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The business with words
on 8 October 2013
The concept is so simple it's a wonder no-one thought of it before when raiding Madness' back catalogue for compilation ideas: take their film Take It Or Leave It, which largely relies on music from their first three albums and associated singles and release the soundtrack from it. And restore the film and add it as a bonus disc.
The film, which was a biopic of the rise and rise of Madness, inhabits a strange old world but one which is very pleasing to the ears of fans of early Madness. The concept is simple: when the band is rehearsing and playing live early on (before they've even adopted the name Madness) the songs are largely cover versions. Like so many garage (or in this case bedroom) bands they learn to play by attempting with various degrees of failure to play along with records they liked. It's important to note that at this stage the band was four mates: Mike Barson on piano (the only one who could actually play), Chris Foreman on guitar, Lee Thompson on (stolen property) saxophone and John Hasler on drums.
So after an opening blast of Don't Quote Me On That (as if to point out the some events in the film have been fictionalised to protect the innocent or for entertainment purposes) and The Business (the instrumental B side of Baggy Trousers that resurfaced as the brilliant Take It Or Leave It on second album Absolutely) the gear then shifts to the more pedestrian I'm Walkin' by Fats Domino, which is the first song we see the band murder in rehearsal. We also see Lee walk out for the first of many occasions fed up with Barson's pushiness.
Next up is On The Beat Pete, which is presented as a classic Madness video that never was within the film as Barson and a mate attract the attention of the boys in blue by having an impromptu light sabre fight on a tube station platform. The story then moves on to mate Si Birdsall's house where the newly named `Invaders' are playing their first gig. Suggs is now present, albeit in the audience as a less than impressive Dikron gurns his way through a desultory performance of Jailhouse Rock like James Moir singing for the panellists on Shooting Stars. Thankfully Jailhouse Rock is not included on the album. Meanwhile upstairs at the party Cathal (Carl/Chas Smash) Smyth is chatting up Barson's girlfriend as we hear `Don't Look Back' played at the disco. This was a little odd at the time as it would not appear as the b side to House Of Fun until after the film had been out on release. It is joined on this soundtrack CD by The Four Tops' Reach Out I'll Be There which plays as Suggs mooches around upstairs having the obligatory nose around his host's record collection. This is the last non-Madness tune to appear on the soundtrack.
This is a bone of contention with many fans as the soundtrack album is made up of the songs in roughly the order they first appear in the film and as recorded and released by Madness. The problem is that in some pivotal scenes Madness are playing either the first songs they ever wrote (see `Mistakes' written by the original Bed And Breakfast Man John Hasler and Mike Barson) or unreleased gems (the cover of `See You Later Alligator' which Suggs allegedly sang at his audition, `Rough Kids' the Kilburn And The High Roads song they were covering when Lee attacked drummer Garry Dovey, forcing him to quit and paving the way for Daniel Woody Woodgate to join and `Sunshine Voice' another early attempt at songwriting that they were working on when Woody auditioned). All of these songs can be bought in one form or another by other artists and heard in full, with the exception of `Sunshine Voice' which remains a snippet of an idea. Surely the band recorded a longer version than that captured for the final version of the film?
That is the only downside to this compilation. The rest is all positive as we're treated to a broadside of the studio versions of tracks we largely see the band perform live in the film during various recreations of early heady gigs in small sweaty rooms in seemingly smaller pubs. I say largely because a few are included when used over montages (every film since Rocky has had to have a montage by law) which like On The Beat Pete tend to act like mini Madness videos within the film. So why have a long discussion about how the name Madness was adopted for the band when the band and mates can be seen arsing about on the tube as the tune plays? Let's face it who hasn't done the `excuse me' dance on the tube with mates when on the way to a Madness gig in London? Lee and Suggs can be seen doing various odd jobs very badly as Odd Job Man/That's The Way To Do It and Rockin' In Aᵇ play.
Generally as the film progresses so the soundtrack heads towards more well known Madness songs as we're treated to nine songs from One Step Beyond... to illustrate the band's rapidly developing setlist. The sort of setlist that often makes debut albums so quick and easy to record, and used to make bands sound so fresh and live on the resulting vinyl or cassette. We're also gifted another Hasler gem as Stepping Into Line (which he co-wrote with Suggs and Chrissy Boy, presumably whilst sofa surfing round what they might call their gaffs, is lifted from the b side of third single My Girl.
It's clear to see that these early gigs must have been an absolute joy for the punters lucky enough to attend them (being a lightweight youngster I would have to wait until the Seven Tour in November 1981 to see them live). It also makes me yearn for Madness to play a few single album or b sides and rarities gigs. In fact I think it is a bleeding liberty that they've only really done a whole album gig for their most recent studio album, something I hope they will rectify at some time in the near future. But I digress.
Take It Or Leave It the soundtrack album works really well for me. With the exception of those omissions I've mentioned above there's no moaning about what's included, what's not included and why. Dave Robinson (and others?) picked a soundtrack to fit the film all those years ago (it was released in 1981 and it still works to this day. As a 26 (or 29 with encores) song gig it would satisfy a whole raft of Madness fans.
As for the film, well it is sheer genius. It's sort of a documentary, sort of a comedy, sort of a video, sort of a live video as it tells the story of how bands start and how they end up on Top Of The Pops and Radio One. Imagine X Factor. Imagine the long drawn out process of auditions and then having to sing weekly on telly as you strive to make it in the pop business. Imagine the heartaches, the amusing bits and the arguments on the road to making it to the final line up. Then forget that totally. Take It Or Leave It shows the other way: Bored mates form a band despite only one knowing how to play an instrument. Other mates come and go, introducing their mates as they do so the core of the band meets other musicians through the six degrees of separation model. The mates become fans or managers or try another instrument until that magical moment when they get that £1m recording contract. Sorry I mean until that magical moment when someone who really believes in them borrows a couple of hundred quid off a publisher so he can take them into a studio and get them recorded.
A lot has been said about the gritty realism in this film. I've been lucky enough to meet almost all of the major players (albeit not until a minimum of about nine years after the film was made). The band do indeed portray themselves realistically. I think they also get across the fact that Madness is bigger and better than the sum of its parts. I doubt any of them would have gone on to have musical success if it were not for Madness. I doubt any of them would have dreamed of it. So thankfully there are no contrived lines about waiting all their lives to get here. I guess that's the beauty of largely improvised film making. What makes it all the better is that band members and their mates all played themselves. Many locations used were the actual locations where the incidents being portrayed had taken place. At the time of filming Madness were exceedingly successful and famous in Britain. They'd had two platinum number two albums and had released 6 top 10 singles, but could still remember what it was like to play in pubs to 200 people.
Sit back, watch and listen. It'll be a hell of a lot more fun than reading a biography of the band and it might also show the kids that the X Factor is not the only road to success. All they then have to do is decide whether to take it or leave it...