A Momentary Lapse of Madness: 1986-1992

The breakup of Madness. A bleak, dispiriting time that all of us longtime fans had to suffer through in our own way. Of course 1986 wasn’t really the end, but we had no way of knowing that. For us it felt as permanent as the end of The Beatles or Led Zeppelin or The Jam. It’s going to be a challenge to write an essay on the years without Madness without being completely boring, but hey, being boring hasn’t stopped me so far. In my personal case, the breakup years coincided with a transitional growth period in my life that fortunately made the loss easier to cope with.

Certainly, no one who followed the band could say the breakup came as a shock. The writing was on the wall after the departure of Mike Barson. I’ve never written a blog post dedicated to 1985’s Mad Not Mad because I just don’t have much to say about it. I know a lot of fans love that album, and I respect that. But to me it was and still remains the low point of the Madness discography. I forced myself to play it with much dutiful enthusiasm, much like Homer Simpson’s hungry rationalizations over his runaway BBQ piglet: “It’s just a little synthesizery. It’s still good, it’s still good!”

More precisely, Mad Not Mad is analogous to the final season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus without John Cleese. Yes, there are moments of brilliance (see “Burning the Boats,” “Coldest Day,” “Michael Ellis,” “The Most Awful Family in Britain”), but the overall endeavor is a giant hemorrhaging wound with one indispensable creative contributor gone missing. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.

Rumors were buzzing about that Madness was going to call it quits. I clearly recall how I got the confirmation in the most gentle and considerate way I could have asked for. One morning in 11th grade homeroom, I got a visitation from Julie Hale, a preeminent figure in our school’s punk rock community. She and I were by no means friends, just cordial acquaintances. But Julie Hale came to me that morning with her head held low, face hidden behind pink hair, hands clasped in fingerless gloves as she shared the grim news. “It’s true, Donald. Madness broke up. I’m so sorry.” And Julie Hale’s word on the alternative music scene was gospel, so this was a rumor no more. It was honestly touching that our gothic queen sought me out, in observance of my position as Tuscola High School’s #1 Madness fan, to serve as a solemn angel of mercy. The revelation sure could have gone worse delivered by others among my classmates: “Ha ha, stupid Madness broke up! You suck! In the middle of suck street!” Thank you for that kindness, Julie.

I’m kinda foggy on how I reacted from that point, reading that “(Waiting for the) Ghost Train” was their farewell single and finally getting to hear the song on MTV some months later. But I wasn’t devastated really. Looking back, I think I was inured by the tragic fate that befell my other favorite band of that era, the legendary California punk trio the Minutemen. I had discovered them in 1984, just a year after I got into Madness – but their mighty guitarist/vocalist D. Boon was killed in a car crash in late 1985. (Since then I have written creatively as D. Trull in tribute to him.) Within the space of a year, the two most significant bands of my high school years were both gone. In the case of Madness, though, all the members were still alive and well. And it was clear Suggs and the gang needed to find themselves new creative directions anyway. Exciting next chapters might lie ahead for them. So I was able to keep that breakup in perspective and carry on.

Contemporaneous with the end of Madness, in 1986 the surviving members of the Minutemen made a new start. Bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley formed fIREHOSE, fronted by a young Minutemen fan from Ohio named Ed Crawford. fIREHOSE swiftly filled the void in my life left by Madness’s departure. In my 1987 freshman year at UNC, fIREHOSE came to play in Chapel Hill and cemented their spot as my new favorite band. Their live shows were electrifying, and I got to chat with the gregarious Watt at gigs and even helped him write set lists. I felt more personally invested in and connected to the dudes from San Pedro than I’d ever felt with the boys from Camden Town. Madness had been my high school soundtrack, but fIREHOSE was my college music, no question about it. It wasn’t like I shunned Madness or quit listening to them. They just become a notch less important, a chapter of my past.

I got my first compact disc player in my freshman year, and that technological advance indirectly sustained my interest in Madness. Embarking on the obsessive (and expensive) scavenger hunt to repurchase my music collection on shiny silver discs, I found obscure acts like Madness were tough to procure in the new format. I believe the first Madness CD I got was an import of Utter Madness, or it may have been One Step Beyond. Whichever came first, I was sorely thirsty for them. It dazzled my ears to savor those nutty old tunes mastered in sparkling digital clarity. Toward the end of my college years I snagged the compilation It’s… Madness, as discussed at length in my post on B-sides. Hearing a whole slew of new-to-me Madness tracks reinvigorated my love for the band, now affirmed as more than a silly schoolboy phase I went through. Nope, that silly schoolboy phase never ended.

And all this time, I was entirely unaware of what the former members of Madness were getting up to. The Madness, Crunch!, Voice of the Beehive… all of their late ’80s projects were so low profile in the United States, they didn’t register on my radar throughout college. Reading an interview with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons in a comics fan magazine circa 1988, I saw these blocky illustrations of symmetrical cartoon faces captioned as his album artwork for “The Madness.” Well, that was bullshit, I thought. Some upstart band had the nerve to call themselves The Madness now? It would be another couple of years until I learned that these interlopers were in fact Suggs, Cathal, Chris and Lee.

Alas, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. I graduated from UNC in 1991, and as if turning on some cosmic calendar my musical constellations shifted once again. fIREHOSE was losing their pressure flow, so to speak, and they broke up a couple of years later. I would need a new artist to play the soundtrack of my twenties. Paul Weller, an old hero whose Style Council work I’d lost track of during my college years, roared back with a thrilling new solo career to assume that role.

And yet there was still another creative renaissance underway at this critical juncture. I got the message from a Worldwide CD mail order catalog that our beloved Julie Hale probably subscribed to as well, wherever she was. New import CD release: MADNESS AT MADSTOCK. Live recording from 1992 reunion at London’s Finsbury Park.

Our long dark tea-time of the Mad was ended.

Haaaaallelujah… Lay-loo-yah…!

More Mad Memories

Mad Evangelist Mixtapes and Mixed Reactions

Growing up in the ’80s, we didn’t have your fancy Spotify and Pandora and Deezer and whatnot, but we sure as hell knew how to share our music. And our social media platforms of choices were TDK, BASF and Maxell XLII-S. All y’all Gen-Xers know what I’m talking about. Blank cassette tapes were the bomb diggity.

In junior high and high school we swapped homemade tapes around like auditory STDs. These copyright violations amongst friends were way more influential on our musical tastes (and long-term musical spending) than what was popular on the radio and MTV. Thinking back to what I listened to as a teenager, the majority originated with traded cassettes. Trendsetting proto-goth Tim made me tapes of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and early U2. From Robby I got INXS, from Chris I got Tears for Fears (before their big hits), from Regina I got R.E.M., from Amy I got The Beatles. My good friend Ruffin gave me cassettes of Talking Heads, The Police and The Waterboys, introduced me to jazz with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and changed my life with tapes he brought back from a summer camp by a punk rock band called the Minutemen.

As much as I pride myself on being an independent-minded music connoisseur, the number of acts I discovered fully on my own is a fairly short list: Madness, The Specials, The English Beat, The Jam, Big Country, Modern English. Naturally these were the main artists I drew upon to inject my own influence into my friends’ collective music-swap canon. And Madness was the band I pushed the hardest, like a missionary spreading the nutty gospel. I racked up a respectable score of converts and contended with heretics through the course of my cassette crusade.

In my social circles we didn’t do a lot of trade in actual mixtapes. We were literally album-oriented rockers, capitalizing on the 90-minute cassette’s capacity to put one album on Side A and another album – almost always by the same artist – on Side B. I had a sweet dual cassette deck specifically made for copying tapes at optimum quality, with the priceless “high-speed dubbing” mode so you could seriously crank ’em out without real-time listening. The standard practice was to fill any leftover space at the end of each side with a bonus track or two, preferably a related non-album release or B-side you might have on hand. 

Cherrypicking only the “good songs” and building party playlists was not the way we rolled. I think it was mainly because we respected the album as an artistic unit. If you were a fan of a band, it was incumbent on you to have their full albums, “bad songs” and all. On top of which, curating a various-artists mixtape was regarded as a more intimate gesture, reserved for teenage courtship rituals. Dubbing off a tape of Boy and October was not so apt to be interpreted as “he/she likes you.”

I distributed many a copy of One Step Beyond plus Absolutely, emulating the Sire 2-on-1 cassette release that blew my mind. Ready-made for tape sharing, that double dose of seminal Madness laid out a convincing case that this band had more to offer than that one “Our House” song. Quite a few of my friends were impressed. As you might guess, the lead track on One Step Beyond went down the biggest, though I managed to stir interest in some deep cuts as well. “Tarzan’s Nuts” was always an attention-getter, probably owing to the testicular double entendre as much as anything. I proudly recall one day in gym class while we were running laps, I led a small troop calling cadence with “Chipmunks Are Go!” I wonder what the P.E. coach thought about that crew of weirdos declaring themselves roaring chipmunks?

Of course, Madness didn’t win universal adulation from my peers. Chris and Ruffin ridiculed “In the Middle of the Night” for its trifling and pervy subject matter. “Better watch out, ’cause he steals your un-der-wear! Oh no!” they mockingly misquoted the tale of Nice Man George. I think “Baggy Trousers” didn’t land right, either. Since we didn’t share the frame of reference on British schooldays terminology, the bouncy tune came across more like kindergarten hijinks than juvenile delinquency.

Subsequent albums in the Madness catalog brought me diminishing returns on the tape-trading circuit. I learned from my own independent trials how right Geffen had been that 7 and The Rise and Fall did not appeal to general American tastes. No one else saw the relentless brilliance I found in Keep Moving, much to my discouragement, and Mad Not Mad met with “thanks no thanks.”

I cringe and howl with laughter to recall the most epic taping faux pas I ever committed. I was making a copy of The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry for my friend Stephen, a coal-black-dyed goth and not much of a Madness fan. There was some blank tape left at the end, and I had just got the spiffy new 1985 Madness album, so why not? I stuck “I’ll Compete” on as a bonus track! Just imagine it: the segue from Robert Smith wailing “Can you help me? Can you… help me?” into an over-caffeinated technicolor lasershow of synths, horns and bongos. Inevitably, when I asked Stephen what he thought about “I’ll Compete,” he grumbled that he had to erase that shit. I felt offended at the time, but of course who could blame him? I had broken the unwritten covenant of bonus tracks – make it something by the same artist, or any least in the same tone and genre. Idiot moves like that could sure ruin your reputation on the tape-trader scene.

There remained a small core of friends who continued to like Madness: Robby, Nick, Alex. None of them ascended to my rank in the Madhead ministry, but they remain loyal apostles even to this day. I fondly recall once when we were discussing what music to play, and Alex enthused “Let’s listen to the MAD Men of NESS!” Such a goofy but endearing thing to say. At one point we were feeling jealous of friends who’d started a couple of garage bands, playing punk and goth stuff, and we decided by golly, we’d form our own band – a ska band! The fragmentary notion was that I would be on lead vocals (ha), and Robby, Nick and Alex would learn how to play… something. This bullshit idea never went anywhere. All we managed was to pick out a Madness song to name ourselves after, just as they had named themselves after a Price Buster tune. We settled on something from the new Madness record to call our imaginary band: White Heat. Wet Fart, more like.

Ironically enough, the biggest threat to Madness in our cassette-sharing ring was a predator that I myself introduced to the ecosystem: The Specials. The Jerry Dammers combo proved way more popular to my friends’ varied tastes, whether punk or ska or goth or jazz or rock. Having bought the debut The Specials album, I was quite astounded at what I’d found, though I didn’t like all the songs at first. When I shared a tape with Ruffin, I warned him not to be put off by the weird first song, which was so slow with plodding harmonica and trombone. “Don’t worry, it gets better with the fast songs,” I promised.

Later he came back with glowing praise. “And you know which song I like best?” Ruffin said. “‘A Message to You Rudy’!” As a jazz listener, he was quite at home with Rico’s lead trombone, and equipped to tune into the song’s vibe much more readily than I could. In time I would learn this track was the closest thing to genuine Jamaican ska I had ever heard up to that point. To bring things full circle, Ruffin would later share with me The Skatalites’ phenomenal Stretching Out reunion album, exclusively released on cassette in 1987, and finally things started to piece together. So that’s what ska really was.

As I spread more tapes around, everybody loved The Specials. Compared to Madness, they were angrier, more political, more serious, and oh so much cooler. Never mind that the band was long broken up by the time of our belated discovery. Contrary to the fighting sentiment of that goth-repellant bonus track, Madness could not compete. My friends basically decided The Specials were their British ska band of choice, which I feel is the most popular opinion among American music fans who know the genre.

And you know, that’s okay. I can look back with pride on my legacy of spreading awareness of 2 Tone music from both London and Coventry across Haywood County, NC, on traded cassettes back in the day. I wouldn’t rewind a thing.

More of Trull’s Mad Memories