A new documentary looks at the band’s formative years

Books & arts

MADNESS SPENT more weeks in the British singles charts in the 1980s than any other group except UB40 (with whom they share the accolade). They have been repeatedly anthologised, releasing more hits compilations than original albums. Madness are often thought of as a “singles band”, with all the term’s implied frivolity, as distinct from the supposed heft and substance of an “albums band”. In fact, Madness have been excellent at both.

They made “The Liberty Of Norton Folgate” (2009), which many critics consider their best album, three decades after their debut. That record was the apotheosis of everything the septet do so well. As creators of kitchen-sink pop, they belong in the first rank with The Kinks and Squeeze; as observers of their home city of London, they are heirs to Charles Dickens and Peter Ackroyd, a modern writer. Their gift is to combine all this in irresistible servings of pop jollity. A century and more of show business, working-class culture and street life is distilled in their songs. A hugely entertaining new three-part documentary, “Before We Was We”, illuminates how this came about.

Bill Jones and Ben Timlett, the film-makers, specialise in subjects with a peculiar and essential Britishness. They named their production company “Bill And Ben” after the characters in a children’s TV programme of the 1950s, “The Flower Pot Men”, a reference instantly recognisable to most Britons over a certain age. The pair have made authoritative documentaries on George Harrison’s “accidental studio”, HandMade Films, which inadvertently helped revive a moribund British film industry in the late 1970s, and on the Monty Python comedy team (Mr Jones is the son of late Python member Terry).

“We like to do things that are connected to that sort of humour, that links them all together,” says Mr Jones. “Before We Was We” is indeed uproariously funny at times, as befits the oral history of a famously comical band, whose stage antics and then music videos had a broadness redolent of the music hall. Its format is simple and effective: each member is interviewed, by himself, on the stage of an empty theatre, and the story of how a gang of teenage scamps became a burgeoning pop triumph is stitched together from these testimonies.

Archive documentary and movie footage is used for visual background; Messrs Jones and Timlett also make use of a biopic Madness produced themselves in 1981. “‘Take It Or Leave It’ is gold dust,” says Mr Timlett. That movie is something of a neorealist cross between “A Hard Day’s Night” and such early rock’n’roll exploitation flicks as “The Tommy Steele Story”. In it, Madness played their only slightly younger selves. The film “effectively recreated exactly the things they were describing [in their contemporary interviews],” Mr Timlett says. For his and Mr Jones’s purposes, “Take It Or Leave It” was “like manna from heaven”.

Like many of the best bands, Madness were born of necessity: it was this music or nothing. Theirs was a dilapidated, desperate London of old bombsites, squats and scant opportunity. “Some of them were saved from a life of crime,” notes Mr Jones, “by having the band as an outlet they could put all this energy into. Suggs [as the lead singer, Graham McPherson, is known] was saved from the hooliganism of Chelsea [football fandom]. And Lee [Thompson, the saxophone player] was saved from petty criminality. It was a different world back then, London was.”

Like the band’s own music, the new documentary functions as both personal and social history. “We didn’t want bits about [Margaret] Thatcher and the miners’ strike,” says Mr Timlett. “We wanted to focus on you feeling like you’re in their gang, bored out of their minds, trying to do something interesting in London. The undertone is how the skinhead world changed and developed.”

By the late 1970s skinheads had become identified with a far-right nationalist and racist youth movement. But the subculture began in the 1960s as an offshoot of the mods, and was devoted to the ska music brought to Britain by Jamaican immigrants. Ska performers such as Prince Buster were among the band’s formative musical influences. So were Ian Dury, a poet and singer, and—more surprisingly—Alex Harvey, a Scottish rock showman whose “comic malevolence” Mr McPherson sought to emulate.

Madness, as the leading ska-revival band on London’s pub circuit in the late 1970s, attracted an unwelcome skinhead following. The band were allied with the anti-racist “2 tone” movement, and were initially signed to the label of that name founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. At a time when casual violence saturated everyday life, their gigs became the settings for ugly skirmishes, and the band were often caught in the middle of them. Once their recording career took off, and they started to write nuanced, sensitive pop hits such as “My Girl”, members of the skinhead fanbase they had never wanted would accost them and berate them for “selling out”.

Mike Barson, the band’s keyboard player and the nearest thing it had to a leader, describes Madness as “serious clowns”. The early run of pop hits from these “nutty boys”, as they were nicknamed, covered the shunning of the white mother of a mixed-race child (“Embarrassment”); a sympathetic account of an aspirational family man working himself into an early grave (“Cardiac Arrest”); the impact on victims of petty crime (“Shut Up”); working-class drudgery and its consequent anxiety and depression (“Grey Day”); a 16-year-old boy planning a visit to a brothel (“House Of Fun”); and the isolated life of an IRA informer during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (“Michael Caine”). This songbook is now etched into the British life from which it was so vividly drawn in the first place.

“Before We Was We: Madness by Madness” is available to watch on demand via BT TV