In August 1979, Madness released their debut single.
The Prince was in tribute to ska singer Prince Buster. It was the their way of saying thank you for providing such influences on their look and sound, not to mention the band’s name which was taken from a song written and recorded by Prince Buster.
The debut single went to #16 in the charts.
Over the next seven years, Madness would release a further 21 singles, almost of all them memorable in some shape or form and from which you could forge an ICA that would be very hard to beat in any match-up completion.
House of Fun : #1
Wings Of A Dove : #2
My Girl : #3
Baggy Trousers : #3
Embarrassment : #4
Grey Day : #4
It Must Be Love : #4
Driving In My Car : #4
Our House : #5
The Sun and the Rain : #5
One Step Beyond : #7
The Return of the Los Palmas 7 : #7
Shut Up : #7
Tomorrow’s Just Another Day : #8
Michael Caine : #11
Cardiac Arrest : #14
One Better Day : #17
Yesterday’s Men : #18
(Waiting For) The Ghost Train : #18
Uncle Sam : #21
Sweetest Girl : #35
The later original material, while not charting as well as the nutty sounds of the early 80s, revealed a wonderful depth to the band both in terms of the music and the lyrics which increasingly explored social and political issues both at home and abroad; the exception being the rather underwhelming cover of the Scritti Politti classic which was, as demonstrated above, the poorest selling 45 by a long way.
The band broke up in 1986, leaving a fabulous legacy of singles, six albums, memorable videos and enjoyable TV performances. Nobody would have minded if they had left it at that.
They got back together in 1992 on the back of the success of a singles compilation album and attracted more than 75,000 folk to the Madstock! reunion gigs on 8 and 9 August in Finsbury Park, London. This led to them touring again, playing arena-sized venues in the UK and giving folk a good nostalgic night out. They went back into the studio in 1999 from which a first new album in 13 years emerged, including a #10 hit single in Lovestruck. The songs on the slightly tongue-in-cheek entitled Wonderful brought some new life and energy into the live sets which, until this point hadn’t changed much in 15 years.
The next release came in 2004 but The Danger Sessions, made-up entirely of cover versions, was poorly received, critically and commercially. The tensions over its recording also led to the departure of founder-member Chris Foreman, although he would later return to the fold.
What happened next was a very pleasant surprise.
May 2009 saw Madness release their ninth studio album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate, a work that I’d argue that is, by a fairly long way, their best ever album.
OK, it doesn’t have any killer 45 tunes a la the 80s, but this is a record from a different beast than had emerged blinking from the shadows with the release of The Prince 30 year previously and demonstrated that Madness could be listed alongside such as The Kinks, The Jam, Squeeze and XTC as the best proponents of pop music that is uniquely and brilliantly English.
The reviews were universally positive. It was described in various places as a masterpiece, extraordinary and the most sophisticated and satisfying album of their career. The spirits of Charles Dickens and Noel Coward were invoked as ways of describing the scale and ambition of something which on the surface was a concept album about the city of London but is in fact packed with the most bittersweet and melancholy of pop songs covering subject matters such as love, loss, success and failure of which an understanding can really only come with the onset of middle-age.
Just as Weller & co had captured my teenage moods, as Moz, Johnny, Mike and Andy had made sense of the student days, as Stipe and his buddies from Athens GA mimicked the emotions of moving into my 30s, the songs and music of Madness on The Liberty of Norton Folgate were perfect for coming to terms with being middle-aged and, while perhaps my very best days were behind me, there was still so much that I could bring to any party or gathering thanks to being older, wiser and yes, sophisticated, in comparison to my own slightly more manic and nuttier days.
I’ve long wanted to wax lyrically about this album. I never quite found the right words at the time of its release and besides there was little I could add to the widespread reviews of the day.
These words have come about from giving the album a fresh listen, in full, for the first time in maybe five years. I thought that such a listen would have me tempering my praise and finding that the songs hadn’t aged well over the past nine years. Not in the slightest….
Growing up and growing old can be satisfying after all.