Madness: Utter Madness
John McCready, NME, 29 November 1986
IT WAS almost as if they were trying too hard to convince themselves. With all the zip his curiously glum voice could muster, Suggs sings, "I'll compete with the rest of the pack for all I'm worth."
For the moment we were, of course, fooled. The fall of The House Of Fun after the departure of Mike Barson was postponed. Mad Not Mad was, by the standards of others, a thing to be proud of. In the litany of insanity, Mad Not Mad looked a little uncomfortable. Too many hours had been spent making sure it lacked nothing. Spontaneity had been dashed away with a smoothing iron. 'Yesterday's Men' was North London's answer to Maccles-field's '24 Hours'. More a case of sad, not mad. And though tears were never far away, in songs like 'Grey Day' and 'The Sun And The Rain' (the latter is included here) they now dropped from a face missing the red plastic nose we had grown used to.
Mad Not Mad was waving goodbye. It was obvious, though we all tried to ignore it. Tried to ignore the fact that Madness weren't on Top Of The Pops as much as they should have been, tried to ignore the fact that Madness no longer defined British pop with a beautiful simplicity. Madness were going, going. And now they're gone.
Utter (read final, complete) Madness is a damp white handkerchief of surrender. For umpteen previous convictions of perfection, Madness must now hang. Had they been as erratic as Elvis Costello, we would have forgiven their mistakes. Instead they were good, then not bad. Perhaps wisely, they're leaving pop before they become just bad or even boring.
Utter Madness is not chronological. The parting shot of 'Waiting For The Ghost Train' (on which errant Buddhist and villain of the piece Mike Barson returns) is, truth to be known, a sorry little suicide note.
But this is a good place for it as, just when you're thinking, "Well, perhaps we won't miss you at all," you must contend with seamless pop like 'The Sum And The Rain' and 'One Better Day'. Very clever.
But Utter Madness isn't just an ending. It gives us a chance to look back to the time when Madness began to grow out of their bastard blue-beat shorts; to the times when the things they'd learned began to fall into place.
The record begins with 'Our House', an invincible single and part of the adventurous Rise And Fall LP. Listening to it now, the video inevitably springs to mind. All that running about. All those gags sprayed like gunfire in the half-completed video cafe. The video for 'Our House' could even have saved a song by The Jesus And Mary Chain. Instead, what you hear are ten different tunes fighting for your attention. Like all great pop, like David Bowie, The Beatles and Roxy Music, Madness preferred not to observe the rules. Without too much fuss, they made their own and made them seem like the only way things could be done.
Lyrically, 'Our House' is part two of 'Baggy Trousers'. It's a memory of a working class childhood which rings true simply because no lies are told. There are those in the British pop community, those big-mouths and political pretenders who would give their eye teeth for such experience. Madness, from the working classes to the working classes, had no intention of making a meal of it. They wouldn't hide it either.
'Driving In My Car', a symphony of horns and spanners, takes us right back to the start. It's the sound of Madness listening to the criticism and trying too hard to achieve the old nuttiness that everyone seemed to require of them. 'Driving In My Car' is in truth part of Complete Madness.
'Michael Caine' is a dark pop masterpiece. A man is haunted by his fame and reputation. He struggles to keep his head and his marbles. It fits a little too neatly to say that by then Madness could have identified with the star's situation. But if they were having problems with fame and reputation at this point, 'Michael Caine' proves it had little effect on their ability to write songs, the like of which we will not hear again. At the time of this record and the Keep Moving LP from which it came, people were whispering that Madness had lost 'it'. It was the start of a doubtful downpour which can't have helped them. Because they weren't doing as many funny dances and bely euphoria, Madness were finished.
Wrong. Madness were growing up. But pop people couldn't cope with that. Pop wanted Suggs to act like Peter Pan when it sometimes sounded as if he felt like Samuel Beckett.
'Wings Of A Dove' came after Madness had completed a course of happy pills various writers had prescribed for them. It now sounds like a whole ward of manic depressives being cured at once. It was also a hit single. The video only confirmed it as a pathetic stab at romantic inexperience. 'Yesterday's Men' and 'I'll Compete' from the significantly Barsonfree Mad Not Mad complete the first side. They are rendered dull being separated by 'Tomorrow's Just Another Day' which has some of the most inspired whistling ever recorded. It sounds like some talk about fame, though it could just as easily be about an ingrowing toe-nail. The voice is steeped in irony with Suggs lying through his teeth, telling us "It gets better every day".
Those who wanted Madness frozen halfway down the deadly curve of a roller-coaster were temporarily happy. Madness were fighting age, common-sense and their own ideas about the way they should be. This can make you ill. It can even drive you to attempt Scritti Politti songs. 'The Sweetest Girl' is a piece of small 'm' Madness. A voice that had sung some of the least polluted pop lyrics we will ever hear sounds just a bit uncomfortable passing on Green's garbled messages. The voice that had once sung 'Baggy Trousers' is lost as it informs us that "politics is prior to the vagaries of science". The great were following the blind.
The fourth track from Mad Not Mad included here is 'Uncle Sam' – a funny video, a serviceable tune and a heart not in it. The wistful 'One Better Day' and a quiet stroll through 'Victoria Gardens' help to brush the mess under the carpet. Madness are gone for good. Or so they tell us.
Utter Madness is a very necessary compilation. It shows us that there is much to celebrate and precious little to complain about. The Maddest group in all the world will no longer compete. How could they do this to me?
© John McCready, 1986
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