To most Americans, they're a one-hit wonder. For me, they've been a nearly lifelong obsession. And now, 33 years after I discovered the English band Madness, they've become even more to me: They're role models.
Most visitors to this site might -- might -- know Madness from their early '80s hit "Our House." You know. That peppy pop ditty about the guys with a house in the middle of their street? It was the band's one and only top 40 moment stateside, but they were major hitmakers back in the U.K. Although I liked "Our House," it was a different Madness single -- the euphoric "Wings of a Dove" -- that sent me scurrying to the local Camelot after I caught the giddy video on MTV.
Tracking down the band's back catalog was actually a big challenge for a kid growing up in rural West Virginia. But that was part of the appeal. No Def Leppard or Duran Duran for me. That stuff was for the other kids. I wanted to be unique! I wanted a challenge! I wanted to blow countless hours scouring cut-out bins for obscure imports!
But my devotion wasn't simply a pose or being a completist. The band's songs really did speak to me in a way that most other pop music didn't. Which was a little ironic given that the lyrics were often so profoundly, inscrutably English I wasn't quite sure what Suggs, the lead singer, was going on about. It took about 1,000 listens to my favorite Madness song, the cheerfully anarchic "House of Fun," before I realized it wasn't an ode to reaching the drinking age and buying yourself a beer.
Yet even without always understanding the meaning, I deeply felt the mood. The best Madness songs were sweet pop chocolate coating a gooey center of sadness. They weren't afraid to be silly -- sometimes very silly -- but they weren't afraid to be wistful and melancholy either.
That was an appealing combination for a kid who was trying to smile through his own isolation and dejection. So Madness and I bonded. Or I bonded with Madness, anyway. And I stayed loyal to that bond even as the band traveled the now-familiar pop-act trajectory: fading chart fortunes, lineup changes, a breakup, an abortive reunion, a successful reunion, a hiatus, another reunion, another shakeup, etc.
For a diehard fan, I'm actually pretty damn lucky. The last three decades would've been a lot more frustrating if I'd been a Dexys Midnight Runners fanatic. (Don't laugh: It could've happened. I actually kind of like that band.) Though Madness haven't had a hit single in Britain so far this century -- their last top 10 song came out in 1999 -- they still tour constantly. They even come to the West Coast from time to time, and I've seen my heroes live twice. As transcendent as those concert experiences were, what's even more important to me is knowing that new Madness music is on its way. And it usually is...at its own slow pace.
Back in the band's '80s heyday, they wrote more than one song about record label pressure to churn out another chart-topper. But these days they're in no hurry. In the last 17 years they've put out three (soon to be four) albums of new material. And the most recent ones all have one thing in common: no record label. Starting with the ambitious, critically praised "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" in 2009, Madness has been releasing its albums on its own.
Is it a coincidence that the band went its own way and promptly produced a classic? Well...yes. Because they were still going their own way when they released the tepid, uninspired (to this loyal listener) followup, "Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da." But hey -- even mediocre new Madness is still new Madness, and I'm grateful that the band has the freedom to record and release what they want, when they want.
Today I pre-ordered the double album special edition of the band's latest, "Can't Touch Us Now." Because dammit -- that's the kind of fan I am. And you know what? I'm not going to sell out any stadiums anytime soon, but I like to think I have some fans like that, too. Which is why I recently took steps to give myself the kind of creative freedom Madness has.
Where will those steps take me? Places old, places new, places scary, places fun...and I hope you'll be stepping along with me the whole way.