As a budding Madness fan in 1983, I was surprised to learn from music magazines that “Our House” was not, in fact, the band’s first hit song. It turned out they had four albums out in the U.K., where they had racked up a whole slew of hits with evocative names like “The Prince” and “Baggy Trousers.” What the what? How come we never heard any of this in America? My archeological mission to excavate that hitherto unknown Madness music was on.
I gleaned from the press articles that their first two albums had been released in the U.S. by Sire Records, who then dropped the band due to poor sales. So I knew those should exist somewhere within reach. The Tape Shack and Sky City in my hometown would never stock anything so obscure, though. I turned to Camelot Music at Blue Ridge Mall in nearby Hendersonville, NC – at that time surely the biggest and most awesome record store in western North Carolina. This place had everything, with rows upon rows flush with punk, new wave and underground rock, from Black Flag to Bauhaus, from Leonard Cohen to Siouxsie and the Banshees. This Camelot was not at all a silly place, and I spent many a happy hour browsing its wares and testing my parents’ patience. In later years I’ve shopped at major chain record stores in Los Angeles and London that were no more spectacular. It goes without saying that Camelot Music is long since defunct.
But back on that one cherished day I maneuvered through the “M” section of Camelot’s cassette bins, and there to my wonderment I spotted One Step Beyond and Absolutely. Both on one tape.
Putting two complete albums on one cassette was a moderately popular trend at the height of the cassette era. The labels must have noticed how music lovers were recording two albums on 90-minute blank tapes, which was especially attractive with the advent of mobile music via the Sony Walkman. Warner Music Group (including Elektra, Atlantic and Sire) spearheaded the movement with their distinctive “Two on One” branding. The value proposition offered consumers double the product for a cost of one or two dollars more than a standard cassette. Some tapes combined two big hit records, while others disappointingly paired one classic with a lackluster later release. That’s marketing for ya.
Now in the case of Madness, here was a minor British act that Sire had taken a gamble on and didn’t pan out. The individual releases of One Step Beyond (1979) and Absolutely (1980) were big flops, and the combo cassette’s 1983 release date indicates it appeared only in response the success of “Our House.” This improbable duplex, nonexistent in the U.K., was devised for the sake of curious Stateside risk-takers like me.
And oh man, what a blessed discovery it was. Playing that tape in Daddy’s pickup truck on the ride home was nothing like my first exposure to Madness, when I grappled with whether or why I should embrace the nutty sound. Diving into both One Step Beyond and Absolutely all at once, I loved them all at once. I had drawn a double-decker Excalibur aloft from the enchanted Camelot stone.
I think the only hesitation I had at first was the rawness of the vocals, in comparison with Suggs’ relatively silky crooning on “Our House” and “It Must Be Love.” In fact, I was under the false impression that all of the singing on the first two albums was the younger 1979-80 Suggs – it took me a while to figure out which tracks were sung by Carl or Lee. To be fair, those three north London voices sounded pretty much the same to a 13-year-old American kid. Regardless, the vocal stylings grew on me soon enough, and the punchy zip of the music had me captivated from the bellowing call to attention that opened the first album to the quiet “Good night” at the close of the second one. The Geffen Madness compilation sparked my interest in the band, but it was this anthology of an older vintage that confirmed me a lifelong fan.
One Step Beyond and Absolutely have been reviewed and rated ad infinitum, and anyone reading this probably knows what they sound like. I just ask your indulgence to paint the picture of how this double cassette indelibly impressed my younger self. The only song on it that I knew previously was “Night Boat to Cairo” (a remix of which was included on the Geffen album). The other 28 tracks were entirely new, unfamiliar, and at times downright koo-koo, and yet I felt connected to them right away.
The sheer amount of musical invention was dizzying. One thing I quickly grasped was that Madness had an instantly identifiable sound, and yet no two songs sounded the same. They had a rock-solid, muscular rhythm section, and melodies anchored by deft piano (or non-synth organ), all punctuated with flinty guitar and boisterous saxophone, topped off with wry vocals whose charm compensated for technical skill. Yet within this formula, One Step Beyond and Absolutely presented a sumptuous buffet of variations. In addition to your standard pop music themes of heartbreak, nostalgia and good-time partying, there were songs about deviant behavior, racial prejudice and social anxiety.
From the magazine articles I learned that Madness’s style of music was something called ska. Even though it would take me a long time to learn that only a couple of their earliest songs bore any legitimate resemblance to real Jamaican ska, it was plain even to uninformed ears that there was more than one musical genre on display here. By turns the songs incorporated R&B, Motown, oldies rock & roll, dance hall, classical, and TV sitcom theme stylings just as much as ska. And such off-kilter song construction, where the chorus is semi-optional, or you might get a scrap of one verse or some random shouting tacked onto a wild instrumental. One Step Beyond and Absolutely were packed with fascinating contradictions. Any given track could be both cheerful and somber. Both simple and complex. Both silly and profound. Both stupid and clever.
With mind fully blown, I delighted in listening to the double-dose crash course in Madness over and over and over. I loved to lie in my bedroom with a boom box resting on my chest, cranking Madness into my face for the sort of analytical close listening that music connoisseurs would typically do with headphones. I fondly recall studying “The Prince” like this, mentally isolating each of the main instruments as well as all the little bloooorps and swishy-swishies and tok-toks that accrete in intricate layers as the track progresses. This tape was my Sgt. Pepper, my Led Zeppelin II, my Dark Side of the Moon.
Speaking of favorite albums, it’s worthy of note that all of the most significant and influential music of my teenage years came on double-length cassettes. One Step Beyond / Absolutely (1979/1980), The Jam’s greatest hits Snap! (1983), Minutemen’s epic masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) and their compendium My First Bells (1985), the Skatalites’ live reunion Stretching Out (1987). A double album packed with great songs is inherently more listenable, since you can play it more without getting tired of it. And it plays right into a obsessive personality like mine: when I find something I love, I latch on with a rapacious appetite for mass quantities of it. You might logically argue I would have formed the same appreciation for One Step Beyond and Absolutely if I had bought them on individual cassettes. But I don’t think so. Being bound together in a single unit magnified the Madness energy exponentially and consecrated a holy talisman that felt less like two records and more like one big sprawling opus.
One thing’s for sure: any economic advantage I gained from buying the two albums on one cassette didn’t hold up in the long run, since I kept wearing it out mercilessly. I played it so much that the tape crinkled and started warbling like a broadcast from the innards of a dyspeptic whale. I suppose the two-on-ones may have used a thinner and less durable kind of tape in order to accommodate the longer running time. I went through three copies of the cassette: the original, a second I special-ordered from the local Tape Shack, and a third as a Christmas gift I requested from my sister. The final verse in “Believe Me” always reminds me of that holiday season – “Christmas comes but once a year, it’s a time of love and cheer.” With my One Step Beyond / Absolutely Mark III, I finally got wise and started making listening copies to leave the master tape in mint condition. This method served my rigorous demands until compact discs appeared.
Which brings us to the ultimate obsolescence that befell the beloved instrument of my Madhead education. Two-on-one CDs were never much of a thing, predictable given the traditional 74-minute capacity of the format. I have a nice edition of The Jam’s All Mod Cons and Sound Affects on one disc, as well as the Minutemen Post-Mersh collections, and how sweet it would be to own an official One Step Beyond / Absolutely CD, if the combined runtime weren’t a bit too long. Though I welcomed the superior digital audio (and ruggedness) of the compact disc, it was bittersweet to have One Step Beyond and Absolutely rent in twain by the grim march of technology. Still, my mind will always anticipate that school bell’s ring immediately after the Chipmunks finish their roar… and this, my friends, is precisely what iTunes playlists are made for.
Fans would generally say The Liberty of Norton Folgate was the first “double album” Madness ever released. Yeah, but not in my book.