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Madness

+ {The Madness} + {The Nutty Boys} + {Suggs}

One of the leading lights of the ska revivalist movement in ’79 (and initially part of the 2-Tone brand), MADNESS were part of the most exciting musical pop phenomena since the advent of punk a few years earlier. The combo’s “nutty boy” postures, par-for-the-course pork-pie hats, Cockney patois and unerringly catchy hooks won them a wide cross section of fans, from primary school kids and grannies to style-conscious teenagers, a far cry from their early audience of hardcore NF skinheads, most of whom they thankfully managed to shake off. Never looking back after taking “One Step Beyond…” on signing to Stiff Records, MADNESS surpassed rivals and mentors The SPECIALS by penetrating the Top 10 over a dozen times during the 80s, including their most memorable, if annoyingly pop-friendly: `My Girl’, `Baggy Trousers’, `It Must Be Love’, `House Of Fun’ (their sole No.1), `Our House’, `Driving In My Car’, `Our House’ and `Wings Of A Dove’.
The origins of their Camden-based nutty sound came about in 1976, when Kentish Town lads Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson (keyboards and vocals), Lee “Kix” Thompson (saxophone and vocals), Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman (guitar), rehearsed as The North London Invaders. Subsequently dropping the sat-nav part of their moniker, the gang doubled in size when Cathal “Chas Smash” Smyth (bass), minder John Hasler (drums) and Dikron Tulane (lead vocals) participated. The comings and goings of Smyth, Thompson, and newbie lead vocalist Graham “Suggs” McPherson – in for actor Dikron – left the act with a serious lack of character when sacked. Thankfully, in 1978, Barson and Foreman reinstated the fun boy triumvirate (as replacements for Gavin Rodgers, Garry Dovey and fill-in singer Hasler), and added bassist Mark “Bedders” Bedford and drummer Daniel “Woody” Woodgate. The mayhem kicked off under the Morris And The Minors banner; note that Chas (on fancy footwork and backing/lead vocals) was not officially a member until late ’79, when the septet toured the nation with fellow ska groups The SPECIALS and The SELECTER.
Hooking up with The SPECIAL A.K.A., MADNESS signed a one-off deal for Jerry Dammers’ fledgling 2-Tone label, releasing `The Prince’ in August ‘79. An irrepressible dance-floor shuffle embellished with loose-limbed piano courtesy of Barson, the Thompson-penned track was a tribute to blue beat legend PRINCE BUSTER, whose song `Madness’ inspired the group’s name and which they covered in their own inimitable style on the B-side. MADNESS danced in to the Top 20 and Top Of The Pops, but it would be Stiff Records who would duly gain from the record’s success.
In a glorious attempt to usurp The SPECIALS’ debut album, Stiff postponed the release of an accompanying single to deliver – on the same day… ONE STEP BEYOND… (1979) {*9}. Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the ska wars numero uno was won when the set gate-crashed the No.2 spot, two places higher than their rivals. A week later, opening number `One Step Beyond’ – its famous “Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this…” intro leading into a largely PRINCE BUSTER-penned sax-driven epic instrumental – confirmed MADNESS had arrived. Like being hit over the head with a wet fish, the street-smart nutty boys swapped the decks of the English music hall and an imaginary trip to Jamaica, for the Middle East (`Night Boat To Cairo’), any old jungle (`Tarzan’s Nuts’) and back to Covent Garden and Old Blighty (for classical ballet/Tchaikovsky piece `Swan Lake’ and Chris & Lee’s `Land Of Hope And Glory’ respectively). Barson’s kitchen-sink dramas `My Girl’ (a Top 3 hit), `Bed And Breakfast Man’ and `Believe Me’ (or Thompson’s sharply-observed `Razor Blade Alley’) were the creamy coffee to the milky tea of human kindness on Chrissy Boy & Suggs swinging 60s/barra boy- styled `In The Middle Of The Night’. All ‘n’ all, topped off in April 1980 by the Top 10 `Work Rest And Play’ EP (led out by the aforementioned `Night Boat…’, alongside three exclusive cuts), the nation’s teenagers were having a giraffe.
As MADNESS marched on with the likes of the schoolyard `Baggy Trousers’ (very IAN DURY) and back-to-back Top 5 hit, `Embarrassment’ (both from 1980’s ABSOLUTELY {*6}), the ska aspect of their nutty sound was fast-becoming abandoned for showtime pop; another example being the concluding lounge instrumental hit, `The Return Of The Los Palmas 7’. Duly indebted to The KINKS or DURY in their character-driven vignettes as MADNESS carried on regardless through 7 (1981) {*6}, three further throwaway 45s hit pay-dirt: `Grey Day’, `Shut Up’ and `Cardiac Arrest’.
Exclusive and borrowed from the under-rated singer-songwriter LABI SIFFRE, the Top 5 `It Must Be Love’ was the missing link that would soon sit easily on the chart-topping COMPLETE MADNESS (1982) {*9}, while `House Of Fun’ – a colourful coming of age yarn that contrasted with the increasing sense of melancholy and buoyed by a roller-coaster MTV video – rewarded the 7-piece with a similar chart return.
Not a feature of their fourth set, THE RISE & FALL (1982) {*7}, the mordant social commentary of `Driving In My Car’ again moved away from their ska roots, but in the process MADNESS developed a highly original pop sound. Each attendant top chart 45 possessed a kind of bittersweet poignancy; `Our House’ and the double-header `Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)’ and `Madness (Is All In The Mind)’ were miles away from the Falklands War-addled `Blue Skinned Beast’ that would come to mark their later work.
Finally, signed to Geffen Records in America, their popularity grew with the advent of MTV. With help from vault videos `Our House’ and `It Must Be Love’, the band hit the Top 40; the US-only compilation, entitled MADNESS (1983) {*7}, just about repeated the pattern.
MADNESS were still capable of a good old rave up of course, as they illustrated with their celebratory Caribbean calypso vibe of `Wings Of A Dove’, a near chart-topper in the late summer of ’83, and found only on the North American versions of the following year’s KEEP MOVING {*6} set. Hit songs such as `The Sun And The Rain’, `Michael Caine’ (with vocals by Chas) and `One Better Day’, were slick and interesting enough, but it was not the MADNESS fans knew and loved; their declining popularity marked by increasingly lower chart positions.
With the departure of Barson (one the band’s main scribes), the 6-piece MADNESS began to juggle with their trademark sound. Towards the fall of ‘84, the band formed their own label, Zarjazz (through Virgin Records), releasing work by FEARGAL SHARKEY and charity band STARVATION, as well as their own material for MAD NOT MAD (1985) {*5}. This record was, with hit elements (`Yesterday’s Men’ and `Uncle Sam’) largely uninspired. It came to a juddering anti-climax with a stale cover of SCRITTI POLITTI’s `Sweetest Girl’. When both `(Waiting For) The Ghost Train’ and a compilation UTTER MADNESS {*8} failed to breech the Top 10 on the back of their disbandment in October ‘86, the break (or hiatus) was probably well timed; Bedders and Woody subsequently joined VOICE OF THE BEEHIVE.
With only a gap-year to contemplate their next move, early in ‘88 saw their re-invention as THE MADNESS; Suggs, Chas, Chris and Lee (plus additional guest star attractions such as Jerry Dammers, Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Dick Cuthell) made up the numbers that produced the woeful eponymous album, THE MADNESS (1988) {*3}, a flop Top 75 record that missed a beat with minor hit `I Pronounce You’ not even breaching the Top 40.
Sadly, they’d split for good by the end of the year, SUGGS going on to become a suitably “nutty” TV presenter as well as inflicting The FARM upon an unsuspecting music world at the turn of the decade. Chas Smash became an A&R man for Go! Discs, while Thompson and Foreman went back to ska basics with a new outfit, The NUTTY BOYS, releasing an album entitled CRUNCH! (1990) {*3}.
Back by popular demand, the original 7-piece line-up re-formed in 1992 for two sell-out shows on 8-9th August at London’s Finsbury Park, where an army of 30-somethings donned their pork-pie hats and relived their days down the youth centre disco. The event was such a triumph that MADNESS repeated it in successive years; its Top 30 document MADSTOCK! {*5} accompanied a minor hit rendition of JIMMY CLIFF’s `The Harder They Come’.
Not content with merely presenting Top Of The Pops now and again, SUGGS released a solo album, THE LONE RANGER (1995) {*5}, subjecting innocent pop kids to awful cod-reggae versions of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `Cecilia’ and LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `I’m Only Sleeping’. Maybe he’d finally lost the plot.
No way, SUGGS was back to give us a second helping of his nutty pop songs by way of THE THREE PYRAMIDS CLUB (1998) {*5}. Produced this time by Steve Lironi, his ska-pop beats had been partly juxtaposed by Britpop, scratching and hip-hop, bouncing nicely along on `I Am’, `Our Man’ and `Invisible Man’ – but not his earlier heartfelt Chelsea F.C. collaboration, `Blue Day’.
The definitive article scuppered from their moniker once again when the original MADNESS re-united, the WONDERFUL (1999) {*6} Top 20 set proved that they could hold their heads high among the US ska kids on the block such as The MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES, SUBLIME and NO DOUBT. Bolstered by a return to the Top 10 pop charts with `Lovestruck’ and `4am’ (a choice cherry-pick from SUGGS’ previous solo effort), the heroic production work of old muckers Langer & Winstanley were prevalent to other nutty works of art, `Johnny The Horse’ and the swansong bow for IAN DURY, `Drip Fed Fred’ (both minor hits).
In 2005, and with 25 years or so in the business, MADNESS showed they could still cut a good tune, albeit mainly from the pen of other songsmiths – with the exception of group-penned opener `This Is Where’ – for THE DANGERMEN SESSIONS VOLUME ONE (2005) {*6}. Shaped in a similar savoir-faire to UB40’s “Labour Of Love” album/series – the first from way back in ‘83 – the effort certainly paid off chart-wise (No.11) as ska songs by DESMOND DEKKER (`Israelites’), PRINCE BUSTER (`Girl Why Don’t You’), MAX ROMEO (`I Chase The Devil a.k.a. Ironshirt’ and BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (`So Much Trouble In The World’) fitted into their pseudonymous alter egos; even The KINKS’ `Lola’, The SUPREMES’ `You Keep Me Hanging On’ and JOSE FELICIANO’s `Rain’ were given the Nutty Boy treatment.
On the back of two self-financed Top 30 hits, `Sorry’ and `NW5’ (for Lucky 7 Records), a keenly observed character portrait of their London abode in all its frolics and foibles, and recalling ‘82’s “Rise & Fall” (or 60s KINKS), a nostalgic MADNESS unleashed the concept of THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE (2009) {*8}. A mischievous musical in parts, sprinkled with dashes of street-smart pop, the Top 5 set yielded several ambitious ditties in `Dust Devil’, `We Are London’, `On The Town’ and a 10-minute “Oliver”-type title track finale.
When one thinks that MADNESS almost pulled the plug completely on their nutty boy escapades, what a waste it would’ve been to pop music. Taking a “Liberty” – so to speak – and creating a Top 10 sequel a la 2012’s OUI OUI SI SI JA JA DA DA {*7}, “yes yes”, the savvy Suggs and Co looked to be revelling in middle-age and nostalgia. Although steeped in a “Tainted Love” beat, `My Girl 2’ opened proceedings on a quirky note. Thirty years on from their halcyon days of yore, the effervescent kings of the comeback, were definitely on a high with `Never Knew Your Name’, `Misery’ and the poignant `Death Of A Rude Boy’.
As MADNESS looked to the future, Chas (or indeed, CATHAL SMYTH) branched out on his lonesome for a surprisingly good set, `A Comfortable Man’ (2015).
Suggs and Co, meanwhile, worked on consolidating MADNESS’ new-found lease of life through 2016’s CAN’T TOUCH US NOW {*7}. Not quite the MC Hammer house of horror that the title suggested, this top-end chart set was simply a house of funky fun, albeit minus the “Baggy Trousers” aspect of their old-school ska-pop. A smorgasbord of `Mumbo Jumbo’ (as depicted in the title itself), their triumph was in tongue-twisting tracks such as `Herbert’, the single `Mr. Apples’, the Stax-ful `Good Times’ and the cheeky `I Believe’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Jun2015-Nov2016

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