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.

In Defence of Change

It can’t stay like this…

I still love The Big Bang Theory, even after nine seasons. I’m not stupid, I know it isn’t as good, as all-out funny as it was in the earlier seasons, but it still makes me laugh several times a week, and it’s the funniest thing I watch (given that the number of television comedies I watch totals one, that’s not hard to achieve, but among the number of comedies I’ve ever watched, for sheer amount of laughter and the fact that I can watch an episode for the fifth or sixth time and still laugh my head off, I think we can probably place this in the top one percentile).

There are plenty who disagree with me, including – if the website is anything to go by – a considerable portion of the show’s current audience. Their complaints take on a very samey aspect: they blame the girls. They blame Bernadette and Amy for taking the show’s focus away from purely geek humour. They blame the relationships on the show for orienting it more towards Friends and away from science jokes.

Stripping it down to its essential level, they blame Change.

Of course the show has changed. Penny is no longer Leonard’s impossibly out of his class wish-fulfilment blonde, they’ve been an item since mid-season 5 and this season they’ve been married. Howard’s no longer a sex-obsessed weirdo chasing woman who are out of his class – i.e., any woman – he got a pretty girlfriend, she married him and now he’s going to be a father. Raj got over his selective mutism and found that he could talk to women after all – though frequently you wished he didn’t – and now he’s got a steady girlfriend who’s part of the cast when she appears.

Even Sheldon has had a girlfriend since the start of season 4, and he’s not only declared himself to be in love with her but he’s also has sex with her this season past. Only once, it seems, but even so.

Of course The Big Bang Theory has changed. It has a regular cast of seven, it frequently splits its team down into smaller groups, running three plots in a single, 18 minute plus episode. It frequently splits the group into male and female groups (in which I constantly see the echo of Last of the Summer Wine and Peter Tinniswood’s Brandon family books).

Yet a large proportion of the show fans spends its time watching the show and denigrating it because it isn’t the same as it was in season 1. Not a single one of them can seem to entertain the thought that if the show had set its face against change, against growth, against evolution, and had opted to preserve its original set-up in amber, it would probably have been cancelled after about three years maximum because its audience (not to mention its writers) would have died of boredom.

Even sitcoms are about people, recognisable, human people. And people grow, evolve, change.

This reaction takes me back quite a long way, thirty years more or less, to Madness’s fifth album, Keep Moving. Loved the album then, love it still. But listening to it, I couldn’t help but pine a bit for the early Madness, the Madness of the first couple of albums: simple, jaunty, out for nothing but a good time, unsophisticated and fun. I missed having more of those simple, instant melodies that dragged you in by the scruff of the neck and made you bounce up and down.

But I also understood that for Madness to try being like that again would be phony. They’d evolved, they’d grown, their music had taken on a sophistication that would have been alien to them in the summer of 1979, but which was the inevitable result of their having been around from 1979 to 1985. If Keep Moving had been an album by a band that hadn’t learned a thing since One Step Beyond… it wouldn’t have been worth having. It wouldn’t have been worth listening to.

Now, I can understand The Big Bang Theory‘s fans aversion to change on one level. From the beginning, it’s been the geeks’ show. That’s what I recognise in the writing, in the humour: I understand it, it speaks my language. As it changes, as it moves away from sole concentration upon that heart, it leaves behind geeks who can’t change, who can’t get Pennys and Bernadettes, or even Amys, who don’t get any kind of social success for all their intelligence. It stops being for them as it gradually ceases to be solely about them.

Their resentment is, in this degree, understandable.

But I’m seeing it all over again with a different American series, exactly the same. I’ve been watching another few episodes of Person of Interest season 3. The series finale was shown in America on Tuesday night, and I have 38 more episodes to watch in the limbo of avoiding learning anything about what happened.

Season 3 has marked a change to the show. It began with a cast of four: Finch and Reese, Detectives Carter and Fusco. Carter’s story is over: she brought down the corrupt Police organisation, HR, but died in the process. Even before then, the series had added two new cast members, Sameen Shaw, who works for Finch on the same basis as Reese, and Root, a quasi-rival operative similar to Finch, who has a strange relationship with the Machine.

Where I am in the season, there is a corporation rapidly progressing towards switching on a machine very like the Machine, except that it will be controlled by them, instead of the Machine now controlling itself. A war of Artificial Intelligences is on the horizon.

And the number of PoI viewers who are continually complaining that the show isn’t exactly the same as in season 1, that it isn’t merely a ‘case-of-the-week’ game of guns, violence and sharp one-liners, is astonishing. Viewers hate Shaw, hate Root. They want nothing but Reese and Finch (of, and Bear, of course. Bear is an acceptable addition to the cast. Bear is a dog, incidentally).

Me, I’m loving the show’s growth, its continual intelligent exploration of its situation and its world. I’m loving the evolution, the interaction with the different characters. because this is what a show has to do: evolve or stagnate.

But so much of the audience resists that, decries it, howls down the slightest variation from a formula that they first saw and now cannot bear to be separated from. What is it about people that they can’t allow fictional characters to grow like the individuals they are supposed to be (if we are lucky and the writer is good enough) but insist on having them preserved in aspic?

Perhaps there’s a geek overlap? Person of Interest is a sharp, detailed, complex series with a well-developed mythology, and that’s geek territory. Perhaps, on the other hand, some of it is misogyny: girls have infiltrated our game and they’re spoiling it (have you seen these ‘girls’, they’re both flat-out gorgeous?)

I am always on the side of Change, in fiction: prepared, deliberate, logical Change. He not busy being born is busy dying, remember? Bring it on, and devil take those who only want today to be the same as yesterday, who would live out Groundhog Day for the rest of their lives, not realising that if they were ever to do so, that the end of their life would already had occured.

Imaginary Albums: The ‘Lost 70s’ series

First non-Imaginary Album

It should be obvious to anyone who so much as passes by here that I am behind the times. I read old books, I collect old comics, I still prefer my music and films to have a physical existence, even though I’ve ample memory on the current laptop. I have the extended Hobbit trilogy within this portable artefact, but I’m still buying the boxset for Xmas.
Like anyone who’s had access to CD-burning technology for a dozen years, I have downloaded mp3s and burned a few hundred CDs of my personal curation. Most of them are, in one form or another, compilations. Increasingly, I find myself preferring collections that throw someone different at me with every track.
One of the very first CDs I burnt has gone on to form the basis of a series now stretching to a dozen volumes. I called the first one Lost 70s and that’s the theme.
I grew up musically through the Seventies: first albums, first gigs, first Saturday afternoons spent hunting through the unending racks of singles at the Second-Hand Record Stalls on Shudehill, each one scraped out with what little money on the pocket money allowed by a widowed mother bringing up two kids on a pension and three days a week as a seamstress at two of UMIST’s Halls of Residence.
With the exception of the punk explosion at the end of the decade, I don’t have that many good feelings about the music of the Seventies. I was out of step at nearly every step. I didn’t even start to listen to pop or rock until literally days before the end of the Sixties, so I was taking baby steps with very simple tastes whilst everybody around me at school was going progressive (except Malcolm Eddlestone, who was into reggae, which at our School was so far beyond the Pale that people beyond the Pale despised it).
And when I got through that particular phase, discovering Lindisfarne as a favourite band, I found myself in between: too individual and idiosyncratic for a pop world dominated by T. Rex and rushing headlong towards GlamRock on the one hand, and frankly bored to a very large degree by the interminable epics of the ProgRock giants like ELP and Yes who were the staple diet of my closest mates.
Nor did I enjoy the music of my best mate’s favourite artist, Olivia Newton-John. Yes, ELP and Livvy: and he did seriously love the music, not just the photos!
Punk’s aggression, raw simplicity and sheer energy was the saving for me, much to the disgust, or at best amused tolerance of my friends, Punk, New Wave and the Ska Revival (I have vivid memories of dropping in for a lunch-time chat with one of my fellow Articled Clerks in 1979, his mentioning this band he’d seen on TOTP the previous night, his cheerful assumption that I would have liked it even though they were absolute rubbish, didn’t know how to play their instruments, would never get anywhere: we eventually worked out that he was referring to the debut of Madness!)
But here and there, in among the over-produced rot, the slick pop, the self-indulgence and the plain shite, there were songs I liked. Sometimes, they were big hits: I was into 10cc for several years, and I went through a Fleetwood Mac spell from the White Album to Rumours, though I was seriously ahead of the curve so far as Britain was concerned, confirming that my taste and that of the record buying public were never in tune.
No, most of the time, the things that I loved were records that Radio 1 either gave short shrift to, forcing me to shift to try to record these tracks off the radio, or which failed to sell: songs that peaked at no 35 or lower, or never troubled the Top 50 at all.
That still begs the question of why not Lost 60s, or Lost 80s? That’s down to age. I missed the Sixties at the time it was going by: all my discoveries there are retrospective. And whilst I didn’t suddenly stop listening to music after 1979, I barely got halfway through the Eighties before setting my own course, and I’d given up on pop radio by that time anyway. No, if I were going to indulge in music that was both nostalgic and obscure, it was going to have to be that real armpit of a decade.
So Lost 70s it was. It was a compilation of those songs I could remember, those oddball, weird tracks, records played a handful of times, which had vanished. Lost music, bound together only by being part of the decade of my education in music, that aroused recollection of my own private musicology.
And the memories kept on coming out, slowly teased from the recesses of my mind, patiently hunted out, most from YouTube but some from sources more obscure. There are now twelve CDS, twelve Imaginary Albums under the Lost 70s rubric and I’m going to throw them open, complete with links for everything that’s locatable.
And if any of the songs that I’ll be listing spark your memories, good for you, and throw back your suggestions please. After all, I’ve currently only got seven tracks for Lost 70s 13.

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.

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.