In the eighties Madness were massive; kids loved ’em, your gran loved ’em. They scored hit after hit. While The Specials were personifying the grim zeitgeist of Thatcherite Britain in a parked car, Madness were dressing as garden gnomes and swinging from high wires. They were the nutty boys who became the lost boys, and like Peter Pan they were never allowed to grow up. We as a nation forbade it, as they were the musical equivalent of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, a national treasure.
Yet they emerged from Two Tone, their debut single, a Prince Buster cover was released on the label, so their Blue Beat credentials were beyond reproach. And behind the naughty schoolboy antics lurked some serious geezers. As a jobbing musician in the nineties, my band once supported spin-off act ‘The Nutty Boys’, comprised of guitarist Chris Foreman and levitating sax player Lee Thompson, and there was more than a whiff of gangland in their gang-show. In those days well-meaning promoters often staged ill-publicised shows, then tried to welch on the fee at the end of the night. We were forever getting done over in this manner and accepted it as an occupational hazard, but the nutty duo quickly transformed from Del and Rodney to Ron and Reggie when put in that position, and as I recall it didn’t end well.
So, onto 2005’s ‘The Dangermen Sessions’, and enough time had passed for the public to allow them to wear long trousers and their rude-boy hearts on their sleeves. It’s a collection of reggae/ska standards, some lesser-known and one or two huge classics re-imagined (a trick they had proven to be adept at with their cover of Labi Siffre’s ‘It Must be Love’).
The album has an unpolished dancehall vibe to it, like eavesdropping on a private after-hours sesh, and it exudes bonhomie and fun. Madness’ music always did but it always felt like it was for our benefit, here it’s for themselves but we’re welcome to pull up a chair and watch the skanking.
The standout tracks are the more obscure numbers, like Lord Tanamo’s ‘Taller Than You Are’ and Prince Buster’s ‘Girl, Why Don’t You,’ but even the overly-familiar ones (the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and Marley’s ‘So Much Trouble in the World’) are imbued with a fresh sheen, when filtered through Suggs’ endearing voice.
It’s the Madness album that grown-ups are allowed to like, but they’ll always be loveable baggy trousered cheeky urchins. You just wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley though. Trust me on that one.