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.
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.
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.
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