by Chris Estey
33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the 23rd installment of our attempt to read as many of the books in the series as possible, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here.
Part 23: Madness’ One Step Beyond by Terry Edwards
Madness were a crucial band in the defining of the Two Tone aesthetic, the Second Wave of ska which merged with late 70s UK punk rock. A big posse of boys in the nicest thrift store suits they could find making dance music for a smart and diverse crowd; bringing “mod” concepts back to rock after years of hippie lassitude; and following the gentle humor of unpretentious pub rock with a style even more openly fun were unstated elements of the music.
The many-membered Madness had all of these qualities, but the last one kept them from being fully embraced in the States till MTV were happy to show jaunty hits like “House Of Fun” and “Our House” in heavy rotation. One Step Beyond was their first record, and whilst author Terry Edwards agrees with most that it isn’t their best, it helped capture unbridled joy for the band on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. American kids fell in love with them from the vids a couple of years later, yet the band — by continuing to release superb songs about their daily interests (“Michael Caine”) and even whole albums, like their brand new one The Liberty of Norton Folgate – has always been about their Camden Town, London home.
Friend to the band, fellow long-time hard-working musician, and cracking tight writer Edwards has delivered a dream book for Madness fans, and considering there’s hardly any other ones available, I advise the true-blood Two Tone addict and the newly curious to pick it up. Inside information abounds, starting with the origin of “the Nutty Train” (the often-reused image from the cover of One Step Beyond shows six of the band lined up like, indeed, a cartoon of a human locomotive), and how Stiff Records label-fuhrer David Robinson looped their cover of original ska champion Prince Buster’s song from mere minute long title track of their debut to a first time out breakthrough single. (Buster has recently joined the band on stage in their many live reunions, showing how assiduously and sincerely Madness have been playing out and keeping their comrades around since the very beginning.)
Madness were always the jester in the deck of Second Wave, at first seeming too frivolous for post-punk’s more serious lot, but even on One Step Beyond tracks like “Razor Blade Alley” (actually about sexual diseases, as in “pissing razors”) and “Land of Hope & Glory” spoke of concerns for the working and lower classes. They didn’t have the miscegenated line-up of bands like The Specials and The Selecter, but all the bands found their love for this music in places that sold exotic Jamaican import 45s, as lead singer Suggs (Graham McPherson) did as a child on weekends from stalls at Nodding Hill. Being all Caucasian and specifically regional made them suspicious to American critics though, which tended to write them off — even as they would later craft elegantly moving universal pop bliss like “One Better Day” (on later-80s record Keep Moving).
It is wonderful that this 33 1/3 on such a contemporaneously transparent album of young music fans growing up in the 70s would arrive just as Yep Roc has released one of the best collections of Madness originals in many years, The Liberty of Norton Folgate. I’ve never had a problem with their other LPs full mostly of covers (that’s somewhat of a ska tradition, isn’t it? And Madness always gives their all on a tune they kype), but since interviewing Suggs for the Three Imaginary Girls website a few years ago wondered if they would make good on the publicity their Camden Town live reunions had engendered and create a masterpiece from their own pens.
The Liberty of Norton Folgate is a long, winding tour of the areas the band has grown up and lived in all their lives. It contains portraits of parochial pride (“We Are London”) and immigrants pouring into the city (“Africa”) — but besting with classically melancholy tales of romantic dissolution, “Sugar & Spice” and “On The Town” (which features a duet with Rhonda Dakar), which are two brand new Madness classics. Besides these hit singles-in-a-fair world, the fifteen track opus ends on the over ten-minute title track, a dub-and-dancehall opera on the city’s dark underside.
This kind of synchronicity, a great book about the band and a new great record from the band, shouldn’t be missed by fans of “dancing about architecture” (rock criticism) and as Madness once put on a t-shirt themselves, those who “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance.”