buy yourself a place, of course you’re not going to keep living with mum,” said Mark. “That’s only natural.”
It’s also natural that with seven members in a group that the group enjoys more quiet company in their spare time plus the companionship of some females. When together there’s plenty of energy and madness in Madness. And when it’s time to down tools, uh instruments, the magnificent seven are free to go their separate and more quiet ways. Their individuality can only give their music more texture and variety. Now, let’s see how they fly the flag in the former colonies. Will America have any effect on Madness? We shall see.
In the meantime, the group moves towards the fourth anniversary of their debut hit “The Prince.” It’s remarkable how Madness have survived Two Tone, Adam Ant, New Romantics and rapping funk records. It just seems that whatever music is on the radio, there’s nothing to brighten up the airways like a bit of Madness. They may not be as loony as they first were. But it’s reassuring to see that they haven’t lost their vitality and spirit either.
ALL CHANGE – IT’S MADNESS
Greetings music lovers. Today’s lecture in pop music concerns a new vocabulary word. It’s “longevity.” It comes from the word “long” and the dictionary sitting here says that it means “long life.”
Longevity is not a word that often crops up in pop music circles. Pop music, like the socks you wore two years ago, Is meant to have temporary appeal. If you last more than two years pop music, you must be quite skilled.
To back up this point, let’s look at Exhibit A: the charts. When Madness had their first hit in September of 1979 the charts were topped over the months by groups like Buggles, The Jam, Dr. Hook, Gary Numan, The Specials, Blondie and The Police. Oh, yes and let’s not forget that smash hit “One Day at a Time” by Lena Martell!
If you can remember Lena Martell and Madness’ first hit you are part of the first generation of Madness fans. If you don’t remember Lena Martell consider yourself very lucky and a second generation Madness fan! (Just for the record Lena Martell did for 1979 what Renee and Renato did in 1982 — upset a lot of stomachs.)
Four years after Madness’ first hit and look what’s happened. The Buggles, The Specials and The Jam have split up. Dr. Hook and Blondie have lost their chart appeal. Gary Numan spends more time crashing planes than making hit records. Only The Police remain superstars. Lena Martell has hopefully returned to Radio 2 where she belongs.
Madness are still together and still breaking new ground while trying to hold on to the essense of nuttiness that made them popular in the first place. If they don’t change musically, the fans will get tired of the same thing. (Look at Bad Manners.) If the group changes too drastically, the fans may not follow either. (Remember “YMCA” by the Village People? They went “new wave” and stopped making hits.)
“The Wings of a Dove,” the new Madness single, represents a new change for the band. As with their 1982 album Rise and Fall the group have taken a lot of time to get a different sound going.
Because of their longevity (ah ha, there’s that word again), a lot of people have got it in for Madness. They’re waiting for the group to split up. They’re predicting that the fans won’t change and abandon the group’s new efforts in favour of their old nutty stuff. There are rumours that the group are out of touch with the fans, the times and the music scene.
Madness aren’t the only group to have these rumours. Back in the ’60s The Beatles got flack every time they tried something new. In the ’70s there were always people who wanted David Bowie to stick with one image for the rest of his life. If David Bowie had kept a small segment of his fans happy by playing at Ziggy Stardust forever, he would have probably died of boredom. It took a lot of courage for artist and fans alike to come to expect change from Bowie. Long term Bowie fans favour certain phases of his career over others. But because they like Bowie, they always like to hear his newest music to decide for themselves. Likewise, some Madness fans may prefer their nutty music to the new music. But have you given the new music as much of a chance?
When Madness toured earlier this year, I got to talk to some of the fans outside the concert halls. Several of them admitted that Rise and Fall was not what they would have described as typical Madness music. But in giving the new music a chance, one fan in particular found that he changed too.
“I love to hear the earlier stuff when I’m first out of school.” he explained. “I don’t remember when Madness first came out. My older brother does and I used to get very jealous when he used to go out to see them and Mum said I was too young. He gave me his old singles when my aunt gave him the Complete Madness album for Christmas. I got Rise and Fall. First I didn’t like it. But, now I find in the evenings I enjoy it in a different way from the singles. It’s hard to explain. But I like the words. I listen to them when I’m listening to the album. With the singles, I don’t pay much attention to the words, just the beat. Because of that album, I find I’m listening to the words more. I wouldn’t have done that a year ago.”
New Sounds — New Fans
Just as the fans change, so too does the group change. During this year’s Madness tour there were fans representing every phase of Madness music from little skinheads to loons decked out in garage overalls. “There will always be a nutty element in Madness.” said Suggs. “But we’re not just smiling puppets. There’s a sharp side too. Listen to the words and you’ll hear it. We’re not Buck’s Fizz, but we’re not what the Fun Boy Three were either.”
What Suggs and his six fellow musical mates are certain of is that there are plenty more changes to come. In pop music there’s no longevity without change. Think of what you were like four years ago. Look how you’ve moved up and on. You only have to listen to “Wings of a Dove” to hear how Madness have changed too.
MAD MUMBLINGS FROM MADNESS!
Lee Thompson likes to listen to “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac when he can’t sleep.
Chris Foreman rates UB40 and Blue Rondo among his favourite groups.
The total cost of the Madness movie Take It or Leave It was £400,000.
The art work for the “Our House” single was done by six year old Karen Allen.
When Suggs is in Japan, he feels like a giant.
The group were toying with getting Trevor (ABC) Horn to produce their new single. But Trevor Horn likes the Madness sound as it is.
Suggs’ wife Bette Bright hails from Liverpool.
Lee Thompson’s favourite breakfast haunt in Hampstead has been converted into a pizza restaurant.
Bette Bright (Mrs. McPherson to you) loves old ’30s movies which may explain why their daughter is named Scarlett (after Gone with the Wind).
The Yanks made up a car bumper sticker that says “Honk If You Like Madness” and have a chain of coffee shops called Chock Full of Nuts.
There are sixteen tracks on the Complete Madness album.
Madness have made an ad for motorcycles in Japan and crisps in Britain.
Madness are fans of Bad Manners.
Among the things they used to do but can’t anymore — roller skating up at Alexandra Palace, speeding on the motorways, announce where they used to live, eat in peace outside of Camden, live with mum, walk by a bunch of schoolkids.
When Madness made their film Take It or Leave It they wanted cinemas to remove the first ten rows of seats so the fans could dance. They later admitted this idea was a bit impractical.
The latest Madness single, “Wings of a Dove,” was held up because Mike Barson was on holiday in Yugoslavia and was not near a telephone.
Suggs is not a big fan of glossy groups like Duran Duran.
Woody is a vegetarian. He calls people who eat meat “cannibals.”
Days after they got married, Jane spent six weeks on tour in America, returning on the same day that Woody set off for a European tour.
Keep an ear open for Bonzai Forest, a new Camden group that several members of the band have taken an interest in.
Can Madness last for ten years more? Chas says yes. “We’ve got a lot in front of us…”
Originally published by SB Publishing & Promotions Ltd. in England, 1983. Acknowledgement to writer Robin Katz.
SUGGS: Another big turning point for the band was when we put out ‘My Girl’ as the third single. ’Cause we hadn’t really appealed to girls up to that point.
WOODY: We moved very quickly from doing sweaty clubs with a lot of scary-looking skinheads, and then the crowds got younger. At first, it was a bit kind of, ‘Oh my God, we’ve become a boy band.’ But it was alright.
LEE: It’s gone from boneheads in string vests to teeny-boppers. Now we’ve got the handbags replacing the beer bottles and a waft of fucking Charlie perfume coming up towards the stage! I mean, it was just one of those things. Directly after ‘My Girl,’ because it was moving so fast, we had a moment where at the gigs, you did see gooey-eyed girls at the front. But it was briefly lived.
Excerpts from Before We Was We: Madness by Madness
Before New Kids on the Block, before Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, before One Direction and BTS, Madness blazed the hunky trail as one of the pop world’s original boy bands. Kinda sorta. Well, not really. I guess you might consider Chas Smash to have been the boy-bandiest of the lot, with his slick dance moves and flashy fashion sense. And there could be multiple applicants for the role of The Cute One, right ladies?
Just so there’s no confusion, the fabricated Tiger Beat cover above comes from an alternate universe where Madness somehow became American teen idol sensations back in the day. But there does exist some legitimate evidence of their fleeting brush with boy band noblesse.
The profile pinups below were published in Look-in, a UK weekly for young readers focused on TV shows and music. The magazine boasted a long-running Madness comic strip called “It’s Madness,” and in early 1981 the band’s members were individually spotlighted in the “Collect-a-Page” feature. Look-in readers had to come back every week to get the whole set of seven, but Stateside Madness has helpfully gathered them for you here. We added the totally radical ’80s frame designs, but the rest is like real to the max.
So which nutty dreamy boy do YOU fancy the most?
The Bad Boy
The Older Brother
The Cute One
The Boy Next Door
The Shy One
The Crazy Clown
Fun Fact: According to Look-in, in 1981 Madness had a combined weight of 450 kg (987 lbs.). Madness still weighs about the same 40 years later, considering that the six remaining members between them have gained at least the equivalent of one 22-year-old Chas Smash.
Trouser Press was a legendary U.S. alternative rock magazine published from 1974 to 1984, perhaps best known for its comprehensive Trouser Press Record Guide books. The following is a fantastic article by Jim Green that ran as the cover feature in the magazine’s penultimate issue dated December 1983/January 1984.
This was the single most memorable and important piece of journalism I read on Madness in my first year as a fan. It taught me a lot of the fundamentals of the Madness backstory (how they got their name, the 2 Tone connection, Carl’s evolving role) and gave a peek into how the sausage of the Geffen U.S. album was made (how traumatizing for Suggs to spit “I don’t like it”!). This was the first time I ever heard of their “current British single, ‘Wings of a Dove,’” many long months before I would actually hear the song. And in retrospect, how amusing indeed to see young Suggs decry the horrific notion of a Madness concept album with 14-minute songs. So please enjoy this fine Trouser Press profile, in its transience and in its permanence…
The transatlantic telephone line is dominated by the muffled distortion and hiss common to calls made across a thousand leagues of water; the voice at the other end also cuts off intermittently for split-second intervals. At one point, though, the speaker obviously pauses, as if to gather his thoughts on a subject he rarely discusses, at least not with the press.
‘‘The image of the band is itself almost as strong as the music, if not more memorable, to the average person,” says Graham McPherson. He is referring to Madness, the group in which he is lead vocalist (and, true to form, in which role he is far better known as “Suggs”).
“I don’t know if it’s right or not,” he continues hesitantly, “but musically we’ve been looked on as something instant, not really worthy of analysis.”
Nobody would argue that, least of all McPherson’s bandmates – until the release of the septet’s fourth British album, The Rise and Fall. Madness has moved into new musical and lyrical ground, with the fullest realization of their capabilities to date. Yet the record incurred critical brickbats from the British music press, which characterized it as depressing, and – unkindest cut of all? – “said you couldn’t put most of the songs from it on the jukebox.”
What a switch from the days when Madness was branded too frivolous and lacking in the “socially relevant” virtues of the other outfits with which it was lumped: Selecter, the Beat and the Specials. (The last were the so-called vanguard of neo-ska and proprietors of the 2 Tone label on which the others got their starts.) But Madness has rarely received comment from the Britpress, positive or negative, that hasn’t been based on one prejudgment or another.
That the group suddenly matured isn’t, in the members’ own eyes, deserving of celebration by the press. Nor do they seek the critical scrutiny and interpretation inflicted on artists like Elvis Costello or even the Jam. They just want a fair shake.
If McPherson, bassist Mark Bedford and guitarist Chris Foreman (the latter two available to chat during this summer’s US tour) are representative of their bandmates, one of Madness’s most salient characteristics is a distinct lack of self-consciousness. Madness most likely would have entered the 2 Tone graveyard long ago if they’d been more calculating than what they’ve always been: a bunch of friends who like making music together.
Mark Bedford: “If anything, we’re more influenced by outside sources now than when we started. Back then” – when they were mostly in their late teens – “we, like most kids, thought we knew it all; no-one could tell us anything.”
When Madness started, as the North London Invaders in 1978, there was no “movement” or trend. The band did what they enjoyed, even if few pubs encouraged them.
Another band called the Invaders (from West Yorkshire) staked a claim on the name, necessitating a switch. No one was satisfied with Morris & the Minors (a pun on a British automobile). Then Foreman suggested rechristening the group after one of their songs. As a jokey example he mentioned “Madness”; Prince Buster’s ’60s ska hit was a keynote of their set.
To Foreman’s dismay, the others leapt on it at once. “I didn’t like it,” he says. “I thought it was the kind of thing for an Alice Cooper-type band. But it stuck.”
McPherson now is bemused by the group’s youthfully naive élan in those days. “Like anybody, you don’t really imagine or realize that you’ll be a great success. We always knew, when we were young, that anything we did would be brilliant. Every time we played we expected everyone to go mad, but it didn’t go beyond an immediate enthusiasm for impressing people, as opposed to becoming nationally successful.”
In early 1979 the Specials created 2 Tone and garnered lots of attention. When word got out that they were looking for other groups to put on their label, Madness jumped at the chance. “We sent them a cassette – a rehearsal tape, really,” Foreman says, grimacing.
“Jerry Dammers [the head Special] still has it!” Bedford laughs. “He told me he still listens to it once in a while and has a laugh.”
Still, Dammers and company heard something of merit in it. By September, Madness was enjoying its first bit with its tribute to Buster, “The Prince.”
“We weren’t mugs,” Foreman asserts. “We wanted to get an album out right away.”
“We wanted to do it with 2 Tone,” Bedford adds, “but [the Specials] only had money enough to do their own album.”
Label shopping resulted in their signing to Stiff. An LP, One Step Beyond, was quickly recorded and followed its namesake single into the UK Top 10; the album went platinum during its 64-week chart residency.
Other bit singles followed. Madness’s albums sold even better than most of their 45s, but English pundits jeered the group for being a “singles band” – as if that somehow cheapened the success. Image problems persisted. Madness suffered in the aforementioned comparisons with their former 2 Tone mates (or, for that matter, whichever “serious” new world-beaters were current press favorites).
“We never said, ‘We’re a ska band,’” Foreman claims. “We never put those limits on what we were doing.”
“That’s musical suicide, sooner or later,” Bedford says.
“Other people lumped us into that but we didn’t mind; we knew what we could do,” Foreman adds. “Calling our music the ‘Nutty Sound’ was a way to avoid categorizing ourselves. ‘Nutty’ was just a word Lee [saxman Thompson] used a lot, and someone picked up on it.”
The “Nutty Boys” might have smacked all too much of bubblegum-style merchandising, but even skeptics found it hard not to be taken in by Madness’s wacky antics in front of movie or video cameras. The group released a semi-autobiographical feature film, Take It or Leave It, in October, 1981, and then Complete Madness, a compendium of videos with added linkage and a pair of their Japanese TV commercials thrown in for good measure. And they remained overwhelmingly popular in the UK.
What could be wrong? Gradually, band members got married – notably McPherson to songstress Bette Bright, and drummer Dan “Woody” Woodgate to ex-Mo-dettes bassist Jane Crockford – and started families. But something was brewing.
Bedford admits the marriages have crimped Madness’s former camaraderie. And he and Foreman are both less than pleased with the band’s third album, Seven (despite its spawning “House of Fun,” Madness’s first Number One single).
McPherson remembers the situation more clearly: “I was satisfied with Seven, but the others weren’t. We didn’t have the best feeling when we recorded it, in Nassau in the Bahamas; I think we were pressin’ down there, which was very strange.
“It started feeling very professional. That side of things was becoming more prevalent than with the previous two albums, where it was pure luck we were there at all.
“Clive [Langer] and Alan [Winstanley], our producers all along, became scapegoats since they were in control of the proceedings.
“After we got back to London we were thinking of trying other producers. We met Trevor Horn, whom no one got along with. It made us realize how good Clive and Alan are as communicators, apart from everything else. It brought us closer together again.”
Madness then created their best album by far. What made the difference?Just a better atmosphere while it was being recorded?
Bedford and Foreman mention that the band’s working up different arrangements of the same number had a key effect. McPherson puts that new (for Madness) technique into a larger context.
“I think we realized that maybe we had been restricting ourselves, just like any bunch of kids will do. It’s like we weren’t ‘allowed’ to do certain things; none of us would have grown a beard, for instance, and musically it was probably the same. Certain things were ‘uncool,’ like to do introspective stuff. The Rise and Fall was generally more thought out. It’s the first album we’ve made that’s an album, not a collection of songs.”
Indeed. Would you believe a Madness concept album?
“It was gonna be about the rise and fall of a normal person in a particular area that was falling into bad times. ‘Rise and Fall,’ ‘Primrose Hill,’ ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Blue Skinned Beast’ were all linked together. But as other songs started to be written, it kind of lost its way. We realized you had to write songs to fill in bits of the story, to keep it moving, but that they might not be very good or able to stand on their own.” McPherson sighs at the thought of “14-minute songs” and such – heaven forfend!
The way the album jelled reveals the vital interaction of Madness’s members. Foreman and keyboardist Mike Barson have long been the songwriting mainstays as well as musical arrangers; Bedford, who’s now writing less, is getting into technical aspects.
“I saw him reading a technical book on engineering,” McPherson says, “and he’s produced singles by two bands, Bonsai Forest and Strawberry Switchblade. Now at least one of us understands what’s going on at that end of things.”
“Woody docs the sleeping for the band,” Bedford jokes, while pointing out that Woodgate did write “Sunday Morning.” McPherson mentions that everyone has taken a more active interest in writing – collaborating more than ever – and arranging.
“That’s part of the reason we’ve stayed together,” he explains. “There’s no pressure on any one person to think of a concept or do all the songs.”
The piece of the Madness puzzle that’s fallen into place is vocalist and trumpet player Carl Smyth – best remembered by early American fans of the group as the zany seventh member, “Chas Smash.”
Smyth got involved with Madness as a friend whose dance antics and vocal hijinks (he’s the voice on “One Step Beyond”) were worked into the group. But he seemed something of a fifth (or in this case seventh) wheel; he doesn’t appear on the cover of the first album.
“There was a funny period just after One Step Beyond that Carl didn’t have much to do with,” McPherson says. “He was a member of the band, but he wasn’t really involved with anybody else – particularly me, because we’re both singers. We talked about it between ourselves, and it must have been strange for him; I think he felt he was sort of outside us, yet felt changing that would be pushing me out. He didn’t push his position ’cause he didn’t know what it was. But we decided that whoever had the right thing, be it words or music or singing, we’d do whatever seemed right.”
Smyth’s enthusiasm is evidently catching. “He’ll have a million ideas when we start talking about videos,” McPherson says, “another million when we’re getting things together for it, and when we’re actually doing it he’ll have a million more. It’s like he had something bottled up in him and suddenly the cork sprang out. He’s brilliant. We probably wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t like he was, because out of every million ideas come 10 really good ones.
“And he’s always thinking of dance routines we can do, or whatever. If things start flagging a bit, he’ll pick us up.”
Now known within the group as “Mr. Bosh,” Smyth reverted to his given name for songwriting credits. Since co-writing “Cardiac Arrest,” a hit single on Seven, Smyth has made several important contributions – notably co-writing “Our House” (“Carl lives in one very much like that,” Foreman says), “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day” and the current British single, “Wings of a Dove.”
Madness fans got a bonus with the British single version of “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day”: a guest lead vocal by Elvis Costello.
“I’d heard an old rockabilly song,” McPherson says, “which started out with a bluesy version, then faded out and back in to a rocked-up arrangement. I thought it’d be great to have something like that on ‘Tomorrow’s Just Another Day’ – an arrangement that sounded old and bluesy, just 20 seconds at the beginning of the song, and then cross-fading into the newer version, which we’d already done.
“The backing track was cut, slowed down a bit and quite good. But I couldn’t come to grips with real singing. So Carl had a go; he did a good version, jazzed up a bit in the phrasing, but it still didn’t sound quite right.
“By that time we’d finished the album and still had this backing track. Clive was soon going to be producing the new Elvis Costello album, and I think Chris suggested he ask Elvis to try it. He was really good; came in, did it and left. If he hadn’t, we’d still have that backing track sitting around! I think it was one of the best vocals he’s ever done.” Perhaps in deference to Madness, Costello sang with a British accent, which he also tried out on Punch the Clock.
In the US, Sire Records had released One Step Beyond and its follow-up, Absolutely; both albums promptly died the death. Sire didn’t bother with Seven, but Madness, hugely successful everywhere else, wasn’t too concerned. “We didn’t tum our back on America, really,” Foreman says. “We just kind of forgot about it.”
According to Geffen Records A&R man Danny Heaps, however, US labels didn’t forget about Madness – especially as the group racked up hit after hit in England and Europe. In early 1983, Heaps says, Madness approached Geffen – a hot new company that had just started the last time the band had an American release.
“They were a logical signing. Remember, at that time Dexy’s was number one here. And you know, that stuff about Madness being ‘too English’ for the US is nonsense.”
“We picked Geffen for the same reasons we signed with Stiff,” Bedford says, “because of the people we talked to. They accepted us for what we are – not saying, ‘You’re great but you’ll have to do this and you ought to do that.”‘
Geffen released Madness, a compilation drawn mostly from The Rise and Fall but digging as far back as the first album.
“I don’t like it,” McPherson states. “It’s a scrapbook, not an album.”
Foreman is more philosophic. “Programming the album that way is, well, the way things are done for the US. I didn’t used to feel this way about it, but now I realize it has to be.”
Heaps argues that Geffen’s track selection, “instead of putting out all of The Rise and Fall, was purely commercial logic. The stuff from Seven, which includes singles, has never been out here – and ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ [from One Step Beyond] is just a track someone in the company really wanted on there. We wanted to put on ‘Madness’ or ‘The Prince,’ but the group would allow only so much of our delving into the past.”
The “commercial logic” paid off. Madness has sold over 200,000 copies, and spun off two hit singles: the Top 10 “Our House” and a version of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love.”
Future plans? Typically, McPherson chuckles and quips that he’s anxious to “have some of the stew that my beautiful wife’s knockin’ up on the cooker.” More seriously, he’s looking ahead to the next Madness album. Recording began last spring, before an American tour, and resumed this autumn.
“Before we recorded The Rise and Fall,’’ Bedford says, “the mood of the country was pretty grey.” He mentions Britain’s economy and the Falklands war, referred to in “Blue Skinned Beast” – dead soldiers were put into blue body bags. In contrast, Madness’s spring studio session were much more uptempo.
“We’re looking out for our more introspective tendencies,’’ McPherson says, “even though we’re not sure we’ve been going into them that heavily, so we can balance that with our more flamboyant side.”
Madness getting self-conscious? Losing artistic innocence? Maybe… and maybe not. McPherson still believes in group dynamics.
“The Rise and Fall succeeded because there was so much collaboration. Everyone had to stay interested, or we wouldn’t know what was going on the record! People change and grow together when they get so intensely involved. I think we were all in the same groove, the same vein, when we made that record.”
That’s what he thinks makes Madness yield up its best work: democratic anarchy.
The following is an excerpt from the 1982 book A Brief Case History of Madness by Mark Williams. This slim, magazine-like 32-page volume was my first Madness book, ordered out of the back pages of Star Hits or some such. The copyright page lists both U.K. and U.S. publishing details, and retail prices of £1.95 and $3.95 both appear on the back, so I suppose this was an American publication rather than an import.
In this time capsule just before the advent of “Our House,” the band discuss their early impressions of America (including our general musical ignorance over here – can’t really argue that!), and Suggs self-assuredly prognosticates their eventual Stateside breakthrough.
[In March 1980] Stiff released the first Madness EP, Work, Rest & Play, with a new version of their rollicking stage favourite, a one-verse song (or semi-instrumental) called Night Boat to Cairo. The EP went to number six in the single charts and Madness went to America.
It was in fact their second trip to the States. They’d adventurously gone there off their own bat the previous year, just after they’d signed up with the American label, Sire Records, who had no product to promote at the time. “We wanted to beat the Specials to America,” quipped Woody. In ’79 they’d been playing small clubs for a few hundred dollars a throw but the Anglophile faction amongst America’s teenagers had not been slow off the mark, and now they were filling ballrooms with hordes of op-art garbed punters who still identified Madness with 2-Tone.
“The only thing they know about reggae in America is Bob Marley,” claimed Woody, correctly as it happened. “They don’t know the difference between ska, bluebeat and dub. All black music to them is either soul or disco.”
“Yeah, and it’s the same with what they call ‘rock music,’” jeered Barso. “They put Chuck Berry and some band like Toto in the same category. I had to explain to one of those radio people that Toto is not rock ’n’ roll.”
“And tell him it was rubbish,” exclaimed Carl.
Despite their disdain for the music biz establishment in America, the band were in little doubt that they could make an impact there. “We are going to crack America, my son,” said Suggsy. “We can do it. We’re bloody good. And everyone wants to start dancing again, don’t they?”
Perhaps they did, but the Yanks’ congenital inability to get their limbs around a skank rhythm rendered the band’s best efforts meaningless as far as record sales were concerned.
The nuttiness which the boys exude almost as naturally as they draw breath was lost on most Americans too. If anything Madness’ problem was that they were simply too British. Not that it seemed to matter in the spring of 1980, for back home the band could do no wrong. Madness Mania had reached such proportions that it was “…just like the Beatles, wasn’t it?” said Woody, looking back with evident disbelief. And it was.