In 2019, beloved British ska band Madness began celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut album, One Step Beyond, with a sold-out world tour—including shows across the U.S., where they’ve only rarely played. “And then the bloody thing got cancelled!” says lead singer Suggs, calling American Songwriter from his London home. It was another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic—but the band aren’t letting this unfortunate situation totally derail their efforts to remind America of who they are. On March 12, they released a U.S.-only compilation, Our House: The Very Best of Madness, via BMG.
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Picking which twelve songs should go on this compilation was, Suggs says, “Very difficult. We took [songs] off the albums that have been put out in America, and then a couple of new ones just to remind people that we’re still alive.” He admits that he hopes this album will help U.S. listeners realize that Madness have more to offer than just one familiar song. “Apart from ‘Our House,’ I don’t think we really did a great deal in America,” he says, referring to their single that reached the U.S. Top 10 in 1983—their only hit here.
Still, Suggs adds, “I don’t have any complaints about songs that weren’t as well received as they might have been. It’s funny how things go around. You just don’t know what’s around the corner.”
While American audiences may not be fully aware of what Madness have to offer, the band have enjoyed substantial success in their homeland. “It was a very different experience for us in England because we were so popular here,” Suggs says. “We were like The Beatles. I’m not being funny—we had 24 Top 10 hits.” Those hits, besides “Our House,” included “One Step Beyond,” “Night Boat to Cairo,” “Baggy Trousers,” “It Must Be Love,” and “House of Fun,” among many others, in a run of U.K. chart success that ran from 1979 through 1986.
After their original keyboard player left the band in 1986, Madness went on hiatus until 1992, when they reemerged with a massive show at Finsbury Park in London. “75,000 people turned up and there was an earthquake [because] people were jumping up and down,” Suggs says. Elated as they were at this adoring reception, though, he says he and his bandmates quickly realized that this comeback wasn’t without peril.
“That was a bit like in Star Trek when they’re going toward the black hole—we were going toward the black hole of 1980s nostalgia,” Suggs says, adding that simply playing all their old hits “made me fucking bananas. Then it was like, ‘Let’s re-establish what we want.’” As a result, he says, “We do new songs for ourselves, for our own benefit.”
As for how Madness’ seven members actually approach the songwriting process, Suggs says, “It’s an interesting thing because we all write. It’s very unusual for a band. It’s just a mixture all the time between all of us, and that’s what’s fun. It just keeps rolling around in different contexts.”
Throughout the years, the Madness “ska revival” sound has evolved to incorporate elements of pop and other genres, while still maintaining their distinctive identity. “You can come in with a calypso song or a jazz song, and ultimately, it will just sound like a Madness song because it’s me singing,” Suggs says. “I interpret it myself, then that is the voice of Madness, I would say.”
This approach is clearly working, as the band (except for that six-year hiatus) have remained together since their formation in 1976, releasing twelve studio albums (most recently, Can’t Touch Us Now in 2016, which went to the Top 5 on the U.K. album chart). The band still includes six of the seven original members in its lineup.
“I suppose that we’re friends,” Suggs says of how they’ve maintained this longevity. “That’s more important than the work. The music and the videos that we made were just us really enjoying each other’s company and trying to entertain each other. There’s tolerance within the band. I think we’re fortunate that it keeps moving along. We just follow our instincts, and it goes on. There’s an authenticity to what we do.”
Another factor in the band’s long-term success seems to come down to their signature upbeat style, which sometimes even veers into outright silliness, as evidenced in their humorous music videos (especially for “Our House” and “Night Boat to Cairo”).
While Suggs agrees that this exuberance has been an important component to the band’s approach, he also qualifies it: “That wasn’t to say we weren’t taking it seriously. We were,” he says. “There’s a difference between taking your work seriously and taking yourself seriously. That’s what I think what it is: we never took ourselves seriously. Self-deprecation, I think, is a very cool thing to be able to do.”
Suggs may be modest, but there’s no denying how beloved Madness have become in the U.K.—as proven by the fact that they’ve been invited to appear at some highly prestigious events in recent years. In 2012, they played on the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the Diamond Jubilee Concert honoring Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, when the Olympics were held in London, they performed at the Closing Ceremony. “There have been some tremendous highlights. I was on the roof of Buckingham Palace! Unbelievable. It was a mind-blowing experience,” Suggs says.
A U.S. tour might not be quite as high prestige as those particular events, though there is still talk that the COVID-derailed shows here will be reset. In the meantime, Suggs hopes that Our House: The Very Best of Madness compilation will serve as a good reminder of what his band can do: “Hopefully, this compilation will wet the whistle about Madness again.”