Pop music has for a long time now been a central part of British life, but less often it’s the case that British life is a central part of pop music. By that I mean there have been few pop artists in the last 50 or so years who have really been able to capture something of the true essence of what it is to live a working class life on this colourful, windswept isle of ours. Ray Davies of The Kinks is often correctly cited as the only one of the 60’s generation of songwriters to faithfully capture the Anglo Saxon spirit, and if you want to look at more recent times Damon Albarn of Blur did a pretty decent job of it with albums like Parklife and The Great Escape in the 90’s, and Mike Skinner of The Streets certainly expressed something of the post-millenial spirit of the nation on his first couple of albums.
Rewind back to the early 80’s though and one band were responsible for a series of singles and videos which maybe represent something of a high point in this strand of artistic thought. Now I know some of you will read that and think that surely Ray Davies is the benchmark against which a band like this must be measured but I would argue that whilst his songs were beautifully crafted vignettes there was something of the aloof 3rd party observer in songs like ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Dead End Street’. What you get with Madness are songs from the thick of the action, not so much observations from across the street but 1st hand reports from the residents of the terraces and estates.
Baggy Trousers (1980)
No other song sums up the unruly, noisy, mud-stained knees atmosphere of life in and English comprehensive school in quite the same way as this. The lyrics, by lead singer Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson perfectly capture the “lots of smells and lots of noise” made by the kids as well as the experience for the teachers taking lunchtime refuge in the pub and dreading the moment when “the lunchtime bell will ring again”, a real bell adding to the song’s picture perfectly.
The other big school song of that time was Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ but as Suggs himself pointed out “I was writing about my time at school. Pink Floyd had that big hit with ‘teacher, leave those kids alone’. It didn’t really relate to me, because I hadn’t been to a public school where I was bossed about and told to sing ‘Rule Britannia!’ and all that”. Whereas there was a sense of bitter middle-class resentment in Roger Waters’ lyric, Suggs had written a much more celebratory song, one that seemed to suggest that despite school probably seeming like an almighty pain at the time he had actually rather enjoyed it.
Shot in a North London school, the video is full of exactly the kind of gleefully cheeky kids the lyrics so joyfully capture. Maybe the most succinct line in the song is “all I learnt in school was how to bend not break the rules” meaning that we were all a bit naughty at times, we all skived a lesson here and there and lied about our unfinished homework but “did it really turn out bad?”. The video is also notable for being the first of sax player Lee Thompson’s airborne appearances, something that would become a recurring theme.
House Of Fun (1982)
The humour of Madness which earned them the nickname ‘The Nutty Boys’ and even their own photo-comic strip in kids magazine Look In was a huge part of their appeal. This song, with lyrics by Lee Thompson, is maybe the finest example in their back catalogue of just how well honed that element of the band was.
A tale of a boy trying to buy condoms (“box of balloons with the feather light touch” etc…) on his 16th birthday, yet being thwarted by both the chemists inability to understand his ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ entendres and the embarrassment of being interrupted by neighbours Miss Clay and co, the video acts the song out perfectly with Suggs playing the awkward boy to a tee. After being told that “this is a chemists not a joke shop” he persists asking one last time for “party hats, simple enough, clear, comprehende savvy understand?” only to be undone by being too immature to simply ask for a packet of Durex.
The acutely observed coming-of-age lyric and video play like a well honed sketch, the vaudeville fairground pop music acting as the perfect backdrop. It’s a comedy song, but not overtly in the way so many others are. Indeed, ‘funny’ songs all too often over-egg a painfully thin joke to the point where by the second chorus it ceases to be anything more than a bit annoying (think of Joe Dolce’s utterly awful “Shaddap-a Your Face” from around the same time). Actually, I’ll be honest here and say that I have an almost irrational hatred of comedy songs per se. Do one or the other, but don’t do both to the detriment of both (comedy songs are almost always musically rubbish too). However, ‘House Of Fun’ pulls it off wonderfully with both music and lyric sustaining over it’s 2 minutes and 50 seconds. It’s just great pop music.
Our House (1982)
From school life to leaving school life and now to this, the whole of family life summed up in one song. Representing Madness at their absolute peak, this is peerless pop music and won them an Ivor Novello award in 1983 as well as scoring them their biggest US hit, reaching number 7 on the Billboard chart.
The video, set in a proper Victorian terrace the likes of which are still inhabited now in many cities, is also one of their best with the band in full comic-strip mode, hamming it up and generally having the time of their lives playing the various family members. Chas Smash as the mum is particularly hilarious, and guitarist Chris Foreman playing his solo on a tennis racket whilst pretending to be a 50’s rock n’ roller, a Beatle and a glam rocker is another favourite moment. The lyric, this time by Smash (Madness were gifted with seven members who could all write, itself fairly unique), is a sharply distilled burst of nostalgia, like an old family photo album set to music. No one else was writing pop music like this in the 80’s, full as it was of down-to-earth warmth and affection for ‘ordinary’ life.
What these 3 songs represent is not only Madness at their peak, but British pop music itself at it’s very best. They would eventually become so ubiquitous on TV and radio I fear many people in this country kind of took them for granted. Fellow Brits amongst you will have heard these songs a thousand times but that doesn’t in any way diminish just how good they actually are. They talk about a life so many of us instantly recognise and they do it with effortless charm and perfectly measured humour. I can’t think of another band that does it quite so well.