Madness is a band that retains a strong sense of who and what it is. Many of the same influences are still present in their sound – ska, reggae, Motown, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, classic pop, and the pin-sharp vernacular of their beloved London streets. It may be refined and updated, but its essence remains clear and true. This is what they do best. “You may use the same colours,” says Cathal, “but you don’t want to paint the same painting.”
Most colourful of all is Madness’ ability to write songs that sparkle with the stuff of British life; that find poetry in everyday reality – not the faux bright lights of celebrity; songs that may not shy away from death or darkness, but retain the right to employ wit and warmth. They are songs that have left their mark on British pop culture; their spirit endures in the music of Blur, the Streets, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Sway and Plan B (Cathal co-wrote Great Day for a Murder on Ill Manors and appeared briefly in the film.)
In 2012 Madness are in the unique position of having their legacy celebrated by the nation – with historic performances at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert, and at the Olympic Games closing ceremony – while at the same time enjoying a creative renaissance that has led to some of their finest work. This purple patch began with 2009’s critically acclaimed album The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and now Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da. Turns out they never lost their songwriting edge after all, they just misplaced it for a few years.
It is a curious, though possibly telling, coincidence that Madness started in a recession (1979), came back in a recession (1992), “and here we are again,” says Cathal, “enjoying such privilege and faith – in a recession”. In tough times, Madness is a band people turn to. “It’s a strange thing. I think it’s something to do with the class system, the melting pot of cultures and styles that resonate through our collective voice… and the fact that people need cheering up every now and then.”
Their first gig, at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington was on May 3, 1979 – the day of the general election that swept Margaret Thatcher to power. “Cast your vote and then down the Hope,” read the tagline on the home-made posters promoting the gig. It was 50p to get in.
Madness were still in their teens. The band had grown up in and around Kentish Town, NW5. The streets were vibrant with style and music, and they had immersed themselves in pop culture – “when you’re in a recession, underground styles and hunger become badges,” notes Cathal – especially the urban sound of the time: reggae, and its uptempo cousin, ska. Lee Thompson, who was something of a tearaway in his youth, admits that his introduction to reggae came during a stint in a reform school where he hung out with black youngsters from Brixton, who monopolised the “ropey old record deck in the corner”. Suggs recalls watching reggae bands like Black Slate in Camden, and visiting dub reggae shops in Finsbury Park and Seven Sisters that were full of “serious cats hanging around playing songs about burning down Babylon – it was a potent scene”.
But there were myriad other influences – working-class music-hall entertainment; Cockney humour; Morecambe and Wise; Motown; Americana; punk; prog rock; Brian Ferry and Roxy Music; and, in particular, a British rock’n’roll band, Kilburn and the High Roads, fronted by the late, great Ian Dury.
“In those days, on the radio, you’d have all these British artists putting on an American accent,” recalls Thompson. “Then along came Ian Dury celebrating real life in England. That was a huge inspiration.”
“He made a massive impact on me,” says Suggs. “Him and Ray Davies writing about the inconsequential bits of ordinary working life, and making them poetic. The songs I wrote, Baggy Trousers and things like that, were very much influenced by him.”
Although never a 2-Tone band per se, Madness found fame alongside The Specials at the forefront of the 2-Tone craze (a blend of ska, punk and new wave) – the first truly multicultural British youth movement. 2-Tone was “about the working classes dressing up, being cool and not getting into violence”, observed Cathal at the time: a description that could easily apply to the current sounds of urban Britain: dubstep, UK hip hop and grime. “When they were 18, they represented the estates and the area of London they were from just like Dizzee Rascal does today,” observes DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall, who has remixed Madness recently (more about which later). Like grime, the skinhead following that 2-Tone attracted had its social problems. Both cultures have endured a certain media notoriety. “The modern skinhead is the hoodie,” according to Plan B. “He’s the guy who listens to grime. And he’s the guy that’s demonized in the media now, just like the skinheads were in the 1970s and 80s – nothing’s changed.”
To those inside the loop, as Madness were, it was evident that skinhead culture ran the gamut from the most ardent reggae-loving rude boys to the nastiest right-wing goons. As a band whose first single, The Prince, had been a tribute to the Jamaican ska legend Prince Buster, Madness’s stance was clear: but this was a band that preferred to let its music do the talking, that was uncomfortable with using the spotlight to proselytize, and that certainly wasn’t going to be drawn by journalists into inaccurately condemning an entire culture. “That labeling of people because of what they wore, that was very telling – that said it all,” Woody now reflects.
It is in these sometimes difficult social contexts that several of Madness’s greatest hits from 1979-86 are best understood: Grey Day’s diary of youth unemployment – not as a political rant but as a heartbreaking tale of one young man’s daily struggle: “In the morning I awake/My arms, my legs, my body aches/The sky outside is wet and grey/So begins another weary day.” Or Embarrassment, which held a mirror up to the stigma of interracial relationships that still pervaded in the early 1980s: “Our dad don’t wanna know, he says/This is a serious mater/Too late to reconsider/No one’s gonna wanna know ya”. (It is well documented that the song reflected the reactions of members of Lee Thompson’s family to the birth of his mixed-race niece, Hayley). That such views were abhorrent was never explicitly stated – and the point made far more powerfully.
This being Madness – famed for their “nutty” sense of humour – things were rarely all doom and gloom. Their breathless music videos were a mixture of anarchic comedy and stark realism – “farcical and serious”, according to Suggs. Lee Thompson reprised his famous “flying saxophonist” routine from the Baggy Trousers video at the Olympics closing ceremony. “The harness I used for Baggy Trousers had been invented for the stage production of Peter Pan in the 1850s – and it was fucking painful,” he recalls. “When they lifted me it used to bring a tear to my eye. But the technology has come on in leaps and bounds. At the Olympics it was like I had nothing extra on at all.”
In 1986, after 22 Top 40 singles and six albums, Madness called it a day. But various members found it hard to let go. Suggs, Cathal, Lee and Chris released a Britpop album as The Madness in 1988. Four years later, all seven members reformed to headline Madstock – two huge all-dayers in London’s Finsbury Park that pulled in 60,000 people. The event was so successful that the live Madstock album was released, and Madstock became a biannual tradition throughout the 1990s (it was resurrected in Victoria Park in 2009 to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary
The comeback album proper, Wonderful, in 1999 was warmly received and contained moments of genius in Johnny the Horse, penned by Cathal about a down-and-out he knew who was murdered by thugs for kicks; and Drip Fed Fred, a dark tale of underworld treachery that featured a guest vocal from Madness’s hero, Ian Dury: it would be his last ever recording.
Next came The Dangermen Sessions, Vol 1, in 2005 – a covers album full of half-forgotten classics by the likes of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster and Bob Marley. But it was what happened during the recording of the album that proved more profound than its eventual release: Madness fell back in love with playing together again. The recording of Wonderful had been a protracted affair utilizing all tricks of the modern studio trade: cutting, pasting, looping and endless multiple overdubs. But the Dangermen sessions felt like the first time for years the band had spent simply rehearsing and playing songs. “In the end, we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to just go into a studio, plug in and play – and that’s it?” says Woody. “We wanted to create something exciting again because the whole recording process is so bloody boring now. We wanted to recapture that original One Step Beyond feeling.”
They booked into the Toe Rag studio in Homerton, east London – where the White Stripes recorded the raw, live-sounding Elephant. Here they began working on the songs that would eventually lead to 2009’s triumphant The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Crucially, they learnt to play them live first – all together as a band. “We’d realised that we need to vibe it up,” says Woody. “We’re not this, ‘come into the studio on Tuesday and this track will be done for you – put your vocals on’.”
The Liberty of Norton Folgate proved to be a game changer. It was released to universal critical acclaim. The BBC called it a “magnificent magnum opus” and “the most sophisticated and satisfying album of their career”. The Word magazine described it as “Peter Ackroyd writing for the Kinks, it’s Sherlock Homes in Albert Square, it’s a Mike Leigh movie of Parklife, it’s Passport to Pimlico meets Brick Lane, and it’s Madness’s masterpiece”.
“It was a pop record, but made by people our age,” notes Suggs. “A really dense British pop album. There’s a ton of clichés that people make their best records when they’re young, and that’s often true. We felt it was important not to let the vitality go just because we understand more things – so you might be writing about your first divorce rather than your first girlfriend, but it’s still in a three-minute pop way.”
By now Madness were a hit on the cutting-edge festival circuit – Coachella, Benecassim, Glastonbury. “I think we were the only non-electronic band to have played at Sonar,” says Suggs. “We were on at two in the morning, and going into One Step Beyond having just come out of a house track. But it just seamlessly kicked off, and everyone went beserk.”
“It was amazing when they came on, they absolutely smashed it,” recalls Rob da Bank, of Madness’s performances at both Bestival and Camp Bestival. “If you had to sum up the whole of the UK in just one band, it’s them – and not just for one generation, but several. In 20 years’ time there will still be teenagers listening to Madness.”
Now they are back with a new album, Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da – and they’ve pulled off another quintessentially quirky pop classic. Like its predecessor, it is a half-live, half-studio hybrid. The songs are initially rehearsed live before being recorded, then edited where necessary later. They’ve worked with a total of five producers – longtime collaborator Clive Langer, Stephen Street (Blur), Owen Morris (Oasis), Liam Watson (White Stripes – and owner of Toe Rag studios) and new kid on the block Charlie Andrew (Alt-J, Man Like Me). And there have been contributions from Dave Robinson, their longtime collaborator and the former label boss at Stiff Records.
The album title is a lyric from My Girl 2 – a storming Mike Barson composition. He married the girl in question only recently, and the song depicts a passionate and sometimes volatile relationship, with references to car fights and dirty looks.. Its uptempo floor-filling groove is a typical Madness hybrid – Motown at the fairground with a hint of rock’n’roll.
The reggae vibe returns with a vengeance on the almighty Death of a Rude Boy – a skanking narrative that “glorifies certain aspects of the younger self, the cock-of-the-walk shit, but it also draws on the issue of where that behaviour can get you”, says Cathal. The death theme isn’t to be taken literally. “It’s like the old tarot cards: a coming of age, and leaving that stuff behind you. But acknowledging your debt to that part of your life.” The song has received a killer electronic dub remix from Andrew Weatherall – a 140bpm excursion into the contemporary leftfield. “I’ve always loved that whole electro-meets-dub thing,” says Suggs, “though I don’t necessarily think people of our age should have our noses in every dark corner of popular culture. That gets a bit unseemly at times.”
“Perhaps not – but it doesn’t hurt to have one eye on it,” laughs Weatherall. It’s worth noting that Madness rejected his original two mixes, both largely instrumental dubs, insisting that he include more of the vocal. “I can count on one hand the number of people who have come back to me and said ‘we want the song in it’ and I’ve said ‘no problem’,” says Weatherall, a huge fan of the band. “Normally, it’s like ‘well, this is what I do – take it or leave it’. But in Madness’s case I’m so glad they did come back to me because it has resulted in a better mix.”
This is an album full of melancholy, dysfunction and semi-autobiographical tales. “Baby, we are living a life that most could only dream of,” sings Suggs on Circus Freaks. “And baby, look at the debris of what we have become.” Madness’s gift for poeticising everyday British life remains.
Leon is the tale of a teacher stuck in a dead-end job who dreams of escape. “He is stuck inside his head and in a whirl/he feels like running out and owning all the world.” “It could be about any dead-end job,” says Woody. “I worked in a school [Hayes School in Kent] teaching music technology for four years, and although I really enjoyed my time there, it made me think how I would go out of my tiny mind if I couldn’t escape from time to time, back into the somewhat unreal and very privileged life I have with Madness.”
Powder Blue is an account of a night Suggs spent at his flat in Holloway drinking, smoking, listening to Aretha Franklin records. “We’d be up quite late, it was one of those things where the sun comes up and there’s a bit of old debris lying around and you’re just lying on the sofa.” “The world has given up/And there’s just me and you/Together slowly drifting/into the powder blue.” The theme of London also crops up – as always on a Madness record – in a string-laden soujourn across the capital’s “deserted streets and burning shells/familiar shops I know so well”, in Small World; and again in La Luna, during which Suggs reflects, with feeling: “Peeking at the window/my mind a wandering star/so many clear cut chances/I’ve put right over the bar”.
When they put all the songs they had written together, the band realised they could function collectively as a single narrative – the tale of a young rascal of questionable morality. “A fellow who doesn’t have a good life – he lives a life of sin,” says Mike. “And he ends up in a bad way. At one point we were going to call the album The Rake’s Progress after the Hogarth paintings [which depict a similar tale]. Then one thing led to another and we started talking about a film, something that could tell the rake’s story in the modern age. It’d be great if we could do that.”
What is Madness in 2012? Put that to them and you’ll get six very different answers – as the quotes at the beginning show. The following is just one postscript, from one bandmate: “It’s a ground for evolution, it’s a fucking nightmare, it’s conflict, it’s fights, it’s arguments, it’s inordinate hours of rehearsing, it’s fighting to go and do gigs where there’s no money involved but you’re doing it for the future, it’s keeping crew together with you for a crazy amount of years, it’s really like being in a family, but also it carries the insanity of being in a family, and dysfunctionality, it’s mad as fucking hatters and that’s a fact.” So says Cathal.
“What I’m saying is, we get the best out of each other,” he concludes. “What we share together is an amazing thing. And for all our cranky and obdurate ways, that’s what makes us who we are.”