Take It Or Leave It: Madness – ‘Absolutely’

❉ An appreciation of the Nutty Boys’ second album, which went one step beyond their debut.

Absolutely was the second album released by Madness, and came hot on the heels of their debut album, One Step Beyond. Evolving from the ska sound of their debut, Absolutely became an album which showed not only a growing maturity in songwriting, but also showcased the band themselves, who had become excellent musicians in their own right.

Whereas Mike Barson, who had always been the band’s most accomplished songwriter, still had the lion’s share of the writing duties, this time there were greater contributions from the other band members, in particular Suggs and saxophonist Lee Thompson. Between the three of them, they wrote, or co-wrote all but one of the tracks.

Like One Step Beyond, the album started strongly, with two of the band’s best singles. Baggy Trousers, written as a direct response to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall after Suggs felt that he couldn’t relate to the public school lyrics, catapulted the band into the public consciousness thanks to a fantastic video, but the song’s frenetic lyrical style, deliberately reminiscent of Ian Dury, perfectly captured the feel of comprehensive school. “Oh, what fun we had/But at the time it seemed so bad/Trying different ways/To make a difference to the days” resonated with thousands of people up and down the country, and the song became a huge hit.

Embarrassment was written also as a response, this time to a personal incident. Lee Thompson’s younger sister had become pregnant to a black man, and the song was written to reflect the shame felt by some members of Thompson’s family. Thompson said, years later; “It was just not accepted in those days. She was shunned by a few people in the family. My father tried to talk her into getting it terminated. My sister dug her heels in and I was caught in the middle, wanting everyone to be happy.” Its anti-racist stance was also helpful in removing the (false) association that some quarters felt the band had with the National Front at the time. The song is also memorable for some wonderful sax work from Thompson, and is one of the most uplifting, in terms of musical style, on the album.

The rest of side A feels like a continuation of One Step Beyond, but that’s no bad thing as we once again delve into the seedy underworld of London life; E.R.N.I.E., the first non-single on the album tells of dreams of rising out of poverty with a win on the Premium Bonds. “Keep your hand on the bottle/And your eyes glued upon the set/When the score cards come up/Could be you for the big one next/Publicity, no thank you/On the front page of the currant bun/They think you stink/But in the pub you’ll be number one.” sings Suggs. The random number generator might have been replaced by the lottery machine nowadays, but the song is still relevant.

Close Escape is basically a rather seedy sex song – it’s written as a direct sequel to In the Middle of the Night from One Step Beyond, and the first lines; “That was a close escape/Had to get a new hobby to relate” directly refer to the end of Middle of the Night, as George, the song’s protagonist moves on, after fleeing his newsagents, from stealing underwear from washing lines to making obscene phone calls. Lee Thompson’s lyrics are perfectly wrapped up by fantastic guitar accompaniment from Chris Foreman. Ominously, the song ends with the heavy clang of a prison cell door, the song becoming suddenly distant.

Next track Not Home Today, a collaboration between Suggs and bass guitarist Mark Bedford, tells the story of Perry Buckland, convicted and sent to jail for a murder at North East London Poly. Noticeably, the song refuses to take sides on the matter, though there was a strong feeling of injustice at the time in North London.

The first side ends with two tracks which don’t really fit in with the mood of the album, and are the weakest tracks on there. On The Beat Pete is an everyday story of a community policeman on his beat, and the things he sees and does, though it does have a great Thompson sax solo and multiple false endings. Sadly for the song, the chorus, while extremely wordy, doesn’t have enough space for the words to be sung, so Suggs has to mangle the lyrics somewhat to fit them all in. Solid Gone, the only track on the album credited to Cathal Smith (aka Chas Smash), is a strange rock and roll song that sounds rather like a warped version of the Hi-de-Hi theme.

The second side, comprising the final seven tracks is, it has to be said, a stormer, with no weak tracks at all. It’s no exaggeration to say that any track from the B-side could have been a potential single. Take It Or Leave It, complete with melancholy piano/organ track from Mike Barson, is a plea by the band to be treated as ordinary people. It’s a strange sounding song, thanks to the unusual arrangement, played as it is in 7/4 time. The song itself is a plea from the band to be treated as “normal” people, and to show that despite their new found fame, they were still the same bunch of people.

Shadow of Fear is a story of the terror walking at home at night, seeing danger in every shadow. It’s the album’s shortest track, at a shade under two minutes, a quarter of which is a superb outro, and it’s another fast-paced song, with Suggs perfectly capturing the fear and panic you feel when you think you are being watched, as you walk home.

Disappear is the album’s best non-single track. Containing a truly beautiful piano track from Barson, it laments the loss of cultural history at the expense of urban renewal. It’s another Suggs lyrical tour-de-force; “A stab in the back, the smoke and the black/As it smoulders to its grave”. It’s another song with a great outro; Barson’s keyboard playing perfectly offset by another excellent Thompson sax accompaniment.

Overdone is a song which we can all relate to; it’s about keeping in touch with family, and reminding them (and yourselves) that you love them, even though things might be said in the heat of the moment that you may later regret. Lyrically, it’s quite a powerful song; “I’ve been and gone so many times/Without a word I’ve dropped no line/Just look forward never back/Selfish bastard teeter brat” Written by Lee Thompson by way of an apology to his mother, again there’s a fantastic, minute long outro.

In the Rain is all about the end of a relationship. The protagonist is both literally and metaphorically left out in the rain; “Maybe the weather will change again/Change again or stay the bleedin’ same” sings Suggs, as he is left waiting on the doorstep of his former lover, wondering if she is ever going to return. The theme is continued with next track You Said, in which the relationship is over, the split having been instigated by the other half.

Lyrically, this may seem like a rather bleak album. Musically, it’s anything but. Perhaps that’s why the only instrumental on the album is the most upbeat. Return Of The Los Palmas 7, the only song to credit drummer Daniel Woodgate, evokes memories of cocktail parties and upmarket restaurants. It shouldn’t fit in with the Madness style, and yet it does, perfectly, thanks to some wonderful piano playing from Mike and, halfway through, Lee’s sax comes in and carries the song home. The video also fits in with the song, being a snapshot of the times, with dozens of clips shown in rapid succession; everything from Bobby Moore playing for Fulham to Han Solo, via Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and John Lennon.

Frustratingly for the band, and just like debut album One Step Beyond, Absolutely stalled at number two in the album charts, kept off the top by Zenyatta Mondatta, The Police’s third album. Still waiting for their first number one studio album, it’s an album that deserved to reach the top. Musically, it’s a real tour de force for Mike Barson and Lee Thompson, but that’s not to decry the rest of the band; by this point, all the members had progressed to excellent musicians in their own right. For me, it’s how a second album should be – whilst in many way it’s similar to the first album, there is a real progression for the band. It’s a mature album which manages to retain the band’s sense of fun, and it’s a damn fine listen.

❉ Madness: ‘Absolutely’ was originally released 26 September 1980 by Stiff Records (SEEZ 29), and was reissued on LP, cassette and mid-price CD in 1985 by Virgin Records (OVEDC 134). A remastered 2CD+1DVD special edition was released in 2009 by Union Square Music (CDSALVO650) as part of Union Square Music’s 30th Anniversary Madness reissue campaign. In 2020, a 40th anniversary edition was released by Union Square/BMG on 180g black vinyl with exclusive liner notes by Stevie Chick, including interviews with Chris Foreman and Lee Thompson. 

❉ Andrew Green lives in Sheffield with his wife and two children. He grew up listening to Madness and watching Sheffield United matches. He has a lifelong obsession with the ZX Spectrum, writing and compiling the book “The Ultimate Guide to Games for the ZX Spectrum” which is now in its fourth edition. The author of self-confessed crap computer games “Sam Fox Strip Snap” and “Jeremy Clarkson’s Punch a Top Gear Producer Simulator”, his latest book, as yet untitled, a definitive guide to retro computer game ratings, will be out in 2021. His Twitter account is @zxspectrumguide

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