By Jimmy Ether
The second British invasion hit me squarely between the eyes in 1983. Having just been graced with the glowing electric love of cable (and, as a result, MTV), I was transfixed by Kevin Rowland and his rag-tag overall-clad crew dancing in the streets to “Come on Eileen.” Dexys Midnight Runners was my first visual splash of Great Britain, and while I had grown up listening to healthy amounts of my Dad’s Brit-rock, I never really geographically separated The Beatles from The Beach Boys or The Who from Aerosmith. But, with video, the contrast was sharp.
The big North American acts at the time like John Cougar Mellencamp, Pat Benatar, and Bryan Adams largely seemed stiff and routine. The UK videos opened my eyes to a fanciful world of dirty streets lined with old buildings where everyone cared not that they were covered in soot, donning worn rags, and apparently jobless. They just wanted to dance (often with midgets) and sing! My favorite of the ragamuffin tracks at the time were JoBoxers’ “Just Got Lucky,” Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance,” and “Our House” by Madness (okay. . . Men Without Hats are Canadian, but I can’t think of a more British sounding track).
I knew very little then of the ska revival, and I suppose most ska fans would probably dismiss those later Madness releases as anything but. Regardless, the top-40 pop phase featured on the US compilation release of Madness was my intro to the band. And despite my love of The Specials and those other early Two-Tone and Stiff releases, I still find the period of Madness between 7 and Rise and Fall to be far more rich and complex. It was some of the weirdest, yet most intoxicating carnival-pop I’d ever experienced. Mike Barson’s lyrics and odd sense of chord progression and arrangement rival those of Danny Elfman. The growling swirl of horns, aggressively bumpy piano rhythms, impeccable Motown-influenced melody, clean insect-guitars, and a prominent R & B rhythm section all relentlessly punctuate the tempo. It’s a perfect drive, walk, or run soundtrack—it’s difficult to sit still while Madness is playing. And while it might be best to hear the original albums in context (particularly Rise and Fall), this compilation release flows incredibly well and gives us the wonderful single releases alongside the album highlights.