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.
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.
Posted on July 5, 2014, in Music, Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder and tagged House of Fun, It Must Be Love, Madness, Our House, Ska, The English Beat, The Specials, The Tall Guy. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.