Thirty-five years on from its original release, this umpteenth edition of Madness’s crash, bang, and wallop entry into pop consciousness comes in the shape of this digitally re-mastered edition with ‘recently’ unearthed rehearsal recordings from 1979.
Whether as reminder or introduction these songs capture the giddy headiness of youth, the transition from adolescence to adulthood with its trials, misadventures and (loss of) innocence. Deriving from ska, vaudeville, pop, rock, jazz and with punk’s ‘will-do’ attitude every song is jaunty with undercurrents of melancholy be it knee-trembling encounters with ladies of the night that result in persistent itches in your britches (‘Razorblade Alley’) or the tale of those mysterious individuals that filter through your life leaving a plethora of unanswered questions (the superlative ‘Bed and Breakfast Man).
It is easy to misremember Madness as purely a jokey, larking about gang when their socially conscious tales perpetually reveal more on deeper inspection. Like contemporaries Squeeze and Ray Davies before them they venerate and celebrate those on the fringe and left in the margins, the faceless we pass and don’t notice in the everyday. This fully-formed debut is full of local, parochial and universal vignettes of being young, hanging round with your mates, the birds and the booze; slice of life snapshots that suggest that behind everyone’s veneer and public façade lay secrets, lies and unspoken histories.
Blinkered rockists stick to the ‘No sax we’re British’ edict, but, Madness put the instrument at the core of their perennially fresh sound. ‘One step beyond …’ is the sound of the Nutty Boys, this reworked cover of Prince Buster’s ‘Al Capone’ establishing the template for the band. The music capturing the mayhem and high jinks the band would sometimes find them constrained by.
The top 3 hit ‘My girl’ follows with its travails of courtship and how the need for space doesn’t mean ‘Get outta my face’ he just wants to sit in by himself. The need to be alone it doesn’t mean I don’t love you! There’s no agenda! ‘Night boat to Cairo’ is all intrigue and mystery bringing to mind an exotic silver screen caper in the vein of Morecambe and Wise. ‘Believe me’ tells the story of the machinations of friends on both sides determined to drive a wedge between a budding romance; ‘my/your friends telling me/you jealous lies now I’m getting my goodbyes’. He’s adamant he’s not playing away with ‘Sue’. Others have agendas. ‘Tarzan’s nuts’ is ska goes jah in Afrikah.
The Chas and Dave ‘rockney’ knees up number ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ describes a spell in borstal or reform school, the regimented routines and how time is always at the behest of authority with respite coming in the form of:
‘(As the evening drags on) you can watch a little telly
Hot Gossip, Pans People with a little bit of belly’
The cultural references showing its age.
The pace is relentless with the wry ‘In the middle of the night’ channelling ‘cockernee’ doyen Anthony Newley and epitomises the band’s place in the capital’s music lineage. Like Pink Floyd’s ‘Arnold Layne it tells the story of ‘nice man George’ a sexagarian cross dressing newsagent whose avuncular demeanour hides a secret; by night he’s a ‘Knicker thief, underwear taker’ which culminates in his disappearance having seen the headlines early. Perks of the job, see.
‘Rockin’ in A♭’ is a Bazooka Joe cover, the band that featured the young Stuart ‘Adam Ant’ Goddard and is a concise number with its ‘c’mon, c’mon let’s ‘ave sum farn tannite’ a tale of a trip to the youth club and how circumstances can change everything. The protagonist sells his bike for a mic and stardom beckons. The music has echoes of Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’ and The Avengers theme. ‘Chipmunks are Go!’ is a throwaway 50 seconds that is the sound of Alvin and gang on the verge of their nuts dropping.
Society observing ‘mockney’ acts that followed (Blur, Lily Allen, Jamie T) all emanate from here. This reissue contains the ‘Fab Toones!’ rehearsal tapes (14 tracks in total) with a DVD consisting of promo videos, BBC TV appearances and a documentary dating from 2000. It’s a moot point how revelatory and enlightening this footage is be in a time of ubiquitous information access and arguably only die-hards can see its worth.
However, for newcomers numerous treats await. Once you’ve heard these saxy madder-fackers , you’re ska’d for life.