Album Reviews

Madness – Singles Box Vol 1

(Virgin) UK release date: 8 December 2003

Madness - Singles Box Vol 1 Ooh, this is a bit good. Madness‘s first 11 singles with B-sides, plus a promo single, on individual CDs with their original 7″ artwork, all placed neatly inside a stylish flip-top box designed by bassist Bedders. Of course, it’s what’s on the CDs that really counts, but that was never going to be a problem. You see, for all their reputation as zany, whacky japesters, Madness were a seriously important band.

No, really. Emerging in 1979 at a time when racial tensions in the UK were high and the nastier side of punk, aka Nazi skinheads, were rearing their ugly heads at far too many gigs (Madness included, which, to their credit they clearly showed their disgust at), these Camden Nutty Boys were a musical cross-pollination of countries, eras and styles that knew no boundaries and encouraged others to be colour-blind too. For that they deserve long-lasting credit.

This volume finds Madness at their peak when they had 11 top 20 singles in the space of two and a half years, nine of them top 10, and all this when singles were important currency rather than only being bought by pre-adolescent schoolgirls with too much money and too little fatherly attention.

With a total of 32 tracks on offer, you are spoilt for choice, particularly amongst the A-sides. There’s the 1979 debut, The Prince, a tribute to legendary Jamaican ska-man, Prince Buster, which appeared on the 2-Tone record label with organs, calypso sounds, funky bass-lines, sax and the heraldic cry of, “This may not be uptown Jamaica but we promise you a treat!”

And they were good to their word. One Step Beyond, written by Prince Buster himself and Madness’s first top 10 hit in November 1979, is a sheer wonder of an instrumental that still does not fail to cause gyrations of the hips and feet that you did not know your body could perform. My Girl, their first top five hit, showed their burgeoning pop sensibilities and their ability to make the instrumentation match the mood of the song’s theme or lyrics, something which Night Boat To Cairo, from the Work, Rest & Play EP took to new levels with its Middle Eastern twang.

Six months after Work, Rest & Play came Madness’s tour de force, Baggy Trousers. How this near-perfect pop song didn’t get to number one is one of the charts’ eternal mysteries, although the fact that a reggae-influenced band, The Police, were at the summit with Don’t Stand So Close To Me lessens the blow somewhat. The real masterstroke in Baggy Trousers, aside from the percussive touches, near-rap vocal and synthy harmonica solo, is the way they left the “Baggy Trousers” refrain until the final half-minute of the song, and as for that cheeky, squeaky horn that accompanies it… Glorious.

Embarrassment was anything but, a worthy follow-up to Baggy Trousers whose music has a definite melancholic air to it as Suggs sings about parental rejection. The Return Of The Los Palmas 7 does exactly what it says on the tin with the Nutty Boys hilariously coming across as some dodgy Spanish hotel band while Grey Day took the mood down several notches with its graveyard eeriness, lower-fi sound and “so begins another weary day” commentary.

Shut Up displayed yet another facet to the band’s music, with a dissonant piano intro developing into an East End pub pop-boogie. Then came It Must Be Love, a 1971 hit for Labi Siffre that the band had started playing in the encores of their live shows. Legend has it that they didn’t want to record it but did so after Stiff Records boss Dave Robinson said they could have the company if it didn’t go top five. Of course, with its plinking piano, ska-infested sound, cool sax solo, strings and Suggs’ voice tugging at the heartstrings as he tails off when singing, “Love is the best,” Robinson got to keep his record label.

The final A-side in this box set is Cardiac Arrest, which was Madness’ first single since The Prince not to go top 10. It has to be said that, compared to the quality on offer before it, it is relatively forgettable but worry not, for it is more than made up for by the promo CD containing Don’t Quote Me On That and the joyous, 104 beats per minute, ska version of Swan Lake. Yes, that Swan Lake…

In retrospect, perhaps the worst thing about this box set is that it makes you realise that if Madness hadn’t written such fine songs then maybe Suggs would not now be polluting the airwaves by hosting crap TV quiz shows.

However, even if we don’t discuss Madness’s influence on Blur‘s Mockney musings, or modern day ska-types like No Doubt, the fact is that listening to this puts a ruddy great smile on your face. And when the listener is as a miserable old git like me, that’s an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated.

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