“Don’t watch that, watch this!”: Madness goes “One Step Beyond” the ’80s British Ska Revival

By on May 10, 2017

On September 19, 1986, Night Flight dug deep down in our famous “Video Vault” for samples of some of the best of Britain’s second-wave ska revival bands of the ’80s, inspired and influenced by 1960s-era Jamaican dance rhythms. One of those bands, Madness, went truly “One Step Beyond” with their cover of an old Prince Buster tune. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Camden Town’s Madness — who during their initial ten-year career had fifteen Top Ten singles, including “Baggy Trousers,” “House Of Fun” and “It Must Be Love,” as well as three platinum albums — were one of the more prominent ska-revival bands in London during the late-70s to mid-1980s, at the same time that Two-Tone era recordings by the Specials, Bad Manners, the Selector, the Beat and more were also renewing interest in Jamaican ska music.

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Madness in 1979, before their first hit: (L-R) Mike Barson, Mark Bedford, Suggs, Woody Woodgate, and Lee Thompson

Described by our announced Pat Prescott as a “vaudeville pop group in the forefront of Britain’s ska revival,” Madness didn’t end up being a pure ska band, playing what is more accurately described as a bouncy upbeat mixture of blue beat, ska and pop.

As their career progressed during the 1980s, they began to incorporate aspects found in American soul and R&B, particularly Motown, as well as buoyant British pop.

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Much of their initial success could be directly traced back to their love of recordings by Jamaican ska singer Prince Buster, who had a string of hits in the 1960s before the slower rock-steady sound had all but drowned out the ska beat in Jamaica.

Madness singer Graham McPherson, better known as “Suggs,” told the BBC how crucial Prince Buster had been to the group:

“The fact he came from the streets and he had a terrific sense of humor and energy – it really appealed to us and it had a huge impact on everything we did, really.”

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Prince Buster and Big Youth outside Buster’s Record Shack in Kingston, Jamaica, 1972, with “Chi Chi Run'” at #1 on the charts

Prince Buster — a former street-fighting boxer turned singer who was born Cecil Campbell — had been given the nickname “Buster” in his youth.

It originally came from his middle name, which was Bustamante (after the Jamaican Labour Party leader Sir Alexander Bustamante), but Buster was a better fit for the tough gang-leader kid from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.

The “Prince” part of Prince Buster’s name likely came from a single of that name that he’d recorded, which would also be the first track that Madness would release as a single for the 2-Tone imprint (it went straight into the UK Top Twenty, peaking at #16).

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Madness in 1979 (photo by Virginia Turbett/Redferns)

Before then, beginning way back in 1976, Madness — originally just Mike Barson, Chris Foreman, and Lee Thompson — were interested in playing ska music, and by 1978 they had changed their name to Morris and the Minors and expanded, adding Graham “Suggs” McPherson, Mark Bedford, Chas Smash, and Dan Woodgate to the group.

Another name change came a bit later, when they began calling themselves the North London Invaders (the Invaders for short) for a time, that is, until they found there was already another band of “Invaders” who’d arrived at the name first.

Then, guitarist Chris Foreman came up with the name Madness, which he’s said was inspired by Prince Buster’s classic song “Madness is Gladness,” a song found on the b-side of his 1967 single “Al Capone.”

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Prince Buster, who died on September 8, 2016

Madness later reached #7 with their second single, a reworking of the Buster song “One Step Beyond,” one the band used to play on the pub jukebox.

It was mostly an instrumental although the band’s MC and trumpet player, Chas Smash, who was not yet a member of the group, would yell out its title during the song.

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Smash’s heavy echo-drenched spoken bit at the beginning of “One Step Beyond,” which references yet another Prince Buster song, “The Scorcher”:

Hey you, don’t watch that! Watch this!
This is the heavy, heavy monster sound,
The nuttiest sound around.
So if you’ve come in off the street,
And you’re beginning to feel the heat,
Well listen, buster, you better start to move your feet,
To the rockin’est, rock-steady beat of Madness!
One Step Beyond!

That memorable intro was also inspired by a lot of the preposterous boasts (“I am the magnificent…”) heard at the start of a lot of authentic Jamaican ska records.

Just a few years later, when the band’s video was in heavy rotation, MTV in America would use the “don’t watch that! Watch this!” line in their early promos for the network.

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If you listen closely, you can hear that saxophonist Lee Thompson is playing out of tune on the song, something that was brought up by a snobby music professor once the song hit the airwaves and started to make a big splash across the UK airwaves.

“One Step Beyond” eventually ended up at #7 on the UK Singles chart.

It was Thompson, by the way, who came up with the band’s nickname “the Nutty Boys,” which arose after he spray-painted “That nutty sound” on his leather jacket one day.

Thereafter, Madness would occasionally tell interested journos that their “nutty sound” was derived from a combination of circus music and pop.

The video — directed by Dave Robinson — shows the members of Madness doing their “Nutty Train” dance out the front door of the North London-based pub The Hope & Anchor, where much of the video was filmed on October 7, 1979.

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Lead singer Suggs is also seen, holding a microphone, although he does not sing the lead vocals on the track.

Suggs, in fact, had just been fired from Madness, prior to the release of the band’s album, something he didn’t find out until he was reading the UK music rag Melody Maker, and saw an advert that said: “Semi-professional north London band seeks professionally minded singer.”

Suggs recognized the phone number in the ad and knew he’d been sacked. He’d apparently been having a problem making it to their rehearsals, which happened on Saturdays, the same day that he was usually off watching football matches.

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Suggs eventually was hired back when he promised to re-focus his weekends, and after signing a deal with Stiff Records, Madness ended up in the studio with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, recording tracks for their One Step Beyond Album in just ten days time.

The album was recorded in the same recording studio where the Specials had recorded their debut album (the band listened to the Specials masters before the album was released because they wanted to size up the competition and make a better album than their friends had made).

When it came time to shoot the band’s iconic record cover for One Step Beyond, photographer Cameron McVey had the band get really close together, and they ended up doing something they’d seen Ian Dury’s old band, Kilburn and the High Roads, do onstage, a full band “duck walk” (at least partial credit should also go to Chuck Berry).

Chas Smash, however, wasn’t featured in the cover photo, as he was not yet a full member of the band at the time, but he was seen on the album’s back cover, in various dancing poses.

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Released toward the end of the year, One Step Beyond peaked at #2 in Britain and it stayed on the charts for well over a year.

A third single from the album, “My Girl,” peaked at #3, continuing a virtually uninterrupted run of what ended up being thirteen Top Ten singles, during which time they were one of the most popular bands in Britain.

When it was released by Sire Records in the U.S., the album peaked at just #128 on the Billboard album charts.

In the spring of 1980, Madness released the Work Rest and Play EP, which featured yet another hit, “Night Boat to Cairo,” sending the EP to #6 on the charts.

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Their next album, Absolutely, was released that fall, peaking at #2 in the UK album charts, and stalling at just #146 in the States, and Madness continued the pattern of being wildly successful in the UK while barely managing to chart in the United States, which ultimately led to the band being dropped by Sire US, leaving them without an American record contract for several years.

The band’s gradual shift towards becoming a pop band continued apace with future British releases, including their third album, Seven, released in the fall of 1981.

It gave the band yet another Top Ten album (#5 UK), propelled up the charts by their successful single, “It Must Be Love,” a cover of the Labi Siffre tune.

Their late ’82 album, The Rise and Fall, signified the band’s continuing shift towards full-fledged Motown-inspired R&B and pop.

“House of Fun,” their first #1 single, arrived the same month that the band’s first hits compilation, Complete Madness, also reached #1 on the album charts.

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MTV put several of their more pop-friendly videos into heavy rotation — “House of Fun,” “It Must Be Love,” and “Cardiac Arrest” — and other TV shows, including the USA Network’s “Night Flight,” were promoting them despite the fact that they didn’t have a U.S. record company to promote them.

Finally, Madness’s UK chart hits and upwardly-mobile success was too much to ignore, leading to a new record deal with Geffen Records, who had immediate success with the band’s very next single, “Our House,” a #5 single in the U.K. and a Top Ten hit in the U.S. in the summer of ’83.

The success of “Our House” — and the U.S. mostly-UK hits compilation album, simply titled Madness, which peaked at #41 on Billboard‘s album charts — led the way for one more American Top 40 hit that fall, when “It Must Be Love” peaked at #33.

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Madness underwent personnel changes at the end of ’83 when their key songwriter, Mike Barson, left the group, and although they managed to keep their momentum going for a bit longer, their subsequent releases began to decline in terms of chart positions, signalling that their impressive run was likely coming to an end.

Over the next few years they managed to release a handful of additional singles (each doing well in the UK but failing to attract much interest in the U.S.), and they formed their own record label, Zarjazz, their chart declined continued.

In September 1986 — the same month that Night Flight’s British Ska Revival special first aired — they announced they were disbanding, and although they’ve managed to reform and reunite and continue to make music in one way or another, their biggest success may have been across the pond, as they say, during the early 1980s.

Night Flight’s look at the ’80s British Ska Revival videos we found in our “Video Vault” — which also includes videos by the Specials AKA, Fun Boy 3 (performing the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed”!!), UB40, English Beat, Bad Manners, Fine Young Cannibals and more — over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.