Friday, January 11, 2013

An Appreciation: MADNESS Part One

An Appreciation:

(Part One)

Graham "Suggs" McPherson
Chris "Chrissy Boy" Foreman
Mike "Monsieur Barso" Barson
Lee "El Thommo/Kix" Thompson
Cathal "Chas Smash" Smyth
Daniel "Woody" Woodgate
Mark "Bedders" Bedford

Madness may be best known in the U.S. for their 1983 hit single "Our House", but they had quite a history before and after that hit.  Now known as one of the UK's greatest singles band of all time, Madness also recorded some of the greatest albums of the '80s and achieved success far beyond what anyone could have predicted.  They have become a musical institution in their homeland and their music is synonymous with London.  They 

I first became aware of Madness in 1979 by seeing their debut album, One Step Beyond, in the record bins. Being musically curious, the cover struck me immediately: these guys looked like they'd be fun to listen to.  I was vaguely aware of the Ska movement in the UK but I wasn't drawn to the band because of their musical style.  In fact, when I plopped down my allowance and bought the album, I had not yet heard a single note by them.  I was buying it based on the album cover alone (which I did a lot in my younger days).

"Hey, you!  Don't watch that, watch this!  This is the heavy, heavy monster sound.  The nuttiest sound around...."

When I laid the needle on my newest purchase, those immortal words from the mouth of Chas Smash came leaping from my turntable like an atomic explosion.

"So, if you've come in off the street and you're beginning to feel the heat, well, listen buster, you better start to move your feet to the rockinest, rock-steady beat of Madness!   Oooooone Step Beyooooond!"

And then the music started... my 16 year old ears were floored by this circus-like music that was immediately joyful and energetic.  The rinky-dink keyboards, the blarring sax, the revved-up Reggae beat... so this was Ska?  I was an instant Madness fan and I'd only heard the first 45 seconds or so of the first track on the album! What followed excited me right down to my core: these guys played music that may have had Punk's energy but mixed Pop, Rock, Reggae, Ska and classic music hall into one amazing wall of sound.  The production by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley was flawless and I would buy practically anything they produced from this point on...

(The Salvo two CD reissue adds loads of non album tracks.)

Lyrically, Madness were very British.  Being a young American, I wasn't able to relate to some of the lyrics, but that didn't stop me from loving what they had to say.  How many other bands at the time had a song about someone who stole underwear ("In The Middle Of The Night")?  I could definitely relate to songs about relationship strife ("My Girl") and I really dug the Ska'd out version of "Swan Lake' as well.

One Step Beyond contains many of Madness' most popular tracks including "My Girl", "Night Boat To Cairo", "Madness", "Bed & Breakfast Man" and many others.  While the title track and a few other songs were covers, most of the album was written by various band members and they were just as great!  Shortly after I purchased the album, L.A.'s great alternative radio station, KROQ, picked up on the songs "One Step Beyond", "Night Boat...." and a few of the other album tracks, turning Madness into the first Ska band to gain a huge following in SoCal (followed closely by The Specials, English Beat and Bad Manners). 

I bought every single from the album including "Un Paso Adelante" the Spanish version of the album's title track. Each of the singles had non-album b-sides that were absolutely fantastic.  This was a band that seemed too good to be true.  And at such a young age (they were all in their early 20s), they shouldn't have been this good.  But sometimes, the right musicians come together to create something special and these six gents (plus Chas, who would become an official member after the debut album was recorded) were certainly the right men for the job.

The following year, amidst the break-up of my first real teenage relationship, Madness were there to ease the pain with their first 'new' single of '80, "Baggy Trousers", a track that would be the lead-in for their second album.  I bought the 7" vinyl at Licorice Pizza and it solidified my love for this band.  In my mind, they could do no wrong.  Alongside The Jam, Squeeze and Split Enz, Madness were MY band throughout high school.

And as expected, KROQ picked up on "Baggy Trousers" around the time of the U.S. release of their sophomore album, Absolutely, in October of 1980. I remember how awesome it was to hear while driving in a friends car on one of our many record shopping treks.  Being young never sounded so fun.

I remember being stuck in Driver's Ed class after school on October 10th, just waiting for the moment that I could leave and head over to Licorice Pizza.  I had started working at Jack In The Box and had set aside money to buy the album.  My birthday was only a few days away, but I made sure NOT to ask for the album because I didn't want to wait that extra three days to listen to it!  So, when Driver's Ed let out, I hopped on my bike and headed straight for Licorice Pizza and bought Absolutely...

(The Salvo two CD reissue of the album adds all the non album tracks plus a full concert from the Absolutely tour)

Regardless of how passionate I felt about One Step Beyond, I loved Absolutely even more.  The band's Ska beat was still there, but they had matured and more influences had begun to creep into their sound.  Every song was an absolute gem: "E.R.N.I.E.", "Embarrassment", "Disappear", "In The Rain" (which had been a b-side of an earlier single), "The Return Of The Los Palmas 7" and many more.  The album was so great that it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I still have so many fond memories of listening to the album under the headphones and soaking it all in.  The album received more plays in that first month than One Step Beyond did over the course of the entire year.  I don't think I listened to anything else for quite awhile.

Again, I bought each of the singles that were released and slobbered over the b-sides. I bought UK magazines just to find out info on the band.  Even though they had made quite a splash, there wasn't a lot printed about Madness in American music magazines, which I found downright unforgivable. But in the end, it was all about the music... and that is what mattered most.

When 1981 dawned, I'd heard rumblings of a Madness movie.  A movie?  While I didn't quite know ALL the details, I was intrigued. The movie that finally emerged, Take It Or Leave It, had the boys in the band recreating their early days when the band was just coming together. Of course, I didn't see the movie until a decade later when someone lent me their VHS copy (which may or may not have been a bootleg...). The movie was funny, a bit awkward (was there a script?) and filled to the brim with pure Madness. While it may not have been A Hard Day's Night, it remains a great snapshot in time when the band were still filled with youthful energy...

Take It Or Leave It (Complete)

In April of '81, the band released "Grey Day", a new single that continued their move towards a mature Pop sound. The single broke the band's ties with their Ska past while still managing to retain their unique sound.  Though not a ballad, "Grey Day" was a more relaxed affair with darker lyrics and a Dub vibe.  In essence, it was almost a shock to the system after the two rambunctious and energetic albums that preceded it.  Did this mark the end of their jovial youth and their first steps into adulthood?  In a sense, yes. It also showed that Madness were unafraid to move forward, which many bands are hesitant to do once they hit a winning formula.

Around this time, I read that Madness were on tour in the U.S. and were making a stop in Reseda at a venue called the Country Club.  Being 17 and not having a driver's license, I asked my friends if they wanted to go. Of course, nobody wanted to make that drive so I had to deal with the disappointment of not seeing one of my fave bands play live. When the gig got closer, I found out that they had been sold out and second show had been added two nights later.  I think that sold out quickly as well.  I was bumming big time....

In May of '81, I managed to tag along with my brother Mike and our friend Rick Intveld to go see  Rockabilly favorite Robert Gordon live at the Roxy in L.A.  While we were waiting in line outside of the Roxy, Rick says "Hey, that guy looks like Suggs from Madness".  I turned to see this guy walking past us and froze: was that Suggs? I looked at Rick and my bro and wondered if I should call out his name to see for sure.... so I did.  Immediately, this tall chap turns around and scans the crowd, trying to see who called his name. Yes, it was Suggs!  I didn't fess up then and there, but I followed him to the front of the line and who did I manage to see?  Along with Suggs, there was Bedders, Chrissy Boy and perhaps Monsieur Barso (I can't believe I can't remember all the members in attendance standing there in front of me).  I went up and spoke with them, all of whom seemed extremely nice and either surprised or annoyed that someone recognized them.  They were in town for their Country Club gigs and were checking out Robert Gordon since they had the night off.

While I'm chatting with the guys, Suggs points me in the direction of sax player Lee El Thommo Thompson, who I then go and chat with for awhile. He was a top bloke.  He asked if I was going to the show at the Country Club and I said 'no' cuz it was sold out.  We chatted a bit more and then the doors of the Roxy opened and we went inside.  About 30 minutes later, I passed him on the way to the restroom and he leans over and says to me "Steve plus one".  I wasn't sure what he meant.  He repeated "Steve plus one" and told me I'd be on the guest list for the Sunday night show at the Country Club!  And lo and behold, when  Rick and I showed up on Sunday, there I was: on Madness' guest list.  So, May of '81 is when I saw Madness live for the first time and they blew me away. They did stuff from the first two albums plus tracks that were yet to be released including the song "Pac-A-Mac", which really stood out for me.

(Of course, three years later at an in-store autograph signing, Lee Thompson had no recollection of our meeting at the Roxy or getting me on the guest list, but that was OK.  The fact that he did it was pretty damn cool.... and the memory has remained an extremely fond one for 30+ years...)

Later that year, out comes the album 7, which showed the band moving even further away from the Ska sound, but it seemed more like a natural, organic shift rather than a conscious decision.  With two years of touring behind them, the band were better players and they were now being influenced by music and cultures outside of jolly old England.  Madness had matured very quickly and were practically seasoned pros at such an early stage in their career.  The songs on 7 still had charm, wit and delicious melodies but the band were becoming masters at their game: fantastic arrangements, more introspective lyrics (without being pretentious) and a more spacious production, which really allowed each member's musical contributions to shine.  From the aforementioned "Grey Day" and "Pac-A-Mac" to the singles "Shut Up" and "Cardiac Arrest", 7 was an amazing album from start to finish.  It may not have been as 'nutty' as their previous albums, but it was every bit as fun-tastic. While I think Absolutely and One Step Beyond might be considered better albums, 7 remains my favorite Madness full length platter.

 (The Salvo two CD reissue adds a plethora of non-album tracks) 

A funny thing happened in late '81 when the band released "It Must Be Love" as a single in between "Shut Up" and "Cardiac Arrest".  Why was it funny?  Well, the single was a track NOT on the album!  While it sounded like it could have been recorded during the 7 sessions, "It Must Be Love" was a stand-alone single and earned the band major airplay all around the world but there wasn't an album to support it until the following year when it appeared on the band's 1982 compilation Complete Madness. I always thought that it was a bold move to release this single and it paid off for the band, becoming one of their best loved songs. While it was not an original (it was penned by singer/songwriter Labi Siffre, who appeared in the video), most folks in the U.S. think of this track alongside "Our House" and "One Step Beyond" as the most popular Madness songs.

To coincide with the release of the Complete Madness collection, the band released a new single in '82 called "House Of Fun", which became their first (and, so far, only) UK #1 single. The song combined the more mature arrangements of 7 with a jaunty tune that could have fit on Absolutely.  It was both 'nutty' and 'mature' at the same time with the subject matter dealing with the attempted purchase of condoms by a young man coming of age.  As the title suggests, it was definitely one of their most 'fun' singles to date. 

Later that same year, the band released the non-album single "Driving In My Car", another fun tune that may not have reached the heights of their previous seven inchers but was a slice of Pop genius, especially when El Thommo's sax break would pop in and out of the recording.  In a way, the song was a link between their earlier nutty sound and a more serious direction that they would follow on their next album.

The band's last release of '82 was a song that would eventually become their biggest U.S. hit and the song that has become their most well-known song: "Our House". It cemented their reputation not just in Britain but all over the world.

My appreciation of MADNESS will be continued in Part Two

No comments: