Madness are playing in Dublin this month. They seem never to grow old: listen to their music and it is forever 1980. I bought their album that year.
I had a voluntary job that came with board and lodge and £10 a week pocket money. My housemates were preparing to be Hindu monks; there was no television in the gate lodge in which we lived; no radio, and only an elderly portable record player on which to play the handful of old LPs they had. Their conversation was often esoteric religious stuff; not much in it to interest a 20 year old with no religious background. The best moments were when they got their Woodstock records out and talked of times when it seemed that the world could have been a good place.
The pocket money didn’t go far, not that there was much to spend the money on; a pint at the local pub and occasional visits to the cinema to see things that were even half interesting. Slowly I began to buy odd records of my own. These were often greeted with scorn and derision by my housemates; I still laugh at memories of them singing their own words to Blondie’s ‘Atomic’. They were good blokes; just from a generation before the rough edgedness of punk.
Strangely, for all the band’s zaniness, Madness never attracted a similar level of scorn from my companions, the playing of their album never brought the singing of improvised alternative lyrics. When Madness articulated the male inability to express feelings, perhaps it struck a chord with something from my friends’ hippy days. Among the fun stuff, Madness said important things in some of their lyrics; the pain they evoked was real:
My girl’s mad at me
Been on the telephone for an hour
We hardly said a word
I tried and tried but I could not be heard
Why can’t I explain?
Why do I feel this pain?
‘Cause everything I say
She doesn’t understand
She doesn’t realise
She takes it all the wrong way.
The words raised the problem of to whom would you turn if you wished to say that you felt the way song said? If you couldn’t talk to your girlfriend, who else were you going to talk to? If the problems with the girlfriend arose from a lack of communication skills, you were hardly likely to be able to talk to your mates about it, and you certainly weren’t going to talk to your mum and dad.
Perhaps the enduring appeal of Madness lies, in part, in the enduring relevance of their songs. There is not much evidence that, since 1980, male communication skills have improved.