Madness: One Step Beyond By Terry Edwards (Bloomsbury/The 33 1/3 Series)
This is only my second venture into reading this series. It’s a great idea; a short little book about your favourite lp; no author gets a second go. There’s over 100 in the series so far, and I want to own about half of them. And I imagine you’ll want a similar number. No Radio Birdman volume yet, nor the Stooges, though there is one on The MC5, and Love, and The Ramones …
So. Madness. You’ve probably heard of them. You may even have a few singles or LPs. Madness resemble a cross-between old-style British music-hall and pub entertainment. Although they are described as a ska act, well … kind of. They’re more like a gang of British lads out for fun and games. Like glam without the chunky choruses and tinsel, Madness are fun.
Now then. Imagine heading down the pub, wondering how to consider writing a book on a band with several frontmen, assorted musicians and songwriters … it’s more like a couple of gangs stuffed into a sack than a band.
And then, you find yourself next to a quiet, cheerful chap with a slightly cheeky grin and a pint. It’s a crowded pub, and neither of you know anyone, so you end up talking. As you do.
He isn’t a member of the band you want to know about, which is good in a way because when you write about a band it’s really easy to find yourself thinking in terms of some members and not others. But this Terry bloke, not only does he know these geezers, he’s played with them. And while he knows all the gen, you don’t really give a bugger about the gossip (there ain’t much anyway), you want to know about everything else, how it happened, how the music was made, all the little odd coincidences. You want the intimacy without actually doing what Terry has done, studied and worked his arse off as a musician and found himself playing alongside people he admired, and now clearly has a personal affection for.
Terry’s an organised cove, and while this isn’t a Wikipedia-style listing of data, we do travel from the cover to side one, side two, the singles and B-sides and end on the run-off groove. Because it’s Terry, a musician, telling the tale, a bloke who’s worked with everyone from Madness to Tindersticks, from Faust to his own outfit The Higsons, from Nick Cave to Julian Cope, from Eric Mingus to P.J. Harvey, we are more than a tad in awe. These are big, big names, and one assumes with big big egos, and Terry unobtrusively fits right in, the foot soldier or journeyman musician. .
But we needn’t be in awe. Because Terry tells us a tale, just like we’re sat with him and a succession of pints of Caffreys, and just like going round your mate’s place, things tend to digress a bit, but only in a sort of chatty, did-you-know kind of way. There are times when you return to the song in question where you sort of blink, but that’s a good thing because you are constantly fired with a deep desire to not only dig out the Madness LP (that’s par for the course, really) but also all these interesting other songs you have either never heard of or thought could never have influenced the band … and so on.
In just about anyone else’s hands, this approach would be quite perilous. In Terry’s, it’s smooth and easy and exciting and you’ve had four Caffreys and you don’t really want the evening to end. The man has consummate grasp of his subject, from the main men, their families, their influences and a normal intimate knowledge of their manor (that’s English for what Sesame Street calls ‘your neighbourhood’ and what we call ‘our bloody suburb’) because he lives there.
Terry also knows music backwards - and he also knows that it’s easy to bore a non-musician with jargon and gibberish. The man’s quite normal, and despite being hailed as a sax genius (which I did here, without realising this has happened rather a lot overseas) Terry discusses music in the same way gumps like me do; he talks about ‘sax stabs’ or ‘the fairground organ gets cranked up to save the day in the last middle eight’ … see, it’s an effortless, highly entertaining read. There are a few pages where I made a spectacle of myself on the bus, laughing so hard. You may not, but I went bright red and had a coughing fit.
There are subtexts, as well. This is mighty, particularly for a rock’n’roll book. One is that usually taboo subject, the division of the spoils. Not to give it away, but it crops up several times; remember that there’s seven in the band, and most write songs. And some write better lyrics than music, and vice versa. And Madness have sold a shedload of records and discs and still tour to packed-out halls. So far none of them have killed each other, or taken out a contract on a neighbour’s wife (and so on). This is often a huge, huge problem. Terry explains why, not making an issue out of it as I am by drawing your attention to it here, but in the normal course of talking about the music.
Another subtext, the most important as far as I’m concerned, is the huge whirligig of interaction between the men of Madness and the assorted cultures all around them, football, clothes, gangs, music, British telly and film, all the powerful links to their identity which are all around them, living reminders of their past, present and future. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but remember that band you’ve never heard who headlined above the Sex Pistols, and their singer, later Adam Ant, quit and went all punk? They’re in there. So are a host of others, all with little incidental glimpses into the much wider world of music.
Along the way we discover which Madness member had some skulls, but lost them; who went out tagging streets and sheds and whose tag ended up on the front page; who has ‘a thing about fleshy bits and diseases’; who shoplifted and ended up in court (Terry: ‘I was a civilian though. I never had the bottle to nick anything’); who owns one of Cat Stevens’ old guitars… and what did I say above..? All of this is a tiny part of a brilliantly arranged, elegantly told story.
I’ll say it as simply as I can. Buy this book not just because it’s about Madness, or because you may be curious about the British underground, but because you know it’s a jolly, fascinating read which, if you’re a bit like me, you can’t read chunky tomes like David Copperfield all at once anymore, you tuck up and read a chapter each night at 7.30 when you retire with your cocoa.
Right. First, Terry’s site is here. Buy his CDs, buy his vinyl, demand T-shirts, sandwich makers, frisbees and socks in his image. You can buy the book here too. His podcast on the book, set up by the Quietus, is here You can get Madness stuff here.
Terry has written the book for you; at the end, he says something which he could’ve said at the beginning … but it’s a lot smarter to put it at the end; ‘My main objective here, though, is not to make everyone feel old - including myself! - but to celebrate One Step Beyond. If this volume of 33 1/3 has made you discover or rediscover the album, play it again and inspire some conversation, then it’s achieved what I wanted it to.’
"Madness: One Step Beyond… " goes a lot further than that and you will enjoy this book.