On the 30th of September 1985, Madness released their 6th studio album “Mad Not Mad”. No longer with Stiff Records, the band had signed with the Virgin label and set up their own imprint, Zarjazz…
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Madness were an almost permanent fixture on the television and radio (especially if you lived within range of Capital Radio’s broadcasts). Over the course of half a decade, from the early “Nutty Boy” larks of Baggy Trousers and One Step Beyond, through the ever-maturing pop of My Girl, Embarrassment and Grey Day, the band became a brand. A chart machine, churning out the (mostly) Top 10 hits relentlessly and finally getting that UK No.1 with the brilliant coming-of-age nugget House Of Fun.
That summer of 1982 also brought Complete Madness, their first compilation and another chart-topper. They were, however, in danger of both over-exposure and self-parody. Driving In My Car was a catchy but weak effort, the record label’s demand for new product to cash in while their profile was at an all-time high beginning to undermine the band’s reputation for quality songwriting. It was, of course, still a Top 5 smash.
Madness then embarked on arguably their finest run of singles yet; Our House, Tomorrow’s Just Another Day, Wings Of A Dove and The Sun And The Rain. Every one a Top 10 entry (and Wings Of A Dove almost made it a second No.1). So, everything would surely have been rosy in the Madness garden as 1983 reached its conclusion.
(Sounds good. Sounds great, sounds really grand. But wait!)
Chief tunesmith Mike Barson wanted out, exhausted and wanting to settle abroad with his new wife. Others in the group had at least begun to share around the writing duties; indeed Carl Smyth and Chris Foreman had been responsible for Our House, their strongest 45 in a long time. Barson’s absence need not automatically signal the end.
For whatever reason, the next album campaign was brief and somewhat bizarre. Their two big hits of late 1983 weren’t included on February 1984’s Keep Moving, while the second of only two singles from the album was switched at the eleventh hour. Michael Caine (with the man himself performing a spin on the ” My name is…” mantra from the film) was an enjoyable spy spoof, and got to #11.
The follow-up was intended to be Victoria Gardens, but Stiff nixed it in favour of the sun-soaked melancholy of One Better Day. The sleeve, the label design…everything was geared towards Victoria Gardens, as you can see.
The track wandered into the Top 20, just as Frankie Goes To Hollywood were rewriting the pop rulebook with Two Tribes, but it didn’t actually sound all that out of place next to Sade, Everything But The Girl and The Style Council on the chart. Having brought the curtain down on their association with Stiff Records, Madness fell into the welcoming arms of Virgin, who allowed them their own boutique label as part of the deal.
First fruits of this partnership were a collaboration with ex-Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey (also-newly-signed-to-Virgin) on a standalone single, Listen To Your Father. A typical Madness-style piano stomper, it did much the same chart-wise as the last couple of 45s by the band, getting to #17.
We would have to wait almost a year for another proper Madness release.
When it did arrive, I have to confess to being underwhelmed by Yesterday’s Men. Obviously its gentle charms were never going to create an immediate wow factor, and time has revealed it to be a pretty classy affair. The main problem, then and now, is how similar in tempo and style it was to One Better Day.
Was this the new, permanently mellow Madness…..slowly drifting into the pop sunset on a wave of tinkling piano and soulful harmonies? Would their debut LP for Zarjazz/Virgin give us any surprises? Anything to raise the pulse a little? Or had the Nutty Boys handed in their license to lark and settled for nice comfy armchairs….
(Would you dance with the Mad men….over the hills and far away?)
Our answer came within the first 30 seconds of Track 1, Side 1 on Mad Not Mad. A blitz of frenetic synths, horns and the veritable kitchen sink of studio effects heralded the start of I’ll Compete. The tone is defiant yet jaundiced, and would it be all too easy to take the lyrics at face value? The last battle-cry of an act worn down by the promotional treadmill, the industry demands, the accountants’ bottom line, the young whippersnappers ready to steal the crown of top dog of the pops. Yeah, they say…do your best, we’ll take everything you chuck at us and still rise above. Maybe? Maybe not? Mad? Not Mad?
With The Madmen. Echoes of The Beatles’ 1963 album cover. Fab not Fab?
I’ll Compete sees itself out in the same fashion it came in; that flurry of synths, horns, a stuttering, sampled Suggs and – a sure sign it was 1985 – Afrodiziak’s tremendously dramatic backing vocals bringing it all to a halt. Apparently, this was originally planned to be the lead single, and it’s tempting to wonder what might have been. I was standing in the queue to buy a Depeche Mode 12″ single at the newly-revamped Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street when I’ll Compete came over the PA, causing me to immediately have a “don’t buy that, buy THIS!” sort of moment.
(Being a poor teenager, I couldn’t of course just suddenly find the extra money, so it would have to wait until my next visit to London).
Despite these flirtations with contemporary mid-80s trappings, the majority of Mad Not Mad plays it straight enough not to scare off the old-skool fans. If anything, the singles of choices of Uncle Sam and The Sweetest Girl possibly played it too safe.
Uncle Sam had an easily retained, sing-a-long chorus (“I’m sailing across the sea to be with my Uncle Sam”) while the verses had a childish, nursery-rhyme feel (“not tonight, I’ve got studies to examine, tomorrow I’ll be watching all the Queen’s men”), and it all sounded a bit like Wings Of A Dove, and very traditional Madness. Of course there was a more serious subtext (it was the era of Ronald Reagan as US President), but the tone was light enough to allow some Nutty goings-on in the video, something the band had refrained from for a while.
If the hope was to bring back some of the old magic, and return to the upper reaches of the chart, then it was in vain. For the first time in their career, Madness failed to make the Top 20. Agonisingly, Uncle Sam peaked at #21 although by hanging around for a couple of months it was their most popular single since The Sun & The Rain.
Milking the album, or just trying to stay a float? The opening scene of the Uncle Sam music video.
Beware the “obvious single”. Long before Mad Not Mad appeared on the shelves, it was widely known that they were covering The Sweetest Girl, a 1982 minor classic by Scritti Politti from their Rough Trade days. Now they were label mates, but their careers seemed to be on opposite trajectories. The song actually suits Madness to a tee, but the execution was a little clumsy (with an overlong, over-complicated middle section) and by the time it eventually became a single in January 1986 the world just wasn’t very interested in what the band had to offer. It was about two years too late to the party.
Later, when interviewed for the sleeve notes to Utter Madness, the band made some withering observations on the wisdom of choosing The Sweetest Girl, when chasing commercial success with the most conventional material had clearly become a pointless exercise. “We should have put out Coldest Day instead”, referring to Mad Not Mad‘s most remarkable track and the most compelling example yet of Madness’ willingness to break the shackles and broaden their musical horizons even further.
Written in the wake of Marvin Gaye’s death in January 1984, and touching on Apartheid as well in its final verse, Coldest Day was like nothing else in the Madness catalogue. Synths and drum machines created an ethereal backdrop to the most beautiful of melodies, drenched in heartfelt melancholy. Quite how the public would have reacted to it as a single, nobody will know, but sometimes there’s no harm in trying something unexpected. Just look at Status Quo’s In The Army Now from the same period.
So with the two most surprising and effective tracks bookending the album, the remainder of Mad Not Mad sauntered masterfully through their variety of more familiar moods and styles. White Heat was another of their affectionate inner-city vignettes that, given the title, may have had an unspoken cultural subtext. There was further minor-chord action in Time and the title track (both redolent of Grey Day or Tomorrow’s Just Another Day) while Burning The Boats piled on the Afrodiziak harmonies and some urgent brass into the mix. Only the Carl lead vocal showcase Tears You Can’t Hide didn’t hit the bullseye for me.
The album debuted at #16 and lasted two months on the UK Top 100. No disgrace at all, given the fate of new albums by former peers such as ABC, Dexys Midnight Runners and Adam Ant that autumn, yet it was still slightly surprising that Uncle Sam‘s chart run didn’t inspire a sales rebound; when The Sweetest Girl limped to #35, it kept their sequence of unbroken Top 40 entries intact but only just.
(The maddest group in all the world…how could they do this to me?)
And then the fateful day finally arrived. In October 1986, came the news that Suggs, Woody, Bedders, Chas, Chris and Lee were jacking it in. There would be one final hurrah; a single (Waiting For) The Ghost Train and a second compilation Utter Madness that continued where Complete Madness had left off in May 1982.
(Waiting For The) Ghost Train could be added to the growing list of excellent latterday efforts, combining the simple pop nous of happier times and the maturity of their two most recent studio albums. Plus, as ever, it had a serious message about South Africa’s racial discrimination. The video made shameless use of several Nutty Boy touchstones….the comedy walk, the fez, Camden train station….and it felt like a triumphant send-off rather than a sad attempt to recapture former glories. A chart high of #18 was a respectable way to bow out.
Unfortunately, sales of Utter Madness were poor; a combination of 1986’s brutal pre-Christmas market and the perception that the band’s best days were between 1980 and 1982. Not even the presence of Our House, Wings Of A Dove, The Sun & The Rain and all the other sublime 45s was enough to send the album higher than a pitiful #29.
Hello, hello….I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello…
Well, that was it. Or so we thought.
Fast-forward to March 1988…ladies and gentlemen, may we present to you: The Madness! They’d lost two members, and gained a The. They had also, sadly, lost most of their fanbase, judging by the chart peaks of the eponymous album (#65) and its fabulous lead single I Pronounce You (#44). There was some absolutely ace stuff to be found on the record, though; opener Nail Down The Days was a relentless, high-velocity juggernaut with an offbeat arrangement and clever lyrics. In Wonder recalled the Eastern trappings of their early 80s heyday in the verses, before exploding into a chorus of parping horns, grinding guitars and clanking percussion to the refrain of “Tomorrow starts at Midnight”. Gabriel’s Horn was another densely structured workout, the band’s use of drum machines in the wake of Woody’s departure (to Voice Of The Beehive) freeing up their sound.
To the majority of people, Madness mk.1 ended in 1986 and their “comeback” was with Madstock several years later. The Madness has never been reissued on CD, and remains a bit of a lost classic. But those wilderness years, when their popularity was in decline despite the records getting better and better, remain the key ones for me and my relationship with Madness’ music.
(While the radio played, I was daydreaming…of what might have been…).
Good roundup. Surprising that ‘Michael Caine’ didn’t even make the top 10. The stuff from The Madness had never remotely been on my radar – have just listened to it and ‘I Pronounce You’ is great, if sounding weirdly like ‘Guaranteed’-era Level 42! Interesting to hear the boys learning some new tricks technology-wise too.
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Thanks Matt. Michael Caine went from 26 to 11 and looked odds-on to go Top 10, but then dropped down the chart! I originally meant to just cover Mad Not Mad but you know how it is…The Madness album kind of carries on their more experimental side. Everyone went a bit bonkers in 1988.
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Weird. I smell a rat re. ‘Michael Caine’…
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