Madness are a weird band. I mean, they just are. And like many bits of postwar British popular culture, Madness get weirder the more you think about them. Seven working-class lads from north London playing a strange mixture of ska, pop and sort-of fairground music, they’ve had more chart success than most UK acts, certainly in the ’80s, and lead singer Suggs has become a ubiquitous TV face. Yet they’re still an enigma. Their appeal is simultaneously absolutely immediate and eternally elusive.
This solid three-part doc looks at the band’s early years, from their formation to their first album release and US tour, or, in their words, ‘from boneheads in string vests to teenyboppers’. Unless you’re already a devotee, it’s probably a bit exhaustive, but it’s full of good stuff. Madness’s background was the shitty long-tail dismalness of World War II – a 1970s London still full of bomb sites, wrecked cars, unemployment, nasty food, power cuts and dead Sundays. Various band members talk of poverty, petty crime, reform school, borstal, even prison. All of them talk about the relief of discovering a shared subculture to ally yourself to, a sense of belonging through fashion and music.
Like The Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night, Madness come across primarily as a gang, not a band. It’s like their inner logic is non-musical: the Bash Street Kids in brothel creepers. There’s a distinct strain of working-class humour about everything they do. They reference Max Wall and Tommy Cooper. ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ off their first album sounds like it could be an episode of The Goon Show.
There’s also the basic oddness of a load of white blokes from Camden playing ska. Unlike contemporaries The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat, Madness were – and are – all white, something that When We Was We doesn’t really try and address very meaningfully. What is fascinating, though, is their collective horror at – inevitably – attracting an early and very visible audience of right-wing white skinheads, something that has dogged them on and off over their career.
All of that possibly explains why Madness never seem to get much of a critical look in, despite their longevity and amazing songs. They’re so anti-fashion as to be near-impossible to write about, so the press just ignore them. When We Was We isn’t about to give them a new audience, but it at least feels like it brings some proper insight to this great London band.