Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder: Madness

Okay, before anybody starts jumping up and down and screaming, I am fully aware that Madness was one of the most successful British acts of the early 80s, boasting 29 appearances in the UK top40 charts during their career, including 15 that went into the top 10. Not only that, but they are widely known as Prince Charles’ favorite band. So what qualifies them for a “Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder” article? Well, since I grew up American, my relationship with the group was that they were a goofy British band with horns who had one big hit in the United States with “Our House,” but were otherwise favorites of music fans outside of the American mainstream. If you had asked me about their status as a 1-hit wonder stateside before I looked it up, I wouldn’t have been too sure about it. I definitely would have named a different candidate for an additional hit. The band first came together in 1976 as The North London Invaders, going through a series of lineup changes before finally naming themselves Madness and scoring a series of reggae-influenced hits that can be found on their dynamic debut album “One Step Beyond…”

ok, so there’s not much song there, but try to tell me you didn’t move a little. Madness was an idiosyncratic musical presence to American audiences, but were part of a strong British scene, incorporating reggae, ska, and pop influences along with bands like The Specials, The Selecter, The English beat, and Bodysnatchers. These and other similar groups were signed to the Two Tone label and can be sampled on this excellent compilation disc.


The members of the group were from working class stock, growing up in the hardscrabble environments of economically depressed British towns, and many of their songs reflected this, with references to lower class schooling and petty crime as a pastime, including in their third British top10 hit “Baggy Trousers.”

Much to the consternation of members of the band, the British ska revival managed to attract a strong following among the skinhead population. Madness’ trumpeter Chas Smash reflected the young band’s wish not to alienate paying customers when he gave an interview with music magazine NME, saying “We don’t care if people are in the NF (National Front) as long as they’re having a good time”. This could only have encouraged whatever racist element was already following the band, but Smash was also known to have gotten into fistfights with skinheads at Madness shows. One performance featuring a supporting act with an integrated lineup was obstructed by loud racist chants from the crowd. Lead vocalist “Suggs” McPherson was particularly upset over the situation and came onstage to helplessly voice his displeasure. Violence between racist and anti-racist factions at ska shows became commonplace and threatened to destroy a scene that was in its infancy. Fellow Two Tone label mates The Specials recorded a song expressing their frustration over this and the rapidly decaying economic and social situation of the time in the UK. Unfortunately, it is historically common for racial tensions to increase when economic times are hard.

As you can tell from the Specials’ video, it was not uncommon for ska groups to be integrated.


Here’s a promo picture of The English Beat.

the selecter-b.aris_1.preview

…and this is The Selecter.

As an all-white group who had been inconsistent in their rejection of the distasteful portion of their audience, rumors of Madness’ active endorsement of the National Front persisted. Their working class roots and short hair did not help. Neither did the fact that the word “nutsy” in “One Step Beyond…” was often misheard as “Nazi.” A chance to subtly assert the band’s true roots and identity came along when saxophonist Lee Thompson received letters on the road from family detailing the drama unfolding at home with his little sister, who had become pregnant by a black man. The resulting lyrics reflect the disapproving reactions of some of Thompson’s family, but also suggest that he does not agree with them and feels stuck between family factions.

Madness’ lead singer Suggs recounted to The Daily Mirror in 2009 that “We were trying to do Motown with this one. Lee Thompson’s sister had a baby with a black man and it caused consternation in his family. It’s a great lyric – really sensational. You couldn’t believe such sensitivity could come from such a rough diamond, but Lee is one of the best lyricists of his time. We were having trouble with people associating us with the NF (National Front), so it was nice to establish once and for all that we weren’t.” Despite the tragic mood of the song, Thompson’s family eventually became welcoming once his sister actually had the baby. Children can do that.

Meanwhile, the group continued to pump out hits in the UK and finally had their fist #1 charter with the bouncy coming of age remembrance “House of Fun.” The main character of the song uses slang to ask for a box of condoms (terms like “party hats” and “box of balloons”) only to have the druggist send him away to a party store, the “House of Fun” of the title.

This superior video was swapped out in the U.S. for something a little less obvious and got strong airplay on MTV despite the song not being released stateside as a single. We’re such prudes. But “House of Fun” did help to open the door for a big hit in the U.S. with “Our House,” which peaked at #7 in May of 1983. Like a lot of pop songs of that year, I have strong memories of hearing “Our House” on the bus to my Junior High School. A previously released single was chosen to follow “Our House” in the U.S., a snappy little romantic tune called “It Must be Love.” The song hit #33 on the U.S. singles chart in September of ’83 and was also used to memorable effect in the ’89 Jeff Goldblum/Emma Thompson comedy The Tall Guy. That’s the version of the video I’ll be sharing.

It’s a fun movie, and it got a mention when I was listing the best comedies of 1989. Check it out.

It was all pretty much downhill from there for Madness in the U.S. We’d had our dose of zany Brit pop songs for the time being and were apparently ready to get back to our Huey Lewis and Madonna records. Madness scored a few more top 10 hits in the UK, but also gradually declined there, and by 1986 the band had decided to call it a day. They released an official “goodbye” single called “The Ghost Train,” which was an anti-Apartheid song. It was the kind of self-congratulatory political ditty we were getting back then, and despite their best efforts in the video, not nearly as fun as many of their other offerings. But it’s hard to blame the guys for being sure to remind us that they actually like black people.

I warned you.

Since then, the boys from Madness have had an on-again, off-again career, re-uniting in the mid-90s, scoring a few more UK hits and garnering the blame when the dancing at a live show caused locals to believe there had been an earthquake. A report from this past March claimed that Madness would be recording a new album this summer for release before the end of the year. We can only hope it results in a song infectious enough to garner them a third hit in the U.S.

More Nope, Not a One Hit Wonder

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Posted on July 5, 2014, in Music, Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Craig Hansen

    Our House is one of those iconic pop songs from the early 80’s. I had absolutely no idea they were so much more popular in the UK than over here. Madness, as a band name, sounds like it would be much more appropriate for a speed metal or heavy metal band than a reggae-influenced pop act, don’t you think?


    • daffystardust

      I understand what you’re saying Craig, but when I listen to some of the band’s more manic compositions the name seems to fit.


      • Craig Hansen

        Sorry – since I’m from America, that means I only know Madness from their lone big hit over here, Our House.


        • I’m in the same boat.

          I was away this weekend in a cabin in the mountains with no wifi. So basically checked out which was frustrating to me in spite of the beautiful surroundings. What I really wanted to be doing was wrapping up the next WTHH article. But it was not meant to be. When we returned to civilization, my wife received an e-mail notification that this article had been posted. When I heard the title, I had no idea who Madness was.

          I certainly remember Our House. I remember kids singing it on a bus on the way to camp. Which somehow ties back to my wilderness weekend I guess. But beyond that, I am completely unfamiliar with the band or its history. Sounds like they had quite an impact overseas. Always interesting to get that kind of perspective outside of what we see here in the ol’ US of A.


        • Craig Hansen

          Yes, you bring up a good point LeBeau. Madness had one Top 10 hit in America in 1982, then one very minor hit, then that was it for them here. No wonder that I’m aware of them, but only a bit.

          With that in mind, It’s amazing to see that Madness had so many hits in the U.K. I’m looking at their discography on WIkipedia, and it’s just this long, long list of hit singles, many of which were Top 10 hits, going from 1979 all the way until 2008, which is very recent. Go ahead, bring up Madness’ discography on Wikipedia, it’ll open your eyes for sure, especially if you only know them from Our House. Funny, here in America they pretty much count as a One Hit Wonder, yet in the U.K. they come off as a hit factory.


        • yet in the U.K. they come off as a hit factory.

          ‘Hit factory’, to me at least, implies intent / music design, i.e. a slightly cynical approach. Madness were better than that; they were just consistent, and very much loved. Even if not every record was brilliant,, it was (and remains) rare to find someone who actively disliked them.


        • daffystardust

          Yeah, that’s part of why I concluded that they would make a great installment in the series. I was pretty sure that many Americans would only be familiar with Our House and then I was reminded of all the rumors about their support of the National Front and I had my angle.

          When I first started writing this series I did so with the assumption that I could toss one of these off each week with very little trouble. But then as I continued and found such great back stories on some of the artists I started to hold each one to a higher standard. I now feel like I want to present something more than a quick “Did you know they had another hit?” article.


        • That has been my experience on WTHH. The original article was 4 paragraphs, no pictures. Little by little I have expanded my scope to the point where even an article on Billy Zane is now a monster.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. As a child of the 80s Madness were part of the soundtrack of my youth. I can’t overestate how popular they were here in The U.K. with every new release being an eagerly anticipated event.
    Their songs still have the power to provoke a reaction too. When I went to watch Manchester City play Chelsea in the F.A. Cup earlier this year the public address system celebrated City’s 2-0 victory by blasting out “One Step Beyond”, provoking a furious reaction from some of Chelsea’s more aggressive fans. Suggs is a well known Chelsea fan and I think the neanderthals perceived some disrespect.


    • daffystardust

      I’m a sports fan myself, but sometimes the fun and exciting energy and intensity which can be enjoyed as a part of the experience can get twisted by people who appear to have nothing else going on in their lives.

      Fans stateside have been known to throw batteries and ice at opposing players. There are fights in the stands and in the parking lots before and after. Some have resulted in very serious injuries. The yearly Oakland Raiders/San Francisco 49ers PRESEASON game has been cancelled because of repeated violence in the parking lots. A father and son team of drunk morons attacked a baseball umpire on the field in Chicago. Fans in Philadelphia notoriously booed what they considered to be a lackluster Santa Claus, throwing things at the poor guy. They also heartily cheered when an opposing player lay on the turf with a career-ending injury.

      A couple of years ago an Alabama fan took the step of poisoning the century-old trees on the campus of rival Auburn and then went on radio to brag about what he’d done. Thankfully, that mental midget has experienced some jail time and will be paying Auburn close to $800,000 in restitution. Unfortunately, he claims he wishes he could do it again. There’s no reaching some people.

      All of this is kids stuff compared to some of the stories I’ve heard out of European Football fans.


  3. What a fascinating take on a band who – as Paul S says – were part of the soundtrack to 80s life in the UK. Suggs is a national treasure these days.

    I think, however, that you might be overlooking how important politics was in UK pop during that era. Thatcher was a massively divisive prime minister, and her battles with the unions – combined with the winding down ( / destruction) of our heavy industries in working class areas – resulted in significant unhappiness for certain sectors of the population. ‘Ghost Town’ was more of an early response to that than any gig troubles.

    (How I miss the days when non-vacuous pop music could chart. Hey, ho.)

    And apartheid triggered a lot of songs. Most of them were pretty dire, no matter how justified the sentiments! Was that not something that happened in the US?


    • daffystardust

      The late 80s featured quite a dichotomy in music as I remember it. The most popular artists in the U.S. were mostly vacuous dance acts and party metal groups, but in the other corner there were the ‘serious’ artists who I tended to favor. Unfortunately, sometimes well-intentioned efforts to draw attention to very valid political issues resulted in outright terrible pop songs. I still hold a warm spot in my heart for some politically motivated recordings (“Do They Know it’s Christmas” gets a few plays every holiday season, for example), while others come off as preachy nonsense. This coming from a Billy Bragg fan 🙂

      You are right about “Ghost Town.” I will add a line or two to incorporate the overall climate in the UK’s influence on that recording.


  4. jeffthewildman

    One Step Beyond was the first Madness song I heard. Heard it at my HS radio station.


  5. Dang, Daffy, you know your stuff. “Our House” was reverberating through campus along with other British Ska and related bands, in the early 80s. Madness was one, so too Pet Shop Boys with “West End Girls.” A bit more obscure but popularized with MTV airplay, the Specials, “A Message to You Rudy.” Excellent song, I went out and bought the damn LP. Only good song on it.
    My theory is that the MTV explosion of the time brought a lot of bands into the mainstream, even if only for a while, through a combination of interesting music and very, very well done videos. Would you have heard of Commander Cody otherwise? Two triple cheese side order of fries? MTV was so good in the early 80s I didn’t attend some classes as much as I should have.


    • daffystardust

      Hey RB! I agree that early MTV was great. This was in part because not all bands and artists had gone to the trouble of making videos, so it led them down some interesting paths in the pursuit of actual content.
      I understand that if “A Message to You Rudy” was your initiation to ska that you might not be into the rest of The Specials album. I’m actually a fan of “Too Much Too Young.”


  6. Je suis un rock star 🙂


  7. I remember hearing “One Step Beyond” in Israel in 1979, and became a Madness fan immediately! They had other minor hits after “This Must Be Love”…the two that I remember are “Wings of A Dove” and “Michael Caine”, which features a cameo from….guess who?


    • Hi Dave! For the purposes of this series I’m only counting top 40 hits in the U.S.
      Madness was one of the most successful musical acts in the UK during the 80s, but only had the 2 hits here in the states.


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