The ska-pop group play a triumphant homecoming show in their old neighbourhood
Memories keep coming back to Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson, stood on the stage at KOKO under the glow of that giant gold disco ball.
“My mate got kicked in the bollocks, just over there,” he says, pointing towards the far left of the room. “For the rest of his life, he had one bollock bigger than the other.” He sighs, pauses. “Just memories, flooding back…”
Madness have quite a history with Camden. The ska-pop group first began to gain prominence in the live scene thanks to regular gigs at the Dublin Castle, a sweetly symbiotic relationship that helped the venue to gain notoriety as much as it did the band. Over four decades later, and Madness are still a riotous pub band. More refined, more in control, completely unflappable – but still a rowdy group of mates exchanging quips onstage and having fun with their audience.
“Baggy Trousers!” roars one particularly enthusiastic crowd member during the show’s first half, several times.
“Yeah, alright, mate. We’re going to do it in about 20 minutes,” fires back Suggs. “We’re playing the new album. You knew we were doing that.”
Admittedly, it does shatter the pub band illusion somewhat when said “new album” contains a pre-recorded intro from Dame Helen Mirren reciting your lyrics like she’s delivering a Shakespearean monologue. Madness deal with this contradiction beautifully by dividing the evening into two halves. The first feels a little more highbrow, maybe representative of the fact that the group and their audience have matured over the last few decades. Classic film footage plays behind the band throughout as new record, Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’Est La Vie, is sung through in full. There’s plenty that feels excitingly unfamiliar about the album, with the darkly political current that runs through it and a sound more experimental than we’ve heard from the group before. Still, direct lyricism and a stellar brass section keep it decidedly Madness.
There is a short interval, and then the clock winds back. “Hey, you!” calls Suggs, and the crowd respond with the entire spoken ‘One Step Beyond’ intro, recited faithfully word for word. Adults who were likely teenagers when Madness first rose to prominence are doing the ‘One Step Beyond’ dance everywhere from the aisles of KOKO to the centre of the mosh pit (and mosh they do, when ‘Baggy Trousers’ starts to play). Red fezzes fly through the air. They close out with ‘Night Boat To Cairo’, Lee Thompson (‘Kix’ or ‘El Thommo’, whichever you prefer) wailing away on the saxophone. As the lights come up, my 58-year-old father, happiest at home with his dog and the TV remote, leans over the banister and asks hopefully: “Do you think they’ll do one more?”