Just a few lines to say fanks for your present. I last bought a Madness record twenty-four years ago and so I was curious, to say the least, to hear what the old nutties were up to these days. The Liberty of Norton Folgate proved to be a richly rewarding listen.
They have retained that very English mix of melancholy and joy (remember the underrated masterpiece of The Sun and the Rain?) and while their ambitions have grown, they haven’t become pretentious. Suggs, it would appear, has been inhaling a mix of Peter Ackroyd and Tom Waits and it’s done the fella a power of good. The amazing, wonderful and horrible bazaar of London past and present is well celebrated and elegied, if you know what I mean. The whole effect rather wonderful, with each band member doing the musical thing one remembers them fondly for. It was a lovely fruit-cake of a record.
Of course, what album is flawless? A couple of numbers serve to keep Guardian readers happy: a lyrically lazy, meaningless song about Africa, called, wooh, Africa (Suggs, you mess with the tacky God Toto: desist, desist! Don’t play da juju man with that particular middla the roadkill. Bes’ forgottun, realleh!) and another appearing to blame rude boys’ pathologies on ‘gherkin men’. Unless Gherkin Men be some extra-esoteric West Indies slang for players of the pink oboe, I do believe we are seeing some of that old red wedge 1985 malarkey from those old enough to know nuance better. Oh, would that it were 1985 again! (Nick R. appears stage-left wearing a bowler hat and brown carpenter’s apron. Whistling, he unfolds a temporary road sign: NO NOSTALGIA, PLEASE, AS SCOFFING TENDS TO OFFEND) Taggy browsers and shirty hurts (I was a natty dresser, at times). All was simple in the forest, even though it wasn’t! I was in love that year and my two years old copy of Long Hot Summer by the S*y*e C*u*cil was played to oblivion. As was various Madness – including The Prince. BRING BACK THE….WE WANT THE…PRRRRRRRRRIIINCE. What a mixture we lived on in those days: Brighton Rock one minute (I had a recording of them doing it on New Year’s Eve 1975 taken off a radio repeat – in scratchy long wave, my dears! May’s rhythm playing at the start made me put down the wooden Dunlop racket with the purple handle ((worn back-to-wood at the point I liked to strum the solo from the Shadows’ version of Ghost Riders in the Sky some six years previous – I had graduated from strumming the Ward Lock Junior Encylopaedia. Maybe I should get a guitar made to look like the Ward Lock Junior Encyclopaedia. Ron Wood had a toilet seat guitar, after all)) and retrieve my battered classical from the loft – later to be smashed to pieces in Townshendian salute. I couldn’t tape that guitar back together as Daltrey advises in Guitar and Pen.) and the Thompson Twins the next! Pip-voice: THE THOMPSON TWINS! THE THOMPSON TWINS! They had only one record I liked, the name of which escapes me. It was about being in a prison camp, if memory serves, which, I suppose, tied into that adolescent male dreamlife of being a hero of some description – even if one’s greatest struggle was the daily styling of the fringe in or out of the equation. I can see myself now: Shaving mirror door on bathroom cupboard; leaf-pattern frosted glass window; soap-caked radio on windowsill; sound of the Victoria train nearby slowing into Penge East; King in a Catholic Style by…ten points, Nick, ten points*…coming on, and this greasy fringe to contend with.
I’ve just looked up Long Hot Summer on youtube. As you would say: oh, dear! Talbot, the keys player, seems an honest-enough fellow, along for the ride, but one look at Weller…he’s like a devious Neapolitan deckchair attendant. Oh well. Children don’t always spot a mountebank as quick as they are sometimes given credit for. I’d got Frenchified and poncy, thanks to the S. Council’s Our Favourite Shop, which I adored. I took up French fags and loafed around listening to Down in the Seine, Weller’s idea of a Jacques Brel number. I thought it very cool.
I was also fond of a Communist band called the Redskins, I remember. Bring It Down (This Insane Thing). And of course the night Simply Red appeared for the first time on the Old Grey Whistle Test. I was ensconced alone in front of the box with a gin and tonic (the dark mysterious tabernacle of the drinks cupboard having been fully appraised and reconnoitred some moons earlier to vouchsafe a King Edward Imperial to smoke on bonfire night) and the then-unsigned Hucknall’s voice tore at my wounded heart (where my knee would be buried). WINE AND SONG, SIR. WINE AND SONG! A poisoned chalice, sir. ‘The pestle with the vessel, the brew that isn’t true.
But that’s nothing to a musical memory from the 70s: bloke next door in my front room doing an extended Elvis dance in his moccasins to Mud on the telly. TWIGLETS AND BABYCHAM, CHIPBOARD AND PAMPAS GRASS (possibly a new ITV detective series) VESTA CHINESE MEALS and wallpaper RD Laing could get his teeth into. As Roy Batty says in Blade Runner: the things I’ve seen with these eyes.
And, back in the 80s, Madness kept you going. You never took ‘em seriously, but my, how they entertained and, now one comes to consider it, how they have colonised one’s memory of that decade. Along with MR BUYRITES and Farahs. Here’s me on my way to school, winter, 1981,
FISH PASTE SANDWICHES in my carrier bag. I pioneered the shopping carrier bag as against the satchel and sports bag. (That, the fringe, the taste for Razzle and Jackie Collins, Tarzan and Biggles and the biro-smothered hands ((no, not Biggles and The Biro Covered Hands)) perhaps signalling the dysfunction that would overtake me in adult life). A radio plays:
And I never thought I’d feel this way, the way I feel about you…IT MUST BE LOVE, LOVE LOVE LOVE etc. Much better than Labi Siffre’s original, was Madness’s.
That was a grim old, filthy-snowed under winter. My sister developed a penchant for Godley and Crème’s Under Your Thumb Forever. Sunday nights for her being all about listening to the new Top 40 on Radio One. My antagonism to fashion perhaps beginning with her love of Duran Duran etc. Have you noticed how nobody puts Duran Duran videos up on Facebook? Too fucking embarrassed. Anyway, winter passed and I decided I liked the mad bit in the middle of ABC’s The Look of Love. Following this, as I bounced my skinless leather football up from the playground one lunchtime, three girls from the year above snuck up behind and fondled – a recently learned word, that was- my bum. The most ‘at it’ one, a half caste girl, like a heftier Gauguinian amazon stuck her mauler down my trews. I told her to fuck off, so taken aback was I! But I walked away with leady you could have gone shark-fishing with. IT WAS A LONG AFTERNOON OF DISTRACTION IN MATHS. Something was happening… And lo, the following winter, 1982, we saw the Young Ones go in that boozer, Suggs go ‘You hum it and I’ll smash your face in’ and House of Fun begin. The elemental First Squirt could not be far away; indeed, this song seemed to augur it. THE FIRST NOCTURNAL SQUIRT had already happened before my molestation. During a dream about the television advert for a film called Xanadu starring Olivia N.J and after my nightly prayer that a nuclear war would not occur; I’d had the early warning beacons at Dover pointed out to me and thought, blimey, bit real. My parish priest gave it the biggun about CND from the pulpit and there was enough on TV. My idea of the next war was sort of The Tardis meets Reach for the Sky. That all changed when the BBC put Threads out, right, popkids? Anyway, back to Olivia N.J. Olivia had caught my eye at the cinema in Grease some years earlier, and the idea that you might literally fly off in a 50s car with your loved one remains attractive.
The summer of 1983 was rather wonderful and I seemed to spend all of it riding a bike near Selsey Bill. Which, incidentally, was mentioned in Madness’s Driving in My Car. But the song that summer, apart from Long Hot Summer was Wings of a Dove, WO-AH WO-AH. Released, so wiki informs me, on August 20, 1983. Then there was Our House, which I didn’t like for some reason that I can’t now remember. Then the acutely melancholic Michael Caine.
Oh well. I could go on – the weird winter of 1984 and The Sun and the Rain, the end-of-crush melancholy of Yesterday’s Men and my early pub expeditions with Uncle Sam by Madness playing (My old man thought Uncle Sam was great, he didn't see the anti-Americanism of it) and later their valedictory Ghost Train – but I’d better not: lest Reeves arrive at the Dog and say to Sunshine: ‘fucking old Jackanory Gazy sent me! Cunt wouldn’t shaddap, like usual. The only living boy in Penge East indeed! Who d’yer think you are, fuck sake, GUNTER GR-ARSE? Percy Proose? Clean yer elbows! Eat the Rail. Sit on it, Chachi!’ Sufficey to say that, one way and another, The Liberty of Norton Folgate stirred up a lot of memories for me.
And I never got to tell you about Sunshine and the Tooter’s Hat and how he threw a lighter at me. Oh well, see you in the bar.
I am sir, your royal, loyal correspondent.
PS: All highlighted items in this letter will form the tracklisting for my next platter
*Nick R says calmly and instantly: China Crisis? What’s the big deal? What was that song about Amsterdam that came out at that time? Was it Lloyd Cole? I quite liked that.