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A wonderful return as Madness span the decades
on 3 September 2010
Having split after the release of Mad Not Mad (already without Mike Barson) Madness had been back together on and off since 1992's triumphant return to the live circuit with Madstock! following the top 10 success of the reissued single It Must Be Love and the number one compilation album Divine Madness. More reissued singles, the live album and video of Madstock! had been accompanied by a single release of The Harder They Come (effectively making a live EP across its various formats), but Madness had yet to release any new material of their own come 1998, despite 3 or 4 new songs being tried out live and fans knowing that there was material old and new on the back burner.
Finally it was time to record an album, but in doing so they knew that if they were to satisfy the live audience the songs would have to feel as if they fitted into an extensive back catalogue. In short Madness had to write some instant classics. Blow me, that's precisely what they went and done!
This was obvious from about the second listen to first single Lovestruck. Once that chorus is in the brain of a Madness fan it's as if it had been there since some time in 1982 or 1983. That's not to say the song sounded dated, it didn't, but it resonated as if it were an old favourite. A brand new favourite, perhaps? The public thought so too as the single became the first new Madness single since 1983 to reach the top 10.
A few low key and semi-secret gigs around Camden followed with promise that the album would deliver far more riches than just Lovestruck. The next single Johnny The Horse was another instant Madness classic, with its decidedly upbeat chorus and jaunty verses hiding the dark tale of Camden (and everywhere's) homeless eccentrics. Imagines the happy go lucky youth who starred in House Of Fun, Baggy Trousers or Our House going into decline. Alcoholism, homelessness and mental health problems are explored, along with the individual's family and friends care and concern for the unknown fate of the character. As the listener, we know his journey ended with him murdered on the streets for 'fun'. A life lost, but why should anyone care? Because it was a life. Simple as that. This song was based on a true story. Sadly it didn't quite click with the wider public. Perhaps it was released a little too long after Lovestruck to maintain the momentum, stalling at 44 a week before the album now known as 'wonderful' was released.
Wonderful was an album of great depth and variety, with 5 of the band members receiving at least one writing credit. The only surprise being that guitarist Chris Foreman took a back seat in the writing stakes, not being credited for any of the album's 9 original songs. The album included two cover versions: the Barson/McPherson penned 4.A.M. had first appeared on Suggs's debut solo album, but was greatly enhanced in the version presented here. The Langer/Winstanley production getting the absolute best out of Madness and the song itself, an exploration of the characters from The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset. The arrangement here owes a lot to Madness' earlier cover of It Must Be Love. It is simply gorgeous.
The other cover If I Didn't Care was a reworking of the old Inkspots classic, which had been revived by its inclusion on the soundtrack of cult movie The Shawshank Redemption. Being unfamiliar with the song or film at the time it appeared to be an inspired choice of oldie for this listener. The song is radically rearranged bringing Woody's drums and Bedders's ruder than you basslines right to the fore. There's also a sprinkling of 'Bond Theme' dust to give the song a moody filmic atmosphere.
The centrepiece of the album, however, was Drip Fed Fred, a Thompson/Barson composition about crime and corruption an absolute stomper of a song played out in several character parts. One of those parts was played out to absolute perfection by Sir Ian Dury RIP. The song seemed perfect for him and Lee Thompson had bumped into him purely by chance whilst on a writing trip to Holland, where Barson had been living for the best part of 15 or so years. A brilliant song, yes, but whether it was a good choice of third single is something the jury is still out on (if you'll pardon the pun). Ian Dury and Lee Thompson on lead vocals, which included references to knee capping and nonces was hardly the stuff of hit singles. However it goes down as a collaboration that was timed to perfection. Sir Ian Dury RIP passed away after battling cancer a few weeks after this single stalled at number 55.
The single had been paired as a double A side (something that seemed an odd idea in those CD driven times) with Elysium a stunning collaboration between Woody (not many tunes, but they are all brilliant-don't believe me go hunt them down!) and Thompson. The fantastic melody (which makes me think of the Casualty theme tune!) being topped by a call and (occasional) response vocal between Suggs and Thompson acting out the life and times of a bi-polar depressive's struggle with his own self-doubt and delusion. It's, quite simply, the absolute highlight of the album.
The Communicator is a nod to the band's roots in ska, which actually ends up sounding brilliantly like early Bad Manners, thanks to the piano and skank being mixed with a fuller brass sound than Madness were using in the 2Tone era. Had this been recorded during one of the many mini-ska revivals that happened between 1986 and 1994, Madness would have absolutely cleaned up. As it is Cathal gets to out preach James Brown, whilst Suggs quotes Alice Morse Earle- a quote still on display on the outside of the British Library in Somers Town trivia fans.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning a delicious stormer penned by Suggs on the perils of reforming your band. Rather cheekily it has the distinct feel of Mud's 70's hit Tiger Feet. It's a glorious glamorous shuffle. To these ears it still sounds a lot like a hit single...
Mike Barson's solo penned Going To The Top is one of those glorious, if slightly maddeningly frustrating, list songs. This one barely pauses for breath, but then when one considers the lyric about unbridled ambition maybe that's the point? Imagine being at an old fashioned fairground riding a helter skelter, except this one spirals upwards. This song wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on Madness' third album 7. The pay off it the fantastic refrain "like a king upon his throne... don't you know it's love that pays" as the song suddenly tails off into a mix of sirens and alarms. The collapse has been complete and total...
Album closer No Money pairs Thompson with Woodgate and Woodgate as Woody's brother Nick pops up to help with the tunesmithery. It's a cautionary tale of living beyond one's means and outstaying one's welcome built around a sinking ship metaphor. As had by now become law, the track contains the signature Oliver's Army piano sound, otherwise unheard on the album. An arrangement that reaches its crescendo with Chrissy Boy really rocking out on the axe, with feedback disguised as Morse code distress signals underpinning the chorus adding to the sense of urgency. It's a fantastic end to a brilliant album.
Once this was released it sparred with 'Keep Moving' to be my favourite Madness album. Mood alone being the decider for me!
This release pairs the original album and the videos made for the 3 singles in a deluxe package with an album which almost comprehensively gathers up the B side material from the singles, new tracks recorded a couple of years later for their 'Our House' musical. I say almost because I've always been intrigued by the B side 'You're Wonderful (Remix)'. Presumably somewhere there is an unreleased 'You're Wonderful'?
We also get the cover of 'My Old Man' made for the 'Brand New Boots And Panties' Ian Dury tribute album, which plenty of fans will have missed from their collection. AWOL, however, is their cover of 'Money Money Money' recorded for the Abbamania project. No major loss artistically, but it would have fitted into the era based bonus tracks.
From 'Our House' the musical we get 'Simple Equation' (the pivotal song that links so many of the scenes in the musical, brilliantly performed in the original show by Joe's dad (Ian Reddington), 'Sarah's Song' which is radically different from the version used in the musical (it was sung with almost totally different lyrics by Sarah) which Lee had described as being perhaps a follow up to 'Embarrassment'. A sort of what might have happened 20 years later and a 2002 mix of 'It Must Be Love'. These songs were previously commercially available on the 'Our House' compilation. However notably absent is a slightly different mix of Sarah's Song, which was doing the rounds in rare promo sampler form. With a little luck this rarity will turn up on a later box set? We can't have everything can we?
Of the B sides 'You're Wonderful' and 'Round And Round' were apparently contenders for the album proper, but I'm not sure it would have benefitted from the inclusion of either as the 11 tracks chosen provided the fans with a wonderful new album. I'd urge anyone who missed out first time round to add this to their Madness album collection. The albums may come incredibly slowly these days, but Wonderful provides a brilliant bridge from Madness mk1, picking up the baton from Keep Moving and eventually passing it on to their career opus The Liberty Of Norton Folgate which followed almost a decade later.