I’m totally biased about this one. Here we have my two favorite living male vocalists, both heroes of my youth, singing together on an original composition they co-wrote. Not gonna lie, Suggs and Paul Weller could fart the theme song from Gomer Pyle, USMC and I would wholeheartedly adore it. So take the following “critique” with whatever quarries of salt your cynicism may dictate.
That being said… “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is an amazing and delightful singularity of a single. I have played its brisk 2:24 on repeat over and over and over and over again, and every bit of this track puts a big stupid grin on my face. What a thing of joy it is.
The major standout and surprise to me is the deliberate misdirection of the title. In interviews over the past year or so, Suggs and Weller have teased “Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?” Such a colourful taunt evokes Cockney tough guys and criminals, suggesting a ballad along the lines of “Drip Fed Fred” or “Herbert,” or even “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” Maybe something in an Ian Dury vein, with Paul and Suggs trading spoken-word lines, conspiratorial and tongue in cheek. If the song had gone in this direction, it could have turned out really good or really silly. This project ran a high risk of yielding a disposable curiosity if the creative duo didn’t take it seriously.
But you know what? The self-styled “Neverly Brothers” opted for sincerity and plunged headlong into emotional honesty like I never expected. Suggs has told interviewers that the song is about the discouraging negativity he had to overcome as a schoolboy. It’s not other kids or hoodlums doing the abusive bullying, but the supposedly nurturing faculty.
“I think teachers are the best people in the world, I love them with all my heart,” Suggs says. “But you know all those great teachers you read about who dragged their pupils up, and encouraged them and made them into the best possible version of themselves they could be? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those!”
In studying institutional suppression of nonconforming youth, “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is reminiscent of Lee Thompson compositions like “Land of Hope and Glory,” “Idiot Child” and “I Believe.” But it may be more fair to call the song a dark spiritual sequel to Suggs’ own “Baggy Trousers.” It may be true that lots of fun was had, but it’s also worth pointing out how things can turn out bad… when teachers fail their students who don’t fit the standardized system. Clearly this is a theme that resonates with Weller as well, aligning with his lyrics from 1977’s “The Modern World.”
I've learned more than you'll ever know Even at school I felt quite sure That one day I would be on top And I'd look down upon the map The teachers who said I'd be nothing
The really clever and subversive part of the song’s construction is the framing of one key word: Sunshine. Suggs and Weller transform it from a sarcastic epithet to a majestic blossoming of Small Faces harmonies, heralded by sparkling “Penny Lane” brass. Yes, Headmaster, as a matter of fact I do think think I’m sunshine. I’m pretty great and I’ll do just fine in life with or without your support, thank you sir. The concept works beautifully for me.
With the absence of liner notes for this digital single, full details on the personnel involved are unavailable. What we do know is that the songwriting credits are Graham McPherson and Paul Weller, indicating that this is different from the unfinished Chris Foreman lyric that Suggs reportedly forwarded to Weller for consideration. Weller reports that he recorded the instrumental track at his Black Barn studio, then Suggs came in to lay down the vocals with him. Paul is obviously the far more gifted vocalist, so it’s impressive how well their two voices blend together here, with Suggs given a comfortable range. Weller band members Andy Crofts and Ben Gordelier have both stated that they played on the track, so Steve Cradock and Steve Pilgrim are most likely on there too. I want to know if that’s Jacko Peake doing the reasonably good Thommo facsimile on sax.
As much as I admire it, I can admit “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” is far from perfect. The song could really use another verse to define the schoolteacher antagonist more explicitly before rushing into the bridge. And the pronouns get confusing in the lyrical denouement: “But you never give up / No you never give in / ’Cause you are the one that set me free.” So the person who never gives up is also the one who comes to the rescue? On top of which, “Set me free / Set me free” is an awfully tired refrain to close out a track that’s otherwise rather inventive.
I’m also disappointed in the goofy spelling of the song’s title with the lazy text message abbreviations. Paul and Suggsy don’t even pronounce “think” with an “F” in the chorus. But the worst part is leaving off the “Sunshine”! That’s the most crucial word in the whole song, fellas. Keeping it in the title would have been enough to distinguish it from the Spice Girls hit, with or without the illiterate inscription.
But in the end, none of that matters. For me this little tune will stand forever as the intersection of two creative pathways that I have tread along for the better part of my life. It’s a precious magical concoction. I know a great many listeners in the Madness and Paul Weller fan communities disagree, and that’s okay. To cite Weller’s own words from “The Modern World” once again, I don’t have to explain myself to you. I don’t give two f**ks about your review.
On March 24, 2022, Madness performed at the Royal Albert Hall supported by very special guest Paul Weller, as part of a concert series to benefit the Teenage Cancer Trust. Man, what a dream show that would have been for me personally. My two all-time favorite British acts together on one bill, at the magnificent venue where I was lucky enough to see Caro Emerald from the front row in 2017. It’s a lovely thing when your top music heroes happen to be friends who enjoy one another’s company.
There was plenty of fan carping about exorbitant ticket prices for the gig, which was after all a charity fundraiser. But if I’d had the wherewithal to fly back to London at this juncture, I would have gladly emptied my wallet. It doesn’t get much better than Madness and Weller at the Albert Hall.
Weller and his band played the unfamiliar role of opening act, serving up an acoustic set of 10 numbers spanning the whole of his 45-year career. Madness followed with a reported barnburner of a show, as per usual. I was hoping Paul might might join Madness for a rousing Motown classic encore as he’s done on occasion in recent years, but alas, it was not in the cards this time.
So let’s take a look at the longstanding history between the Modfather and the Nutty Boys, who seem to always have been good mates. I can’t find any evidence of The Jam and Madness ever performing on the same bill together, but surely they did at some point, at least on Top of the Pops or somewhere. Please let me know any details about any shared gigs I’m missing. In his memoir Growing Out of It, Lee Thompson relates an anecdote about seeing Jam-era Weller swimming naked at a Hollywood pool party, so the two young bands were running in the same sordid circles in those early days.
One interesting artifact where Madness and The Jam intersected, however indirectly, was the 1981 compilation LP Life in the European Theatre, a fundraiser to benefit the anti-nuclear peace movement. The stellar track list included “Little Boy Soldiers” from The Jam and “Grey Day” from Madness, alongside the likes of The Clash, The Beat, The Specials, Peter Gabriel, Ian Dury, and Echo & The Bunnymen.
After Weller moved on to The Style Council, he interacted with Madness with more regularity. The two acts teamed up at a number of benefit concerts promoting political causes, including a 1984 Liverpool concert supporting a miners’ strike where Suggs and Paul duetted on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around.”
Madness later took part in the controversial 1986 Red Wedge tour, in support of the pro-Labour group organized by Weller, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Somerville and Rhoda Dakar. Chas was apparently the member of Madness most engaged with Red Wedge, and as it happened, he would later be instrumental in signing Weller to the Go! Discs label as a newly solo artist in the early ’90s.
In 2019, Weller guested on Suggs’ BBC Radio 4 series, Love Letters to London. The two discussed their shared fondness for Soho, then joined their voices in a Kinks song, “Nobody’s Fool,” known as the theme song from 1970s TV series Budgie.
Later that year Weller joined Madness at House of Common for another rendition of “Shop Around” along with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave.” Reportedly, the camaraderie at this gig led to Thommo appearing on Weller’s 2020 album On Sunset with a featured sax solo.
The mad/mod chumminess continued with Weller turning up as a surprise guest vocalist on Madness’s triumphant 2021 streaming event, The Get-Up! Along with Roland Gift, Paul gave a mock audition in Barso’s bedroom to replace Suggs (or were Madness auditioning for him?) with a knockout cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”
In their handful of musical collaborations to date, Madness and Weller have stuck to covers of classics from their mutual influences. As far as I know they’ve never tackled one of their own hits together. Weller has often mentioned his admiration for “Embarrassment,” which actually influenced the sound of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” I’m still holding out hope that Paul will cover “Embarrassment” one of these days, preferably live on stage with Madness in front of a raging crowd. Failing that, my runner-up nomination for Weller to sing would have to be “NW5.”
Conversely, Madness is superbly well-suited to take on any number of Weller’s songs. Mark Bedford’s expressive bass style is a lot like Bruce Foxton’s to begin with, and the late-period Jam hits with the horns and keyboards inch into the Madness instrumentation range. Just imagine Bedders and Woody barreling through “Start!”, Bedders and Barso owning “Town Called Malice,” or all members of the band getting a major workout on “Precious.” I can practically hear it.
But something even more enticing than those hypothetical Jam sessions is in the works. For the past couple of years, scuttlebutt regarding a new Weller/Suggs composition has been making the rounds. In a June 2020 “Chris’s Covid Cupboard” Zoom call (which I myself was honored to attend live), Chris Foreman related the following on the topic of songwriting in lockdown: “I actually sent one song that I’d thought up to Suggs because I thought he’d like it, and he forwarded it to Paul Weller, who added some lyrics and it’s sounding really good. So we’ll see what happens with that – I could have a new career writing songs for Paul Weller.”
In a Mojo interview in May 2021, Suggs spoke further on this intriguing collaboration. “I’vе written a song with Paul Weller called ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?’ [Whether this is the same song that Chris originated remains to be seen.] You know those people who say they had one teacher who turned their life around? I didn’t. I’m trying to couch that fact, not too negatively, that one makes one’s own path. We haven’t recorded it yet, no. But it’s there.”
Weller confirmed the story in a radio interview around the same time. “We’re still in the process of writing this song together, which is going to be great, but it’s just getting us both together in the studio. So I think we’re going to try and do it this summer anyway, and then whatever happens to it I’ve no idea. And I did that livestream gig, I did a song on that with them a couple of weeks ago at the Palladium as well. But they’re just great fellas, aren’t they? … I’ve always had a soft spot for all of them, for all the fellas in that band, and they’re just great characters.”
Asked about the vibe of the co-written tune, Weller offered, “It’s great. It’s called ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?’ so the title alone… [laughs] But the concept, I can’t tell you the concept. But the idea is good anyway, so yeah, we just gotta get in there and finish it.”
On a December 2021 installment of Dan Jennings’ The Paul Weller Fan Podcast, Weller’s tour manager Kenny Wheeler approvingly mentioned a demo recorded by his boss and Suggsy. So progress has continued. Sooner or later we can expect to hear “Who Do You Think You Are, Sunshine?” at last. Will it be a Weller guest spot on the next Madness album? Or a Weller track with vocals by Suggs? Or a Record Store Day single, or part of a fabulous Suggs & Paul Weller originals EP?
Whichever way they may choose, I would give these blokes anything, for just the smile they bring, for just a song to sing, stuck together for all time.
Update: “Ooh Do U Fink U R?” was released as a single by Suggs & Paul Weller about five weeks after this article was published.
I got my copy of Lee Thompson’s memoir upon its release in April 2021, the limited edition autographed hardcover. Growing Out of It: Machinations Before Madness looks very smart alongside the other Madness and Suggs volumes on my bookshelf, where I must confess the book sat untouched for months. The timing of publication wasn’t ideal, certainly, coming right on the heels of the Before We Was We book and three-part documentary, then being swiftly overtaken by the flashback-fueled The Get Up! streaming extravaganza in May. Even a big fan like me felt a bit satiated with the spate of Madness nostalgia trips. What more could Lee fill a book with that we haven’t just run through several time already?
What finally got me to get into Growing Out of It was actually the September release of the audiobook edition (about which more later). These days I can get through any book faster by listening on my walks and in the car that I can by sitting down to flip pages. I can now report it’s a fine book indeed, with Lee sharing memories of his early life and how Madness started in ways that stand apart from the band’s recent mutual retrospectives.
In his introduction, Lee’s co-author Ian “Snowy” Snowball relates that the genesis of the book dates back to 2017, so I’m guessing this was in the works well before Before We Was We. I can imagine how chastened Snowy must have been to learn the band was putting together a coinciding book very much like his project with Thommo. The two autobiographies even share the same designated historical span, covering childhood through the first Madness recordings of 1979, and ending there. In the case of Growing Out of It, the stated concept is “only going up to the release of ‘The Prince’.”
Of course, this being of product of the unruly mind of Lee Thompson, the subject matter discussed is not so rigorously contained. Lee’s observations skip across the decades, occasionally mentioning the band’s later hits and fame, the Crunch days, the Madstock reunion, the Buckingham Palace gig, and a number of quite recent anecdotes. There’s one corker about Thommo just the other day confusing his reading glasses with a pair of Suggsy’s to the point of shouting, so we get a dash of old geezer comedy mixed in with this portrait of the artist as a young man.
Growing Out of It dutifully checks off the legends that have been told and retold since Take It or Leave It: Lee’s early life of petty crime, his fascination with old ska and rock steady records (mostly shoplifted), his saxophone with the serial number scratched out, not knowing how to tune a sax through their first album, the 2 Tone Tour, anti-authority hijinks at Top of the Pops, etc. Some of these old canards are fleshed out with new insights from Lee… if he is to be believed. Take the familiar tale of Thommo climbing in through the bathroom window to get into a Kilburn and the High Roads show, only to be confronted by Ian Dury himself. Here Lee claims there was actually no cover charge for entry that night, and he was only breaking in the back way out of habit. I mean, really? Another yarn I had a hard time swallowing was when Lee claims he once ran into Omar Sharif and did a Jake Blues “How much for your women?” routine – which sounds more like a showbiz gag Buddy Hackett would have told Johnny Carson than our lad Kix.
The odd potential fib aside, the book is loaded with choice morsels that were new to me, if indeed they’ve ever been shared heretofore. I howled at the story of Lee’s first time meeting Paul Weller, which involves a ritzy Los Angeles rock & roll party and the leader of The Jam going for a swim fully naked. Then there’s an indelicate summary of Chrissy Boy advising Lee of a peculiar home remedy for easing venereal disease pain, which leads to disastrous results. We get a full-on diatribe wherein Lee denounces the vile sartorial pestilence of white socks. “I just never like that look of white socks on display beneath a pair of Sta-Prest, or poking out from a nice pair of brogues or loafers,” Lee seethes. “It was so common at the end of the 1970s, but I detested it.”
Toward the end of the book, Lee drops a significant gem in the form of an old unfinished lyric he penned in the band’s formative days. “Jump in the Back of the Jag” has the makings of a cracking gangster ballad in the mold of “Drip Fed Fred” and “Herbert.” “Suggs knows it and keeps pushing me to complete it, so that Madness can record it,” Lee notes. “Maybe we’ll get around to finishing it one day.”
Lee speaks about his bandmates in turn, sharing his admiration and fondness for each of them at length. We fans tend to have the impression that Thommo’s biggest friends in Madness are Chris and Mike, since they are the original founding trio, and Lee has such a history of fruitful collaborations with those two. So it comes as some surprise when Lee reserves the warmest regards for Carl Smyth, since I’d heard the two of them didn’t always get along so well. Lee refutes rumors that he had been opposed to Carl becoming the seventh member of the band. “We idolised each other,” Lee confides. “He was my Clark Gable and I was his… well, Hilda Ogden.” (Google tells me Hilda was a character on the Coronation Street soap, who pretty much looked like Lee in drag in the “Our House” video.)
The book’s meandering narrative gathers a potent dramatic arc through its telling of the story of “The Prince.” I didn’t realize Lee expressly wrote the song for the purpose of being the band’s single for 2 Tone, since the band felt none of their small body of original tunes fit the aesthetic of Jerry Dammers’ label. Thommo rose to the challenge, listening to dozens of Prince Buster albums to craft a suitably ska-seeped tribute number. I love how Lee waxes poetic about holding that checkered 7-inch disc in his hands for the first time. Most artists are either too modest or too jaded to dwell on such moments of first accomplishment, but after the adversities Lee had gone through in his young life, he entirely earned that burst of pride. “Just having ‘The Prince’ committed to vinyl was enough,” Lee recalls. “It didn’t matter if it was a hit or not.”
The audiobook of Growing Out of It is not narrated by Lee, and celebrity memoirs not read by their familiar voices are typically a chore to sit through. Not so in the case. Although Matthew Lloyd Davies exhibits a posh BBC accent on his other audiobooks, here he puts on an extremely commendable Lee Thompson impression, capturing not only his North London accent but also his speech cadence, like the distinctive way Thommo draws out… his worrrds… to underscore a wry or bitter remark. Kudos to the audio producer who cast Davies, who makes this such an enjoyable listen. The only downside is when Davies reads the many footnotes and side comments from Lee’s wife Debbie, sister Tracy, Mike Barson, Chrissy Boy and other assorted friends. It can be difficult to know when the aside is finished and we’re back to Lee talking again.
That leaves just one observation about the book. Why does the autobiography of such a vibrant, colorful and creative individual have such a drab and boring title? Growing Out of It is weak sauce for a fellow who’s graced his works with titles like “March of the Gherkins” and The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius. Given the heavy thematic focus on “The Prince,” I think the book should have taken its title drawn from those lyrics, like Shuffle Me Off My Feet, or Even If I Kept on Running. But then again, considering the sideways genius of Lee Thompson, Growing Out of It probably carries ironic layers of meaning that I won’t grasp until 15 years later.
What is the best way to do a music livestream without an audience? During the pandemic, artists have come up with many different approaches to performing for distant fans. We’ve seen unplugged living room sessions. We’ve seen bands looking embarrassed in silent rehearsal spaces. We’ve seen lavish special effects, camerawork and choreography yielding something more akin to a spontaneous music video than a concert. We’ve seen singers holding microphones down below face shields. We’ve seen masked orchestras and string sections lending gravitas to pop and rock. We’ve seen artists reading fan tweets between songs, or worse yet, walls of Zoom video faces staring from behind the band like creepy digital surveillance juries.
It’s all been awkward and weird. Musicians want to play and earn their living, and fans are ready and yearning to hear them, so livestreams are a noble pursuit. Everyone wants them to work and turn out great. But it comes down to a philosophical riddle like the tree falling in a forest. If a band plays live, but no one is there to hear them, is it really live music? Or just a studio session?
Back in June 2020, Suggs and Mike Barson teamed up for their Two Mad Men and a String Quartet livestream. As delightful as it was, slaking Madness fans’ thirst with an intimate set of old favorites and a couple of new numbers, there’s no denying it came off a bit flat. When they turned their attentions to a major online event with the full band unit, Madness dug deeper. A lot deeper. Fueled by the creative energy of writer/co-star Charlie Higson, The Get Up! presented a musical-comedy-variety extravaganza from the London Palladium on May 14. The Get Up! wildly succeeded by reassessing the possibilities of putting on a concert without a live audience and doing something wholly different.
Higson and the band clearly realized that they should focus on doing a production that would be impossible in front of a live crowd, instead of apologizing for the shortcomings. Without an audience present, you can edit. You can mix scenes from interiors and exteriors. You can use movie magic to put band members in multiple places at the same time. You can set up elaborate scenarios and gags. You can tell a story.
The promotional materials for The Get Up! draw inspiration from the classic old Ealing Studios comedies, plagiarizing paying tribute to the posters for Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob. Advance synopses revealed that Higson would be playing the ghost of the London Palladium. This led me to speculate that the plot might revolve around the band rehearsing in the empty concert hall, only to be plagued by ghostly interruptions and spooky Scooby-Doo hijinks. (And honestly, that sounds pretty good! Rut-roh, Thommo!) But it turns out the team cooked up something a lot more ambitious.
The Get Up! starts from the unspoken premise that “Madness live” does not compute without a live audience. It cleverly solves this conundrum by casting the band members as the audience at their own show, ushered by Charlie Higson’s grandiloquent compère Victor Marley. They’re all confused about what’s on for the evening’s bill of entertainment, and our first clue that all is not what it seems stems from Lee’s late arrival. Thommo is stuck outside hunting for the hall’s rear entrance, and yet there he is in the lobby, playing a catchy lounge arrangement of “The Return of the Los Palmas 7” with his bandmates in gold lamé suits. This “dramatic Madness” group turns up on stage, reenacting primordial rehearsals at Mike’s house, while the “real Madness” group fires off wisecracks at themselves from the fourth row.
This daft conceit results in a surprisingly multilayered dialectic. First off, it’s a celebration of the Madness mythology. All the old yarns about their Invaders days are thrown in there, the gospels fans have studied from music rag articles on down to the Before We Was We book and documentary. Mike bossing everyone around, Suggs being fired for missing practice in favor of football, Chris inadvertently coining the band’s name, everyone being crap at their instruments. And it’s all gleefully mashed together without regard to historical basis or chronology. Other names from the revolving-door band roster go ignored, and Chris, Bedders and Woody’s lines are mostly sitcom zingers on fabricated obsessions with rockabilly, disco and heavy metal. Most hilariously, the doorbell at the Barson house is the “Baggy Trousers” school bell! We feel the tension between “what really happened” and this cartoonish dramatization of the band’s legend, and for all practical purposes the legend wins.
The storied tale of Mike’s Melody Maker ad seeking to replace Suggs forms a natural pretense for bringing on the evening’s special guests. First there’s a welcome return for Roland Gift, who’s been far too scarce since the Fine Young Cannibals days. Then we get the Guvnor himself, Mr. Paul Weller, auditioning for the Nutty Boys prior to forming that marmalade-nicked group of his. As a total Weller fan, I nearly fell on the floor with delight. “I’ll let you know,” Paul sniffs on his way out the door. Perfect. Personal biases aside, I do appreciate how these two surprise guests were age-appropriate figures of that era, eschewing any upstart young bucks who weren’t even born when Madstock happened.
Being their own audience also gives Madness abundant opportunity to take the piss out of themselves. They observe how “the geezers playing us” are too old and untalented. Barbs fly about Suggs’s limited vocal skills. Yet the band laughs good-naturedly at this self-inflicted roast, not disputing their portrayal on stage but generally owning up to it. It’s a fair cop! Hats off to Mike Barson for overtaking Lee, Suggs and Higson as the comedy MVP of the show. From pounding clumsy proto-“Baggy Trousers” piano chords while belting out “My Girl,” to his star turn as HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Barso gamely puts himself out there and scores big laughs throughout.
And what are we to make of Lee’s side quest to get inside the Palladium? Ostensibly it references Thommo’s long history of not entering concert halls through the front door, choosing rear fire escapes and bathroom windows instead. At first I expected this to culminate in Lee swinging in from the ceiling on a wire or some such acrobatics. Instead the outcome was more suitably low-key, as Lee ends up unable to find the stage door, “Hello Cleveland” style. He banters with a smart-alec bartender (Higson again), a spoof of the ghostly Lloyd who serves Jack Nicholson in The Shining. When Lee asks how he can get to the stage, the bartender advises him to practice hard and follow his dream. That’s a perfectly fine Tommy Cooper sort of joke, but I think there’s more going on here. The problem is that Lee assumes he’s supposed to be performing on stage, but his mythical counterpart is already occupying that role. Lee doesn’t know his place for the evening is in the audience, and that’s the real reason why the bartender acts obtuse.
During a brief intermission, the real Lee finally takes his seat with his bandmates, more concerned with the overpriced drinks than having missed the first half. Victor Marley attempts to kick off Act II with a ponderous recitation of the band’s career achievements, but the guys impatiently boo him off. “Play some music!” Mike jeers. “Grandpa, we love you, but we want to hear something!” Here the band cannily serves as a surrogate for the punters watching from home, a certain segment of whom have surely grown weary of all the chatter and messing about up to this point. The boys happily undercut the whole premise and demand some real Madness music. Which they duly deliver. To themselves.
If the first half of The Get Up! sees the band being visited by the ghosts of Madness past, then the second gives us the ghosts of Madness present. Queen Barso issues a royal proclamation to start moving one’s feet to the rockingest rocksteady beat, and Madness erupts in their full showtime splendor. It’s striking how much you can hear without crowd noise. I’ve been irritated by yobbos at Madness shows shouting and scuffling and socializing amongst themselves, far more interested in drinking beer than drinking in the music. This format gives me the selfish opportunity to savor every unsullied note. Instrumentally the band’s sound is robust and in fine fettle despite the layoff, with Thommo in particular spewing forth a lusciously fat sax tone. Suggs, bless ’im, admittedly comes across a bit rusty. But he’s putting in the effort and seems more or less sober for a change. “House of Fun” gets a lovely church-organ coda that you’d never be able to discern at a Madness gig. On the other hand, you get to realize how much the “1-2-3” in “Shut Up” relies on audience participation.
It is a pity that “NW5” is the sole representation of the band’s rich recorded output post-1986. But I can easily forgive this in light of the three brand new tunes presented: “Baby Burglar,” “If I Go Mad” and “The Cruellest Comedy.” Completing the Dickensian trifecta, this is our glimpse at the ghosts of Madness future. For my money, “If I Go Mad” is the emotional high point and dramatic climax of The Get Up! It’s fresh and different, while making an immediately indelible impression as a great Madness song. Woody and the brass section dominate with a rollicking big-band jazz rhythm, as Suggs builds verses that fit his vocal range like a tailored suit. Then the chorus drops a call-and-response bomb destined go down a storm with live crowds: “If I go mad (if I go mad) / Without you (without you).” Just when it can’t get any better, Suggsy crams the middle eight with a double-time rendition of the “Here’s to everybody” toast from their cult favorite 1985 B-side, “Call Me.” Oh my God, I instantly love this song forever.
The band members in the audience mostly recede into the background during the dynamite second half, occasionally popping in for a Statler and Waldorf quip or two. To some extent they seem to swap roles with their onstage counterparts. Which Madness is more real, and which is the performance? In truth, both versions are equally theatrical and equally genuine, depending on your perspective. The band has attained the status of legends, and long after they are gone, it’s their works and their mythology that will live on.
One last important note. Even though The Get Up! hinges on Madness playing their own audience, this is not a solipsistic exercise that disregards us fans, who remain the audience that counts. Charlie Higson drives this point home in a poetic early exchange.
“I told you, Suggsy, this place is full of ghosts. Ghosts of all the audiences who ever came. And all the audiences who never came. All those people who should have been here during this time of pandemic. When this pernicious disease has closed all our theatres. Those people who should have been packed in those seats will be here with you tonight. A ghostly presence watching everything.”
In a program brimming with jokes and irony and outlandish tomfoolery, those are the most truthful lines spoken. The invisible spirits haunting the London Palladium were us.
Beyond Madness, my second favorite British act of all time is Paul Weller. Relations have been friendly and collegial among them over the decades, dating back to Weller citing “Embarrassment” as an inspiration for the Motown beat of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice.” Of particular note, while working as an early ’90s A&R rep at Go! Discs, Carl Smyth helped Weller launch his solo career. In the past year, Weller joined Madness on stage at House of Common 2019 to great acclaim, and he guested on Suggs’s Love Letters to London BBC Radio 4 series, which saw the pair of them duetting on “Nobody’s Fool” by Ray Davies.
And now Lee Thompson has turned in a guest spot on Weller’s high-profile new album. On Sunset went straight in at #1 in the UK, giving Weller the accomplishment of topping the album chart in five consecutive decades, a feat matched only by Lennon and McCartney. There’s no American angle in reporting this Weller and Thompson collaboration (safe to say On Sunset isn’t making history in the U.S. charts), but when anyone from Madness teams up with one of my other musical heroes, you better believe Stateside Madness will have something to say about it!
Thommo contributes a laid-back sax solo on the Weller-penned track “Walkin’.” Paul has been enthusiastic in his praise for Lee’s work. “I’ve seen Lee playing blinders in recent years, both with Madness and with his Ska Orchestra. He’s a terrific player.”
Have a listen to “Walkin’” (Lee comes in around 1:38.)
So what do I think? Honestly, it’s a bit disappointing. The song isn’t the most interesting on the album, and it sounds a lot like a reworking of “Here’s the Good News” from 2005’s As Is Now (which wasn’t one of the most interesting on that album, either). Probably unfairly, I had imagined this would amount to something more like Lee’s brilliant guest sax on The Specials’ “Hey, Little Rich Girl,” where it’s 100% that inimitable Lee Jay Kix Thompson sound, whereas the “Walkin’” solo could be any decent session player.
I believe my reaction to On Sunset has suffered from too much anticipation and advance buildup. This is also the case with the 7-minute opening track “Mirror Ball,” which has been hyped as an epic creative watershed in every Weller article and interview for the past year, but hits me – as much as it pains me to say – as a boring swing and a miss. (Apologies, Paul.)
But new songs do often need to grow on you, and I will say that I’m warming up to “Walkin’” the more I listen to it. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a nice, breezy, easygoing summer tune. I’m happy Lee Thompson played on it. This partnership between Weller and Thommo gives me hope that someday I’ll get my fantasy wish of hearing Paul belt out a cover of a certain old Madness tune he rated back in the day. That one what Lee wrote.