Thursday 22 August 2019

Madness: 40 years later and still one step beyond

'Many of grew up at discos dancing to Baggy Trousers'
'Many of grew up at discos dancing to Baggy Trousers'
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Formerly The North London Invaders, Madness formed in 1976 - six teenagers with too much energy who, as Deborah Ross put it in the Independent in 1991, had been "brought together by a north London youth club and a love of Jamaican and jazz music".

They fused all that and took it one step beyond. They were the nutty boys of Camden Town. More than 40 years later, the nutty boys are no longer boys; the Crombie coats are more to shelter their ageing bones from the cold than as youth culture statements.

That said, the Camden Town tearaways are still one of the most entertaining live acts around. And why wouldn't they be, when they have 20 top 20 hits to draw on - so expect One Step Beyond, House of Fun and Embarrassment when one of Britain's finest ever musical ensembles plays Dublin on the June Bank Holiday weekend.

Many of us grew up with the songs of Madness. Dancing along at school discos to Baggy Trousers: "All I learnt at school/Was how to bend not break the rules/Oh what fun we had/But at the time it seemed so bad." Or mugging in the front room to their famous videos on the telly, with the band dressed up in colonial pith helmets or fezzes (Night Boat to Cairo), to say nothing of police uniforms and gorilla costumes.

I was too young to go (I was 11) but I read about the band's first proper show in 1979 at the Irish pub in London called the Dublin Castle. But I did get to spend a day with Suggs et al while interviewing them for In Dublin magazine in 1987.

Madness were rightly lauded for their rapscallion singalong English vaudeville-meets-ska classics, but there was a very serious side to the sultans of skinhead soul too.

Their 1984 single One Better Day referenced Camden Town's Arlington House, the 100-year-old hostel for the homeless; Embarrassment from 1980 tells the story of Lee Thompson's sister's mixed- race child and the scandal in the family it caused at the time: "Our aunt, she don't wanna know she says/What will the neighbours think."

They pushed the boundaries of the three-minute pop song, sometimes creating music that was beguilingly complicated to play but beautiful to listen to.

Their legendary producer, Clive Langer, recalled how Madness's crackpot composer Mike Barson "would often bring old sheet music of show tunes and standards into rehearsal sessions. He'd never read the music but he would often play the chord sequences on the piano.

"The Return of the Los Palmas 7, for instance, was basically the chords to some Kathy Kirby song, played backwards. He definitely had an affinity with that Tin Pan Alley song-writing tradition."

Lead singer Suggs said: "You can easily imagine Mike's songs like My Girl or Shut Up being sung on the stage of a music hall.

"Imagine some old comedian croaking out the vocals, accompanied only by a pianist, and it would work perfectly.

"Music hall, for us, was The Good Old Days; a fella in a stripy blazer pushing a woman on a swing covered in flowers. It had no relation to me at all. But somehow, through osmosis - maybe via Ian Dury and The Kinks - it came to us."

And never left them.

Madness play Dun Laoghaire Pier on June 1, with Lightning Seeds and Something Happens as special guests. Early bird tickets priced €49.90 inclusive of booking fee.

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