The Infinite Jukebox: Madness’ ‘Our House’

In 1979, I was enjoying my second year in Nottingham, doing my Articles of Clerkship. In the first year, I’d shared a room with a slightly more senior Clerk, with whom I got on really well and who was very helpful to me. We transferred over to the other side together, to separate departments, both of us getting the window seat in our boss’s rooms, me on the second floor, he on the third.
We didn’t see as much of each other but, one day in the summer, with his boss away on holiday, I popped my head into his room and we settled down for a chat over lunch.
We had very little in common musically, I being punk/New Wave oriented. This being a Friday, Top of the Pops had been on the previous night and he was cheerfully dissing a band who’d made their debut. They were awful, they didn’t know how to play, you’d have liked them. He couldn’t remember who they were but we tracked it down to Madness, with ‘The Prince’. He was right. I did like them.
Mind you, if you listened to Madness on that performance, you wouldn’t ever have dreamed they would become the band they became. The cheery cockney chirpiness, the street level wisecracks, sheer danceability and joyousness of the ska they loved, the Madness of 1979 were lightweight in every possible sense of the word.
Slowly, but surely, and from an earlier time than most would imagine, Madness’s music acquired gravitas. They sounded like they always did, but firstly in their elliptical lyrics, and then in a kind of solidity bottoming the beat, they began to divide their time between being the Nutty Boys, and writing perceptive and aware songs about real aspects of people’s lives.
And because they were so superficially bouncy and lively, they could bring out the poignancy of life with greater effect. Nowhere is that more obvious than in ‘Our House’, an Ivor Novello songwriting award winner and the band’s only hit in America (they were always too indelibly English for success over there).
It begins with some thumped keyboards from Mike Barson, the band’s leader, a plunging bass line from Mark Bedford, a horn riff and then the melody is sweetened with strings that work with the horns to carry much of what follows. Suggs sings, or as closely as he ever gets to singing, in an easy, laidback rhythm.
The lyrics are unusual in that they’re not telling a story or building anything. They’re a word-picture, line by line portraying an ordinary working class family, mother, father, kids, sister and brother. Nobody’s unusual or special, and they’re not doing anything unusual or special. It’s life, Jim, and it’s life as we know it in its everyday minutiae.
But whereas many rock and pop musicians would sneer at the people for whom this is life, Madness, for all their success, are still these people themselves. They empathise, they know what it’s like, and they sing with affection of things that no-one will ever celebrate but which are themselves the stuff of life. Father in his Sunday best. Mother overtired, the kids playing up. Sister’s sighing in her sleep, brother’s in a hurry to get to his date,
Our House, they sing, in the middle of our street.
However you look at it, as a fortress, as a place of safety, as where the people who’ve surrounded you all your life will be, it doesn’t matter. It just is. It’s our house and it’s where it ought to be, in the middle of our street.
Father oversleeps for work. Mother has to rapidly iron a shirt and send the kids off to school with a small kiss. Then Suggs breaks your heart with a single, almost offhand mention that she’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.
It’s an oblique reminder of how much mother is in the very centre of the family, the hub around which everything revolves, and the one most likely to be worn out first.
In the middle eight there’s a shift of emphasis, to Suggs the kid himself, flashing back on days when everything was true and happy and there was no other thought except to waste the day away, when bonds were eternal. Though there’s nothing in these words that is in any way unusual, it is what it is. This is how we thought, this is the minimum entitlement of any child that was every born, to have a childhood in which this was what mattered.
And Chris Foreman gets to indulge in that most unMadness of things, a guitar solo!
The first verse repeats, and then it’s the long coda built on repetitions of the chorus by which time you would stand and sing this forever, rooted in whatever was the home you had. All of this, for one short song, written, unusually, by the entire band, that removes you out of your time and place, wherever and whenever that is, and places you where no-one wants to leave.
Such an amazing song, and such an amazing creation, so jaunty yet so serious. Though I love ‘House of Fun’ for its cleverness, though there are many other Madness songs of extraordinary pathos and joy, this for me is Madness in under four minutes. This for me is England in under four minutes, the true England, the real England, of people getting along together, being the same under the skin.
My England.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.