The band were formed by Mike Barson (keyboards), Chris Foreman (guitar) and Lee Thompson (saxophone) who, along with a few other members performed under the name The North London Invaders. Just a year later, Graham McPherson, known as Suggs, took over lead vocals and Mark Bedford (bass) and Daniel Woodgate (drums) also joined the band. Chas Smash became the band’s seventh member in 1979, having previously been involved with the band’s original lineup.
Briefly changing their name to Morris and the Minors, the band soon settled on Madness, a reference to a song by ska artist Prince Buster. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, the band began to cultivate a following in London, and their first single The Prince became a surprise hit, entering the top twenty and earning the band the chance to perform on the iconic Top of the Pops. This led to the band’s debut album One Step Beyond… (1979) peaking at number two on the charts, a feat which would be repeated by its follow-up Absolutely a year later
The band’s third album 7 (1981) marked a step away from the band’s ska roots towards a more pop-inspired sound. This slight change of direction is rather noticeable on the band’s cover of Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love as well as on House of Fun – the band’s only song to reach number one in the UK – both of which were single-only releases. Madness’ fourth album The Rise & Fall featured Our House, the band’s most internationally successful single, and is often compared to Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks.
During the recording of Keep Moving (1984) Barson announced that he was going to leave the band once the album was completed, so he was replaced by James Mackie for the band’s performance on SNL. Despite having recorded another new album, the band announced they would be splitting up in September 1986. Some of the band relaunched themselves as The Madness but failed to receive any success.
In 1992 the band announced plans for a reunion concert which was attended by 75,000 fans. Madstock!, as it was known, was repeated in 1994, 1996 and 1998. A year later the band released their first studio album since 1986’s Mad Not Mad to surprising success. Bizarrely, Our House, a musical based on Madness songs, won an Olivier Award in 2003.
During 2004 the band secretly performed under the name The Dangermen, and a fifth Madstock! took place in 2009 to celebrate the band’s thirtieth anniversary. 2012 saw the band’s status as national treasures cemented once and for all, as they were invited to perform on the roof of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and also took part in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
As you can see, Madness have gone from simply being at the center of a ska revival to becoming beloved British icons. Of course, none of this would have happened were it not for the band’s unmistakable sound which, as the Madness songs on this list will show, has helped forge an extraordinary discography.
# 10 – Wings of a Dove
This 1983 song was released as a standalone single in the UK and included on the American version of Keep Moving. It stayed in the British charts for ten weeks (peaking at number two) but hit the top spot in Ireland. The track was featured in the 1999 teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You, introducing itself a whole new generation of fans, and enjoying a brief surge in popularity.
There can be no question that Madness songs are most famous for their use of brass instruments but Wings of a Dove is notable for having only minimal trumpet and sax elements. Rather than ska, this track is inspired by another style of Afro-Caribbean music, the calypso. As such, the song features some gorgeous steel drum elements which really elevate the song to another level.
The track begins with an impossibly catchy drum beat before a simple, solid piano riff begins. These are soon joined by Suggs’ vocals and a bouncy bass line, as well as the stunning steel drums and some jubilant gospel backing vocals – perfect for audience participation. Every summer since 1966 the streets of London burst with color and sound for the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of Black British culture. As Londoners, there can be no doubt that Madness would be familiar with the carnival, and, listening to Wings of a Dove, it’s easy to imagine yourself caught in the spirit of euphoria and celebration of an event like this. Madness songs are famous for their upbeat and happy content, but this track’s tropical sound and party atmosphere really is something marvelous.
# 9 – Night Boat to Cairo
This odd track comes from One Step Beyond… and was quite a ballsy thing to include on a debut album, as it’s somewhat avant-garde. The track was reissued as a single in 1993 but failed to achieve any success, still, it is very much a fan favorite.
The track begins with three blasts of a ship’s horn before the song’s minute-long introduction begins. The intro is an atmospheric blend of Madness’ usual ska sound mixed with vaguely Egyptian/Middle Eastern inspired riffs. This modulated sound works really well when played by Thompson’s sax, making a familiar instrument sound somehow exotic.
The track is notable for its unconventional structure, with the only vocals on the track being a single verse, with no chorus or repeating elements to speak of. This verse describes a journey along the Nile, creating an atmosphere that is spooky and eerie rather than relaxing and scenic. Once the vocals are over, the song’s main instrumental section begins, a rousing and chugging tune which slowly grinds to a halt, before picking up again, almost as if the band have got lost in the Egyptian Desert.
Brilliantly, the song saw “Night Boat” become cockney rhyming slang for “giro”, an antiquated British term for unemployment benefit, showing just how ingrained in British culture the band had become. Night Boat to Cairo is a genuinely unique track, which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before – odd, wacky and unmistakably Madness.
# 8 – Embarrassment
Whilst the vast majority of Madness songs are silly and celebratory, Embarrassment, from Absolutely completely bucks this trend and has a very dark (and painfully old fashioned) narrative. The song was written by Lee Thompson and is based on true events. The track sees his teenage sister become pregnant with the child of a black guy and, whilst this isn’t remotely shocking (or even worth a second thought) to modern listeners, at the time this was clearly quite controversial since the lyrics discuss the numerous family members who have disowned the pregnant girl. Although the lyrics might not immediately suggest it, it seems that the song was intended as a damnation of the racist attitudes it describes, with Suggs stating that it was written to distance the band from any association with hate groups.
It’s interesting to see the band’s trademark ska sound being used during a darker song like this. You can easily imagine a very similar instrumental being put with the band’s usually positive lyrics, but its use on Embarrassment makes you re-examine the band’s sound. Suddenly, the usually bright brass seems droning, edgy and somehow claustrophobic – it’s fascinating how the lyrics of a track can somehow change your feelings towards an instrumental.
Thankfully, the story which inspired the song has a happy ending, with the birth of the child seeing Thompson’s sister being re-accepted by her family. Embarrassment is uncomfortable listening for a modern fan, but it is none-the-less a dark and curious part of the Madness canon.
# 7 – Mr. Apples
Madness songs often contain fantastic vignettes of life – little standalone narratives which serve almost like short stories. Mr. Apples, the lead single from the band’s most recent album Can’t Touch Us Now (2016) is a great example of this, suggesting that the band’s lyrical skills have only improved with time.
There’s always been something distinctively British about Madness, and Mr. Apples follows this trend, telling the story of the titular Mr. Apples, a judgmental, conservative and well-respected member of the community who hypocritically visits brothels at night – representing the seedy underbelly beneath Britain’s stereotypically uptight respectability. The song’s instrumental echoes its narrative, consisting of some jazzy piano riffs, beneath which lurk scratchy guitars and some rather maundy keyboard chords. The band’s iconic sax elements are minimal on this song, appearing just briefly during the song’s bridge and outro, ominously grinding away, as if representing the two conflicting sides of Mr. Apples’ personality. Mark Bedford’s bass is particularly clear on this track, giving it a funky, Blues-like sound.
This track was the first Madness song for many years to have a scripted music video, and it sees Suggs as the psychiatrist of Mr. Apples, brilliantly played by Lee Thompson. Madness videos have always been madcap and humorous, and none of this was lost for this cheeky video, though it is noticeably slicker and better produced than the band’s classic work. Mr. Apples was the perfect lead single for a modern Madness album campaign, being just the right mix of silly and clever, bursting with the band’s unique mix of catchy pop and cool ska.
# 6 – My Girl
This moody track was first performed when the band were known as The North London Invaders and it appears on their first album. The song was written by Mike Barson (allegedly on the back of a cigarette packet), inspired by his relationship with his girlfriend. As the lyrics show, the two have a somewhat tumultuous relationship, with her getting mad at him over trivial things, and him trying to make it up to her. This situation is painfully relatable to anyone who has ever been in a high maintenance relationship and therefore the track is one of those Madness songs (along with Embarrassment) which acts as the perfect retort to anyone claiming the band’s output is lightweight and flimsy, with little to say.
The instrumental of the song is slightly slower than you’d usually expect from the band, with Suggs’ vocals sounding harsher and deeper than usual – his London accent is also particularly noticeable on early tracks like this. The song features some wonderfully jittery piano elements, especially during the bridge, perhaps reflecting the protagonist’s nervousness regarding his girl problems. The brass elements also play a big role in creating the song’s atmosphere, droning almost melancholically throughout the song, as if in sympathy with the situation described by the lyrics.
My Girl is a criminally underrated Madness song, where lyrics and instrumental work flawlessly together to tell an effective and engaging story.
# 5 – Baggy Trousers
Taken from Absolutely, Baggy Trousers was written in part as a retort to the second part of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall trilogy. Whilst the latter was a rather threatening song, painting the school and its staff as oppressive and authoritarian, Madness’ take on the subject is altogether more fun, seeing the band happily reminisce on the rule-bending hijinks of their school days, recognizing that the teachers probably enjoyed it even less than they did.
It’s interesting that the school described in the Pink Floyd song is a posh private establishment, whilst Madness are singing about a comprehensive school. Indeed, there’s a certain image of British state schools, that of The Beano’s Bash Street Kids and the BBC’s Grange Hill, which Baggy Trousers manages to perfectly capture – a riotous and cheeky atmosphere full of colorful characters getting into classic scrapes.
In fact, the instrumental of this song, with its mix of chugging trumpets, piano and bass is rather similar to the iconic theme tune of the aforementioned BBC show which ran from 1978 to 2008. It’s no surprise that there’s a huge amount of warmth towards this track, especially in the UK, as the school experience it so excellently captures is pretty much universal. You only need to see the song performed live to witness the effect it’s incessantly warm nostalgia can have on people.
Suggs has jokingly described the song as being his pension plan, but when a song is as brilliantly evocative as this you can’t help but think it entirely deserves its huge success.
# 4 – One Step Beyond
This ska classic is a brilliant oddity of a track, which perfectly captures the madness of Madness. It is a cover of a Prince Buster song of the same name, an artist who, as mentioned, heavily inspired the band. Whilst the original track has a slightly slower tempo, as well as a more low-key sound overall, the Madness version has layers of gorgeous instrumental and far higher production values.
One Step Beyond is another Madness song which has an unconventional structure, being almost entirely instrumental except for a bizarre spoken word introduction (this is a step up from the original song, which simply featured the title shouted out throughout the track). The track’s introduction is taken from another Prince Buster song (known as Scorcher) and is performed by Chas Smash. There’s something rather uncomfortable about hearing Smash attempt a vaguely West Indian accent on this song, but it’s best to see this as being “of its time” and instead concentrate on the song’s epic instrumental.
There can be no doubt that One Step Beyond is one of the band’s most recognizable tracks, with its gloriously grinding saxophone being virtually impossible to resist. Pair this with the wonderful bass-y piano and that bouncy ska beat and you’ve got all of the ingredients for a bona fide 2 Tone classic. Even those completely unfamiliar with Madness will recognize those iconic saxophone chords and, surely, want to find out more.
# 3 – Our House
This Ivor Novello Award-winning song sees Madness dabble with a New Wave-inspired pop sound, where sumptuous strings compliment the band’s lush brass work. Our House, taken from The Rise & Fall was an international hit for the band and remains their only top ten hit in the US – it was even interpolated by Eminem on his song of the same name.
The track describes working-class life in 80’s London, and there’s something unmistakably cozy about the quaint picture the song paints. This warm atmosphere is very much helped by the track’s delightfully upbeat instrumental – that piano-led intro, followed by the stunning strings is the perfect way to open the song – but its masterstroke is that chorus. The instantly memorable hook is so simple yet so utterly irresistible that even the youngest of children are able to pick it up and join in. This simplicity, along with the family-friendly narrative means that this is one of very few songs which can be equally enjoyed by people of all ages.
The almost rap-like bridge is perhaps the song’s weakest element, but when the rest of the track is so effortlessly perfect this is easily forgiven. Along with its catchiness, the song elicits such warm reactions even today because it plays on listener’s nostalgia for a (perhaps fictional) time when life was simpler. Despite being written in the 1980’s and having all the trappings of an 80’s pop song, there’s something somehow timeless about Our House – it’s a cheerful and sweet track which is simply a joy to listen to.
# 2 – It Must Be Love
Originally released by Labi Siffre in 1974 (who makes a cameo in Madness’ music video) the band released this cover as a standalone single in 1981 and it was also included on their greatest hits album Complete Madness a year later. This is a sincere pop number, brimming with light and airy piano riffs which really warm the heart. In many ways, it can be seen as a precursor to Our House, featuring string elements and a hearty, cheerful narrative. In fact, for some, the narrative may even be too saccharine, since it is unashamedly a love song, but open your jaded mind and embrace the track and you’ll be treated to a truly unforgettable tune.
There’s something special about the instrumental of It Must Be Love, with its slinky saxophone and drip-drop piano riffs, which, when paired with Suggs’ unusually tender and reserved vocals, manage to create a luscious and sugar-coated atmosphere not dissimilar to being in the throes of love. The floaty, dream-like vibe really captures that feeling of floating on cloud nine.
In the US, the track was released after Our House but unfortunately didn’t manage to repeat its success, peaking at number thirty-three. Luckily, the track did much better in the UK, where it reached number four on first release and then number six when it was re-released in 1992. It Must Be Love is a truly superlative Madness track, once again showcasing the band’s ability to be just as sincere as they can be silly.
# 1 –House of Fun
This devilish track from 1982 was yet another standalone single and is the band’s only song to reach number one in the UK, remaining a big 1980’s favorite to this day. House of Fun is a great example of the cheeky and edgy side of Madness and also serves as a great example of stealthily putting adult-related content into songs. If you pay full attention to the lyrics of the track you will discover that the song is about a sixteen-year-old boy coming of age and entering a pharmacist to buy contraception for the first time. As you can imagine, the protagonist is embarrassed about making this purchase and so uses humorous euphemisms instead of simply asking for what he desires. In a brilliant touch, the pharmacist completely misunderstands his request and sends him to the nearest joke shop instead.
The song’s instrumental is perfectly pitched for the funny and bawdy lyrics, blending the band’s usual ska sound with an unmistakably circus-inspired tune. This works really well, not only because it ties in with the song’s title but also in how it helps to create an exuberant and jovial party atmosphere that is impossible to ignore. Of course, circuses have always had a slight tinge of darkness, and the references to temptation and entering the lion’s den hint at the darker side of coming of age and leaving childhood behind.
House of Fun is Madness’ magnum opus, featuring an effervescent and high-spirited ska instrumental and cheeky, edgy lyrics which really tell a story. It’s no surprise that the song is still popular today.
Over their lengthy career, Madness have gone from underground success to becoming national treasures. There’s something about them which perfectly captures a part of British culture, so it’s no surprise the country has taken them into their hearts. It helps, of course, that they’ve created a vast and brilliant discography, with the Madness songs on this list being the very best of the best.
Updated Nov 8, 2020