What will they start with?


I’ve never been one for nostalgia concerts: singers and bands whose day has come and gone, but who go out on the road to play their old hits, usually in versions no way comparable to the recordings you love.
The first band I ever saw live who had split up and reformed was Pere Ubu, and they’re a different case entirely, because they were re-starting their career with new material (and everything post Modern Dance was off the menu anyway).
But the first time Madness got back together in the mid-Nineties, touring before Christmas, I was quick to buy myself a ticket. Indeed, I saw them twice on these annual Christmas tours, and had a whale of time on both outings.
I’d been a Madness fan almost from the beginning, from The Prince and I’d seen them on stage three times, touring each of the last three albums in their turn, so I had experience of the Nutty Boys, even if it was when they were shading towards the more serious.
The gig was taking place on the Sunday evening before Christmas, in G-Mex, the Greater Manchester Exhibition Hall, that had been created by conversion from the former Manchester Central Railway Station (a single platform used to run from London Road station – now Piccadilly – to Central that was reputedly the longest platform in Europe). As a concert hall, it was a massive venue, with temporary seats along both sides and at the back, but masses of floorspace, room for thousands to stand, mill about, dance and have fun.
I warmed up for the gig by driving to the far side of Nottingham for the day.
I’d lived and worked in Nottingham for two years and made quite a few friends there, but fifteen years later, the only one with whom I was still in contact was Julia, who, with suitable irony, was the one friend I’d known for the least time. For years, I’d drive down to where she lived, with her husband and two kids, on the east of Nottingham, for lunch and an afternoon’s chatter and catch-up. This year, it turned out the only time they were free was the day of my Madness gig.
So, 150 miles of driving and straight into the City Centre to park, and debating what to do about clothing. I mean, this was the Sunday before Christmas, which meant that it was bloody cold out there in the streets, but inside G-Mex, with thousands of us on the floor, it was going to be bloody hot. I debated with myself and made the wrong decision, to leave my pullover etc. in the car and walk through with my coat – which I then had to cling to throughout the entire gig.
And I was supposed to be meeting a mate from work who, despite his being a good fifteen years younger than me, was equally a Madness enthusiast. We were supposed to meet beforehand at an Irish pub, and go on together, with his other mates, but the pub was shut, so that was that.
So I took myself into the hall, where the crush was greatest the nearer you got to the front. I wasn’t too keen on getting crushed, or getting into anything remotely resembling a mosh pit, so I manoeuvred around until I was about halfway back from the stage, over to the (audience) right, with enough room to move whenever I wanted to, and with nobody especially tall in my immediate eye-line towards the stage.
The support band had just begun their set, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, starring that duo Jim-Bob and Fruitbat (how can you not respect a musician who calls himself Fruitbat?).
Their music was high energy and pounding, with a high speed bassline that vibrated the soles of my feet every time I lifted one or other up from the ground. They were a decent support, fun enough to enjoy whilst waiting for the real thing, but unlikely to draw you into buying a CD of their stuff (this concert was taking place in the pre-Download days, where sampling was a more serious commitment).
And whilst they played, I wondered: it was well over a decade since I had last heard Madness in concert. I was looking forward to all the old favourites being pounded out with verve and enthusiasm. But what song would they open with?
I mean, what a question, even if I never spoke it out loud. I kept going over the hits in my head, trying to decide what would be the most suitable one to kick things off with. Which Madness song would be exactly right? It felt like an important question.
And at long last they came bounding out on stage, all seven of them, like they used to, Kix dressed up in something outlandish, Suggs as little changed as it was possible for a human being to be (don’t look in his attic). We cheered and howled and roared and revelled in their presence and Chas Smash came up to the mike in readiness and bellowed, “Hey you, don’t watch that…” and the crowd erupted, even the one on the right hugging a bulky overcoat and thinking furiously to himself, “What the hell else would they possibly have started with?”
I was a fool. But I was there. And it was bloody good fun.

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