In a musical age seemingly over-populated by tribute bands and TV talent show cover versions, Madness have no need for one or the other, and remain as sweet on the ear as when they were still wearing … erm, baggy trousers.
A week on from a host of promo appearances celebrating the release of the second single from Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, I felt it time to finally give my considered thoughts on that latest album here, having purposefully lived a while with the latest Nutty Boy waxings before delivering a verdict.
And while maybe in parts it’s not quite up there with the beyond-compare Wonderful and The Liberty of Norton Folgate, I’d certainly put it alongside Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad … and that’s high praise indeed from my point of view.
“I’m in love, but you drive me mad, be so sad to be losing you”
From the off, the band take a pearler of a shot at classic pop with two Mike Barson singles, the first, My Girl 2, a touch of chirpy ’60s soul and town hall pop worthy of a Motown Chartbusters compilation, shades of Can I Get A Witness or even Tainted Love juxtaposed with all the fun of the fair, and proof that for all their acquired sophistication, they can still write perfect three-minute hits.
If track one is My Girl 2, Never Knew Your Name is Embarrassment 2, with all the charm of an early Maddy Mob hit coupled with the feel of an European art-house film soundtrack, complete with treasured staples like Barzo’s trademark piano and Lee Thompson’s underlying saxophonics, transporting their brand of ’80s romance 30 years into the present.
“Just faint wafts of nostalgia blowing gently on the breeze”
If that suggests a retrospective album, Suggs and Chrissy Boy’s La Luna El Mariachi moves us towards the era of The Pogues’ Fiesta or Kirsty MacColl’s Tropical Brainstorm, but with unmistakeable Camden-bred quirks among the Latino/Spanish theme. In fact, all that’s missing from this musical smorgasbord is a guest narration from late great Ian Dury.
“Make a stand for what is true, try to be decent in all that you do”
Taking us on to the mid-80s incarnation of the band’s output, Suggs and Cathal’s How Can I Tell You offers something of the feel of Wings of a Dove or It Must Be Love, although in this case Labi Siffre’s message gets a 21st-century lift, and you half expect the curtain to rise at the back of the stage to see the London Gospel Community Choir giving it their all.
“Sometimes you’ll feel so low, you know you’re losing your mind”
Every Madness album needs less euphoric moments to truly make it real, and the mood changes on Woody’s Kitchen Floor, with something of a Terry Hall presence detected, though perhaps without that added Jerry Dammers’ sense of menace – even their down moments ultimately joyous and life-affirming these days, the Grey Days behind them.
“If you keep misery as your company then you might as well be dead”
For all the after-show lows experienced in past days, there’s an overwhelming need from the band to promote survival and the positive touch now, and that’s nicely illustrated on Cathal’s Misery, a 50-years-on twist on Prince Buster’s classic ska version of Enjoy Yourself, augmented by elements of music hall singalong.
“Dreams of life beyond the gates and far from this town”
Monsieur Barso’s tinkling beat returns on Woody’s Leon, inspiring further echoes of the Madness of yore in a song reminiscent of the band’s portrait of park and street life on One Better Day, poignant lyrics complementing pensive strings and joyous harmonies, with an added Beatlesome finish.
“Look at the debris and what we have become”
The big sound returns for Lee and Woody’s Circus Freaks, as multi-faceted as the band themselves, with more than a whiff of the new-found worldliness of Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad, and much of the accomplishment that followed in the 1999 reformation.
Yet Madness didn’t get to that stage without keeping their finger on the pulse of dynamic 45s, and Cathal’s So Alive is just the latest superb example – a stick of (pop) rock with ‘hit’ written all the way through, at least it would be in a perfect world. I for one see a busy dance hall, and the label of a Trojan single rotating on the turntable. In fact, uplifting’s too weak a word here, Suggs and Cathal’s glorious twin assault on the vocal duties underpinned by gorgeous brass and harmonies. And if that searing chorus twist doesn’t grab you by the tear ducts, perhaps nothing will.
“Deserted streets, and burning cars, familiar shops I know so well”
Just in case you’re getting carried away at that stage (like me), Woody’s Small World takes you back down a peg, its bitter-sweet sentiments perhaps serving as a window on the August 2011 Riots, in what appears to be a Ghost Town for today’s Britain, again perfectly paced, and this time with sensuous backing vocals from Siobhan Fitzpatrick.
“He had his own kind of flavour, He walked like a stepping razor”
Like the band at their potent best, Cathal’s Death of a Rude Boy takes a while to grab you but slowly gets under your skin, again showing many of the elements already mentioned, from Dammers and Dury to a Blue Beat and Two Tone rhythm. And I guarantee this is the one you’ll still be singing around the house the next day. Natty.
“Our pop star friends have all gone home, or maybe just out and about”
While Mike and Suggs’ Powder Blue is listed as an extra track here, it follows on perfectly, and is another song that brings Mad Not Mad back to mind, and showing us perhaps where the band are at this point in time – lifting the lid on the reality of London life that Madness have so beautifully chronicled these past three and a half decades.
“Free falling through the years, but I’m still on my feet”
And what with that, the following statement of intent that is Mike’s ska-driven Black and Blue and the closing Clanger-Winstanley mix of opener My Girl 2 – complete with oodles of wonderful brass and organ, North London’s finest are away again. But as the back page of the CD booklet implies …. this is a musical adventure ‘to be continued’. And I’ll say yes in many languages to that.
Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da by Madness is on Lucky Seven Records and available from all good record stores and online, as you might have already guessed.