Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Dark Side Of Madness

With a name taken from a Prince Buster track, a sound built firmly on Ska rhythms, and their debut single ( a paean to Prince Buster) appearing on Two Tone - Jerry Dammers label built on equality (primarily racial equality) - ir's fair to say there's nowt racist about Madness.  So why was a large element of their core following made up of the right-wing skinhead fraternity?
Complete bloody mystery.  I can see no logical reason why the skinhead revival of the late 70s/early 80s took the style and culture (and music) of the original skinheads, and became so entrenched in hate.

Madness took this music, anglicised it, applied a dollop of pop sheen, wrote about their life around them, and pretty much perfected the 3 minute pop single in the early 80s.  They may only have had one Number 1 single ("House Of Fun" (1982)) but their songs, and personality, were everywhere.
So much so, that when they returned after a period of absence in 1991, an earthquake was recorded in Finsbury Park.
Further re-unions, tours and new recordings followed - at this stage of their careers, it's probably right to say that they can now be considered as "National Treasures" - not bad going for a group of tearaways from Camden Town.

But it's not all about That Nutty Sound - scratch the surface of some of their songs, and there's a real darkness there which is not always obvious once the music is layed over the top, and the words sung back to them a gigs and festivals.

So lets start with track 1 of 'Complete Madness' - the 1982 compilation that collected the last 3 years worth of singles, and probably marks a point where the band started to believe there may be a career in this.  'Complete Madness' also contains "House Of Fun" - a song about buying rubber johnnies hidden in a knockabout tune that seems to be talking about a fair ground.  Not dark, but amusing in it's mis-interpretation.

"Embarrassment" is an upbeat tune wedded to a real life tale of Lee Thompson's sister mixed race pregnancy, and the response of his mum.  This can be read as a plea for racial harmony in much the same way as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did a couple of years later singing about being side-by-side and living in a piano.
And a couple of singles later, they were back in less than happy worlds with "Grey Day".  Like "Embarrassment" this went Top 5, but deals with darker things - if you stop and listen to the lyrics, you can hear a cry of anguish in there.  Everybody's favourite subject at the school disco.
And then let's add a jaunty tune about a commuter having a heart attack - "Cardiac Arrest".  The clue is in the title, but his is not your average pop song subject matter.
If (as I suggest) 'Complete Madness' closes Part 1, then the album that followed in late-82 showed what this bunch of Nutty Boys were capable of.  'The Rise And Fall' not only contains (possibly) their best known track in "Our House" (whether by accident or design it was placed in the middle of the album) it also contains another Top 10 single in the shape of "Tomorrow's Just Another Day".

Now on the face of it, and according to the video, this is a song of hope for better times to come.
And if the video is to be believed, it's about being stuck in prison.
Well, I'm going to offer a darker interpretation here: it is about being stuck inside, but stuck inside oneself, when all around you people are telling you to look forward, because whatever it is that you feel Tommorrow is another day.
I'm taking it as Part 2 of "Grey Day".  In that one, they sang "I wish I could sink without a trace", here they;'re singing "Down and down there is no up, I think that I've run out of luck"
OK, maybe I'm being a bit harsh here, and it is just a song of hope set in a prison.  But, there is a slower bluesier, jazzier, sombre-er version with Elvis Costello on the 12", which gives a clue that it might not be quite so simple.

The album 'Keep Moving' was next, and butted up with the Nutty sounds of "Wings Of A Dove" and "Driving In My Car" were a couple of tracks not quite so carefree.
"Michael Caine" is a song about an IRA informer who is given witness protection, and spends his days constantly on his guard.
And then you get 2 songs which are effectively updated versions of Ralph McTell's "Streets Of London".
"Victoria Gardens" may not be properly dark, but it's refrain "wishing, hoping, things are changing for the better" is not coming from the happiest of places.  This was to be the last single released from the album, but was swapped out for equally sparse "One Better Day".
The video conveys the story of the song (albeit tempered slightly by the first few "Madness style" seconds).  But for all the down tone and minor key, there is redemption in this song, and a certain amount of joy in the final chorus.

Between 'Keep Moving' and next album 'Mad Not Mad', keyboard basher Mike Barson departed, and his input is sorely missed.  It's not a bad album, it just misses one the ingredients that makes Madness Madness.  Their is a general downward sombre tone about the album, complete with its monochrome serious looking sleeve.  And the songs therein continue the theme.  It's a pretty gloomy affair on the whole, but does have some redeeming features.
Madness being dark?  The song 'Yesterdays Men' has a real air of resignation about it, almost like they know they're time is up.  The song "I'll Compete" expresses a desire to carry on playing the game, but you just know that underneath they probably don't believe it.
As it transpires, within a year of the release of the album, the band were no more.  Some of the band did reconvene in 1988 as The Madness (to very modest success), but it was that day at Finsbury Park, and subsequent re-unions that eventually spurred the band to return to recording in 1999.  'Wonderful' marked a return to the sound the public know and loved, and was now with added experience and musical chops.
And the first single to be lifted from it was "Lovestruck" - Madness returned to the Top 10 with an uplifting sing-a-long tune ...about alcoholism.

"Hey You, don't watch that watch this.  This is the Heavy Heavy Monster sound (with some heavy heavy subject matter you may not have noticed)"

Tomorrows Just Another Day (featuring Elvis Costello)

One Better Day



  1. Fascinating - I will now listen to Complete Madness in a new light

  2. Great review of a must-have album.