Madness were at the forefront of the UK ska revival at the end of the 70s. They ultimately shed the 2 Tone image and became one of the most consistent UK chart groups of the Eighties. They were a motley crew, composed of stubbly pub-rockers and baby-faced pop hopefuls, but their cheery pop and slapstick reggae made them a nation’s favourite.
The skinhead menace of their early days soon gave way to an image of diamond geezerdom, made believable by videos as witty as the hit singles they accompanied. If you think of Britpop in the longer term, then Madness were its early-80s standard-bearers, with their roots in music hall rather than Jamaica.
In 1976 in Kentish Town, north London, Lee Thompson (a saxophonist in thrall to Roxy Music), Mike Barson (a nifty R&B pianist) and Chris Foreman (an AC/DC-obsessed guitarist) formed a trio called The Invaders to play the Bluebeat music they grew up listening to.
Over the next couple of years, the line-up would expand to include local skinhead “Suggs” McPherson, soul boy bassist Mark Bedford and funk-loving drummer Daniel Woodgate, undergoing an osmosis into Madness. When Carl “Chas Smash” Smyth jumped onto the stage at an early gig to do a robotic ‘nutty dance’ routine. the band was complete.
Kicking off their recording career with the 2 Tone skank of The Prince (a tribute to the bluebeat maestro Prince Buster whose song, Madness, had inspired the group’s name) in the autumn of 1979. The follow-up, One Step Beyond (a Prince Buster composition), peaked at #7 and an album of the same name revealed the band’s charm.
They went on to produce 21 Top 30 hits that grew steadily in sophistication whilst retaining the sometimes silly, sometimes sad, always humorous English-ness.
Madness made the classic transition from fizzy funsters to socially concerned grown-ups. Where once they wrote about Baggy Trousers, they moved to heart attacks and the situation in South Africa. They became more complex but less energetic.
By the time of House Of Fun and Our House, the group really had no peers – They beautifully portrayed the English way of muddling through in memorable three-minute pop songs that owed as much to music hall traditions as anything else and which seemed to appeal to absolutely everybody.
At their best, Madness were the best commentators on London life since The Kinks in the late 60s. An ability to tease out a sense of melancholy beneath the fun permeated their more mature work, particularly on the 1982 album Rise and Fall.
But like all good things, it couldn’t last, and the band began to show signs that it had grown weary of being the music hall clowns, and of a public who were game for a laugh and a knees-up but less ready to a accept the sombre mood of songs like (Waiting For) The Ghost Train or Yesterday’s Men.
Barso left the band in June 1984, moved to live on a houseboat in Amsterdam, and immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism.
The band regrouped as a six-piece for 1985’s Mad Not Mad album, drafting in Elvis Costello‘s pianist, Steve Nieve. It was their first LP not to reach the Top 10 or spawn a Top 20 hit single.
Madness officially split in 1986. As the biggest-selling British singles band of the 1980s, they were all able to live off royalties for a few years, but most were itching to return to the studio.
A half-hearted return in 1988 as The Madness proved as brief as it was ill-advised, while in 1990 Thompson and Foreman formed a ska band called The Nutty Boys. Woody had more success than all of them with Voice of The Beehive, while Bedders (who also briefly played with Voice of The Beehive) switched to upright bass and joined Terry Edwards to form jazz outfit Butterfield 8.
The band members also started cultivating second careers; Bedford opened his own graphic design studio in Camden, Woodgate went into teaching music in South London schools, and Thompson opened a mountain bike shop, a decorating firm and a landscape gardening company (which all went bust). He even worked as a dustman for six weeks.
When Madness performed again at ‘Madstock’ in Finsbury Park, London, in 1992, the 33,000 dancing fans created a tremor that registered 4.2 on the Richter scale and local residents feared they were experiencing an earthquake.
Madstock then became an almost biennial celebration, moving between Finsbury Park and Hackney’s Victoria Park. The band sporadically regrouped to record albums – 1999’s Wonderful even spawning their first new Top 10 hit in 16 years, Lovestruck.
In 2002, a coterie of West End theatre producers approached Madness with the idea of making a stage musical around their songs. The result, Our House, knitted together the band’s greatest hits – and a couple of Barson originals – into a tragic-comic narrative based on the early life of band members.
Graham “Suggs” McPherson
Chas Smash (Cathal Smyth)
Mike “Barso” Barson
Lee “Kix” Thompson
Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman
Mark “Bedders” Bedford
Daniel “Woody” Woodgate