In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
File Under: Deceptively nutty pop genius
Key track: "Shut Up"
We all discover bands in different ways–the radio, a video, a stream, a show, a (cough) blog, a recommendation from a friend. But sometimes it's just blind, dumb luck. Case in point: Many years ago I bought a band T-shirt from a Denver music store that displayed its shirts in a weird way–by wrapping them around crappy used LPs, ones they were going to throw out anyway. I'd been buying band merch there since I was 16, and it was always funny to unwrap a Joy Division or Jesus And Mary Chain shirt to find a battered copy of, say, Carole King's Tapestry lurking underneath. Of course, the first thing I always did was duck into the alley next to the store and toss said hokey LP in the dumpster. (Sorry, Carole.) One day, though, I hit the jackpot: Complete Madness.
I wish I could say I screamed "Eureka!" and immediately ran off to my turntable, but to be honest, I didn't care for Madness at all back then. I loved the other groups that sprang from the Two Tone ska movement of the early '80s like The Specials, The English Beat, and The Selecter, but Madness never struck me as being quite, well, ska enough. Instead, I was always reminded of the band's big American hit, 1983's "Our House," a song that I liked as a kid before it had been ground to mush by way too much radio play. In any case, I'd skipped right past Madness during my intensive musical self-education. Plus, I must have been all of 21–in other words, I already knew it all, right?
That Madness album–so beat-to-shit that the store didn't even think they could unload it for a buck–probably sat in my apartment for days before I became bored enough to throw it on. It didn't hit me right away. Through all the scratches and skips I recognized the horn-driven ska anthem "One Step Beyond," of course, as well as the band's eponymous theme song, one of the many highlights of the canonical This Are Two Tone comp. But Madness seemed so pointlessly goofy, I had a hard time taking them seriously. Something, however, brought me back to that LP a second time–and a third and a fourth and eventually a 150th: the songs. Good lord, the songs.
The thing about Madness is, they're victims of their own unpretentiousness. They cracked jokes and mugged it up and played dumb in a way that, say, Squeeze or The Jam or Elvis Costello never would. And yet–and I firmly believe this–Madness wrote songs as good as the lot of them. Effortlessly crafted and subtly sophisticated, almost every track on Complete Madness is a total jaw-dropping gem, a ruthlessly perfect little piece of pop fiction. Yeah, there are the seemingly feeble-minded, skank-inducing ska tunes like "Night Boat To Cairo" and "Baggy Trousers." But even "Night Boat" boasts a gorgeous arrangement, rich dynamics, and delicious minor-key tension–and "Baggy Trousers" is one of the most complexly bittersweet ruminations on the English school system ever put to music, way more emotionally engaging than even The Smiths' glumly pissy "The Headmaster Ritual."
In fact, Madness' complexity–both sonically and lyrically–surfaced time and time again as I got sucked into the record. "Embarrassment" is the dark tale of saxophonist Lee Thompson's sister, who was about to be disowned by their family for deciding to have a baby with a black man. "Grey Day"–sounding as bleak as its title–sketches one man's existential hamster wheel of loneliness and silent despair. And "Bed And Breakfast Man" is a wisely witty, offhandedly brilliant character study worthy in every way–as much as anything in Paul Weller's songbook–of Ray Davies himself. That fact is even more astonishing considering there was no single primary songwriter in Madness; while driven by keyboardist Mike Barson, the band truly was a collaborative, synergistic, seven-headed entity.
As for my personal favorite track from Complete Madness: It's a tough choice, but "Shut Up" hits my brain, my gut, my funny bone, and my heart all at once. In a sly narrative twist, frontman Suggs sings the lyrics from the perspective of a petty thief–or perhaps just a hapless drunken vandal–who got caught red-handed by the cops. While Barson's piano mimics guilty spurts of sweat and adrenaline, Suggs offers every outrageous assurance of innocence–"I'm as honest as they day is long! / The longer the daylight, the less I do wrong!"–until his flailing alibis clearly have the opposite effect. The listener is forced to sub as the cop in the scenario, which always leaves me with a gigantic grin on my face. Did I mention the middle break of the song, a galloping, Spaghetti-Western-esque twang-fest complete with whizzing bullets and no small amount of wild boyhood fantasy? Really, that's at the core of what makes Madness so great–they're storytellers, clever but never condescending, catchy but never crass, and overflowing with vivid imagery and characters as poignant yet nutty as the band itself.
Current whereabouts: After the singles collected in Complete Madness–which, staggeringly, were released in the span of a mere two and half years between 1979 and 1982–the band hit it big with "Our House" and its accompanying album, The Rise & Fall, an ambitious record that nonetheless lost a bit of Madness' trademark manic charm. Barson left the band soon after and was replaced by Steve Nieve of Costello's Attractions. Some middling material, sprinkled with a few highlights, followed before the band broke up in 1986–although they reunited soon after and have been sporadically active, mostly as a live band, ever since.
Album availability: Complete Madness is still available as an import, and all the tracks have popped up as downloads and on numerous Madness anthologies over the years. But Complete Madness really captures the band at its peak. As for the vinyl, I'm currently on my third used copy; I don't run across it very often, but when I do, it's always five bucks or less. When you can find a fun, smart, joyous, pensive, unrepentantly human work by a genius pop band at the top of their game for the price of a bag of Taco Bell, you know there's still something right with the world. Hell, even their covers rule: