It’s the run-up to Christmas, so it must be time for another Madness tour. One of the best-known British bands of the eighties, they always hit the road at this time of year, and last night I caught them at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow. I’ve seen them twice before, in 2014 and 2016, although I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember – I think it’s fair to say they were the first band I ever liked, and my love of them goes right back to my primary school days.
Madness had an incredible run of 21 consecutive top-twenty hits between 1979 and 1986, before splitting up for a while. They reformed in the early nineties, primarily as a live band, but they’ve also recorded several new albums since then, and so there’s plenty of material to choose from when putting together a setlist. As I’ve gradually discovered, a Madness gig these days consists of a core of their early stuff, a few new songs, and a rotation of album tracks and singles that don’t get aired particularly often. I have to say that on this tour, the mixture was pretty damn near perfect, as I’ll get on to later. Last time I saw them, they featured quite a few tracks from their latest album, and although the songs are as good as any Madness have ever made, let’s be honest – you go to a Madness gig for stuff like “Baggy Trousers”, “House of Fun” and “Night Boat to Cairo”.
I arrived early enough to bag a great spot right at the front of the standing area. Like most big venues, the Hydro is somewhat lacking in atmosphere if you don’t get a good spot, but from where I was standing, it could easily have been a much smaller venue, and I had a great view. Glasgow crowds can get quite rowdy, and unfortunately there’s a small core of Madness fans who can be quite aggressive, but last night’s crowd was good-natured and well up for some dancing and singing along, and the atmosphere was just perfect as a result. The audience was very mixed, showing that Madness have stood the test of time and have proven more than capable of attracting new fans in recent years.
The band came on to rapturous cheers, launching into “One Step Beyond”, the vocals of which were enthusiastically boomed out by the crowd, followed immediately by “Embarrassment”. Madness perhaps rather unfairly gained a reputation for being a novelty band, but this is them at their lyrical best, the song describing a family scandal as Lee Thompson’s teenage sister fell pregnant with a black man’s child. As it happens, I read recently that the whole business had a happy ending, with the family reconciling after the birth of the baby, but at the time it was written, everything was in turmoil, and the lyrics reflect that. Next up we had “The Prince”, “NW5” and classic “My Girl”, which got everyone in fine form singing.
“Take It Or Leave It” followed on from that, and then “The Sun and the Rain”, a great later-period single (which for some bizarre reason was banned by the BBC at the time of release) and the only Madness song to mention Christmas, as Suggs pointed out – hence seasonal relevance! He’s a great frontman, and the rapport he has with both the rest of the band and the crowd is brilliant. These guys are all getting on a bit these days, but the energy and enthusiasm they perform with is absolutely spot-on, and the music is top-notch. Madness songs are complex and fast-moving things, and playing most of them live must be pretty challenging. Six of the original seven members are in the line-up these days – they were assisted by an extra three-man brass section, and every song sounded absolutely amazing.
A new song followed – “Pussy Galore” – before we got “Wings of a Dove”, a live show staple, and then one of my favourites – “Driving In My Car”. This was always a favourite, and it’s the first time I’ve seen them perform it – it’s one of their rarer live performances, and it was accompanied by great visuals on the big screens behind the band. Lots of vintage film footage of Morris Minors, and a constantly-changing montage of road signs from around the world.
The mood changed a bit after that with the inclusion of “Rise and Fall”, the title track from the 1982 album. This was never a single, and the reaction of the crowd suggested it’s not a hugely well-known song, but I was really pleased they included it. The song, and the album, are a bit darker in tone than a lot of the band’s other material, but I think it ranks as my favourite Madness album. It’s hugely diverse and quite experimental, and I’m nostalgic about it as I was given it as a Christmas present from my sister when I was a kid. This was one of the highlights of the night for me. We got back into a livelier groove with “Lovestruck”, “Bed and Breakfast Man”, “In My Street” and “Shut Up”, followed by a track from the latest album “Mr. Apples”.
After this, we had a home run of absolute belters to finish the evening – “House of Fun” (the band’s only UK number one), “Baggy Trousers”, “Our House” and “It Must Be Love”, before the band went off. A bagpiper came on after that, performed a couple of songs, and left just as the band returned, mooning as he left the stage (and no, he wasn’t wearing anything under his kilt). It was an utterly bonkers and really funny thing to throw in, and the audience loved it. The band came back on to finish the night with “Madness” and “Night Boat to Cairo”, with a bunch of little boys coming on, in appropriate two-tone garb, to do typical Madness stomping around the stage. One of them, who must have been about six, was given the mic by Suggs to say “thank you and goodnight!” at the end of the song – wow! I’d have loved to have done that – considering I was about that age when I discovered them, I thought that was a great moment. So much of the appeal of Madness to me is bringing back fond memories of being a kid – they’d made all their big hits before I was twelve.
I headed off into the cold and blustery Glasgow night feeling absolutely on top of the world. That was a perfect combination of old and new songs, fantastic music, comedic and dark moments, and a band who have consistently produced amazingly good material. I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and hadn’t been hugely enthusiastic before I went in, but…wow. All the crap going on in the world disappeared for a couple of joyful, lively, nostalgic and thumping hours. That has to be one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. Magic.