Monday, 2 August 2010
MADNESS - Keep Moving
Although primarily thought of as a ska outfit (and often dismissed as a “bit of fun” and a novelty band), over the course of six album releases between 1979 and 1985, Madness showed their musical palette was far broader than that of their early ska revival peers. In fact, from their third album (‘7’) onward, Camden’s favourite sons all but ditched their ska roots and continually moved forward, crafting a unique brand of pop music along the way. With each passing album, it’s possible to hear the band becoming more comfortable in their shoes as pop’s master craftsmen, and parts of their fifth album, ‘Keep Moving’ (released in 1984), arguably captures the post-ska Madness at their finest.
The album opens with its title track, which demonstrates how far Madness had progressed musically, even since the release of their album ‘The Rise and Fall’ two years earlier. Everything during this opening track feels understated: Dan Woodgate’s drums provide a decent backbone; Chris Forman’s occasional guitar twangs are in a style that resembles the Stax record label’s soul releases of the sixties; a feeling strengthened by a superb use of brass - supplied by the TKO horns, who’d worked with Madness producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on Elvis Costello’s ‘Punch The Clock’ the year before - and Suggs’s vocal has a smoothness not always heard previously. (Interestingly, this was the first album where Suggs was billed under his real name of Graham McPherson. This also seems significant in Madness’s move towards maturity). A similar soulful approach to the horn section can be heard on ‘March of the Gherkins’, which - although somewhat overshadowed by other tracks from the album – features a great arrangement. The horns play an important role, but the track is also notable for the use of subtle orchestration. Mark Bedford’s solid bass work holds everything together and Mike Barson’s piano adds an occasional flourish (far too low in the mix, mind you).
The album’s lead single ‘Michael Caine’ - much loved and best remembered for its Michael Caine cameo - is a great piece of pop. Co-written by Carl Smyth (aka Cathal Smyth, previously Chas Smash), the track utilises harmony vocals courtesy of Afrodiziak, whom, like the TKO horns, had previously worked with Langer and Winstanley on Costello’s ‘Punch The Clock’. As a Madness single release, it’s notable for featuring a different lead vocal – Smyth steps up to the task brilliantly. Like so much of ‘Keep Moving’, the song’s meaning isn’t such a happy one, for ‘Michael Caine’ isn’t about Michael Caine at all: it concerns an IRA informant forced to live under an assumed name; he eventually cracks under the pressure – his only connection with the past is “the photograph to keep”.
‘Turning Blue’, built around a bouncy drum part from Woodgate (complimented by Mark Bedford’s rock solid bass and and stabs of organ from Mike Barson) gently echoes some of Madness’s work from their 1981 album ‘7’ in its approach. In doing so, it’s probably the track which closest resembles the sound most casual listeners think of with regards to the band. The album’s second single ‘One Better Day’ (written by Mark Bedford) provides the most blatant example of Madness’s growing desire to be taken more seriously. It’s almost too perfect in its eighties sheen; Lee Thompson’s sax glides over a samba style rhythm in an almost wine bar smoothness, while Suggs’s vocal retains its distinctive and casual, almost spoken delivery. It’s a million miles away from the ‘Baggy Trousers’ of yesteryear, but it’s gentle orchestration and classy songwriting (in this instance, featuring a lyric concerning homelessness) make it one of the band’s most refined numbers.
Bringing the album’s first half to a jarring close, ‘Waltz Into Mischief’, at first, might sound like the album’s only concession to quirkiness. Imagine the circus elements of The Beatles’ ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’ with all the happiness wrung from its grease painted face - and then highlighting shouting gang vocals, akin to Sham 69 or Tenpole Tudor, and that’d be a half-accurate picture of this misplaced musical non-event. Look again, though: there’s yet another serious message within its raucousness - and in this case, this ugly waltz carries a heavy-handed lyric regarding the Ku Klux Klan. Normally, a really fantastic arrangement – coupled with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s hard edged, shiny production values - can be relied upon to rescue Madness’s misfires, but the laboured feel of ‘Waltz Into Mischief’s three and a half minutes is just too much all round.
For fans of Barson’s tack piano work, ‘Brand New Beat’ is the album’s highlight. Although Barson’s work on most of the album is far more reserved, his hard struck keys here add a much needed punch – and help reinforce that this album is the work of the same seven men who’d recorded the classic ‘Absolutely’ and ‘7’ albums a few years before. Following the trend of earlier tracks, this combines a confident musical arrangement with lyrics of a darker nature: here, the heavy nature of Thatcher’s Britain appears in the form of teenage crime. ‘Samantha’ offers another of Bedford’s distinctive bass lines, but beyond that, Madness are on autopiliot here. Suggs’s vocal is ordinary, the songwriting lacks the sharpness and bite it carries elsewhere and the pedestrian feel is hammered home by Mike Barson, whose often matchless tack piano style is reduced to one chord which he then hammers out unsubtly over the chorus. His scaled down contributions possibly represent his desire to move on - he left the band following the release of this album. (He re-joined the band on their swansong single ‘Waiting For The Ghost Train’ in 1986, appeared with them for live performances in the 90s and eventually re-joined on a full time basis when Madness re-entered the studio in 1999 to record their first “proper” album after a thirteen year break from studio work.)
Although the album has no ska to speak of, there’s a nod to Madness’s past in the gentle reggae-pop of ‘Prospects’; the intro sounds like a cousin of ‘Close Escape’ from their ‘Absolutely’ album and then the band settle into a gentle groove which saunters along somewhat unhurriedly. The end result is okay – some of Chris Forman’s spiky guitar parts provide good contrast to the smoothness elsewhere – but aside from Mike Barson’s organ part (with a quality which sounds like it was inspired by the classic Trojan Records reggae releases of the late sixties and early seventies) the song doesn’t really make a lasting impact. Even the serious lyric, concerning a man away from his family (an immigrant coming to the UK due to a labour shortage), although well written, isn’t one of the album’s most instantly striking.
‘Victoria Gardens’ features one of the album’s most wonderful arrangements. Driven, once again, by Mark Bedford’s bass work, the music carries a happiness missing from huge parts of ‘Keep Moving’. However, the music is just a mask for another serious political message. Although to begin with, the message seems a little more cryptic than some of the album’s songs, the focus here is on the bad vibes that were escalating among the working classes by the mid eighties. Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger (former members of The (English) Beat and both members of the largely forgotten General Public at the time of this recording) deliver a fantastic and very distinctive vocal on the chorus, making it one of the album’s most enjoyable numbers. The line “She said it was for the good of us all”, points a finger squarely at Thatcher once more. Similarly upbeat on its surface thanks to some classy percussion, ‘Time For Tea’ tells a tale of a glue-sniffing boy who dies on a rubbish tip, after hiding in a refrigerator. The social commentary that often had a place within Madness’s work really came into its own on this album. As songwriters, it certainly presents them at their best, even if the music isn’t always quite as instant. Closing the album, ‘Give Me a Reason’ features bouncing rhythms, cinematic string stings, twanging guitars, harmonica and bursts of horns – a general kitchen sink approach – before the appearance of an all too brief piano lead from Barson. Lyrically, it’s another vehicle for a hard edged and thought provoking message (this time, spousal abuse) but musically, it finishes the album – and indeed the first phase of Madness’s career – on a high note.
Upon its original release, as a ten year old, I was unsure of the maturity of ‘Keep Moving’ and certainly unaware of the seriousness of its lyrics. Back then, parts of ‘Keep Moving’ seemed that little bit too mature, if anything – ‘One Better Day’ was proof enough of that. Decades later and with grown up ears, ‘Keep Moving’ almost seems like the (almost) perfect snapshot of Madness’s sophisticated pop - grabbing hold of everything that’s great about their unique approach, even though a couple of tracks don’t hit the mark. Repeated listens show the album to be one of the band’s best. If you’re one of those people who still think of Madness as a fun band after this, you’re just not listening properly - and it’s likely you’ve never really listened.
(A 2CD deluxe version of ‘Keep Moving’ adds both of the excellent singles ‘Wings of a Dove’ and ‘The Sun and The Rain’ as bonus tracks, alongside three 12” versions and eight b-sides)