Madness, the iconic English band, played a crucial role in carrying the ska movement on their shoulders for over two decades. They ensured the survival and development of this musical style, preventing it from being diluted by the sugary nostalgia of the 1970s or the violence of the skinhead movements in the following decade. From “The Prince” to the famous “One Step Beyond” from their debut album in 1980, Madness successfully kept the flame of a wild and popular ska alive, always inspired and sometimes mischievous. Even after all these years, the band continues to shine with their spectacular comebacks and releases like “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” (2009), “Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da” (2012), and “Can’t Touch Us Now” (2016), celebrating their 40th anniversary.
The Birth of Madness
In 1976, four young musicians from the popular neighborhood of Camden Town in London formed a small ska band called The Invaders. Inspired by the rocksteady rhythms of Jamaican singer Prince Buster, the group consisted of organist Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson, singer and trumpeter Cathal “Chas Smash” Smith, saxophonist Lee “El Thommo” Thompson, and guitarist Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman. After three years of touring in London’s clubs, they were joined by singer Graham “Suggs” McPherson, bassist Mark “Bedders” Bedford, and drummer Daniel “Woody” Woodgate. They changed their name to Madness, inspired once again by a Prince Buster song.
The Ska Movement
Being part of the ska scene, Madness evolved alongside other bands such as Bad Manners, The Selecter, and The Specials. The Specials, in particular, were the driving force behind the London ska scene under the Two-Tone label created by Jerry Dammers. Madness gained recognition and popularity after a triumphant tour as the opening act for The Specials. They released their first single, “The Prince,” as a homage to Prince Buster, who served as their inspiration. However, it was the B-side, a nearly instrumental version of an old rocksteady track called “One Step Beyond,” that truly propelled the band into the ska movement. Festive and nonsensical, “One Step Beyond” quickly became an essential ingredient in the rebellious parties of the English and European youth.
The Rise to Fame
Embracing the success of “One Step Beyond,” Madness released their debut album with the same title in October 1979. The album quickly achieved gold status and featured a low-budget music video filmed in Suggs’ father’s hair salon. This video also laid the foundations for the visual identity that would define Madness’ future work. However, their association with a fringe group of white nationalist skinheads tarnished their reputation, despite their disavowals. It took several years, interviews, and the release of a confrontational song titled “Don’t Quote Me On That” to dispel this unfortunate association and shed their pro-racist image.
The Rollercoaster Journey
On the back of the success of “One Step Beyond,” Madness released their platinum album “Absolutely” in 1980, featuring hit songs like “Embarrassment” and “Baggy Trousers.” The following year, they released the gold album “Seven,” featuring popular tracks such as “Shut Up” and “Grey Day.” 1982 marked the release of their first greatest hits album, “Complete Madness,” which dethroned the indomitable Queen from the top of the British charts. The same year, they released their highly regarded album “The Rise and Fall,” which included the iconic track “Our House.” However, in 1984, Madness faced their first split as organist Mike Barson decided to leave the band. This departure marked a turning point for the band, with the subsequent albums “Keep Moving” (1984) and “Mad not Mad” (1985) failing to meet fan expectations. Critics accused Madness of betraying the spirit of ska and producing lackluster pop music bordering on mainstream. Despite their attempt to release a second greatest hits album, titled “Utter Madness,” the band struggled to recover from the mediocrity of their recent work and officially disbanded in 1986.
Triumphs and Challenges
Madness’ reunion in 1992 with the compilation album “Divine Madness” brought them renewed success. This was followed by their iconic concert at Finsbury Park, Madstock, which included a tribute to Jimmy Cliff with a cover of “The Harder They Come.” Although it was initially a one-off event, the band continued to sporadically reunite, releasing albums such as “Wonderful” in 1999, recapturing the spirit of their early years. Leaning into occasional reunions, they allowed each member to explore solo projects alongside their collective endeavors.
A Never-Ending Story
In 2001, Madness secretly reunited to celebrate their 25-year career. The band recorded and tested demos of ska, rocksteady, and reggae covers, playing intimate gigs in the back rooms and bars of Camden Town’s Dublin Castle, where they first started as The Dangermen in 1979. This reunion led to the release of their album “The Dangermen Volume I” in 2005, with the standout track “Shame & Scandal in the Family” topping the charts that summer. Madness continued to make waves with their single “Sorry” in 2007 and their conceptual album “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” in 2009, which received critical acclaim. Their cultural impact was solidified with performances on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Jubilee and their appearance at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in Hyde Park. Their 10th album, the avant-garde “Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da” released in 2012, showcased Madness returning to their ska roots. Although trumpeter Chas Smash, alias Cathal Smyth, left the band shortly after, the remaining six members came together for their next album, “Can’t Touch Us Now,” released in 2016, commemorating the band’s 40th anniversary.
Madness has proven time and again that they are more than just a ska band. Their enduring legacy rests on their ability to evolve and revitalize their sound while staying true to their roots. As they continue to write their never-ending story, Madness remains an iconic band beloved by fans worldwide.
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