A typical Friday night in the London summer: the pounding rain on the South Bank has driven everyone inside the Royal Festival Hall to drip dry and steam together under its tasteful modernist ceiling. The hall itself has rarely been as rammed as it is tonight, a higher proportion than usual of pork pie hats, tattoos and Fred Perry gear festooning the walkways and balconies and an honest-to-God pearly king or two being glimpsed among the rain-sodden throng, not to mention the odd fez-and-Ray-Bans combo.
The warm, scratchy, inviting sound of classic reggae and ska is bouncing off the ceiling and it soon becomes apparent that the crowd huddling in front of the stage in the foyer are gazing enraptured at erstwhile Specials lynchpin Jerry Dammers as he spins his vinyl collection. The (mostly) middle-aged crowd sways contentedly, and takes its communal glow into the main hall with them. Tonight’s main event is about reliving a moment of their youth where the turmoil and tragedy of the early ’80s was powerless against the good humour of a bunch of North London lads and the party atmosphere they radiated, like schoolboys in cheap aftershave. The anticipation is electric; the mood is gently boisterous.
After a softly muttered, gently mocking intro by Meltdown curator Ray Davies, Madness bound onstage amid sweeping searchlights and, with little preamble, launch into One Step Beyond. Immediately the stage is obscured as the front rows leap to their feet to bounce and punch the air in time to the insistent beat and Lee Thompson’s abrasive sax. It’s remarkable how exactly like the Madness of your imagination it is. Apart from the slightly widescreen waistlines, there is scarcely any noticeable difference between these fellas and the fresh-faced youths of 1981. Their uniform of tailored suits, cropped hair and shades serves to make them timeless and ageless in a way that any New Romantic group from the same era must envy bitterly. They looked like somebody’s dad when they were kids, so now that they ARE somebody’s dad it doesn’t make any difference.
A flurry of old, well-loved hits follows: Shut Up, Embarrassment and My Girl, each introduced by Suggs and Carl with a little tale about its creation, mostly involving a fight or an argument. Lovestruck from their last album, 2008’s The Liberty Of Norton Fulgate and new (“BRAND new!”) number Can’t Keep A Good Thing Down thin the dancers in the audience out a little, before Take It Or Leave It and Tomorrow’s Just Another Day bring everyone back to their feet.
NW5 is prefaced by an off-colour anecdote from Suggs about the first time he visited the Royal Festival Hall with his “gay history teacher” (the punch line involves The Ring Cycle…) which is met with groans from the crowd. The eastern-bloc stomp of Clerkenwell Polka sees Lee jump down into the crowd before climbing back on stage to squeal into his sax for the song’s strobe-laden finale. This opens a bit of a floodgate as people abandon their seats and crowd the front of the stage in time for another new number, 1978, and Chris Foreman’s charmingly shambolic, karaoke-ish take on The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone.
From here on it’s mostly greatest hits: House Of Fun, Wings Of A Dove, Baggy Trousers, Our House. They get former Stiff Records boss Dave Robinson to take a bow in the audience before recalling their initial misgivings at his suggestion that they cover Labi Siffre‘s It Must Be Love (Suggs: “Who’s gonna go for that fucking tripe?”). Of course they play it, to huge cheers. Suggs congratulates those “who stayed steadfastly seated” and they take off for a brief interlude.
Returning for the encore, Carl is armed incongruously with an iPad, from which he reads the lyrics of the dark, dubby, Dalek-voiced Death Of A Rude Boy. It wouldn’t be right to leave this crowd with something so bleak, however, so they polish off Prince Buster’s cheerily upbeat Madness (which gave them their name, of course) and a frenzied Night Boat To Cairo in quick succession.
One confused, raucous stage invasion later and they’re gone, leaving behind the echo of Eric Idle‘s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life to serenade the departing crowd. As words to live by they’re not that deep. But then neither are Madness, but that’s probably not something that keeps them awake at night. And why should it? People are leaving this place a lot happier than they were when they arrived. Not a bad night’s work, all in all.