Sunday, November 25, 2007


Flicking through the music channels on Sky, I was reminded of one of the more curious facts of pop music: Madness were one hit wonders in America. "Our House" made the Billboard top 10 in 1983, and aside from that, they ever made any impact on the American mind.

Okay, technically they weren't quite one hit wonders. One of their other singles scraped the lower reaches of the US top 40. But still, this won't do. Madness were fantastic, although they were easily mistaken for a novelty act - something that always led people to underrate the music. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I can illustrate that point.

Here's the thing you have to understand about Madness videos. We're going back over 25 years with most of these. Music video was in its infancy. There were a lot of dreary performance videos. There were a lot of cheap performance videos. In the eighties, there were a lot of people wearing very silly clothes while the vision mixer experimented with his new toys. Madness, on the other hand, chose an option that still works for low-budget video-makers today - cram as much stuff as possible on the screen, have fun, and if it looks cheap, who cares? When their careers took off and they were able to spend more money, they seem to have spent it on More Stuff instead of polishing the production values.

This is excellent and to be commended. If it made them look like a novelty act, so what? That's what good pop music is about. They write great three-minute songs and they entertain you, first and foremost. This stuff DOES look dated, if only because major labels today would insist on higher production values. But it doesn't look much like other videos from the time.

"One Step Beyond", admittedly, is kind of a novelty record. This is their second single from 1979, and it shows. It's a ska instrumental, which is the root of everything that follows. The video is a bunch of kids bouncing around to their new record.

Okay, it's not a GREAT video. Still, indie bands are still making videos like that today. Not many of them were making videos like that in 1979.

Their next single, though, was a real step up. This is "My Girl", in which Suggs plaintively explains his distress at falling out with his girlfriend over the question of whether they should go and see a film, or alternatively stay in to watch the telly. It's a love song with all the usual sentimental drivel stripped away and replaced with something from planet earth. It's fantastic.

As for the video, we've got the band miming to the song and that's about it. But soon enough, you start getting stuff like this.

"Baggy Trousers" has never really been one of my favourite Madness songs, and to be honest, it's here mainly to bridge a gap from the early ones. Still, most people in Britain think it's a classic, so it might as well be here. And besides, we've now got a flying saxophone player, which is a great use of record company money.

"It Must Be Love" was the other Madness single that made the American charts. It's actually a cover version of a Labi Siffre song, and for some reason, YouTube doesn't have an embeddable versin of it, hence the link. It's a classic, though.

"Cardiac Arrest" is a lesser known Madness songs - it didn't even make the top 10 in the UK, perhaps because of the ropey middle eight and the fact that most record buyers aren't too bothered about the fate of stressed businessmen. I've always had a soft spot for this one, though.

The follow-up is a piece of genius. "House of Fun" is a song about buying condoms at the age of 16 (the age of consent in the UK), a subject that ought to have disqualified them from kids TV back in 1982. But by going completely nuts with the video, and never QUITE mentioning the subject directly, they somehow got away with it.

I mean, that's just perfect. That's pop music.

"Wings of a Dove" is a fantastic song that doesn't get played nearly as often as it deserves. This is what happens when you give Madness money to make a video: they blow it on chucking stuff out of an aeroplane. Quite right too.

The later Madness singles, when they started to sober up a bit, aren't as fondly remembered. Given their image, the band had a lot of trouble trying to drag their audience into adulthood, and eventually gave up the struggle. I'll leave things off with "Michael Caine", from their penultimate album "Keep Moving." It's a good song, but it's not as instant as the earlier stuff. If anything, it actually sounds more like the Divine Comedy.

That's from 1984, by the way, and I'd say it's an unusually good video for the time.

Anyhow, Madness. A great pop band. I can't really understand how any country (and America wasn't the only one) managed to get "Our House" and yet not want the rest of their records, but there you go. At least the British always loved them.