Madness – One Step Beyond…

One Step Beyond

As I’ve previously mentioned, I spent two years in Nottingham where my punk/New Wave oriented taste in music meant that I stood out among the more staid tastes that prevailed in the East Midlands.
My period as an Articled Clerk was divided in two. During my first year, I learned about Common Law and Criminal, sharing an-almost cellar room that I dubbed ‘The Pit’, a term that caught on, with three others, two of them (initially) being fellow Articled Clerks. One of them, Simon, had only been there about three weeks longer than me. A local lad, he was very good, with an obvious future, and he went on to be offered a Partnership in due course.
We were good mates during my time in Nottingham, though after that first year was up, and we were switched to the Property side of the practice, we had far fewer chances to chat. We both sat in the corner of the rooms of different Partners, on different floors, with little or no professional overlap.
Which made that Friday lunchtime in the late summer of 1979 unusual in itself, for after bringing back my lunchtime butties, the whim took me to go up to the third floor and stick my head in on Simon. His boss was on holiday, leaving Simon covering his work, so he was behind the big desk, and I purloined his usual chair. It was surprisingly cool and dark for a room that was directly above my second-floor habitat.
We chatted away about the job, how we were doing with our respective bosses and other unimportant stuff. Then the subject of last night’s Top of the Pops came up. There was a band on, Simon said, that I knew you’d like. Apparently, the reason he knew I’d like them was that they were rubbish. They didn’t know what they were doing, they couldn’t even play their instruments.
This was intriguing, and somewhat amusing. It was also insulting, but I didn’t mind about that. I’d always been at odds with my friends over music, so I was used to it, and in living on my own for the first time I’d started to develop the outline of a self-reliance that made me (reasonably) impervious to people taking the piss.
But who were these no-hoper amateurs? We spent two or three minutes trying to remember who’d been on the programme, who’d offended Simon’s tastes so much yet were likely to go down a treat with me. Until I finally got it: Madness!
Yes, he agreed. It was their TOTP début, following the first entry of The Prince, and I admitted that I’d enjoyed the song, just as he’d predicted. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in nearly thirty years, and I’m sure the incident is long forgotten in his mind. But I wouldn’t mind reminding him that, on this occasion, I got it right.
One Step Beyond… was the follow-up to The Prince both as a single and as début album, for which it was the opening track. The single truncates Chas Smash’s now legendary holler of “Hey you! Don’t watch that! Watch this!” before the band slide into a slab of pure, light-footed Ska, dominated by Lee Thompson’s inexpressibly delightful saxaphone, and charge away with abandon.
The Specials had already transformed the sound of 1979 with the irrepressible Gangsters (the melody of which was, amusingly, based on the Prince Buster top 20 single Al Capone, of which One Step Beyond… was the b-side), but where the Specials were serious, Madness  (who’d taken their name from another Prince Buster song) were the fun guys, the pure, simple entertainers, the Nutty Boys.
It’s an image that the band deliberately encouraged, and there was more than a grain of truth to it. Their adoption of nicknames –  Suggs, Msieur Barso, Chrissy Boy, Bedders, Kix, Woody and Chas Smash – and the sheer verve of an album that was the sound of young guys having the greatest amount of fun, living the dream of playing the music they love, overwhelmed.
Madness were fun, for no other reason than having fun, and my old mate Simon could very easily have been justified in thinking of them as a flash in the pan. Nobody saw any depth in Madness until the surprising eighth single, Grey Day, which featured on their third album.
But if you listen properly to One Step Beyond…, it should have been clear immediately that there was more to this band than just the Nutty Boys, and the early attraction they held for Ska-loving, National Front oriented skinheads. Did nobody ever listen properly to My Girl?
It was the second track off the album, the third single, a number 3 hit (in the New Musical Express chart, it hit no. 1). One of five tracks composed or co-composed by keyboard player and band-leader Mike Barson, it maintains a expressive balance between slightly jerky, awkward rhythms as Suggs grapples with the problems he has with his girlfriend, and a sudden smoothness as the band close in on his attempts to negotiate a solution.
In it’s deliberate keying of the arrangement to the different phases of the lyric, it’s considerably more subtle than anyone ever gave Madness credit for, and that’s before we join Suggs in his heartfelt dilemma: that he loves his girlfriend, but occasionally want his own space just to do nothing, or watch TV (there’s a difference?) which she interprets as infidelity, lack of love and all sorts of moral failings: by the end of the song Suggsnaively thinks he’s gotten his point over, but no such luck.
To say nothing else, it’s a unique male perspective on love and relationships!
Typically, the band swing back into pure inconsequentiality with Night Boat to Cairo, a track that’s basically a quasi-instrumental, another sax-dominated bubble of joy whose single verse/chorus comes somewhere around the middle of the song, gets in, gets out and leaves the music playing freely. Madness had been making videos for their singles from the off, but the hasty, deliberately cheap effort for Cairo, when it was lifted off for another single, was paradoxically the point at which their gift for visual nuttiness really took off.
The under-regarded Believe Me is Barson again, this time with ex-member John Hasler, and both musically and lyrically it’s a companion to My Girl. Suggs is having girlfriend problems again: he loves the girl, wants to be with her but his friends have spread lies about him seeing another girl, she’s given him the elbow, and he’s out in the cold. Nothing exceptional, maybe, but a pointer towards the band’s collective ability to create little stories in short songs.
Next up is Land of Hope and Glory, one of two tracks sung by Lee Thompson, who co-wrote it with Chris Foreman. A call-and-response intro, or should I say a roll call-and-response, leads into a slightly oblique song that, like many songs to come, deals with an awkward situation without explicitly naming it (future single Embarrassment is the perfect example). Thompson’s filling in time, literally, in ‘this land of hope and glory’ or, less ironically, Borstal. ‘I pick at the floor for juicy buts’ he explains, with sly relish, ‘to make meself a smoke’ before the reality kicks in ‘of bog roll and envelope sticky’. ‘All this helps to pass my time’ he explains.
A re-recorded, and less sharp and strong, version of The Prince reconfirms the band’s musical allegiance but the weaker production disappoints. Nothing abashed, the band bounce back with a side-closing instrumental, Tarzan’s Nuts. Credited to Barson, it’s another One Step Beyond… quasi-instrumental that starts with some preliminary muttering about Jane before bursting out in a rollicking piano-based tune that, from the first moment I heard it, I recognised, though in thirty-three years I’ve still never identified the original.
Flipping the album over, we find ourselves greeted by three strong songs that illustrate just how much of a mistake it was to dismiss Madness as simpletons. Suggs and Chris Foreman combine to write In the Middle of the Night, a seemingly simple singalong but one that, like Land of Hope and Glory (also co-composed by Foreman), has more to it than the surface suggests, with it’s little story about ‘Nice man George, newsagent on the corner’ who turns out to be the underwear thief whose raids make stories for his customers to buy.
Then Barson’s Bed and Breakfast Man offers probably the most natural tune on the album, underplayed and laconic in it’s tale of a perpetual scrounger making his way through life, and Thompson contributes another song and vocal in the equally cool, but considerably more menacing environs of Razor Blade Alley, as a young man slides into deeper waters than he can manage in his first visit to a prostitute.
These are decidedly not simple visions, and the bands ability to underplay things as opposed to hurl themselves in with energy and glee, especially on the slightly creepy and muscular Razor Blade Alley raises the album to a peak it cannot, and does not want to sustain.
The rest of the set falls away quickly. The band release the tension with their version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, based on an earlier bluebeat adaptation from Jamaica. From a seemingly straight piano introduction, the band ska it up gloriously. I love it, but when I played this version to an old friend who has a more serious appreciation of classical music than I possess, she was horrified and insisted I took it off before we got halfway.
Rocking in Ab (Flat) shows the band more as rock’n’rollers, with an old time tale of a guy getting into the music twenty-odd years earlier. It’s an oddball little piece, which is unexceptional but demonstrates why the band were right to go with their love of ska and the Prince.
It’s followed by the confusing and slightly disturbing Mummy’s Boy, the last original in the set. It’s Mark Bedford’s only contribution to the songwriting, and whilst musically it’s of a keeping with the album as a whole, the subject matter is odd. The subject of the song is exactly what the title says, a Mummy’s Boy, still living with his mother after forty years, still holding her by the hand, everybody wondering what he’ll do when she dies… and then comes a belated middle eight in which Suggs grandly intones ‘Once went out with a London girl/Dirty weekend in a London hotel/broke it off when she got shirty/she was twelve and he was thirty.’
Before the shock of this line really sinks in, Suggs continues ‘Right after that he was dead sore/He wouldn’t go out with girls no more/Ever since then he never has…’ and the music stops to allow the last line to be growled with basso lasciviousness, ‘He wants to do.. something dirty!’. And the band spiral in a full-tilt, swirling sax to a rapid conclusion over which Suggs goes all Benny Hill, chanting ‘Knickers, knackers, knockers’.
It’s all a bit uncomfortable, really.
But the somewhat faded end is played out with the band’s cover of their name-song, Buster’s Madness, another and more successful re-recording that sweeps us to an ending. But not quite, as Chas Smash ends the album as he begun it, with a jaunty cry of ‘Did you have a good time tonight boys?’ ‘Yes we sure did’ chorus the band in response and we have an accapella minute or less call and response as the US Marine Corps chant is adapted as the silly Chipmunks Are Go.
So there it is. A mixed bag of an album, weak in parts, jaunty and fizzy and bloody good fun to get them all dancing. But there’s definitely more under the surface in this set of songs – according to the band in later years, pretty much their entire stage set, nailed up in one package – and those with eyes to see and ears to hear shouldn’t really have been at all surprised at the depths that made Madness last so very much longer than my old mate Simon envisioned on a summer night watching Top of the Pops.


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