I haven’t done much music reviewing or commenting for a while, but I wanted to give a nod to the latest disc by one of my all-time favorite bands, Madness.
Madness, you say? The eighties pop/ska outfit with one American hit (the rather massive “Our House”) to their name?
Yes, that’s what I say.
When I was a kid Madness videos on MTV were a treasure that popped up rarely between Madonna hits. Hell, until “Our House,” you couldn’t even buy Madness discs in the U.S. But I was immediately taken with the group’s mugging lead singer, Suggs, whom I was pretty sure was the coolest motherfucker on the planet, followed by the group’s jack-of-all trades stage dancer/songwriter/trumpet player/occasional lead vocalist, Chas Smash (Carl Smyth). A glimpse of the seven man band doing their Madness walk in unison, or of Chas skanking in his shades and rudeboy hat, or of Lee Thompson hunched over his sax blasting away, was enough to transport me to grimy Olde England.
The first great blast of Madness, from 1979.
Relatively huge in Britain during the early 80s, Madness were the off the wall, poppier counterpoint to the Specials, and released a handful of terrific albums and a long run of great singles during their heyday, before they gradually faded away following the departure of a key member (keyboardist Mike Barson). While the Specials said what they had to say without changing their sound (much), and then disappeared, Madness took their initial burst of “nutty” ska (demonstrated best on the absolutely classic “One Step Beyond…” disc) and retooled it in a more pop-friendly direction. They never stopped paying tribute to their roots, and the horns were always near the surface, but more and more Barson’s piano-driven melodies danced to the forefront.
After said string of great albums (One Step Beyond…, Absolutely, 7, and The Rise and Fall), Madness started to slip into the trap just about everyone in the eighties fell victim to, with the slightly overproduced, rather compressed sounding Keep Moving LP, and despite a couple of tasty numbers contained therein (notably “Wings of a Dove” and the evocative “Michael Caine,” sung by Chas), the album didn’t really work. At that point Barson split, leaving the band to struggle on without him for a couple of albums, which, again, produced a few high points, but not much matching their classic period, and the group split up.
The House of Fun video, the band at their nuttiest.
1999’s “Drip Fed Fred,” featuring the great Ian Dury, one of Madness’s latter day highlights for me.
Eventually, the lads got together again, starting with a series of annual “Madstock” concerts in 1992, culminating with the decent enough reunion LP, Wonderful in 1999. A few years later a covers disc (The Dangerman Sessions, Part One) showed up, and a couple of years after that a new single debuted. To my ears, virtually everything recorded after The Rise and Fall sounded attached to the era in which it was recorded, and as a result even the best stuff sounded a bit compromised.
So out of nowhere, the boys have come together with their original production team, some thirty years after their first release, for a new album. And it’s fantastic. The Liberty of Norton Folgate is something of a concept album, but it’s also the first thing they’ve done in decades that doesn’t sound like a slave to the times. It’s an update of their early eighties sound, but it doesn’t sound like a bunch of guys in their late forties and early fifties trying to cling to their youth. Instead it’s a mature pop record that reflects a sense of looking back while moving forward. If anything, there’s a bit more brassy bounce than they’ve displayed since the early days. The horns are still there, as are Barson’s keyboards, and Suggs is still out front, lending a touch of melancholy to the songs that suits his age but fits the feel of the music as the band bounces through their London songscapes, ending with the extended title track.
Along the way there are several songs that prove almost as catchy as Madness in their prime, beginning with the addictive tribute to fellowship in London, “We Are London” (which features a great uplifting chorus), and continuing through “Sugar and Spice” (the tale of married life together), “Forever Young” (in which Suggs urges the listener to not do what he has done, and to stay, well, forever young), and on down the line. Frankly, it’s hard to believe it’s been so long since Madness got together and recorded original material, because this is the sound of a veteran band, confident in their identity, not attempting to pander to the market.
To be honest, a Madness revival was the last thing I expected to see headed our way, but it’s welcome. I just wish the group was hitting the States in support of the disc. Judging from the evidence I’ve seen from recent shows, Madness still has energy to burn live, where they’re not afraid to dig into their old school bag of nutty tricks, led by Chas Smash’s booming call to arms from 1979: “HEY YOU! DON’T WATCH THAT! WATCH THIS!…” before covering the new stuff, which stands up proudly next to the old stuff.
Anyway, check it out if you’re so inclined. And here’s a video for one of the new tracks: