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The 11 best Madness songs

Why have a top 10 when you can have one more? Here are the 11 best songs by Madness, ranked

Beloved by generations, Madness are one of the UK’s biggest singles bands since The Beatles.

Forming in Camden as the North London Invaders in the late 70s, and coming to prominence as one of the decade’s key two-tone ska revival acts, Madness (aka The Nutty Boys, aka Crunch!) brought an infectious brand of cockney charm to a country beleaguered by Thatcherism while quite literally fighting against the ‘skinhead’ label that often attached itself to them.

After initial line-up dramas, the outfit (headed up by lead vocalist Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson) became a seven-piece band in 1979, changing their name officially to Madness in tribute to ska and reggae artist Prince Buster. The rest, as they say, is history.

With 14 UK top ten singles, a Billboard smash-hit and an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection awarded in 2000, Madness are the purest definition of ‘national treasure’. From skanking on top of Buckingham Palace to lacing up their Cherry Reds and stomping off down the pub, here are the top 11 Madness songs to get you bopping.

11. ‘Driving In My Car’

(The Rise & Fall, 1982)

As ubiquitous as sloppy school dinners and grass stains on your PE kit, for many 80s kids this honking banger was a national anthem. Conjuring up memories of Saturday night TV and your parents skulking off to the local Working Men’s Club for a few bevs, ‘Driving In My Car’ would be played to try and wear you out before bedtime. Plus, it’s the group’s homage to their crappy motor, which many of us can probably still relate to.

10. ‘Wings Of A Dove’

(Keep Moving, 1984)

Featuring steel drums by Creighton Steel Sounds and gospel harmonies from The Inspirational Choir of the Pentecostal First Born Church of the Living God, ‘Wings Of A Dove’ is an upbeat, infectious track that spent 10 weeks in the UK Singles Chart. With Suggs and trumpeter/skanker Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth sharing vocals, this single sounds a lot different to the rest of the group’s harder ska cannon. The ‘woah woah’s are quite simply joyous.

9. ‘House Of Fun’

(The Rise & Fall, 1982)

A UK No.1 hit single about a young fellow trying to buy condoms on his sixteenth birthday? Yep, it could only be a Madness song. With its slightly sinister undertones and growly brass, ‘House Of Fun’ rocks along with a brilliant plinky-keyed demeanour, plus the video has a distinct Monty Python-esque silliness, which would only go on to further the band’s status in America (via the newly launched MTV). 

8. ‘Night Boat To Cairo’

(One Step Beyond, 1979)

Taken from their debut album One Step Beyond, ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ is unusual, being that a large portion of the song is instrumental after Suggs’ long verse right at the start (the title isn’t mentioned at all bar Suggs shouting it at intermittent periods throughout). Sax-heavy and stompy, the tempo frequently slows down before stopping completely midway through, allowing the song to almost restart like a vinyl being flipped. Despite the fact that there’s no real chorus to speak of, ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ has become one of the band’s most loved tracks, and a favourite to close out their live shows.

7. ‘Our House’

(The Rise & Fall, 1982)

One of the band’s most nostalgic tunes, ‘Our House’ has become synonymous with families across the UK. Whether you’re shacked up with bickering siblings or sharing the last can of beans with an impoverished roommate, ‘Our House’ reminded us that, despite the peeling wallpaper and the smelly drains, our homes were our “castle and our keep”. Poignant yet darkly funny, this was the band’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and also went on to title the official Madness musical, which was a West End hit in 2002.

6. ‘It Must Be Love’

(Complete Madness, 1982)

Originally recorded and released in 1971 by singer Labi Siffre, ‘It Must Be Love’ is probably Madness’ most recognised love song. Laden with a beautiful string arrangement, this sweet and heartfelt ballad was proof that these Camden boys could do a lot more than just stomp out catchy ska melodies. Many will be familiar with its 1994 re-release, when it became a staple for awkward school discos and fleeting teenage crushes. If you know, you know.

5. ‘Baggy Trousers’

(Absolutely, 1980)

Another halcyon schooldays hit, ‘Baggy Trousers’ took the spirit of rambunctious British playgrounds and ran with it, creating a bouncy, ska-fuelled behemoth that will inevitably set your entire family off when dropped at a wedding reception. Written by Suggs as an almost half-tribute to the likes of Ian Dury and Pink Floyd, the track spent a staggering 20 weeks in UK charts. Plus, lyrics: “Baggy trousers, dirty shirt/Pulling hair and eating dirt” have become something of a dancefloor mantra. Great fun.

4. ‘Embarrassment’

(Absolutely, 1980)

Primarily written by saxophonist Lee ‘Kix’ Thompson, ‘Embarrassment’ was penned in response to his teenage sister becoming pregnant by a Black man, and the subsequent rejection of her by his family at the time. A far cry from the band’s more jovial subject matter, ‘Embarrassment’ wanted to tackle these institutionalised attitudes towards race in a very profound and subtle way. Madness were also tired of being labelled a ‘skinhead’ band, and didn’t want to be associated with the far right crowds that often frequented their concerts. Dark and lyrically affecting, ‘Embarrassment’ conveys their feelings of resistance magnificently. 

3. ‘One Step Beyond’

(One Step Beyond, 1979)

With that unmistakable spoken opening from Chas Smash, like a cockney call-to-arms (“Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this…”) ‘One Step Beyond’ is the instrumental Madness banger that’s guaranteed to send people into a sweating, skanking mess. Originally written by Jamaican legend Prince Buster, the track features no chorus or verses, just Smash shouting the title over the wailing sax line. (Ironically, Smash wasn’t officially in the band at this point, hence why he doesn’t appear in the single cover art). It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, as soon as you hear that immortal intro, you know you’re in for a dancefloor roughhousing.

2. ‘My Girl’

(One Step Beyond, 1979)

Another single from the band’s debut, ‘My Girl’ sums up the imperfections of a relationship. With a protagonist that can’t understand why his girlfriend won’t let him watch TV alone, to hour-long arguments on the phone, this track captures the pitfalls of modern romance (despite being over forty years old, many of the themes still ring true), while still feeling upbeat and original. Despite keyboardist Mike Barson writing the track, it was Suggs that went on to perform the lead vocals, lending a youthful yet innocent swagger to the song.

1. ‘The Prince’

(One Step Beyond, 1979)

Released through 2 Tone Records, ‘The Prince’ was Madness’s first single release, and, in our opinion, their best. From the plinky keys to Suggs’s cheeky-chappie bounce, this track gives off more of a rocksteady vibe, and in the absence of a sax-heavy melody there’s ample opportunity to appreciate the rest of the band’s musical stylings. Uplifting and unbelievably accomplished given that these North London lads had apparently appeared from nowhere, there’s something so quietly confident about ‘The Prince’ that it had to take top spot. Plus, it really did set the (2) tone of greater things to come…

Madness are playing throughout December, before returning to UK stages in summer 2024. Find tickets here.