When MTV premiered almost 40 years ago, British ska band Madness were early stars of the fledgling network – the opening “don’t watch that, watch this!” command of their 1979 single “One Step Beyond” was even featured in MTV promos. Few acts of the era were more perfectly for the music video revolution than these zany North Londoners, who saw every video shoot as an opportunity for a fancy-dress adventure.
“We were all extroverts… and a lot of bands aren’t,” says Madness frontman Graham “Suggs” McPherson, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment about the group’s new greatest-hits compilation Our House: The Very Best of Madness and forthcoming origin-story documentary Before We Was We. “I remember talking to Paul Weller and other people who found [music videos] a real struggle because it wasn’t their thing, whereas for us, dressing up and messing around, we really liked it. But it coincided with the fact that there was this very serious theatrical costumier in Camden Town, Berman & Nathan’s, and they were doing, like, Lawrence of Olivier movies. And so, we got the real gear. When we dressed up as policeman, we had real gear. Can you imagine, for two days we were wandering about the streets dressed as policemen, driving everybody mad? We really got into it. We enjoyed it. Dressing as flowers, bumblebees, cowboys, you name it, we dressed up.”
Madness also entered early-‘80s MTV viewers’ living rooms via their two bonkers performances, of “House of Fun” and their U.S. top 10 hit “Our House,” on the cult British sitcom The Young Ones. And at one time, they were primed to be the Monkees of the new wave age, when Young Ones/Blackadder writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and Young Ones director Geoff Posner created a surrealist comedy show just for the band. The series even made it to the pilot stage, but alas, it was ultimately shelved, with scenes not surfacing until 2011 on the Madness DVD collection Gogglebox. “The BBC said it was going to cost too much money, or were too much trouble. I can’t remember, one or the other. But it was a shame, yeah,” laughs Suggs.
“We were supposed to be the Parliament. I was going to be the prime minister. … It was going to turn out that Margaret Thatcher was a Martian and she got flown back to Mars, and we were going to take over the Parliament. We had a lot of funny stories to tell. We were kind of in that mold of people who had charisma or whatever, apart from just being musician,” Suggs continues. “But I think in one way it was kind of good [that the sitcom never aired], because if we had gone down that path, we would have possibly ended up like the Monkees, doing TV shows — when we were actually much more interested in doing music and being ourselves. But yeah, there’s some pilot out there. I think it’s on YouTube somewhere.”
While Madness became one of the most successful and beloved British groups of all time, even performing at the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony and on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, Suggs admits that their madcap antics in ‘80s did prevent them from being taken as seriously as fellow Two-Tone ska bands “like the Specials and the Selecter, who were very political with a capital P.” He recalls Madness’s critical turning point didn’t come until the release of their 2009 album The Liberty of Norton Folgate. “All of a sudden, what we called a broadsheets in this country, like serious papers, were talking about us in a way that they didn’t back then. They kind of did see us [before] as a joke. … We did put a lot of work into all of it, but I think there might’ve been a [belief that] these videos are so funny and hilarious that maybe the music isn’t that important. But I think equally now, I think, I can see those videos ended up in the V&A [Victoria & Albert] Museum as works of art. I do! I think they’re unbelievable.”
That being said, Madness’s songs often had “hidden deeper meaning” that went over some listeners’ heads. “We didn’t even know at the time, often, what we were saying, but we were saying something more,” says Suggs. “A lot of the times we were doing songs that sounded happy but they had a sadness, and equally we did songs that sounded sad but they would have upbeat music. So, it was a funny ol’ combination.”
“House of Fun,” for instance, was not in fact about carnivals and magic shops, but about a teenage boy who has “come of age” and is, much to his embarrassment, furtively trying to buy condoms at a drug store. That tune actually got Madness in trouble during a concert in conservative Ireland, where contraception was banned at the time. “I remember we were onstage with Chris DeBurgh, who was doing ‘My Lady in Red’ [sic] or something very nice, and we started throwing out our branded condoms in the audience. And all of a sudden, the concert got stopped and it was like, ‘No, you can’t do that!’” Suggs laughs.
But another Madness U.K. chart hit, “Embarrassment,” had a much darker story. “You think it’s just a song about a relationship, but in fact it was about Lee [Thompson], our saxophone player. His sister had a baby with a Black guy, and in those days in [England], it was kind of frowned upon,” Suggs explains. “And, you know, thinking about Black Lives Matter and all that now… they called her an ‘embarrassment” — some of his relations, his aunties and uncles. And again, it just sounds like an upbeat pop song, but in fact it’s about the struggles that she was going through, bringing up a Black child in a community where it was still kind of frowned upon. … The whole thing of racism was really becoming very potent in England at that time. And then bit by bit, people started to understand what that song was about, but it took a little time. It wasn’t controversial, but it was just we were trying to explain that we came from somewhere where it was still a struggle. It wasn’t like we were in this beautiful, liberal utopia. It was really hard around where we were. People were fairly on each other’s cases about where you were from, who you were, whether you were Latin or Scottish or Black. There was a lot of that going on. And of course, there still is. It was just a small gesture in that direction.”
Looking back on that fraught era and how the ska scene reflected the times, Suggs says, “Certainly with Two-Tone, that was the first time I can remember Black and white kids being in the same bands. We were kind of like a bit outside, because we didn’t have any Black people in our band, but we were playing music of a Black origin for sure. We were playing reggae and ska, and that was the kind of music we liked. But up to that point in England, there weren’t very many Black and white kids playing together, and all of a sudden it seemed like it could be a little bit more communication between those two communities. And I think that they did have some resonance, and I think there is today great optimism. I mean, you’ve got this big [George Floyd] case coming up… and the next generation may not see any of that. I hope that we had some part to play in doing away with all that, you know?”
As for any other Madness classics that have taken on new life in current times, Suggs points to the group’s 1981 cover of a 1971 Labi Siffre song, “It Must Be Love,” that cracked the U.K. top 10 twice, the second time after it was memorably and adorably featured in the Richard Curtis-directed Jeff Goldblum/Emma Thompson rom-com The Tall Guy. “I think that took over from Whitney Houston in funerals. What they [used to play] was ‘I Will Always Love You’; I think ‘It Must Be Love’ has now taken over as the song that they play when they’re pushing the coffin into the fire. So, that took on new meaning,” Suggs chuckles.
“You realize sometimes, you hear blues records or reggae records and they’re often very, very simple sentiments. And sometimes you’re overcomplicating the whole flippin’ thing. You know: It must be love, nothing more, nothing less, love is the best. … It just seems to resonate more now than it did then. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Check out Suggs’s extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below for details on their new documentary, the making of the “One Step Beyond” music video, Madness’s cameos on The Young Ones, their 2012 Buckingham Palace and Olympics performances, why “Our House” was supposed to be part of a never-realized concert album, and much more:
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— Video produced by Jon San, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick
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