Exploding on to the music scene in the late 1970s, as part of the post-punk boom in British music, Madness’ brand of ska struck a chord with fans and their debut single in 1979, The Prince, was a surprise hit, reaching number 16 in the UK chart.
The band had started out in 1976, under the name The North London Invaders, but by the time they signed for 2 Tone Records, they had experienced several personnel and name changes. Their first appearance on Top of the Pops performing The Prince (a tribute to the Jamaican singer Prince Buster) catapulted them to overnight stardom.
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Madness was a seven-piece band by the late 1970s, featuring the charismatic Suggs, alias Graham McPherson, on lead vocals. In 1976, the band had been formed as a six-piece in Camden Town by saxophonist Lee Thompson. It had established a steady line-up by 1979.
Briefly singing with the band in 1977, Suggs re-joined permanently in 1978 alongside founder member Thompson, backing vocalist Chas Smash, drummer Daniel “Woody” Woodgate, guitarist Chris Foreman, bass guitarist Mark “Bedders” Bedford and keyboard player Mike Barson.
Playing their unique brand of music known as the “nutty sound”, they showed they weren’t a one-hit wonder when their second single, One Step Beyond, also released in 1979, peaked in the UK at number seven. It also charted in France (where it was number one), Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Their debut album in the same year, One Step Beyond, was a massive hit, reaching number two in the UK albums chart, achieving platinum sales, and also breaking Madness into the notoriously tough American market.
The band has released 42 singles in total, enjoying chart success not only in the UK and in America, but also in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. They have been credited with bringing ska music from the underground into mainstream pop culture.
Some of the best-known hits, all accompanied by the band’s innovative and zany videos, include Baggy Trousers in 1980, It Must Be Love in 1981, Driving in My Car and House of Fun in 1982 and Wings of a Dove in 1983.
Taken from their 1980 album, Absolutely, Baggy Trousers was written by McPherson and Foreman. The hit single is all about fond memories of school days, reminiscing about all the things kids get up to at school, including misbehaving.
Suggs said in an interview that he had been trying to write a song in the style of vocalist Ian Dury, with lots of phrases being uttered in a constant stream. The song was personal to him at the time, as it reflected his own school days. He said it was the working class equivalent of Pink Floyd’s mega-hit, Another Brick in the Wall.
Suggs said Pink Floyd’s famous “leave the kids alone” song didn’t resonate with him, as he hadn’t been to public school, or experienced any bullying. He had attended a comprehensive school with “less strictly enforced discipline”, he said.
The song title refers to the style of school trousers kids often wore, while the lyrics describe a totally different era of teaching practices, as Suggs describes “all the teachers in the pub, passing round the ready rub” (tobacco) and “trying not to think of when the lunch-time bell will ring again.”
Despite the pupils’ mischievous behaviour – such as going to “fight with next door’s school” and “smashing up the woodwork tools” – Suggs asks, “Did it really turn out bad?” while admitting, “All I learned at school was how to bend, not break, the rules!”
The famous Baggy Trousers music video was shot in Islip Street School and in the park in Kentish Town. Thompson said he fancied flying through the air in the video, so he was attached to a crane by wires, enabling him to glide through the air while playing his saxophone solo.
This helped to make Baggy Trousers one of Madness’s most famous and popular videos in the band’s history. Thompson recreated the famous scene when Madness played live at their Madstock gig in 1992. He also flew through the air during the band’s 2007 Christmas tour and at the 2009 Glastonbury Festival.
In 2011, Madness played a slow version of their hit for a television advert for Kronenbourg 1664 lager. The band later released the slow version as part of their boxed set compilation, A Guided Tour of Madness, referring to it as Le Grand Pantalon – the French translation of Baggy Trousers.
The original Baggy Trousers video was so popular among the fans and the critics that it made the public eagerly anticipate future Madness videos and it became a case of, “Top that if you can!”
As well as their 42 hit singles, the band has released 12 studio albums, 11 compilation albums, four live albums and five video albums. After their brief split in 1986, they reunited in 1993 and have been together ever since.
The current line-up includes Chris Foreman, Graham “Suggs” McPherson, Mike Barson, Lee Thompson, Mark Bedford and Dan Woodgate – Chas Smash eventually left the band to pursue a solo career. Madness’s 2016 single, Can’t Touch Us Now, is the first song that didn’t credit Smash as a band member.
Madness has won several music awards, including an Ivor Novello Best Song award in 1983 for Our House and a second Ivor Novello Award in 2000 for Outstanding Song Collection. In 2005, they received the Mojo Hall of Fame Award, followed by the Silver Clef Icon Award in 2009 and the Q Awards’ Idol Award in 2010.
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