Monsieur Barso, Chrissy Boy, Thommo, Chas Smash, Suggs, Woody and Bedders: The Nutty Boys. The seven-strong Madness was one of the best singles bands in the first half of the 80s. But it almost didn’t happen.
Mike Barson founded the group with Chris Foreman and Lee Thompson in 1976, then known as North London Invaders. Membership of the band was unstable in the early years though. Cathal Smyth and other members also featured before Graham McPherson was hired to sing lead in 1977, but his appointment didn’t last long: he was fired over concerns about his commitment to the band. Smyth and Thompson quit although the latter returned a year later, and McPherson was reinstated. By 1978, Madness was a six-piece outfit, the line-up completed by Dan Woodgate and Mark Bedford. Signing a one-single deal with 2-Tone Records, the following year they released The Prince, an homage to ska and rocksteady legend Prince Buster, whose song Madness had inspired to group’s new name (and of which they recorded a cover, for the single’s B-side).
They were immediately successful. The single made the Top 20 and they moved to Stiff records for their debut album. Smyth re-joined the group during the promotion of their first Stiff single, another Prince Buster cover, this time One Step Beyond. It made #7, beginning an extraordinary string of Top 10 hits which would last four years and earn them a gold or silver disc from the BPI with nearly every release. They released 13 singles prior to Tomorrow’s with only two missing the Top 10 and three failing to gain a certified award. Six went silver (over a quarter of a million sales) and four went gold (more than half a million copies sold).
At the heart of Madness’s success was an ability for getting the balance right, in every aspect of the band’s career. They didn’t rely on one regular songwriter for the hits: in fact, each of the seven members received a writer’s credit for at least one A-side. But they also knew when a well-timed cover version would serve them well (the aforementioned One Step Beyond and the later cover of Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love). Their mischievous humour propelled the fun tracks up the chart, but they could equally score a hit with more serious subject matter like Grey Day and the game-changing 1980 hit Embarrassment, the latter juxtaposing lyrics concerning a serious social issue with a danceable tune. The influence of Prince Buster, ska and reggae was evident on their records but they also pulled in other musical influences to produce quality pop songs that appealed to a wide audience.
Their success in the UK was not matched in America though. They finally scored a hit on the Hot 100 with Our House in 1983, going all the way to #7, but their US record label decided not to issue its parent album Madness Presents The Rise and Fall; a compilation of recent hits titled Madness was made available instead. Back in the UK, the latest single was Tomorrow’s coupled with another track from The Rise and Fall, Madness (Is All In The Mind). It was another Top 10 hit – but there were about to be some changes in the band.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Feb. 11
MADNESS Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day)/Madness (Is All In The Mind) (Stiff BUY169)
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK Genetic Engineering (Virgin VS527)
NEW EDITION My Telephone Man (MCA MCA938)