The diagnosis of multiple personalities is considered a form of madness, right? Well, the legendary punk-era ska band Madness were notorious for their schizoid image in the States — teenage new wavers and their moms alike loved the bouncy, bassy pop on the surface of hits like "Our House" and "House of Fun" on their truncated American releases, whilst true fans caught Madness' deeper messages about working class struggle and relational entanglements that were expertly written and performed on non-USA albums like Madness Present the Rise and Fall (1982).
"Yes, that's true," dapper flat-top vaudevillian lead singer Graham "Suggs" McPherson agrees, still recuperating after a frenzied show at the Troubadour the night before, and getting ready for a soundcheck. "In the 90s I met this guy from the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones, who said he thought it was a great idea that we quit after just two albums."
Madness actually recorded six full-lengths in their original lifespan, not including all the various singles collections — and there were many, especially in Britain, where the band has had over a dozen hits. But the ignorance of the band's actual output and length of existence is a bit understandable.
"Someone in recently told me, 'We thought you guys were dead!'" Suggs says. "It's because we've been parochial in the last decade or so. Touring the world sort of fizzled for us after 1986. But we can make enough money just playing in England — we can make more staying there than we can touring."
Madness actually hasn't been in Seattle in what Suggs thinks has been "ten, fifteen, twenty years!" I tell him they will be well received when they do, as they had been so influential on the thriving underground Seattle ska scene and American alternative rock scene in general through the 90s. But Suggs says that they were never aware of their affect on smash bands like No Doubt. "We weren't particularly knowing of that, although we did end up playing with them in Hawaii — a wonderful atmosphere to perform in, for sure."
Madness had attempted a come-back of original songs with "Wonderful" several years ago, featuring the revival of their original line-up and the return of their main songwriter, Mark Barson. But it's been the return to the songs they covered when a young band they've played out for the past couple of years that make up and has caught attention for the new The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 album. The record was produced by the legendary Dennis Bovell, the language-and-noise studio shaman (once in the band Matumbi) and alchemized musical magic for everyone from dub-poet Linton Kwesi Johnson to bad girl feminist punk band the Slits to twee-daddy pop-daddies Orange Juice (!) back in the day. Suggs says Madness was really eager to work with his "sound, so rich in warmth and depth, which he captured as we tried to capture it as we played it live." This can be found in the album's enormous sonic diversity and layers of neat sounds, yet never losing its look-sharp soul edge inherent in the material.
"I originally heard these kinds of songs when I was a kid hanging around youth clubs as a lad," Suggs reminisces. "They would have stacks of records to keep us off the streets, often donated by our older brothers, that sort of thing." Soon Suggs would be bowled over by the atmosphere in songs like Prince Buster's "Madness" and "One Step Beyond" (which would become the title track to their first LP).
"There was a stall in Soho that had loads of these records with indigo labels, which were called bluebeat," Suggs continues. "By the time I was seventeen or eighteen I had about one thousand of these records! The band had already started — and I took 'One Step Beyond' into the music shop to play it for the punks. The guy working there said, 'This will never work,' people were criticizing the horns, etc. So when we played, we made sure we blended traditional ska with our own kind of, well, I guess you'd call frenetic style."
The band started twenty-five years ago in Camden, in north London, and that's where Suggs, Mark Bedford, Chas Smash, and Dan Woodgate joined up with a band called Morris and the Minors that featured Barson, Chris Foreman, and Lee Thompson, at first renaming themselves the Invaders before allowing the Prince Buster song to rechristen them. "Three-fourths of the songs on the Dangermen album are things we feel the energy of when we play live, at our reunions at Camden's Dublin Castle. The original idea was to play the songs that made us want to be in the band."
Although they are working up another set of originals to follow "Wonderful," "though we're going straight to Volume Three with a follow-up to Dangermen," Suggs characteristically piss-takes my obvious question about a follow-up to Dangermen. It is this sort of one-step-beyond jabbing that has always set Suggs and his band-mates apart from the more dour Specials and Selecter — when I was growing up, the band's ability to be both tricky and really cook matched their sardonic humor and keen observations about daily life, influenced by the songwriting of brilliant artists like Ray Davies.
"Yes, that's why we cover the Kinks' 'Lola' on this album," Suggs says. "It's a very charming song, (but) it's about this little man terrified of a transvestite. We try to do these sorts of things with our own work." I suggest it's a subversive approach, but Suggs thinks " People who have heard more of our repertoire just see it as a nice combination of pathos and comedy, the dark and the whimsical."
Though the songs chosen for the Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 were both commercial concessions and non-commercial ones — the former perhaps in doing yet another version of "Israelites," but even then producer Purvell brought in Steve Dub of the Chemical Brothers to deconstruct the song and bring out its darker, spidery elemental structure. "Of course, the original Desmond Dekker song is very strange with its atmosphere, but our original performance went by the wayside. They really pulled it apart and put it back together — giving what was necessary for us." (Keyboardist Mike Barson brought it to the sessions, as he had been mystically obsessed with it since hearing it riding his bike home as a teenager.)
Part of how the musicians in Madness stay afloat is by playing one-off shows for parties for companies like Microsoft, where "they offer you more money in a night's work than you normally earn in a year," he chortles. "It's strange — you're so used to touring when you're a kid to make a living. But companies like Microsoft are like the Emperors of old, finding musicians from the four corners of Europe to perform for them." I suggest that this sort of patronage is becoming necessary for artists — I'd heard Elvis Costello makes most of his money that way (certainly not from when the new albums Soundscan 10,000). "Well, it's icing on the cake, really," he replies, "with our back catalogue. There's seven people in the band, and being a democracy sometimes it takes us longer to get things done, so it helps. Even if you have a few quid, it's always good to have a few more."
Otherwise, Suggs says members of the band had kept themselves more or less busy in between the occasional reunion shows (Christmas-time "Madstocks" back home) since the commercial decline
onset by the more experimental songwriting of the 1984 Keep Moving album. Suggs himself does voice-overs for many different products, but his labor of love is his Friday and Saturday night Virgin Radio shows, when he gets to "play about half of what I like, but it's worth it."
When I passed along Three Imaginary Girl Dana's question about his in-the-car-with-the-windows-rolled-up-sing-a-long Guilty Pleasure, he becomes oddly austere: "Not really. No, I can't think of anything in my record collection that I am ashamed of. Guilty Pleasures are sort of the thing in England nowadays, nobody seems embarrassed by anything there anymore!"