What’s not to like about Madness? Those nutty boys, who stepped out together on the cover of and in the video for One Step Beyond, who larked about in Our House in a way that Blur would later take as a template and thoroughly stuff up, and who, in the video for The House of Fun, would then take male dress-wearing to a level only dreamed of by The Worm That Turned’s Janet and Betty.
While Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet existed to be swooned at, Madness were a band for boys to legitimately exercise their penchant for generally pratting about, either in the school playground or at the school end of term disco: an event of girls who look down on boys who dick about like boys in front of girls who despair of boys.”
How can you show your face when you’re a disgrace to the human race?
Twenty, thirty years later, the School Disco lives on as a trip back in time for both dancers and despairers, but for all this drunken nostalgia, the manic energy of their particular brand of ska, and the “how’s your father?” of a quick Suggs glance, there was often a more serious side to Madness. Their 1980 album Absolutely might open with the ultimate School Disco anthem Baggy Trousers (also the album’s first single), but it’s quickly followed by Embarrassment. It’s an ingenious 1-2: both songs share the same energetic DNA, but while you might expect Suggs to deliver words like “You’re an embarrassment” with tongue firmly in cheek, the subject matter of the song is anything but light.
You’re not to come see us no more
keep away from our door
don’t come round here no more
what on earth did you do that for?
Written primarily by saxophonist Lee Thompson, the song is a reminder of uneasy race relations in the UK in the 70s and 80s, telling the story of his sister and her rejection by the family on learning that she was pregnant and that the child’s father was black. Masterfully, the song’s sucker-punch lyrics are punctuated by the bright brass that was Madness’ trademark. It’s like being violently assaulted by a laughing man.
Embarrassment reached #4 in the UK in 1980, one of 15 top ten hits for Madness during a four-year heyday from 1979-1983. From their second single One Step Beyond to The Sun and the Rain, only Cardiac Arrest (#14) failed to crack the top ten.