Saturday, January 19, 2013

Madness' "Only" Hit AKA That Song About A House

In America in 1983, Madness came out of "nowhere" and released their "only" hit, "Our House."

When friends in college used to play "Our House" on the stereo, they would get this look on their faces which seemed to suggest thoughts such as "Who sings about their house? What a silly topic for a song!" But instead of this being an amusing insight, this was only an unintentional comment on the sad state of American pop music, where 95% of radio hits are generic love songs. When confronted with music that is not about a boy/girl relationship, the typical American listener does not know how to respond. He or she experiences discomfort and embarrassment, and covers up these feelings with defensive humor. The question, my friends, isn't "Who sings about their house?," but rather, "Why doesn't everybody sing about their house?"

I'm not surprised Madness didn't have many American hits; they were more British than the Queen's armpit hair. I am somewhat surprised, however, that their one big American hit happened to be "Our House." I mean, why "Our House"?

In one sense, it's simply another strong Madness single in a long line of strong Madness singles. It may not be their best song, but it is probably in the running. Is it slightly less "British" than their other singles? Did the presence of a string section make the song seem more "pop"?

On the other hand, "Our House" is arguably the kind of song that Madness had been working toward its whole career. Its sentiment is universal, its sound is stately and sweeping. There's nary a hint of ska to be found. Although it was not their biggest British hit, my guess is that even in the UK, it is probably their most well-known song.

I think the answer is that, while "Our House" is somewhat odd and kooky by typical American radio standards, it is less odd and kooky than songs about baggy trousers and joke shops. In other words, by Madness standards, "Our House" is relatively normal. It is just the right amount of odd: odd enough to be memorable, but not so odd that it simply bounces right off you.

Likewise, the video doesn't strike me as being one of Madness' strongest or poorest; if anything, the clip's goofy tone doesn't really do justice to the poignant, nostalgic flavor of the lyrics:
Father wears his Sunday best
Mother's tired, she needs a rest
The kids are playing up downstairs
Sister's sighing in her sleep
Brother's got a date to keep
He can't hang around

Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, in the middle of our street

I remember way back then when everything was true and when
We would have such a very good time, such a fine time
Such a happy time
And I remember how we'd play, simply waste the day away
Then we'd say nothing would come between us, two dreamers

Wait, so if "way back then" was "such a happy time," then what does that say about the present? Does the present really stink? And who are the "two dreamers," and did something eventually come between them? These lines suggest that "Our House" is actually not a silly song about people's houses, but an elegy for lost youth and innocence.

You see, Madness songs are not mindless little ditties; they are three-minute works of literature. Madness singles are like mini-plays. Being fully aware of this, I was not surprised to learn about the existence of a Madness jukebox musical, which is called - surprise - Our House. Here's an excerpt of the plot summary:
Our House is the story of Joe Casey who, on the night of his sixteenth birthday, takes Sarah, the girl of his dreams, out on their first date. In an effort to impress her with bravado, he breaks into a building site overlooking his home on Casey Street, which is owned by Mister Pressman, a high-end property developer. The police turn up, at which point Joe’s life splits into two: the Good Joe, who stays to help, and Bad Joe, who flees.

Good Joe, having stayed to help Sarah, is sent to a ‘correctional facility’ for two years. On his release, finding that his past prevents him from getting a good job, he struggles to make ends meet. Despite managing to buy himself a second-hand car, he convinces himself that he is an embarrassment to all who care about him – especially Sarah, whose new college lifestyle reading law is complicated by Callum, a fellow student. In an effort to keep up with this guy, Good Joe is beguiled by his ‘mate’ Reecey into helping stage a break-in for some easy money – is caught and this time sent down.
I can already see the choice of numbers: "House of Fun," then "Driving In My Car," followed by "Embarrassment," then "Shut Up" - why, a Madness musical writes itself! Somehow or other the plot revolves around Joe's mother trying to keep a developer from destroying the cherished family ... you guessed it.

I think there's another reason why Madness are mainly known in the U.S. for "Our House": it was probably their last truly great single. Americans caught Madness Fever at precisely the wrong time. Sure, the group stuck around for a few more years, but the spirit faltered. The production grew dated, the lyrics became more generic - go and listen if you want. In that sense, "Our House" wasn't just an elegy for lost youth, but also for the band's artistic peak. I think if Madness had been able to follow up "Our House" with, say, "Night Boat To Cairo" or "Cardiac Arrest," they might have made a bigger splash over here. But instead, they had to sit back and let their earlier catalog spread the legacy. For those who bothered to find it.


Herr Zrbo said...

The exterior shots of the rows of houses looks the same as where my mom's family is from, in greater London. Even the interior looks like my grandma's old house

I can totally imagine these bored British boys with nothing to do in their neighborhood, perhaps having seen some monty python on their tvs, running around causing music and mischief like in these videos.

Little Earl said...

Did your grandma's house have a crowd? Was there always something happening, and was it usually quite loud? Was your grandma so house proud? Did nothing ever slow her down, and was a mess not allowed?