Sunday, 4 August 2013

MADNESS: Complete Madness





(#265: 22 May 1982, 2 weeks; 12 June 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: Embarrassment/Shut Up/My Girl/Baggy Trousers/It Must Be Love/The Prince/Bed And Breakfast Man/Night Boat To Cairo/House Of Fun/One Step Beyond/Cardiac Arrest/Grey Day/Take It Or Leave It/In The City/Madness/The Return Of The Los Palmas 7

Madness, madness, they call it madness, the kind that gets you lying prostate on a park bench, trying to sleep in the rain, or dropping dead of a heart attack on a crowded bus; the kind that makes you scream “SHUT UP!” at the world. The kind that keeps you in waking nightmares when you’re trying to sleep, having spent the day trying to be as jolly and extroverted as possible.

The wackiness of this madness is but a breath away from the sort of madness which gets you carted away in a van (“There are degrees of madness,” Ian S Munro has his doomed visionary painter Donald – doomed such that he can only function as a patient in a mental hospital in Lenzie – to the protagonist of his radio monologue The Artist In Search Of A City. “Mine’s maybe not the worst – it only harms myself”).

“IF YOU’D’VE BEEN WHERE I’D’VE BEEN, YOU’D’VE SEEN THE FAIRY QUEEN!” is the childhood Glasgow mantra Donald goes on to recollect – the missed and forever lost chance to find one’s Holy Grail. But then you might see the Holy Grail as the turning of life itself, even seen from the shadows of gloomy tower blocks in Camden.

Although the sixteen songs on this collection – twelve hits, two album tracks and two B-sides – were recorded over a period of some two-and-a-half years, there is a strong case for arguing that the stories they tell could have taken place within only four or five blocks – in Camden – and that they are not only interrelated but may also tell the story from the perspective of Suggs’ protagonist being the same character. The school-leaver of “Baggy Trousers” who hasn’t quite grasped what his schooling was for may be the bewildered would-be boyfriend of “My Girl” who may be the only person who doesn’t see where he’s going wrong, may descend into being the hopeless petty criminal of “Shut Up” (where it’s still everyone else’s fault but his) or even the semi-derelict, borderline psychopath of “Grey Day.” Even if he manages to get everything else in life, there remains a fundamental self-hatred which will do for him on the bus to work (were office commuters still wearing bowler hats in 1981?).

Crucial to the linear development outlined in these songs is Suggs’ own deadpan delivery. Like the younger Roger Daltrey, Suggs doesn’t really try to “sing” these songs as such, but mouths them, slightly despondently but with a necessary overlay of unquenchable cheer. His two overall messages are “Why me?” and “Why not?” And this is important to the music’s success, since it’s fair to say that Madness songs never really go anywhere, but rather circle on themselves until the singer is trapped in a loop. “My Girl” describes what’s wrong – from one flawed perspective – but there is no ending, happy or otherwise; the song simply ends, unresolved. In both the single and video versions of “Cardiac Arrest,” a happy ending of sorts is salvaged – in the video, Chas Smash literally springs back into life just as he is about to be buried – but on the original album mix, we simply hear piano and drum heartbeats, gradually slowing down and then stopping, with no way back.

Perhaps it is simply a reflection of the way Camden sometimes seems to turn in upon itself; beyond the High Street, Lock and Market, and before it turns into Hampstead, it is a deprived and grim-looking part of town, though, importantly, not bereft of life. The world which these songs describe is not, by and large, a materially wealthy one and quite often is a brutal and unforgiving one. Hence, if Madness wish to come across as zany and wacky, it is essential to remember that their good humour is built on a foundation of profound pain. Comedy can be as much of a mask as it can be a guide.

If we take the story chronologically, it all seemed so simple at the beginning – or did it? Given that two of the three earliest songs here are Prince Buster covers, and the third a Prince Buster tribute, Madness’ development does, shamefully, remind us how minimal a role ska and reggae have played in this tale thus far – a part wholly out of proportion to the importance of these musics and their centrality to the mindset, wellbeing and coherence of post-war Britain. And yet, like former 2-Tone labelmates The Specials, Madness used ska only as a skeleton, a framework for wherever they felt like going next; by the time they reach “House Of Fun,” they are straddling the thin stylistic line between English music hall and polka.

To those of us just a few years too young to get the full impact of the Pistols, however, 2-Tone was our “punk,” and when Madness appeared on TOTP with their first two singles, it was yet again time to open the window and let in the metaphorical sun. Over in the States, Lennon heard their extraordinary recasting of “One Step Beyond” – Chas Smash’s intro mostly derived from Buster’s “The Scorcher” via “Double Barrel” (the group were the epitome of the 1969-71 skinhead generation’s younger brothers coming to adulthood) – if not their even more remarkable, break-down-every-wall performance of the song on TV, and knew that something new and refreshing was happening (even though he chose to misremember the intro as saying: “Don’t do that…do THIS!” But hasn’t that always been the point of pop music, as protection against ossification? The song is taken with great, gruelling aggression which still carries within itself the aura of triumph. Likewise, “Madness,” the song, is taken with an  irreverence which ventures to the border of surreality (saxophonist Lee “Kix” Thompson’s stubborn refusal to modulate keys during his solo) as if to say: well, we are reinventing this music.

But “My Girl,” which appeared as a single, at the beginning of 1980, was the first palpable evidence that the group were stretching beyond any “ska” boundaries; the song’s rhythms are subtly derived from ska, but the song’s melodic and rhythmic impetus have much more in common with Ray Davies, a bus ride away in Muswell Hill, and its demons are audibly troubled; keyboardist Mike Barson has said that the song was initially inspired by Costello’s “Watching The Detectives,” and there is always the same, if more faintly expressed, terror that things might turn violently sour; the reality behind some people’s notions of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”

The predominantly instrumental “Night Boat To Cairo” is also rather unsettling, with its over-eager accelerandi and rallentandi, its violent hammering of familiar Eastern musical tropes, as if wanting to blow the Nile up once the last boat, with its grinning, toothless oarsman, has run its course. An improbable, courtly string section – the Empire running through Shostakovich’s lines one more speedy time before being detonated? – which appears near the song’s end amplifies the disquiet.

“Baggy Trousers” was an especially big hit, and deservedly so, since its end-of-term knees-up air disguises a deeply ambivalent meditation on schooldays – the singer didn’t really enjoy school or its associated japes, appears to have learned nothing from it (whereas in reality Suggs had once been a grammar school boy) – with some of the most sophisticated chord changes to be found outside jazz.

“Embarrassment,” which sees the group trying, of all things, sixties Motown , is the sad yet inevitable consequence of these japes and their wider relation to society, yet its placing as the opening track on Complete Madness is, I believe, significant – its story of society closing its doors in the face of a girl who has become pregnant by a black man, coming less than a year after what were essentially race riots in Britain, is a slap in the country’s face in itself. One can look at recent events in Madness’ former back yard and wonder whether the British have progressed an inch over the last three decades.

Two of their four 1981 singles offered as dark a vision – perhaps darker by virtue of being inconclusive – as late Specials-period Jerry Dammers. “Grey Day,” with its synthesised wind noises, purposely over-harsh trumpet and baritone sax figures and tolling bells, could have emerged from a cauldron adjacent to New Order’s “In A Lonely Place” and depicts a life without purpose or relief. Whereas “Shut Up” remains one of New Pop’s most disturbing singles – New Pop? Barson said “Grey Day” originally owed something to Roxy’s “The Bogus Man,” and underlines my suspicion that beneath this nutty skanking band are an art-rock group earnestly trying to get out – since its climactic paraphrasing of Weller’s “Start!” is aimed at the listener with a distinctly accusatory air, in the manner of: “you LET me happen.” It was once a ten-minute epic, with song title included in the chorus, but conveys so much more in its abbreviated final form; on the 7 album (not an uplifting listen), Barson’s piano and the Carla Bley chord changes just carry on, bumptious and disregarding.

Such darkness illuminates why their cover of “It Must Be Love” came as such a relief. Or did it? The video to the single, which appeared at the end of November 1981, that month of “in memoria,” begins with the group standing around a graveside, filmed from the perspective of the deceased. And although it is perhaps the only song on this record to concern itself with love, its arrangement is too jarring and discursive for easy comfort – dub cut-out tactics leading to David Bedford’s fulsome, formal string section, a three-note rockabilly guitar solo from Chris Foreman, Thompson’s sax suggesting – as elsewhere – a buried need to go all Davey Payne or George Khan and just BURST free of its surrounding picture. All as part of an interpretation of a song first recorded a decade previously by its author, Labi Siffre (who happily took a cameo role in the video), Britain’s first prominent black gay singer/songwriter.

“Cardiac Arrest” was sneaked out as a kind of audience-testing single in early 1982 but nobody was fooled by the superimposed happy ending and it became their first single since “The Prince” to miss the top ten; it may in retrospect have been wiser for the group to flip the single and promote the B-side “In The City,” written and performed for a Japanese car commercial, although that performance is boisterous to the point of worry. But their next single, “House Of Fun,” premiered here, gave them their first, and by common consent a most welcome and long-overdue, number one; here the Suggs of “Baggy Trousers” – or maybe we should call his character the Worried Man of Camden – is just out of school, grown up and eager to learn the lessons of life; but he’s at the chemist’s and can’t quite summon up the nerve to ask for a packet of condoms, stammering out incomprehensible codewords and stymied by the repeated appearances of the old lady next door in the shop, against whom Suggs has no option but to keep his countenance. Unlike the album version, which simply fades out on the chorus, the 45 abruptly crashes into a fairground calliope which loops to fade; is maturity going to be as disappointing as childhood was? Nonetheless, the single deservedly sat on top of the greatest UK singles chart there has ever been or is ever likely to be (you doubt my word? Read it for yourselves).

Which leaves the two stray album tracks; “Bed And Breakfast Man” from 1979’s One Step Beyond… and “Take It Or Leave It,” from 1980’s Absolutely and also the title song from the band’s autobiographical 1981 movie. Both show startling sophistication for a band so seemingly wet behind their ears (although, as the North London Invaders, they had been going in various forms since 1976; Chas Smash, far from being a random stage dancer, had once been the Invaders’ bassist); the carousing, tonality-challenging organ runs of the former and the jagged 14/8 structure of the latter, both coupled with Suggs’ studiously disinterested vocals, suggest clear ancestors of Blur (it is unthinkable that the teenage Albarn and Coxon, growing up in distant Colchester, wouldn’t have spun Complete Madness over and over; it is, amongst its many merits, one of the great party albums to get to number one, provided that you don’t listen to the words too closely). And we know that, in a largely baffled and uncomprehending USA, the fourteen-year-old Gwen Stefani, among a few others, was taking careful notes. The sense that all this celebration is only the prelude to apocalypse.

I have left the album’s last track until last; “The Return Of The Los Palmas 7” was the first of their quartet of 1981 singles, and is mostly instrumental (the one-word lyric I will leave you to discover, if you don’t already know it), but is one of this record’s most important songs in that its cautious optimism finally places Madness on the side of life. In the accompanying video we see the group tucking into their full English breakfasts in a greasy spoon caff called Venus – haven’t I seen that street before somewhere? – or dressed up proto-Brideshead style in tails and bowties, in a posh mansion, or indeed as cowboy gunmen, rolling back down Primrose Hill into town.

But cut into these sequences are not-quite-random montages of moments – Harold Wilson, Morecambe and Wise, Bobby Moore, Margaret Thatcher, failed car stunt vaults, Ashes triumphs, Apollo orbits; the list goes on and on – which seem to suggest, well, here’s Britain, and here’s the world, and we all know that people are the same wherever you go and that, well, there’s good and bad in everything.

As the song ends, the musicians come out of the cafĂ© and walk back out into the street. Where are they? But then the camera pulls back and we see that they are but specks in the gigantic yet reassuring shadow of the Trellick Tower, for a generation the comforting signifier of coming back into London, and for personal reasons I find this rather moving, as well as a pointer to “For Tomorrow” and, eventually, “Under The Westway.” That is their Madness – and study that cover photograph carefully; are they really happy or truly mad? – in that you can throw whatever you like at them, and however far down they sink they will never, ever, be out. At least, not for now. Or perhaps take the view that, as in Lear, it's the figure of the Fool which tells the most truth.

But next we meet again with a man keen to make himself sink without a trace, and a stylish trace at that.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

A set of singles (and extras, or Easter eggs #rememberwhendvdwasnew) which is very hard to beat, and deservedly canonical in Britain across the board, and pretty much universally loved. I think that overwhelming status here still seems to the comparably mainstream American rock canon, then struggling its way through Top 10s featuring Joey Scarbury and Bertie Higgins, as antithetical as the idea that, beyond the Anglosphere, Shocking Blue (not unconnected to entries #488 & #516) might have a real pop-cultural status; like, those MTV one-hit wonders did *this*? But the fact that Madness are so loved by British people of that generation raised in extreme privilege who clearly don't get it is a sign of their status, however depressing it is that those people will not go away, are so much more powerful than we once thought they'd be "in the long run" (c.f. entry #326).

The already archaic lyrics (and video) to "Cardiac Arrest" have always leapt out at me, but maybe that's the point: that they make no concession to how these social norms had already changed gives it an eternal, almost (dark) fairytale / morality tale quality. Sometimes I'd wish they'd had the guts to have the single version end as the album version did, though its airplay was still limited, probably explaining the chart position (fans had the album, casual audiences didn't hear it so much).