Music review: A Guided Tour of Madness – Madness
(Salvo) 3CD & 1 DVD box set anthology
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
Through a rainy and misty dusk on London’s Westminster Bridge, the lamplight reflecting on the tarmac between the cars, black cabs, and Routemaster buses, the unmistakeable silhouette of the Houses of Parliament looms majestically over the traffic. It might be the past, the present, or times still to come, but it is unmistakeably and evocatively London, whether viewed from the city’s streets or internationally. Over this image on the back cover of the 72 page booklet accompanying this excellent Madness anthology floats the track listing spanning 30 years and beyond…
All aboard for a guided tour of Madness across three CDs and one DVD, 94 tracks, including singles, from 1979’s The Prince/Madness to 2011’s Le Grand Pantalon (released on CD for the first time), favourite tracks from their nine studio albums, from 1979’s One Step Beyond… to 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate, and the first DVD release of the band’s performance at their inaugural Madstock festival in London’s Finsbury Park in 1992.
To accompany this journey the back cover of the booklet unfolds through fantastic 1940s/50s Boys Own style illustrations of derring-do and suspicious goings-on in and around the capital’s bombed out streets and docks to reveal a ‘Sightseers’ Map of Madness’ with locations of import to the band highlighted by a pointing finger and a red dot. Although ostensibly ‘Madworld’, it is explained, is located within “a short stroll from Camden Town”, over the last three decades Madness have become a cipher for the capital as whole.
“We are London…” is the announcement with which the map’s legend begins, which is exactly who Madness are, unmistakably, evocatively and majestically. Listening to the tracks chosen for this anthology, none of which have been diminished by the passing years, it is clear that like the silhouette of the Houses of Parliament, Madness now instantly encapsulate London historical, London contemporary, London timeless. But although the majority of the songs may be London rooted, such is the strength of the songwriting, the storytelling, the shared experience of characters and situations, and the accessibility and irresistible panache of their presentation that they are and have become universal.
The joy of A Guided Tour of Madness is that one can plot one’s own route through the anthology: take the complete, chronological journey from start to finish, start in the era of the band’s work with which one is most familiar or indeed unfamiliar, or hop on and off along the way and see what one discovers. Either way it’s accompanied by a rush of emotions. With so many landmark songs and a career spanning so many years, the words and music are entwined, consciously or unconsciously, with so many stages in one’s own life instantly evoking, with a welter of back of the neck tingles, associations with people and places.
But their power is not purely nostalgic, in listening to the earlier songs again, in many instances for me they appear to have gained extra layers of resonance in the intervening years that I had been oblivious to before. A primary example being Michael Caine, which I realised I had rather dismissed at the time as being more of a ‘novelty’ song, but have completely rediscovered it now in all its perfectly paced and placed sonic and lyrical splendour. Madness’s acute talent for combining the seemingly contradictory elements of humour and poignancy, melancholy and joie de vivre, the wonderfully observed day-to-day with an equally insightfully created surreality, are all to the fore in the song which, depending on your point of view, could be the simple love of a fan for a star, or a far more sinister stalking confession, a cautionary tale of a celebrity being consumed by his public persona, the lost script of a Harry Palmer film… or all those at the same time and more!
The enduring strength of the songs allied to the degree to which they have entered the vernacular was underlined last year by the reworking of two tracks for television advertisements. Virgin Media’s campaign, More Exciting Place to Live, used the lyrics of Our House narrated over the music of Dan Black’s HYPNTZ, whilst as part of Kronenbourg 1664’s Slow the Pace advertising campaign, Madness themselves rearranged Baggy Trousers, slowing the song right down to create the highly reflective and Francophile, Le Grand Pantalon. The track closes the anthology’s chronological journey in wonderfully surreal style, as though the life of Madness has been reimagined by Amelie director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, raising a glass of cognac and, as the repeated vocal refrain of Le Grand Pantalon has it, “baggy trousers to the days/To the days/To the days…”
A glass of cognac, and indeed any baggy trousers, should also be raised to Salvo because A Guided Tour of Madness continues their fantastic catalogue of box sets, put together with fantastic and celebratory creativity, insight, and passion. Each part of the concept for the Madness anthology works wonderfully well from the track selection, to the booklet which also includes an essay by Paul Morley, new interviews with the band and key personnel, and a reproduction of the first issue of the Nutty Boys Comic (1981), to the overall look and feel of the packaging… a wonderful celebration of the days: past, present, and still to come.