Northern institutions don’t come much bigger than the Blackpool Illuminations. They’re right up there with the Rugby League Grand Final and the Angel of the North, and they’ve been around a lot longer. So if you’re staging concerts to mark the occasion of the annual switch-on, you need suitably iconic acts to make them go with a bang.
On a horses for courses basis, one could be forgiven for expecting a band with more Northern roots than Madness to be doing the Saturday evening honours. I mean, if you had a hypothetical choice between Blur and Oasis to headline such an occasion, the boys from Burnage would win hands down, purely because their fan base is so much stronger in these parts. But Madness are that increasingly rare thing in the post-modern age of music – a decent band that manages to appeal almost universally.
It helps to have tunes that stand the test of time and are still happily whistled along to in cafés and white vans across the nation when they come on the radio. And despite their identity being so strongly rooted in North London, Madness are still enjoyed and danced to regardless of your age, your class, or where you come from.
“When we first started making records, we were very aware of our origins,” says Suggs. “Certainly in the way I sing and everything. It was a great surprise that we hit it off so quickly and so well in the North.”
So how come it was so easy, when some acts find winning over London-sceptic audiences north of the Watford Gap much harder than on home turf?
“I think the 2-Tone tour in 1979 had a lot to do with it. We’d barely been out of London when we did it, but that was such a huge phenomenon all around the country – y’know, the whole sort of mod/rude boy/skinhead revival, it especially really hit it off up north. And that sort of cemented itself about the music we play and the attitude we have.
“It’s not pretentious, we’re a working class band and we play music for working class people and I think that’s a universal thing.”
Maybe that explains the rapturous welcome when they take the stage. If clothes are anything to go by, the crowd seems like a 50/50 split between the floating vote of locals and holidaymakers out for a good time, and dyed-in-the wool Madness fans clad in braces, trilby hats, harringtons or Doc Martens. You won’t see this many people wearing a fez anywhere outside a Tommy Cooper convention.
Chas Smash introduces the band in time-honoured fashion – and several hundred pairs of legs start to move their feet to the Heavy Heavy Monster Sound as Madness tear into One Step Beyond. The pace doesn’t let up as they crank out Embarrassment and debut 2-Tone single The Prince. We’re in safe hands here.
And, of course, Suggs knows how to work a crowd.
“The sun is shining. Watford Football Club have been packed off back down south with their tails between their legs. And we are Madness.” What more could you ask for?
Of course, in the last few years Madness have become a going concern as a band again, rather than a tribute act that happens to have all seven original members in it. Songs like NW5 from 2009’s critically-acclaimed The Liberty of Norton Folgate are right up there with anything they’ve ever done. 1979’s My Girl is followed by the ace My Girl 2, which was released on last year’s Top 10 effort Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da and is perpetually on the verge of turning into Gloria Jones’ Northern Soul stomper Tainted Love but keeps turning left at the traffic lights and heading off in another direction.
We’ve been lucky with the weather, too. There’s a lovely sunset developing over the Irish Sea making the “it’s raining again” line from The Sun and The Rain seem happily incongruous. I look out across the crowd to see how another new song (How Can I Tell You) is going down and see one of my most heart-warming moments of the day – a young kid wearing a tangerine Blackpool shirt and a fez, happily dancing on his Dad’s shoulders.
Another new number, I Never Knew Your Name, is introduced by Suggs as “a cautionary tale of what can happen when a man of a certain age goes into a discotheque…they don’t have discotheques any more, do they?”
There’s a banner at the bottom of the Blackpool Tower that says ‘5 amazing attractions’ but they ought to have to updated it for today. There are definitely 7 on stage, and that’s before you factor in the way some of the crowd have dressed.
During the Wild West-style guitar solo of 1979’s Shut Up, the focus of the camera on the big screen finally lands on Chris Foreman, one of the most unassuming axemen in the business. He’s earned his moment in the sun. And after Bed & Breakfast Man from debut album One Step Beyond, and recent composition Misery that invokes The Specials’ Enjoy Yourself, it’s time for another of the band’s unsung heroes to receive a bit of credit.
“This is a song written by Mr Dan Woody Woods Woodgate, who gets very little attention,” says Suggs, introducing the Woodgate-penned Leon, which proves the virtue of sharing songwriting duties throughout the band. “Drummers don’t often write songs, ‘cos most of them are thick.”
And then…it’s cabaret time! Mr CJ Foreman gets to put down his guitar and briefly hog the limelight, revealing a fair set of pipes as he belts out New York, New York.
A little impromptu burst of Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside (well, Madness are in the Great British tradition of end-of-the-pier entertainers, after all) ushers in showtime…the hour has arrived to satisfy daytrippers and hardcore ska fans alike, and provoke some serious dancing. The set has been backloaded with the heaviest of the heavy heavy monster Madness hits.
Would you believe House of Fun was the band’s only number one single? If you can’t dance to that, or Baggy Trousers, or Our House, then you must have a heart of stone, a soul of iron, and knees of concrete. Luckily, there aren’t many on the Tower Festival Headland with such attributes, which means that several generations get involved with what turns into a proper knees-up.
In contrast to the aforementioned Watford FC, beaten 1-0 by an unbeaten Blackpool side installing itself at the top of the Championship, Madness seem to be heading for an away victory. Battles are being won all across the pitch, which isn’t lost on Suggs. “Nice to see so many young ones in the audience today. Pass yer exams or you’ll end up like ‘im,” he says, indicating saxophone player Lee ‘Kix’ Thompson.
As I look up from the bouncing masses swaying along to It Must Be Love, I see the Union flag on top of Blackpool Tower fluttering proudly in the breeze. Madness may be a British institution first and foremost, but the cheeky chappies from Camden are clearly at home beside the Northern seaside. Certainly enough to indulge in a little gentle teasing about the ‘We Love BPL’ t-shirts, hoodies and banners.
“We love ‘Bupple’ too, we’ve run out of ink.” quips Suggs before It Must Be Love rounds off another landmark performance in a landmark location.
Madness have more in common with Blackpool than you might think. Both occupy a place in the hearts of the nation, and both continue to evolve and develop to win over new fans to keep themselves there, while all the time remembering not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and staying true to what gave them such broad-based appeal in the first place.
“[Performing at] Buckingham Palace was brilliant, the Olympics was brilliant, and for me being here for the turning-on of the illuminations in Blackpool is up there with those things,” Suggs told me before the gig. “We celebrate the universal and we’re very fortunate. For us, all these things are major cultural events and this is definitely one of them.”
Onstage, he’s more succinct but equally apt:
”We’ve done Buckingham palace, we’ve done the ‘lympics, and now we’ve done the ‘luminations.”
They certainly have. As they start to encore with Prince Buster’s Madness, I wonder if they might be giving one of their best-known songs a miss, given the political situation in Egypt. But hundreds of fans sporting fezzes can’t be wrong and Night Boat to Cairo leaves pretty much every man, woman and child strolling out with a massive grin, ready to tackle a fish-and-chip tea and check out the Illuminations.
That’s what I did, at any rate. My family came up from Staffordshire to see the lights more or less every year when I was a kid. But I hadn’t been back for about 26 years until the prospect of reviewing this concert enticed me, which must surely prove that Madness have done their job.
My favourite illumination, by the way, was out towards Bispham. Some genius had rigged up a haunted habitation with a sound system that played R. Dean Taylor’s There’s a Ghost In My House. And if that doesn’t show that this Midlander somehow developed a Northern Soul somewhere along the line, then I don’t know what will.
Madness have actually played at Old Trafford before the Rugby League Grand Final, by the way. So now they’ve gone one better, by proving their universal appeal at the Blackpool Illuminations, there’s only one way to top it. It’ll have to be an open-air festival underneath the Angel of the North.
The only possible snag is that all that dancing might undermine it.
By Drew Savage
Photos by Hedwig Verhagen
What: Madness at the Blackpool Switch-On Weekend 2013, and the Blackpool Illuminations
Where: The Blackpool Tower Festival Headland
When: August 31, 2013 – illuminations are on until November 10, 2013