August 1979 Madness released their only single for the 2-tone label. The Prince pays homage to Prince Buster. It is a cracking debut single, if not slightly overshadowed by the 2-tone labels preceeding single, a double A-Side that showcased The Specials & The Selecter. The Specials with the mighty Gangsters had laid down the gauntlet and was a tough debut for any band to follow. What The Prince had going for it was that it was a song written by the band and not a cover version as The Specials track was. That said all three bands (including The Selecter) were, back in 1979 clearly showcasing something new and exciting. The record buying public got this track to a respectable Number 16 in the U.K. Singles Chart.
Madness quickly followed up The Prince with One Step Beyond. This 2nd hit single, which was to peak at Number 7 in the charts just typified the band. It’s an instant anthem. Short, fun, shouty, dancey – It has a lot going for it and lit up school playgrounds all across the U.K.
The band rounded off 1979 with their biggest hit so far. My Girl peaked at Number 3. Showcasing a slightly more sombre vibe it’s perfect pop. The Specials were to me the best 2-tone band but with Madness jumping ship after their first single and signing to Stiff there was no question that the band meant business and were going places fast.
Also peaking at Number 3 and underlining the band showcasing fun like few other bands could was the outfits 4th single – the joyous Baggy Trousers. Released in September 1980 which as a 10 year old to me meant returning to school after the lengthy Summer Holidays. The timing was superb, no one wants to go back to school as a kid but the themes in Baggy Trousers were so spot on. Lyrics suggesting the teachers hated school too and prefrerred being in the pub, school kids learning how to bend, not break the rules. When the video was shown on Swap Shop the imagery, fashion and gel of the band was very apparent. This was topped when Lee Thompson soared into the air for the saxophone break. Playground talk (in real school not the video) was all about the band. The single, from the bands 2nd album showcased and suggested bigger and better things were still to come – they were.
They were and they did. Embarrassment may have peaked a slot lower (Number 4) in November 1980 – but it’s quite possibly the bands best ever record. I can recall my Mum buying me the record the day it came out (79 pence from the record shop in the old Bull Ring). It was glued to the turntable until Xmas. A cracking 5th single.
The Return of the Los Palmas 7 saw the fan base grow even wider. The last single from Absolutely, and the bands 6th 7 Inch was in a way a bold move. An instrumental almost. There’s just one word in the track, “Waiter”. I noticed the band had been up to this point loved by all the boys at school, somehow this track appealed to all the girls too, i’m not sure why or how but it just did. the buzz word in my 4th year Junior school for a solid month was “Waiter”. Suitably a Number 7 hit single that stretched their appeal even wider with just one word.
So, by April 1981 the band were still on the up & up. For their 8th single the mood took an unexpected darker turn. Grey Day is again, one of the bands best ever singles. The band, that had almost universly showcased fun fun and more fun all of a sudden sounded doomy – but we still loved them – could they do no wrong? – even the sleeve of the record was epic. Peaking at Number 4 the band already had an incredibly robust back catalogue of singles.
September 1981. Senior school for me. Suggs donned a bowler hat and Madness kept up that run of outstanding singles. Shut Up hit Number 7 in the charts. Perfectly pitched between the doom of Grey Day and the tomfoolery of earlier singles the band sounded ever so slightly more mature. Had they peaked?
At this point the band realsed “Complete Madness” a hits album full of “growing-up” defining records. The band were soundtracking peoples lives, we were taking it for granted that they’d just get better and better.
It Must Be Love featured on Complete Madness and not the preceding album (7). In all honesty the albums after One Step Beyond were not essential listening. Madness were a singles band – and one of the best singles bands ever at that. It Must Be Love had wide appeal. Now even everyones parents were taking notice too. A bit soppy but a great pop record. It peaked at Number 4.
The next single, the bands 11th, is again one of my favourites. Cardiac Arrest a tale about not stressing too much featured on both Complete Madness and 7. Strangely only peaking at Number 14 it was odd to see the band outside the Top 10. With consideration this must have been down to the Hits album detracting from sales.
Then again, maybe not. House Of Fun also featured on Complete Madness. It was, and still is, the bands only U.K. Number 1 Hit Single. Maybe their time had truly come, a bit like Blur’s – Country House (their 1st Number 1) it was the timing and not the content. House Of Fun is a great record – but not the bands best surely? That said, everyone was glad to see the band finally at Number 1, boy did they deserve it. In a way this was marking the end of an era.
Driving In My Car although still half-decent, for me, missed the mark. For the first time the excitement surrounding a new Madness 7 Inch record was muted by a song that was too much of a novelty track. I was 12 when it came out but their 13th single was hitting an unlucky note for me. With Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Baambaata, Man Parrish releasing electrifying singles around this period Madness, and their consistency seemed for the first time ever like they might be going off the boil. Almost inexplicably the single got to Number 4.
Then, in November 1982, Madness dropped Our House their first single from The Rise & Fall. It’s almost like the album title of their 4th album sensed a sell-by-date. I can recall listening to the track on the Radio 1 breakfast show before school and the buzz the song gave me. Madness were back. One dodgy single and some head turning electro music had pushed them away – but like a wayward older brother that we didn’t have – they were back – and we looked up. The first time I heard Our House about half-way through its duration you already knew it. It was so catchy. It showcased a more mature sound than that bridged by Embarrassment and Grey Day. The first lesson of the day at school was Geography and the third of the class that had heard the track aired on the radio that morning were buzzing about the track, the other two-thirds clearly wanted – to just hear it. It peaked at Number 5 and of note is the fact that the track sold in vast numbers in the States too.
Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day) walked an odd line. Musically the band were clearly getting more adventurous. They still sounded like the band we knew but you could hear the accomplishment yearning to spread out. Hints of western soundtracks, hints of, dare I say it – The Beatles. The Specials may have been the 2-tone band that burned brightest but for longevity and consistency Madness must be Britain’s finest singles band with the exception of The Beatles? Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day) hit Number 8 in 1983. 15 singles in 4 years – the question was – how long could they keep this going?
Single 16, a Number 2 Hit, was for me a disappointment. I can see the appeal of Wings Of A Dove – I really can, but after the previous single and noticing New Order at about this time, this single seemed like a backward step.
The Sun And The Rain trod a stronger board than Wings Of A Dove. A solid sounding record with a quite endearing all round up beat vibe. Madness did go on to release many more singles and a comeback, but on a personal note – that was it – it finished there. The band had nurtured from being a kid into being a young man. Other bands (New Order being key) really now turned me away. A Madness singles collection is a great thing from a great band.
As an end note two non-singles I feel must be mentioned. Night Boat to Cairo (technically an E.P.) is a joy, you think it’s finished then – that sax break… watch the accompanying video and if you’re not smiling by the end i’ll be astonished…
… and Bed & Breakfast man from the One Step Beyond album. How that track was not a single I cannot fathom out at all. Someone at Stiff Records must have had cotton wool in their ears.. I mean.. come on! – That’s just NUTTY..