Another compilation? Really? Is this a necessity when Madness‘ back catalogue has been raked over continuously, and the bones picked pretty damn clean over the years? Even in terms of box sets, Madness fans have been blessed. There was The Lot a few years ago, which provided a handy receptacle to house their albums from One Step Beyond to Mad Not Mad. Then there was The Business which compiled all their singles but infuriatingly crashed the intros and outros with interviews that, whilst interesting the first time around rather lost their appeal over the course of a few listens.
Last year saw the release of Total Madness, yet another compilation that included more of the band’s recent work as well as the obvious hits and a DVD of those videos that set the bar back in the day. So it would appear that on the face of it, A Guided Tour Of Madness is one step too far (or beyond some might suggest), particularly when the only new material to be found is in the shape of Le Grand Pantalon, a slowed down re-working of Baggy Trousers that currently graces an advert for some lager or other. It’s not exactly a gold-plated carrot with which to entice the casual punter or completist fans.
Yet there’s much to be said for this collection, and it stands head and shoulders above what’s preceded it. The old classics are in place as you would expect, and how could they not be? However, sat alongside singles like Our House, Baggy Trousers and House Of Fun are some choice cuts swiped from their albums which add to the sonic palette of the Madness experience, which for many is undoubtedly limited to a five-minute stomp at a disco (school, pub, wedding all the likely candidates).
Madness quite simply write perfect pop songs, and like those of The Beatles before them, their melodies seem to have been in existence for all eternity. Even if it’s the first time you’ve heard one of their songs, they seem immediately familiar, which might go some way to explaining why Madness were one of the most successful bands of the ’80s.
The other similarity Madness has with The Beatles is sense of place (and to some degree, time). It’s no surprise to find the words “We Are London” adorning the booklet that accompanies the box set. In many ways, this new set is an exercise in psycho-geography; when you put on a Madness album, you’re invariably transported to a London that exists in the minds of the band. It’s a London that is populated by an array of fascinating characters and situations, and each and every one of them is coloured by the worldview and experiences of Madness. There are underwear thieves, families at war over interracial relationships, headmasters breaking all the rules, school kids in ill-fitting trousers, parents being let down by the NHS, embarrassed teenagers attempting to buy contraception, Johnny The Horse getting kicked to death and the alluring charm of the terminally ill Drip Fed Fred. Take a trip to Camden, drive your car through Muswell Hill, or head up to the peak of Primrose Hill, and inevitably without the songs of Madness to contextualise the area, it’s all a bit of a disappointment.
Despite London being the setting of many of Madness’ songs (indeed, they include an A-Z map in the booklet pointing out the important landmarks around Camden and NW5), it’s the fact that many of the experiences they write about can happen anywhere and to anyone that gives them a wider appeal. Everyone knows the emotional turmoil of relationships that pull in different directions so articulately described in MyGirl; Baggy Trousers could be written about school days in any school anywhere in the country; Grey Day speaks of a malaise that exists in everyone, particularly at the start of another weary day. Lyrically, there is no doubting that the appeal of many of their songs is universal.
Musically, Madness has evolved considerably over the years. The two-tone ska found in their early days on songs like The Prince or One Step Beyond began to fuse with English music hall to create a heady mix that positively dripped with pop nous. The driving backbeats and basslines practically insist that dancing isn’t an option, it is a necessity. Mike Barson’s hammered piano lines keep the hooks and melodies in place, providing the axis around which the band operates so well. It’s the collision of Madness’ pop sensibility and their tendency to write songs that have an emotional resonance that flies in the face of the “nutty boys” image that so many paint them with. Away from the wacky videos, the funny noses, and Lee Thompson’s tendency to become airborne, there’s a gravitas to much of the band’s work. Yet because heavy subject matter often comes wrapped in purified pop, the pill is often sweetened. The impending demise of a parent, the horror of the Falklands conflict, and the death of a salesman are all covered in songs that not only require an emotional response but the movement of feet as well.
As the band matured, the ska influence began to drop away, and they explored more pop-tinged avenues. This led to what was arguably their finest moment with the album The Rise And Fall Of Madness, but eventually, decline seemed almost inevitable. There are some who insist that the Keep Moving era Madness is an uncovered gem in their history or that the likes of Yesterday’s Men and I’ll Compete constitute the band’s best work, but by this time, keyboardist Mike Barson was contemplating his departure and eventually left. The result was the sound of a band under stress, without one of its key operators functioning fully, and as such Madness seemed to suffer considerably before finally calling it a day in 1986 (the less said about TheMadness the better).
Fast forward to the early ’90s and the band rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes with Madstock (the DVD is included here), a celebratory festival of the band that came about thanks to the success of another compilation, Divine Madness. Following their reformation the band began to work on new material again for 1999’s Wonderful, and rediscovered their magic touch. Lovestruck is a pop classic with a chorus to die for, while Drip Fed Fred finds Ian Dury collaborating with the band for one last razor sharp hurrah. Meanwhile Johnny The Horse sees them in familiar territory with a heartbreaking story set against an immaculate upbeat pop backdrop.
Skipping over the folly of The Dangermen sessions (which remains curiously endearing in places) and on to the excerpts from their most recent album The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, it’s clear that Madness have finally rediscovered their touch. The heartfelt balladry of NW5 is up there with It Must Be Love, Forever Young’s ska is an exercise in pitch perfect nostalgia, and That Close is a wonderful swinging knees up shot through with sepia tones and pathos. This return to form is covered on the third disc of A Guided Tour, and makes the compilation worth picking up on the strength of this material alone. It is heartening to find the band working together as a unit and making music that is as affecting and vital as the songs they fired out in their youth.
So is another compilation really necessary? Perhaps not, but with this being the most comprehensive snapshot of Madness’ career so far, it is undoubtedly the most vital. If nothing else, this collection is a fine reminder that Madness is a band that deserves respect and critical acclaim. Their portrayal as nutty boys is wildly inaccurate and does the band a disservice. Madness wrote, and continue to write, songs that are familiar to millions, that condense the experience of everyday life and offer a sense of hope and belonging to those who choose to ride the nutty train. As Suggs points out in his liner notes, “every single person you meet is having a hard time” and it’s this awareness that permeates Madness’ songs and makes them so affecting. Their lyrics speak of everyday life, whilst their music insists that sometimes, all you can do is dance the pain away. A Guided Tour Of Madness is, in many ways, a guided tour around your own life and experiences, and it’s the most interesting journey you’ll ever take. As a soundtrack, you could do a lot worse than have Madness as the house band.
A Guided Tour Of Madness is out on 19th September 2011 through Salvo.