Madness House of Fun Weekender 2013: U.K. Ska Legends Lively Up Sleepy Resort Town
The girl at the chip shop must be mad. Fair play: She's cute and cool and a Hogwarts wizard when it comes to frying up cod loin, but her excitement over finding a pair of Americans in her restaurant in Minehead, England, is very strange -- strange like Stonehenge or baked beans with breakfast.
"Your accents are sooo cool," the sheepish teen tells Diffuser.fm, speaking with those sweet British inflections we've been imitating -- poorly but with genuine affection -- since high school. It was then anglophilia struck and we discovered bands like the Clash, the Specials and Madness, who not coincidentally are holding their annual House of Fun Weekender a kilometer down the road at a seaside resort known as Butlins.
Our accents? The chip chef pumps us with questions about New York City and Los Angeles, places she'd like to go and cook, and were there time, we'd geek out and hit her back with ones about Manchester (Moz and the Smiths, Joy Division and New Order, Oasis and the Mondays), Liverpool (the Beatles and Bunnymen), Glasgow (the capital of twee) and of course, London, where the seven "nutty boys" of Madness came together in the late '70s.
Bound by a love of ska, reggae, Motown, '50s rock 'n' roll and stomping around tube stations in cherry red Doc Martens, Madness motored out of Camden Town in their trusty Morris Minor van and became one of the biggest bands of the era. In the States, they're known only for 'Our House,' but across the pond, that 1982 single is but one of the 20-odd hits that kept them on the charts for 214 weeks. Only Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote catchier tunes, and since reforming in the early '90s after a half-decade break, Madness have released no fewer than three terrific albums. They're vital enough to lure two 33-year-old Americans -- the editor of this site and his lovely wife -- all the way from Brooklyn to Blighty in the middle of what turns out to be a frigid November.
On that first night of the weekender, after we've assured the westward-gazing chip girl that our country, though great, has nothing on hers, we make our way to Butlins. Madness like to open the House of Fun with special one-off performances, and tonight, they're doing a top-down run-through 'The Liberty of Norton Folgate,' the 2009 return-to-form many consider one of their best albums. It's a love letter to London, like all of their LPs, and the seven original band members look quite gentlemanly in suits, ties, pork pies and bowlers. Lead singer Suggs is particularly convincing in the role he was born to play, and as the opening overture leads into the utopian skank of 'We Are London' and Beatlesque pop of 'Sugar and Spice,' he's all jovial wink-and-nudge charm. The only thing missing is the top hat and cane.
The group is set up in Butlins' main hall, a giant space filled with middle-aged men and women in Fred Perry polos, Ben Sherman gingham button-downs, turned-up Levis and Doc Martens. Suggs and the boys came up on the fringes of the skinhead subculture -- a working-class youth movement initially free of racist connotations -- and there are plenty of large blokes with shaved heads and flight jackets covered in patches and pins. Thirty years ago, these guys would have looked intimidating, but everyone here is mellow and happy, and no one minds that the septet is working its way through newish material, saving the really cracking stuff for night two.
Not that night one is anything to sniff at. 'On the Town' features a guest appearance by Rhoda Dakar, former frontwoman of the Bodysnatchers, the only all-girl ska band on the legendary 2 Tone Records roster. Madness were only briefly signed to that label, which ushered in a politically charged, anti-racist ska revival in the late '70s, but they're forever linked to the corresponding movement, and Dakar arrives like an old friend dropping by for tea. After wrapping 'Liberty' with the 10-minute title track, Madness return with a treat: 'House of Fun,' the carnivalesque ska-pop smash for which the fest is named.
Just like that, Butlins is bouncing en masse to the cheeky yet poignant tale of a young man trying to buy condoms. Lyrically and musically, it's the sort of song Madness do best, and once it's finished, those still game for drinking and dancing grab pints and squeeze into Butlins' side areas -- arcades, game rooms and movie theaters doubling as music venues in the absence of beach vacationers. Inside the Jaks nightclub space, DJs spin 2 Tone and Britpop classics before the Bulletproof Bomb and later the Talks plug in their guitars and revive the spirit of '79. As always, Madness curated the weekend's entertainment, and it's no mystery why these bands made the grade.
On night two, we skip the chips and try pub food on Minehead's main drag. It's hard to hear in the place we pick, what with all the hooligans yelling at the football match on the TV, but as we near the end of our week-long U.K. road trip -- a vacation that's taken us from Edinburgh to Minehead via Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and various points in between -- we're eager to raise our voices and talk about the wonderful weirdness of it all. We're wildly in love with something called HP brown sauce -- the perfect topping for just about everything -- but we're not so sure about British beers, which lack fizz and potency. Even Madness' signature brew, Gladness, offends our delicate yankee palettes, but after arriving at Butlins, we choke one down in the lead-up to Saturday's main event, the reason we're here, the greatest-hits set.
In keeping with House of Fun tradition, Saturday is also "fancy dress" night, and this year, the theme is song titles. Looking around, it's not always clear what tunes people are referencing, but the place is packed with Doc-rocking cops, robbers, mobsters, kilt-clad Scotsmen and even Smurfs. Madness mostly forgo the silly outfits, though saxophonist Lee Thompson bucks the band's monochromatic color scheme by sporting a vibrant Day of the Dead-inspired blazer for the second night in a row. The jacket ensures he'll make an impression, and so does the first song, 'One Step Beyond,' the frantic instrumental title track from the group's debut album. As Thompson blows, the only people at Butlins not sweating are those with costumes too constricting to allow for running in place.
From there, it's Diffuser's dream set list, the perfect end to the pilgrimage. Eight songs in, after such favorites as 'Embarrassment,' 'The Prince' and 'My Girl,' pianist Mike Barson lays down the opening chords of 'The Sun and the Rain,' an optimistic ditty about twirling umbrellas in downpours and accepting life's soggier moments. In the final verse, the drab skies turn blue, and in the closing bars, as hundreds of diehards sing the giddy refrain -- do-do-do, do-do-do do-do / do-do, do-do, do-do-do, do-do -- we might as well be arm in arm, skipping over cobblestones on a bustling London street.
The journey leads next to cozier 'hoods, where we meet some of Madness' most colorful characters. There's "nice man George," the 63-year-old underwear thief immortalized on 'In the Middle of the Night,' an early album cut Suggs says Madness haven't played in 20 years. To mark its revival, the group strings up a clothesline covered in ladies' undergarments. More respectable than George is the chap from 'Bed and Breakfast Man,' a reformed loafer who's gone from crashing on mates' sofas to offering to buy the next round. The mum in 'Our House' would be proud, though she's too busy ironing dad's shirt and packing the kids' school bags to worry about local ne'er-do-wells.
Dakar comes back for 'Madness,' one of the '60s ska tunes the group covered in its infancy, and the gang bids Butlins adieu by paddling off in a 'Night Boat to Cairo.' Here, Caribbean jerk meshes with Middle Eastern spices, and amid skanking guitars and Egyptian strings, Suggs sings about a gap-toothed boatman making his way down the Nile. It's a kind of post-colonial fantasy -- an exercise in romanticizing the exotic and dreaming of the bizarre sights and sounds you'll encounter in far-flung locales.
The girl from the chip shop is too young to know about Madness, but she'd like this one.
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