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Three plus one adds up to one hell of a compilation!
on 19 September 2011
And so we reach the stage in Madness' career where the box set is considered the way forward in terms of working their back catalogue. This isn't their first box set, but it is the first to attempt to bridge the chasm from the perceived `singles band' of the 80s and the greatest hits playing `nostalgia act' seen live to the reality: a band which released classic single after classic single in the 80s, that more often than not had absolute gems on the B side, who built a reputation as a solid live band who could play and entertain and one which released a string of albums, which sold well if not massively. Crucially these albums were stuffed with subtly political and biographical tales of real life. Sometimes the spotlight would be turned inwards to reveal an honest and often melancholy insight into the real lives of the various band members.
This box set attempts over three discs and seventy tracks to illustrate this point. Whilst sticking broadly to a chronological route through their career this tour is not afraid of taking the odd diversion to show the listener a B side or EP track which came out after an album, before returning to the main route through the singles and album tracks. In fact running like Camden High Street and Chalk Farm Road do through Camden Town, almost all of Madness' singles are threaded through this set in order of their original release. Missing in action are Sweetest Girl and Sorry. The latter is no loss to this writer. Michael Caine is the first single not to appear in order, with One Better Day pushing in. Songs released as singles account for 32 of the stops along the way.
So what of the choices for the remaining 38 destinations? For this Green Bus Rider they make a pleasant journey. There's a few places I'd have liked to have gone, but the driver chose otherwise. Isn't it always the same when you're in the back of a taxi, certain you know the best route. Sit back, relax and the driver may well open your eyes and in this case your ears, so it's best to be looking out of the window.
With the exception of Mad Not Mad all of Madness' studio albums are afforded a minimum of two non-single slots. I have no qualms about this at all as it leaves space for All I Knew, B side of Yesterday's Men and in my opinion one of Madness' finest moments. This is a song which deserved far more than its non-album B side status. Perhaps fellow passengers will come to realise this too.
This tour, my friends, is like a holiday in Cornwall: you'll never get to cram everything worth seeing in to one holiday, but you'll come back savouring the memories of the places you did get to. Some you'll want to visit again and again on future holidays, but you'll also be wondering where else to go, what else there is to see. I can assure you of that as I've just returned. Sitting here listening to A Guided Tour Of Madness is like looking through my holiday snaps. Except instead of Kynance Cove I'm lost in the dream world of Primrose Hill, wishing I were there. And it has dawned on me that I really enjoyed my holiday and that this is one hell of a compilation of Madness songs!
Some of the details? Right I'm going to assume you're familiar with the original run of singles, 22 of which are present and correct. Later on you'll find another ten singles covering the period from 1999 to date during which Madness have made the transition from playing a purely nostalgic set live to a working, writing, recording and gigging band, whose new songs sit well in the set. A band whose 2009 album, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, was their biggest hit (and selling) album of new material since 1981. It was also arguably their best album. So be prepared for an introduction to Lovestruck, Johnny The Horse and Drip Fed Fred from Wonderful, Shame And Scandal and Girl Why Don't You from their alias project The Dangermen Session and the four singles from the aforementioned Norton Folgate: NW5, Dust Devil, Forever Young and Sugar And Spice. Finally you arrive at Madness' newest single, Le Grand Pantalon, their reworking of Baggy Trousers made for a series of TV adverts. You'll either love or hate it. Me? I love it. Not only is it slowed down as per the brief for the series, it is also totally rearranged as a waltz, which builds from very little to a rousing singalong, fitting in perfectly with where Madness are in 2011.
So now I'll whip you back to 1979, where our journey began for a brief précis of the tracks you'll be less familiar with. Mistakes was apparently the first song Madness ever wrote. Its co author John Hasler was no longer a member of Madness by the time it was recorded as the B side of One Step Beyond... No matter. It sets the agenda strongly for themes Madness would explore for decades: introspection, honestly, regret and the wish to better one's self especially with regard to youthful mistakes. And so we move on through tracks from One Step Beyond... and Absolutely and the Work Rest And Play EP with the songs concentrating on petty crime, drinking, ageing and broken promises.
These are not boastful songs: In The Middle Of The Night explores character of a knicker nicker, Deceives The Eye portrays the young shoplifter caught, not only by the police but by his own thoughts: "what will me social worker say...". This is no longer a laugh. The young Chris Foreman is clearly scared of the consequences now his actions have caught up with him. On The Beat Pete sees Lee Thompson having a look from the beat bobby's perspective: he knows who all the young herberts are. You can't help but feel that Thommo knows this copper would like to help some of these characters get a leg up, if only he could. Strangely Thommo's songs about his own youthful incarceration are absent from this collection. Perhaps this is a good thing as it allows plenty of room for the other song-writers to get a look in? Besides Suggs is writing on that same subject on Not Home Today: the embarrassment and shame for parents as the gossip starts about kids not seen around town lately.
Pausing briefly at third album 7 we see Madness starting to broaden their lyrical horizons. Time spent on planes and tour buses on the ever longer tours had given the band time to read books and see different parts of the UK and the world. This would be obvious on Tomorrow's Dream (Thompson/Barson) and Sign Of The Times in which Suggs realises the cynicism and manipulation of the tabloid press. A song that's as apt in 2011 as it was in 1981.
Disc two takes us to the second phase of Madness' journey, starting with their only number one single so far (ha ha), before we go on a journey within this journey on Driving In My Car and the schizophrenic look at armed robbery that is Calling Cards from fourth album The Rise And Fall. Any sense of fun is brought into stark relief by Blue Skinned Beast, Lee Thompson's look at those who returned from The Falklands Conflict in body bags. Remember dear passenger, this is The Nutty Boys. Your kid brother's favourite band. The pop band on 2Tone, pandering to the kids whilst the more serious bands got on with the politics. Well I am that kid brother and I soon got a taste for the darkness in Madness' lyrics and revelled at their ability to make earworms, get radio airplay and hit records with songs that looked at familial racism, IRA informants, depression, unemployment and eventually murder.
This from a band who could also look at humdrum family life, youth, growing up, the freedom of getting your first old banger or chuck in a massive cover version, such as It Must Be Love. Their only failure to get away with this trick was with Cardiac Arrest. Cathal Smyth's look at stress induced illness was pulled by Radio One. Had it been called Seven Letters (its euphemistic working title) it would almost certainly have been as big a hit as their previous singles. Wearing one's heart on one's sleeve is one thing. Sticking the name of one of biggest killers on your sleeve is another!
By fifth album Keep Moving Cathal was wise to this, so his look at IRA informants was doubly disguised by being titled Michael Caine and by having said actor as a guest vocalist on the track. Other themes explored are homelessness (Victoria Gardens and One Better Day), immigration and racism (Prospects). The only album only track from Mad Not Mad, I'll Compete, sees Madness looking at a theme also explored in the title track of Keep Moving: Trying to keep up, the struggle to stand still, let alone progress. Two tracks that almost accidentally sum up the Thatcher years of the 80s.
Disc 3 starts with an oddly stranded Waiting For The Ghost Train, the farewell single when Madness split up 1986. Apartheid was the cheery subject for this last goodbye...
At this stage one should pop the DVD in the player. Yep, put disc 3 to one side for 90 minutes, fast forward to August 8 (and possibly 9) 1992 and ask the cabbie to drop you off at Finsbury Park where an earthquake is erupting. Available for the first time on DVD and long since deleted on VHS this is the original Madstock! A record of the weekend in 1992 when Madness defied the odds and years of indifference by performing a storming set to 72,000 fans over two heady days. Many tears were wiped from eyes just in time for Chas Smash to bellow "Hey You!". Those two words were all it took to get the crowd in the palm of his hand. This DVD gives a faithful representation of what it was like to be there when Madness came back to say goodbye.
The DVD appears to include no obvious extras or easter eggs, although one can select individual tracks. Whatever you do, don't use this feature for Wings Of A Dove. If you really do only want to watch Wings Of A Dove, do yourself a favour and select Close Escape instead. In time you will thank me for this little tip...
Ok so having lapped up Madstock! You can get back on your original route by popping disc 3 back in. This is inevitably the most patchy of the 3 discs as its songs span 25 years, whereas the first two span roughly 3 years each. Age, maturity, improved playing skills and quite simply time has changed them but they still sound resolutely like Madness. They are no longer wide eyed kids or slightly more mature adults looking at a depressed world. They are grown men, grandfathers in some cases.
In 1999, 7 years after reforming and after several false starts the first fruits of a new album were released in the form of the top 10 single Lovestruck. Deliciously written by Thompson and Barson it managed combine a joyous singalong chorus with a dark underbelly of the reality of drinking to excess: the effects on one's family and the chaos and violence that drunks can encounter on a night out. The song's staggering (literally) brilliance meant it fitted straight into the live cannon and it could have been on any of their earlier albums. The subsequent album Wonderful sounded just like Madness, except with Mike Barson back in the fold the melodies flowed more easily than they had without him on Mad Not Mad.
Further flights into the singles chart stalled outside the top 40 and the album was overlooked commercially. The seven songs from it on this box set act as a welcome taster.
The next material to see the light of day was part of Madness' excellent West End musical Our House. Two songs were written specifically for it, one of them included here as Sarah's Song was sung by the lead character Sarah at a pivotal point in the musical and was known as Back In Your Arms Again. This track is likely to be a new discovery for many fans buying this box set, as it was only previously available on the Our House compilation album released to coincide with the musical.
Madness then toyed with a back to their roots project, which included gigs at Camden's Dublin Castle, playing similar sets to those they had when starting out and songs that had inspired them. This was a fantastic live concept. In the studio it was problematic to say the least. That said the album had some commercial success in the UK and had a life of its own in France, where the lead single Shame And Scandal and the album itself charted for far longer than they did in the UK.
Now it is time to head away from Camden to the sprawling city around it. The first stirrings that something good was about to happen came with the song NW5. Madness were going even further back into their roots to look closely at London through their teenage eyes, as the adults they now were and from a reasonably reliable historical viewpoint. The Liberty Of Norton Folgate was the result. Six of its tracks are featured here and they are a sheer joy. Four of them are aforementioned singles, and two That Close and On The Town could have been/should have been. It's a brilliant album that has left Madness with one hell of a challenge if they are to ever try to better it.
Then there's the packaging and the extensive liner notes. Wonderful, simply wonderful. Yes they contain the obligatory factual errors on the credits pages (I'm sure these are always included to make sure knowledgeable fans are paying attention!), but these are far outweighed by the contributions from all seven members of the band, their producers, their soundman, the boss of Stiff Records and their photographer. Then there's the wayward seven ways of thinking about Madness by Paul Morley. It darts all over the place but is a good read. Maps, locations of video shoots and the real places behind the band and their songs, plus a facsimile of most of their first ever fan club magazine (so rare only 250,000 were ever printed so I'm told). All this presented like a railway station bookshop crime novel. A little novella, a crime story, some pulp fiction. Beware getting too trapped in this booklet and forgetting to listen to the music and watch the DVD (like I did when sent my review copy).
This, dear passenger, is, for now, the end of the journey. We've reached our destination. Last stop. The present. All change.
This box set proves that sometimes the journey is better than the destination, even those destinations that are never quite reached.
What does the future hold for Madness? For now it matters not whilst we can revel in this box set...