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

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