Madness - The Liberty of Norton Folgate
I’m old enough to remember the last time Britain was in the grips of a proper depression. Dead cities, boarded up shops and the National Front were on the rise. Tribal warfare was rife - but the Last Gang in Town had disintegrated, and the hedonism of the New Romantics just didn’t cut it for a large swathe of the population. A handful of bands emerged, largely from the Midlands of all places, who documented the systematic shredding of the social fabric; rubbing it in our faces while, at the same time, ensuring we danced through the misery. That misery is back and, with it, two of those indispensable bands; The Specials and Madness. The Specials are here for a last hurrah, there’s no new material and nothing to sully their carefully preserved credibility. For Madness, a band formed on the coat tails of the Specials, there’s no great credibility to lose and, hell, they’ve never really been away.
The Liberty of Norton Folgate, however, is a serious piece of work. Close your eyes and you could be listening to an album made back in their pomp, albeit sans any real chartbuster like Baggy Trousers. Madness, charmingly, never took themselves too seriously but their nutty boy image belied a reality of a band with some heavyweight songwriting talent and musical ability with a Beatle-esque tendency to experiment with new instrumentation and sounds. Where the other Ska bands hit a brick wall created by their one dimensional approach Madness grew to dominate the charts, loved by the whole family. Those days are long gone but, in terms of raw quality, this album won’t be overshadowed by past success.
So, the Liberty of Norton Folgate? Well, it is an ancient London parish in the Shoreditch area, once home to Christopher Marlow and now the muse for Madness’ London album; an album which takes the listener on an epic journey through the Capital, occasionally allowing its gaze to fall upon vignettes of its inhabitants’ lives. Musically it is classic Madness; wonky pop music with a large slab of Ska and a side order of dub reggae. There are signs that they’ve been taking account of more modern developments, and opening tracks We are London and Sugar and Spice owe more than a nod to early Super Furry Animals.
One criticism, which would have been unthinkable in previous years, is that the album is a bit too long and by the time the listener arrives at final track The Liberty of Norton Folgate it has begun to outstay its welcome. This is a real shame as this closing track, clocking in at over 10 minutes, is an epic, sprawling tour of London’s underbelly which blends the woozy, fairground sounds of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite with the observational lyricism of Penny Lane. It has taken them a bit longer than The Beatles to do it but, finally, Madness have crafted a genuine masterpiece of popular music here. Give it a chance.