Monday, November 5, 2012

The Sadness Of Madness?

"Baggy Trousers," the first single from Madness' second album, Absolutely, probably seemed like more of the same nuttiness as before, with its aggressive vibraphone playing and its gleeful, if unsentimental, recollection of boyhood antics:
Lots of girls and lots of boys
Lots of smells and lots of noise
Playing football in the park
Kicking pushbikes after dark
Baggy trousers, dirty shirt
Pulling hair and eating dirt
Teacher comes to break it up
Back of the 'ead with a plastic cup

Oh what fun we had
But did it really turn out bad
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
Trying different ways
To make a difference to the days

"Embarrassment," however, was a different bag of chips:
Primarily written by Lee Thompson, the plot of the song reflected the unfolding turmoil following the news that his teenage sister, Tracy Thompson, had become pregnant and was carrying a black man's child. The subsequent rejection by her family, and the shame felt, was reflected in the song. As Thompson was on the road with the band, he only heard snippets of the story, through phone calls and letters, but this was enough for him to piece the story together.

Received a letter just the other day,
Don't seem they wanna know you no more,
They've laid it down given you their score,
Within the first two lines it bluntly read.

You're not to come see us no more,
Keep away from our door,
Don't come 'round here no more
What on earth did you do that for?

Our aunt, she don't wanna know, she says,
What will the neighbours think, they'll think,
We don't that's what they'll think, we don't,
But I will, 'cause I know they think I don't

Our uncle he don't wanna know, he says,
We are a disgrace to the human race, he says,
How can you show your face,
When you're a disgrace to the human race?
Wot's this all about? Madness attempting social commentary? Well, if you're worried that a song about teenage pregnancy and racism might not be any "fun," worry no more. In fact, the tension between the indignation in the lyrics and the peppiness of the music is, in my opinion, something that makes "Embarrassment" soar. Hell, there's even tension between the lyrics and the lyrics: while the parents in the song are harsh and unforgiving, the band itself is, one can assume, more sympathetic to the girl's plight. Had Madness mastered the concept of the unreliable narrator?

Not only were the band branching out lyrically, but musically as well: instead of the usual ska vibe, "Embarrassment" employs a Motown beat straight out of early Supremes songs such as "Baby Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go?" I find myself instinctively tapping my feet to a story about a family excommunicating their daughter. Not an easy thing to make someone do.

Indeed, there is nothing like the sound of an already strong band truly coming into its own. It's not that Madness were profoundly altering their style or their subject matter, but that they were adding new elements while still retaining all the old elements that made them "Madness." It's like they were simultaneously aging and staying young ... at the same time!

More overtly glum was the first single from their third album, "Grey Day":
After eating I go out,
People passing by me shout
I can't stand this agony
Why don't they talk to me?

In the park I have to rest
I lie down and I do my best,
The rain is falling on my face
I wish I could sink without a trace

In the morning I awake,
My arms my legs my body aches,
The sky outside is wet and grey,
So begins another weary day
So begins another weary day
Sounds like Madness suddenly needed to be put on suicide watch. (Side note: how come the British seem to do these types of songs so well?)

If "Embarrassment" was a tragic song with upbeat music, "Shut Up" was a comical song with sinister music. According to Wikipedia, the single "tells a story of a criminal who, despite obvious evidence, tries to convince people he is not guilty." While the lyrics of the song, and the melody of the verses, suggest a silly atmosphere, the chorus feels very dark and foreboding, with heavy guitar chords and forceful piano playing which seems to bounce between off-key ragtime goofiness and classical piano-style grandeur:
I tell you I didn't do it
'Cause I wasn't there
Don't blame me, it just isn't fair
You listened to their side
Now listen to mine
Can't think of a story
Sure you'll find me some time

Now pass the blame and don't blame me
Just close your eyes and count to three
(One two three)
Then I'll be gone and you'll forget
The broken window, T.V. set

At this point, Madness were churning out clever, snappy, complex British pop gems without even breaking a sweat. A sweat, I tell you! The band may have had bigger and more famous hits than songs like "Embarrassment" and "Shut Up," but these are probably my favorite Madness singles nonetheless.

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