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

Baggy Trouser Press: Vintage 1983 Article

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…

Trouser Press magazine

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.

Trouser Press magazine

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.

Article © 1983 Trouser Press LLC

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.