One step beyond

 

Madness have never been bothered by their cheeky-chappy Cockney image. They have been happy to leave the hard-edged political commentary to bands such as The Specials, while managing to sneak in a smidgeon of subversion. But time waits for no men and the lads have finally produced their magnum opus. Frontman Suggs tells BRIAN BOYDhow Madness have grown up

NORTON FOLGATE Street in east London was the original Soho – full of artists, drunks and various demimondechancers. In centuries past, it was considered so dissolute that it was allowed to become a self-governing area within the city. Despite yuppification, the street and its immediate surrounding area still retains hints of its former ragged, bohemian glory.

Few Londoners know of the street – or its picaresque history – but that is quickly changing
thanks to Madness calling their new album The Liberty Of Norton Folgate. With their trademark ska sound and quirky humour replaced by a theatrical music-hall feel and lyrics that require a reference book in order to decipher them, it is not just, by a country mile, the album of the year in my book, but also the best thing that Madness have ever done. It’s picking up five-out-of-five reviews at every turn; for the BBC it’s their “magnificent magnum opus”, for Wordmagazine it’s like “Peter Ackroyd writing for The Kinks, it’s Sherlock Holmes in Albert Square, it’s a Mike Leigh movie of Parklife, it’s Passport To Pimlicomeets Brick Lane, and it is Madness’s masterpiece”.

We catch up with Suggs in a bar in Camden Town where he has repaired after just getting off an overnight flight from Moscow. “It’s hair of the dog time, I’m afraid,” he says. “In Moscow last night, we
were drinking vodka like it was water – you ask for a shot and they give you half a pint. The flight didn’t leave until 4am, so it was one big party. It was bonkers good.”

This being Suggs and this being Camden, every few minutes he stops for a chat with a local and seems to be intimately acquainted with every second person who walks past his table. He knuckles down enough though to talk about the album’s genesis. “We’ve been going 30 years now, 20 top 10 singles and all of that, and while we didn’t have a conscious idea to write a serious, grown-up album, we did know we wanted to do something different, a type of music not normally associated with us. We were never going to write a progressive rock album or anything like that, but what we found we had from rehearsals were a bunch of pop songs that had an interlinking theme – the history of London.

“I was asked to be on Desert Island Discsa few years back and one of the songs I chose was The Clash’s London Burning. The author Peter Ackroyd was listening and he asked The Clash’s Paul Simenon to introduce us. I was big fan of Ackroyd’s book London: The Biography, so I went to meet him and Paul and I were just chatting about London’s history and stuff. I think that’s where the initial idea came from and I knew the area around Norton Folgate quite well – we all used to go down to Spitalfields and buy our second-hand ’crombies in the market there. I had no real idea of the history of the area – I didn’t really apply myself in school – but I did a lot of reading up on it.”

For all of the members of Madness, this album was always going to be a labour of love. Now on their own Lucky Seven label, The Liberty of Norton Folgatewas a few years in the making. “There were no constraints,” says Suggs. “We just kept working through different ideas. We were looking at the cultural changes in an area over a period of time and also changes within the people themselves. And also trying to get the lyrics right.”

With lyrics such as “’Cos sailors from Africa, China and the archipelago of Malay Jump ship ragged and penniless into Shadwells Tiger Bay The Welsh and Irish wagtails, mothers of midnight The music hall carousel enspilling out into Bow fire light Sending half crazed shadows, giants dancing up the brick wall Of Mr Trumans beer factory, waving, bottles ten feet tall” the album was always going to be historically dense and never anything as flimsy as a Parklife. “I like to think of this as a folk album,” says Suggs. “And I suppose Madness, in their own way, have always been a folk band.”

Elsewhere on the album, you’re reminded that Madness are now a fortysomething collective with appropriate concerns. One of the standout tracks is Sugar and Spice – a doomed Up The Junction-stylesong which perfectly captures the nature and mood of a marriage breaking up. “That song says it all,” says Suggs. “As the person who wrote it – Mike Barson the keyboard player – also wrote the song My Girl, so the relationship has now come full circle – from trying to chat the girl up to splitting up with her.” For Suggs, this collection of songs means a goodbye of sorts to the old Madness. He hopes they have finally shaken off the “novelty band” tag.

“There are different shapes and sizes on this – and quite a bit of melancholy also,” he says. “It’s an ‘adult’ album in that it naturally is going to reflect our lives as they are now. But then even when we were a ‘novelty’ band, I like to think there was bit more to the songs than just people jumping around to them. House of Funwas about a 16-year-old trying to buy condoms in a chemist’s shop and Embarrassmentwas about teenage pregnancy. Yes, there was humour there, but just as The Specials were always political with a capital P, we were political in our own understated way.”

It was a gig by The Specials at the legendary Hope and Anchor venue in the late 1970s that led to the formation of Madness. After the show, Suggs handed Jerry Dammers a demo tape and was immediately offered a deal with the 2-Tone label. Initially called Morris and The Minors (because they all travelled around in two Morris 1000 vans), they took the name Madness from an old Prince Buster song.

“We were just 18-year-old exuberance captured in a bottle. We were living in a state of juvenile suspension,” he says. “And that exuberance just seeped into everything we did musically. In Russia last night, someone said to me that no matter what we do the thing that people will always remember about Madness is One Step Beyond. And that’s fine by me – but I thought we had one really great album left in us and in many ways, what we go on to do now isn’t that important because we’ve recorded that album.”

Next month the entire Madness back catalogue goes on rerelease and Suggs is still surprised by the age-range of the people interested in the old recordings. “They’re putting out everything again with
all the original demo tapes and everything – they’ve all been remastered. It astonishing to see just how fondly those old songs are remembered. It’s 30 years ago now since we first formed – though it only feels at most like 10 years”.

The next step beyond for Madness is a headlining slot at the Electric Picnic. “A picnic powered by electricity – how cool is that?” he says. “It will be a blast . . . 30 years on everything is a blast to us.”

* The Liberty Of Norton Folgate is on the Lucky Seven album

Oh what fun they had:  top five Madness moments

THE PRINCE: Madness’s first ever single, “The Prince” was released in August 1979 on the 2 Tone label and was a tribute to the Jamaican ska singer Prince Buster (the band took their name from one of his songs).

Still one of the definitive second wave of ska songs, The Princeintroduced Madness to the charts.

BAGGY TROUSERS:From the Absolutelyalbum, the song finds Madness reminiscing about their school days. It is still remembered for the accompanying video in which the band’s saxophone player, Lee Thompson, flew through the air with the use of wires hanging from a crane. Despite cracked ribs, Thompson managed to repeat his air-borne feat during the band’s Glastonbury appearance this year. The song got a new lease of life a few years ago when it was used extensively in the film version of Alan Bennett’s History Boys.

OUR HOUSE:A massive hit in the US on its release in 1983, the song also gave its title to a West End musical featuring Madness songs which ran during 2002/2003. Perhaps their most recognisable hit, Our Househas been used in numerous TV programmes and as well as in advertisements by Maxwell House and Bird’s Eye (Suggs actually appeared in the latter ads).

THE LIBERTY OF NORTON FOLGATE:The 10-minute title track of the new album which recounts the social history of East London wasn’t released as a single, but a stunning seven-minute video of the song became one of the band’s most-watched YouTube clips. Mixing a Dickensian London feel with elements of Clockwork Orange and Sleepy Hollow, type the song title into YouTube and have a look for yourself.

SUGAR AND SPICE:The most recent single and a poignant look at the disintegration of a relationship. A very different song for the band, it begins with a romantic look at teen infatuation, love and marriage before deteriorating into a more middle-aged appraisal of the souring of a personal connection. A new career high for the band.

Chequered history: how ska skattered

With Madness and The Specials freshly rejuvenated and back on the live circuit, the ska sound is now on its fourth wave of popularity.

The precursor to reggae (which is essentially slowed-down ska music) it’s a mix of old-style rhythm’n’ blues and indigenous Jamaican musical stylings.

The term itself is supposed to have come a way of playing the guitar on the off-beat (a “skank“).

Prince Buster is widely credited with first popularising the genre and the first wave of ska also featured names such as Desmond Dekker and The Skatalites.

The sound was picked up in the UK by ever-vigilant Mods who were the first to popularise the sound in newly multi-cultural Britain, although later it was latched on to by right-wing skinhead groupings – much to the horror of the second wave of ska groups.

This 2 Tone explosion (named after the name of Jerry Dammers’ recording label) came out of the British midlands (Coventry in particular) and was spearheaded by The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. In London, Madness helped bring the sound into the cultural mainstream.

Just as late 1970s punk rock influenced a whole new generation of musicians in the US in the 1990s (Green Day, Rancid etc), the second wave of ska found many stateside admirers in bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt and Reel Big Fish.

Although nowhere near the high-water mark of the popularity that it enjoyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ska sound still thrives on this side of the Atlantic. Contemporary acts such as Mike Skinner, Lily Allen and Jamie T all reference the sound in their work while, Amy Winehouse (bless her) is threatening to make her new album a full-on ska/reggae album.

Believe it or not, ska music is being increasingly embraced by Christian rock groups. Wonders never cease.