Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Madness, I Tell You, Madness!

With all due respect to the Specials, if you're looking for the best British Ska Revival band, you're looking for Madness.

Having not been too taken by the Specials, I waited a little while on Madness. But about five years ago, I downloaded Divine Madness, one of their singles collections, and I must tell you that I did not regret it.

Madness are like a big ball of zany. When I listen to a Madness song, I picture seven funny Cockney pub dwellers dressed in bow ties and bowler hats all standing on the doorstep of a house, and the leader suddenly shouts "Go!" and they burst through the door and start rearranging all the furniture and tilting the paintings on the wall and turning the sinks on and off like the Cat in the Hat, and then they put everything back in place and exit the front door with split-second precision, and the house is completely quiet again and you don't even have time to figure out what just happened.

Madness, a band of seven like the Specials, and featuring lead singer Graham McPherson (otherwise known as Suggs), dubbed their own style of music "the Nutty Sound." Although ska may be a large part of the Nutty Sound, there is no mistaking Madness for mere reggae revivalists. You see, the band also had a prominent fondness for what you might call "music hall" or "Vaudeville." Honking saxophone breaks, plinking piano solos, vibraphones, "horror soundtrack" vocal interjections ... Madness weren't a ska revival band, they were a Victorian-era carnival sideshow!

The band's first single, "The Prince," was released on 2 Tone Records, the label founded by the Specials' keyboardist Jerry Dammers. Apparently, bands could sign a contract with 2 Tone allowing them to leave the label after releasing just one single, which is what Madness ultimately did. But artistically, the connection between the two groups would remain.

"One Step Beyond..." Madness' second single and first UK Top 10 hit, was, more importantly, the opening track on their debut album, and it functioned as the perfect statement of purpose. "Hey you! Don't watch that, watch this! This is the heavy heavy monster sound!" And with that ... they're off. Before the fat kid in bed can even figure out what's going on, the song comes to a crashing halt. I can just see young, impressionable British children sitting in front of their TVs at home in 1980, seeing this for the first time, thinking, "Wait, who were those guys?"

"Those guys" were Madness, my friends, and they were here to stay. Pressured by their new record company, the group released another track from One Step Beyond..., "Night Boat To Cairo," as the headlining cut of an EP. Something tells me the band didn't actually travel to Egypt to film this clip:
After the decision to issue the Work Rest and Play EP, a promotional music video was needed. However, there was a lack of time before the release, and not enough to make an effective video. Therefore, Madness filmed a karaoke type video in front of a blatantly chroma keyed backdrop of an Egyptian pyramid, with the lyrics appearing on screen in "bouncing ball" style as Suggs sang them.  During the long instrumental sections of the song, the band often ran around the set, marching and performing their signature "Nutty Train".

Despite the video's poor effects and unprofessional feel, it became very popular with fans, possibly due to the carefree nature and fooling around of the band onscreen (likely attributable to the large amount of alcohol they consumed while filming).
I see. Let's hear it for the bouncing ball, because without it, I genuinely could not decipher these lyrics. In my head it was always "Something something something ... banks of the River Nile ... something something."

But just as the world thought it was picking up on Madness' whole modus operandi, their third single, "My Girl," revealed a quieter, more vulnerable, more observational side to the group:
My girl's mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard

Why can't I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
'Cause everything I say
She doesn't understand
She doesn't realize
She takes it all the wrong way

"Pain"? "Wrong"? Who kidnapped Madness and fed them downers? At the time, the downbeat nature of "My Girl" probably seemed like an exception to the nuttiness. In truth, it was a sign of things to come.

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