Madness I knew you'd come back.
We always do.
Like thieves returning to the scene of a crime.
Did they tell you everything has changed?
Just everything.
Oh everything has changed,
Just everything.

— Madness,
"Saturday Night Sunday Morning"

Madness AlbumsMadness on

In the United States, Madness is known as an oddball one-hit wonder from the '80s, thanks to their catchy single "Our House" and its memorably wacky music video. But these guys are no mere novelty act. Madness is one of the most successful singles bands in the history of the British charts, and they have recorded many albums' worth of entertaining and intelligent pop music.

I discovered Madness in my early teens, during a time when all the music my friends and I listened to had to sound either furious and agitated, or depressing and angst-ridden (or both). Music had to be "serious" and "mature" in order to be cool. But Madness showed me otherwise: here was a band that was wacky and kooky and fun to listen to, and yet not childish or frivolous in any way. Madness helped me grasp one of the fundamental pillars of my personal philosophy: funny is cool.

The Nutty Boys Madness is made up of seven lads from in and around the Camden Town area of north London: vocalist Graham "Suggs" McPherson, vocalist Carl "Chas Smash" Smyth, keyboardist Mike "Monsieur Barso" Barson, guitarist Chris "Chrissy Boy" Foreman, bassist Mark "Bedders" Bedford, sax player Lee "Kix" Thompson and drummer Daniel "Woody" Woodgate. Known as the Invaders in the earliest days, the band began as bunch of amateurs who could barely play, with a revolving-door roster of members. The lineup solidified into the magnificent seven (with Smyth starting out as an unofficial member whose job was to introduce the band and dance), and the band changed its name.

"Madness" was the name of a song by Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster that the band frequently covered, and the new name seemed an appropriate fit for the innovative "nutty sound" the band was developing. Madness's first hit single, "The Prince," was a song they wrote as a reverent tribute to Buster.

One big misconception about Madness is that they are a ska band. Only a person who doesn't really know what ska music is would call them that. Madness happened to emerge in the midst of a British "ska revival" movement that included bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The (English) Beat. These bands were inspired by Jamaican ska music and they borrowed the essence of its danceable, double-time rhythms, but they developed it into a distinctive new hybrid. Sometimes called "2-Tone" because of the multi-racial bands who propagated it, this unique British variant of ska is distinguished by staccato electric guitar and melodic keyboards, instead of being propelled by a horn section and jazz-style soloing, as traditional ska generally is. On their debut album, One Step Beyond..., Madness covered some Prince Buster tunes and did a few other songs that could loosely be labeled as ska, but after that, the band evolved into their own individual identity, creating an original style they dubbed the nutty sound. (The nutsiest sound around!)

Madness were actually inspired by a lot of different styles of music besides ska, including jazz, rhythm & blues, '50s American rock, and British dance hall music. Some of their biggest influences were The Kinks, Elvis Costello, and especially Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Dury's gift for encapsulating the experience of everyday British life with his working-class cockney wit is what inspired Madness to celebrate the mundane, as seen in their songs about nostalgic childhood memories, making obscene phone calls, buying condoms, and staying home to watch TV. The band's veneration of Prince Buster notwithstanding, Ian Dury would have to be considered the spiritual godfather of Madness.

Madness became a huge sensation in England, but it seemed their style was too eccentric and too British to make a dent in the U.S. music scene. Then some visionary record executive heard the lead single from the band's fourth album, 1983's The Rise and Fall, and realized this was a tune even the Yanks could love. Suddenly, Madness had a giant American hit with "Our House." The Nutty Boys just as quickly faded away into the "Where Are They Now?" file on this side of the Atlantic, but a small number of loyal Americans like me were hooked for life. I tracked down all of Madness's non-U.S. albums and singles, and learned all there is to know about the band, and I've been faithfully listening to them for nearly two decades now.

Following the "Our House" era, Madness was beginning to get tired of being "nutty." The members of the band had grown weary of being perceived as the cheeky clowns of the British pop charts, and they wanted to have their music taken more seriously. It could have been a disaster, and a lot of people hated the change of direction, but 1984's Keep Moving was an outstanding venture into a mature and sophisticated new sound for Madness. One reason why the album was more somber was that keyboardist Mike Barson announced during its recording that he would be leaving the group. Barson wanted to quit the music biz and spend time with his family, and the remaining six Nutty Boys decided they would continue without him.

But Monsieur Barso had always been one of the band's primary songwriters and driving forces, and with him out of the picture, the Madness chemistry was seriously out of whack. The group released one mediocre album and then decided to call it quits in 1986. After a seven-year ride, Madness was over.

Well, sort of. Two years later, Suggs, Carl, Lee and Chris got back together as a new band they confusingly named The Madness. They recorded an album that was rather good, but then broke up. Lee and Chris continued playing as The Nutty Boys, but they later changed their name to "Crunch!" The rest of the former Madmen found new careers both inside and outside the music industry. Suggs tried his hand as a stand-up comedian, a band manager and a TV host before returning to singing as a solo artist.

In 1992, all seven members of Madness decided to reunite for a one-shot reunion concert at London's Finsbury Park. Dubbed "Madstock," this event was more phenomenally successful than the band would ever have imagined. The jubilations of the cheering, dancing, stomping Madness fans actually measured 4.5 on the Richter scale. The Madstock concert album is probably my favorite recording in the history of live albums. I have never heard an audience sing every last word and all the backing vocals at a live show so perfectly, so clearly and so enthusiastically. Thirty-six thousand Madness fans can't be wrong.

Since their reunion was such a smash, Madstock became a semi-annual summer festival for the next several years. There was talk of the band reforming full-time and recording a new album, but nothing materialized. After Madstock IV in 1998, the band finally decided it was ridiculous to keep playing nothing but their old songs, and some members threatened never to reunite again unless they recorded a new album.

So they did. In 1999, Madness released their seventh album, Wonderful. The title was not an unwarranted description. Thirteen years after their breakup, Madness proved that they still had the nutty sound. And perhaps the best part of all, the band finally fulfilled their dream of recording a track for the album with Ian Dury, their hero, who sadly died of cancer within a year of the album's release.

In between their periodic stadium gigs, Madness began performing a series of clandestine gigs at small clubs under the guise of The Dangermen. Instead of the tradition Madness catalogue, the Dangermen performed covers of classic ska and R&B tunes, just for the fun of the music. In 2005 the band turned in a new studio album called The Dangermen Sessions: Volume One, chock full of heartfelt cover songs. Right as the album was being finished, Chris Foreman quit the band, once again leaving an incomplete unit of six to carry on. Could this finally be the end of Madness? Not bloody likely!

The boys began knocking around some new original compositions with a renewed creative spark so profound that Chrissy Boy jumped right back into the fold after hearing the first demos. The reunited seven took great time and care in shaping what they felt could be that one more great Madness album, in the interim releasing the singles "Sorry" and "NW5" under their new self-owned Lucky Seven label. In 2008, the band played three nights at London's Hackney Empire theatre as an advance preview of the new album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate. It was a daring move for a band known for their beloved old hits to take the stage with a full set of new material, but for us true fans it was a thrill beyond words. The new songs were not only good, they were some of the band's finest work ever. The promise of excellence was borne out in the 2009 release of the album, typified by the ten-minute title track's ode to a historic self-governed London district that was a haven for misfits and radicals: "In the Liberty of Norton Folgate, walking wild and free, in your secondhand coat happy just to float in this little taste of liberty, cos you're a part of everything you see."

And now I'm going to be a part of it myself. You see, folks, the band has chosen to celebrate this year of their anniversary and the new album by staging the first Madstock festival since 1998, and I have chosen to visit London and experience the full force of Madness live and direct for the first time ever. "Out into the wild, uncultivated child." Stay tuned for more...

Madness Albums

One Step Beyond... (1979)
Absolutely (1980)
7 (1981)
The Rise and Fall (1982)
Keep Moving (1984)
Mad Not Mad (1985)
Madstock (Live, 1992)
Wonderful (1999)
The Dangermen Sessions: Volume One (2005)
Live at the Hackney Empire (Live, 2008)
The Liberty of Norton Folgate (2009)
Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da (2012)

Madness-related Albums

The Madness (1988)
The Nutty Boys — Crunch! (1990)
Suggs — The Lone Ranger (1995)
Suggs — The Three Pyramids Club (1998)
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra —
The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius
The Magic Brothers — The Magic Line (1998)