Review Summary: This classic compilation album needed a review as badly as The Pietasters need a good ribbing.
Ska has always been a genre doomed to fail. Artists must play in either of two specific ways (with slow upbeat guitar strokes for first-wave revivalists and fast upbeat guitar strokes for third-wave revivalists), leaving little room for improvisation. If a hypothetical ska band were to attempt to expand upon this sound, they would presumably be ostracized by ska's hardcore fan base while being rejected by the general public for already having the negatively connotative tag of "just another ska band." If the same hypothetical band were to conform to the prototypical ska sound, then they would be doomed to sound like every other band in the genre. This very grim analysis is supported almost wholly by the third wave of ska: the prototypical bands were largely ignored, and the eccentric bands could never relinquish the tag of "just another ska band."
The third wave of ska exploded with a slew of like-minded bands who wrote identical songs simpler and more meaningless than bubble-gum pop. Rightfully so, bands like The Pietasters and Blue Meanies never achieved anything more than the hearts of true ska fans and some absonant lauding on Less Than Jake-hating ska message boards. The third-wave did have its success, however: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, LTJ, and Reel Big Fish all had well-received singles.
As the millennium turned, the Bosstones' stagnant songwriting awarded them the status of one-hit-wonder, while LTJ and RBF sought to expand but not abandon the ska sound. Reel Big Fish fused ska with an eclectic mix of rock n' roll and powerpop, while Less Than Jake chose the path of anthemic pop-punk. Both paths led to moderate success, label disputes, fan backlash, and ultimately a return to prototypical ska-punk which leaves fans to wonder if any aspiring ska artist has the cajones to take on the mainstream.
In spite of ska's self-destructive tendencies, three bands are historical anomalies: Sublime, No Doubt, and Madness. The late Bradley Nowell showed his genius through his lyrical storytelling, his Marley-esque openness about ganga, and his unwillingness to associate with ska, all of which led to his band's success. No Doubt's success can mostly be accredited to the stunning Gwen Stefani, as proved by her lucrative solo career. Remaining is the ska/ pop outfit Madness, the talented group of nutty boys whose perplexing success can only be described as Complete Madness
1979 marked the start of the two-tone dance craze and 1980 was its peak. In this short time period, four artists managed to chart their debut albums in the British top 5. The Specials, The Beat, and The Selecter all had rude boys and rude girls skanking on the dance floor, but something special seemed to set apart Madness. They were the only successful two-tone band not signed to The Specials's label Two-Tone (albeit they did release a single), and their main message was dancing, not politics. The absence of any real political message in their lyrics may give them the false image of another meaningless ska or pop band, but their lack of social commentary in songwriting is replaced with musicianship and lyrical relatability. While The Beat and The Selecter both championed a raw, undisguised message of equality, their music was not very compelling. The Beat played cool night music, exemplified by Saxa's smooth saxophone playing, and Dave's hypnotizing, monotone vocals. The Selecter sounded much too happy to convey any message delivered from Pauline Black's high pitched voice or repetitive lyrics, and Desmond Brown's upbeat organ playing did not help either. In contrast, the reputably silly nutty boys of Madness seemed to have the most compelling songs of the three bands. One Step Beyond's
(#10) vocal intro leads into an energetic (albeit simple) saxophone measure that will invigorate a listener, while the superb rhythm section will keep him or her dancing. My Girl
(#3) was the perfect pop song for the working class youth that originally composed Madness' fan base, as shown by Suggs' genuinely emotional gripes about just wanting to stay in after a hard day of work, all while Mike and Lee are trading call-and-response piano and saxophone lines in the background, almost like an angry couple arguing. Only The Specials could match Madness' intensity, but The Specials could never perfectly capture the tenacity of their live show on a studio album. Thus Madness' One Step Beyond (peaking at #2), edged The Specials' eponymous album (peaking at #4) slightly on the British charts.
Late 1980 to mid-1981 was already the peak of the short-lived two tone movement. The Specials, The English Beat, and Madness quickly released their sophomore albums which all charted again in Great Britain's top 5, although to less critical acclaim. The Selecter's happy-go-lucky ska beats were the first to grow stale, and Celebrate the Bullet
did not even chart in the top 40. The Rolling Stone
pounced on this opportunity to not only chastise the second albums, but to also censure the entire movement, calling Terry Hall's vocals flat and labeling Madness as a poor mans Blues Brothers. However, Absolutely
was not that bad. Although its song collection did not equal the quality of One Step Beyond's
, it still showcased Madness' signature rhythm section and working-class relatability, especially in songs such as the nostalgic retelling of schoolyard delinquency Baggy Trousers
(#4) and the righteous yet peppy Embarrassment
(#1). Like the early, mature single My Girl, Embarrassment helped foreshadow Madness' eventual evolution into a charming pop group, a transformation that did not effectuate much later. 1981, one year after Absolutely
, saw the release of 7
, Madness' most mature album thus far. They spoke of an overworked man suffering a heart attack on his way to work in Cardiac Arrest
(#11), a criminal's conniving plea for amnesty in Shut Up
(#2), and the mindset of a severely depressed worker in Grey Day
(#12). Madness' domination of the British charts continued as 7
reached #5, their last top 5 album until 2009's Liberty of Norton Folgate
By 1982, second wave ska was already gasping for air. The Specials had already spent a year recording a new album and would emerge a year later more disgruntled than ever. The Selecter had already finished recording until they would reemerge in the 90's in an attempt to ride the third wave. The Beat found moderate success in their attempt to expand their sound, but disbanded shortly after Special Beat Service
. Madness could have been expected to fold with its contemporaries, but in reality they had their own expectations. On April 23, 1982, Madness released Complete Madness
, a compilation of their greatest singles up until that point. Not only did Complete Madness
contain singles from their three studio albums, but it also contained non-album singles and rare concert favorites. Both old and new fans rocketed the compilation album to number 1 twice and somehow kept it on the British charts for a grand total of 99 weeks.
With no stoner fan base or Hollywood diva for a lead singer, Madness still found a way to become a successful ska band and to even transcend the genre and still be successful. Their musicianship, their music's danceable nature, their relatable lyrics, their nonchalance, and most of all their silliness has helped them accomplish what many ska artists could never do. This review only covers Madness' career until Complete Madness
; they haven't even released Our House yet.