Originally published in Uncut’s Take 130 issue
ONE STEP BEYOND
Coinciding with the introduction of dancer-compere Chas Smash as full-time member, the band’s debut established their trademark Nutty sound, a mix of Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, Vaudeville and ska. The latter influence chimed with the emergent Two Tone sound.
SUGGS: We were very upfront in realising that the Two Tone thing was going off like a packet of crackers and we were in that mode stylistically. We certainly started to put more ska into our set and we’d been very lucky to meet Jerry [Dammers] and that whole thing happened. Earlier than God had intended, we were suddenly the thing. The great thing about that period is that we were still a gang, the road crew were all our pals, joining in on the backing vocals, and it was an ebullient time. Madness were leaders of the little bit of North London we lived in and we all had lead colourful lives, which fed into the songs. I was the idiot savant – well certainly an idiot. I was just happy to be there, they were all older than me and I just wanted to be in their gang or be cool. There’s a flame that burns for a few years for every band where it’s not mindless but it’s not intellectualised either. It’s just happening. If we did “One Step Beyond” today we’d be going, “What about the middle eight? Maybe we should have a key change…” Then you get into committee mode – before you know it you haven’t got the single-minded approach you had when you were young.
CHRIS FOREMAN: It was all the songs we were doing live, we didn’t write anything especially for the album. We’d done the single [“The Prince”] already so recording wasn’t a mystery to us, we knew that you go in and play the songs to the best of your ability. It was quite a breeze to do – the only album where we are all in the room together playing. We were full of the ideas – for the beginning of “In The Middle of The Night” you can hear Lee calling out like a paper seller, we went out on the street and recorded him doing that in the traffic. The Specials were doing their album around the same time. I remember listening to tapes of what they were doing, checking out the competition but not in a sneaky way. We never set it up like: “I’ll write with him and they’ll work together,” and at first Mike Barson [keyboards] was the main writer – he could write by himself. “My Girl” was a genius song, and if someone gave him lyrics he could think of a tune. [Producer] Clive Langer suggested strings on “Night Boat To Cairo” and I thought it was the ponciest idea I’d ever heard, but it turned out really good. Maybe we should have had strings on some of the other tracks too. Lee [Thompson, sax] had been in reform school – that was what “Land Of Hope And Glory” was about. He used to come home at weekends, he’d get out on Fridays and we’d spend the weekend with him and see he got back on the train ok. “Bed And Breakfast Man” was about Jon Hasler, he’d been our manager and was very important to putting the band together. He’d turn up at your house, next thing you knew he was there for breakfast, eating the kids’ leftovers.
For their sophomore release, the band expanded their musical range beyond ska to include, amazingly, Genesis and Pink Floyd!
SUGGS: We’d spent five years carving our own little niche, Two Tone came and it was great but we didn’t want to latch onto something, find the bandwagon off the rails and labelled as just another ska band. “Baggy Trousers” was sort of an answer to Pink Floyd, even at that age I thought the line “teacher leave the kids alone” was a bit strange, sinister – though I think Floyd are a great band. It sounded self indulgent to be going on about how terrible school days had been; there was an inverted snobbery about it too. ‘You went to a posh public school? You wanna try going to my school.’ Absolutely was more of a reflection of where we were at than One Step Beyond – all the influences that were piled up in our head let out more succinctly. We were very conscious of not making a carbon copy of the debut. Like The Specials, we were always aware we needed to move on with each album.
FOREMAN: Despite the Nutty image we worked really hard, took it really seriously, there was a blackboard with all the songs up in the rehearsal room. We had so many influences that get overlooked – like Pink Floyd and Genesis. One night Lee and I had bunked into see Genesis at Drury lane, at a point in the set there was an explosion and Peter Gabriel went flying through the air that’s why Lee went flying in the “Baggy Trousers” video – he always vowed when he got the chance he’d do the same thing.