Spotlight: A Guided Tour Of Madness

Another compilation? Really? Is this a necessity when Madness’ backcatalogue has been raked over continuously and the bones picked prettydamn clean over the years? Even in terms of box sets Madness fans havebeen pretty well blessed. There was The Lot a few years ago, whichprovided a handy receptacle in which to house their albums from OneStep Beyond to Mad Not Mad. Then there was The Business which compiledall their singles but infuriatingly crashed the intros and outros withinterviews that whilst interesting first time around rather lost theirappeal over the course of a few listens.

Last year saw the release of Total Madness, yet another compilationthat included more of the band’s recent work as well as the obvioushits and a DVD of those videos that set the bar back in the day. Soit would appear that on the face of it, A Guided Tour Of Madness isone step too far (or beyond some might suggest), particularly when theonly new material to be found is in the shape of Le Grand Pantalon, aslowed down re-working of Baggy Trousers that currently graces anadvert for some lager or other. It’s not exactly a gold plated carrotwith which to entice the casual punter or completist fans.

Yet there’s much to be said for this collection, and it stands headand shoulders above what’s preceded it. The old classics are in placeas you would expect, and how could they not be? However, sat alongsidesingles like Our House, Baggy Trousers and House Of Fun are somechoice cuts swiped from their albums which add to the sonic palette ofthe Madness experience, which for many is undoubtedly limited to afive minute stomp at a disco (school, pub, wedding all the likelycandidates).

Madness quite simply write perfect pop songs, and like those of The Beatlesbefore them, their melodies seem to have been in existence for alleternity. Even if it’s the first time you’ve heard one of theirsongs, they seem immediately familiar, which might go some way toexplaining why Madness were the one of the most successful bands ofthe ’80s.

The other similarity Madness has with The Beatles is senseof place (and to some degree, time). It’s no surprise to find thewords “We Are London” adorning the booklet that accompanies thebox set. In many ways this new set is an exercise in psychogeography;when you put on a Madness album you’re invariably transported to aLondon that exists in the minds of the band. It’s a London that ispopulated by an array of fascinating characters and situations, andeach and every one of them is coloured by the world view and experiencesof Madness. There are underwear thieves, families at war overinterracial relationships, headmasters breaking all the rules, schoolkids in ill fitting trousers, parents being let down by the NHS,embarrassed teenagers attempting to buy contraception, Johnny TheHorse getting kicked to death, and the alluring charm of theterminally ill Drip Fed Fred. Take a trip to Camden, drive your carthrough Muswell Hill, or head up to the peak of Primrose Hill, andinevitably without the songs of Madness to contextualise the area,it’s all a bit of a disappointment.

Despite London being the setting of many of Madness’ songs (indeedthey include an A-Z map in the booklet pointing out the importantlandmarks around Camden and NW5) it’s the fact that many of the experiencesthey write about can happen anywhere and to anyone that gives them awider appeal. Everyone knows the emotional turmoil of relationshipsthat pull in different directions so articulately described in MyGirl; Baggy Trousers could be written about school days in any schoolanywhere in the country; Grey Day speaks of a malaise thatexists in everyone, particularly at the start of another weary day.Lyrically, there is no doubting that the appeal of many of their songsis universal.

Musically, Madness has evolved considerably over the years. Thetwo-tone ska found in their early days on songs like The Prince or OneStep Beyond began to fuse with English Musichall to create a heady mixthat positively dripped with pop nous. The driving backbeats andbasslines practically insist that dancing isn’t an option, it is anecessity. Mike Barson’s hammered piano lines keep the hooks andmelodies in place, providing the axis around which the band operatesso well. It’s the collision of Madness’ pop sensibility and theirtendency to write songs that have a emotional resonance that flies inthe face of the “nutty boys” image that so many paint them with. Awayfrom the wacky videos, the funny noses, and Lee Thompson’s tendency tobecome airbourne, there’s a gravitas to much of the band’s work. Yetbecause heavy subject matter often comes wrapped in purified pop, thepill is often sweetened. The impending demise of a parent, the horrorof the Falklands conflict, and the death of a salesman are all coveredin songs that not only require an emotional response but the movementof feet as well.

As the band matured, the ska influence began to drop away and theyexplored more pop tinged avenues. This led to what was arguably theirfinest moment with the album The Rise And Fall Of Madness, buteventually decline seemed almost inevitable. There are some who insistthat the Keep Moving era Madness is an uncovered gem in their historyor that the likes of Yesterday’s Men and I’ll Compete constitute theband’s best work, but by this time keyboardist Mike Barson wascontemplating his departure and eventually left. The result was thesound of a band under stress, without one of its key operatorsfunctioning fully, and as such Madness seemed to suffer considerablybefore finally calling it a day in 1986 (the less said about TheMadness the better).

Fast forward to the early ’90s and the band rose, phoenix-like, fromthe ashes with Madstock (the DVD is included here), a celebratoryfestival of the band that came about thanks to the success of anothercompilation, Divine Madness. Following their reformation the bandbegan to work on new material again for 1999’s Wonderful, andrediscovered their magic touch. Lovestruck is a pop classic with achorus to die for, while Drip Fed Fred finds Ian Durycollaborating with the band for one last razor sharp hurrah. MeanwhileJohnny The Horse sees them in familiar territory with a heartbreakingstory set against an immaculate upbeat pop backdrop.

Skipping over the folly of The Dangermen sessions (which remainscuriously endearing in places) and on to the excerpts from their mostrecent album The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, it’s clear that Madnesshave finally rediscovered their touch. The heartfelt balladry of NW5is up there with It Must Be Love, Forever Young’s ska is an exercisein pitch perfect nostalgia, and That Close is a wonderful swingingknees up shot through with sepia tones and pathos. This return to formis covered on the third disc of A Guided Tour, and makes thecompilation worth picking up on the strength of this material alone.It is heartening to find the band working together as a unit andmaking music that is as affecting and vital as the songs they firedout in their youth.

So is another compilation really necessary? Perhaps not, but withthis being the most comprehensive snapshot of Madness’ career so farit is certainly the most vital. If nothing else, this collection is afine reminder that Madness is a band that deserves respect andcritical acclaim. Their portrayal as nutty boys is wildly inaccurateand does the band a disservice. Madness wrote, and continue to write,songs that are familiar to millions, that condense the experience ofeveryday life and offer a sense of hope and belonging to those whochoose to ride the nutty train. As Suggs points out in his liner notes,”every single person you meet is having a hard time” and it’s thisawareness that permeates Madness’ songs and makes them so affecting.Their lyrics speak of everyday life, whilst their music insists thatsometimes, all you can do is dance the pain away. A Guided Tour OfMadness is, in many ways, a guided tour around your own life andexperiences, and it’s the most interesting journey you’ll ever take. Asa soundtrack, you could do a lot worse than have Madness as the houseband.

A Guided Tour Of Madness is out on 19th September 2011 through Salvo.

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More on Madness
Spotlight: A Guided Tour Of Madness
Madness @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Madness – The Liberty Of Norton Folgate
Madness – The Dangermen Sessions Vol 1
Madness – Singles Box: Vol. 1