1984 saw two very big changes for Madness: the exit of founder member Mike Barson, and the group’s split from Stiff, their record company since 1979. The latter change might have been inevitable as Stiff was in trouble financially. The departure of its most successful act didn’t help of course and within a year of Madness’s departure it was sold to ZTT; the last BUY was issued in 1987. Barson’s decision to quit was more surprising, although he gave the rest of the group a generous notice period. He announced his intention to spend more time with his wife in their new home in The Netherlands at the beginning of October 1983, agreed to complete work on the album they were in the middle of recording, continued to perform live with the others until the end of the year, and remained a part-time member of Madness until the summer of 1984 at which point he left permanently.
The trigger for his announcement was a Madness television show the group were in discussion with comedian and writer Ben Elton about; he felt unable to commit to such a project. (Elton was the co-writer of ‘The Young Ones’, a comedy show on the BBC that had secured a comparatively generous budget by billing itself as “variety”, a genre eligible for greater BBC funding than sit-coms in the 80s. To qualify as variety, each show in the series would include a performance from a music act; in one 1982 edition, that act had been Madness, performing their hit House Of Fun. Confusingly, Our House was in the charts for them at the time this show was broadcast; this was the song they performed on the occasion of their second appearance on ‘The Young Ones’ in 1984.)
Meanwhile, work on Keep Moving, the final Madness album with Barson, was completed by the end of 1983. Although it was well-received critically, there was a third big change about to affect the band: the end of their tenure as a Top 10 singles act. They had had three Top 10 hits in 1983, bringing their tally to 15. Their first offering of 1984, Michael Caine, the lead single from the new album, stopped at #11: a near miss, but a significant one at this stage in their career. Unusually, Chas Smash took lead vocals on the song, which he co-wrote with Woody. An excellent addition to the group’s repertoire, it concerned an informer during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and memorably featured a spoken contribution from the song’s namesake, who recorded his lines specially. His repeating of his name throughout the track is a reference to his role as Harry Palmer in the movie ‘The Ipcress File’, where Palmer repeats his name to focus his attention away from being tortured.
Barson assisted in the promotion of both this single and its follow-up, One Better Day, by appearing in the promotional clips filmed for them. But One Better Day also failed to make the Top 10, as in fact would all their subsequent singles of the 1980s. It was over a year before they released their next single though, and in the meantime the six remaining members of the group ended their relationship with Stiff and formed their own record company, Zarjazz, marketed and distributed by Virgin and run from offices on the Caledonian Road in Holloway. The name was in reference to ‘zarjaz’, an invented word meaning “excellent” in the comic book series 2000 AD, and its first release was a single by ex-The Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey called Listen to Your Father in September 1984. Most of the members of Madness performed on the single backing Sharkey, the only missing member being Suggs: he was however featured on the second Zarjazz single, when he teamed up with Smash as The Fink Brothers for the one-off collaboration Mutants In Mega-City One (another 2000 AD allusion). Madness themselves wouldn’t release a record of their own on Zarjazz until the company’s fifth single, Yesterday’s Men, issued thirty years ago today, a taster from their first album without Barson.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Aug. 19
Howard JONES New Song (WEA HOW1)
MADNESS Yesterday’s Men (Zarjazz JAZZ5)