“House Of Fun” finds Madness – one of the most consistent and successful singles acts in Britain – on a cusp. They’d made their name with busy, high-impact ska-derived records whose bristling arrangements and comical touches often hid more pointed subject matter. They were heading towards an incarnation as traders in pop art melancholy, an inheritor of the Kinks and prototype for Britpop.
But this record is the band biting off almost more than it can chew. It’s Madness’ skankin’ nutty-boys incarnation pushed to the limits of cohesion, Suggs trying to squeeze a complex sitcom sketch – in which he acts every part! – into under three minutes, jostling for space with a beat and a load of fairground-music instrumental lines.
So unsurprisingly it was quite hard to work out what’s going on – certainly at the time I had no idea. A boy has turned 16, he goes to a chemists to buy some rubbers, the chemist misunderstands his increasingly desperate metaphors and directs him to the party shop down the road, a friend of his mum’s is in the shop too – disaster! Oh, and the party shop is called “The House Of Fun” which is also the metaphor for the world of adult experience the boy thinks waits on the other side of his 16th birthday.
Phew! The moment at which the whole thing crashes is identifiable – the line “Too late – gorgon’s heard gossip”. Or to translate, the elderly Miss Cray has been alerted and is interrupting the protagonist, ending his condom dream. Not only is this a clunky line, totally out of the nervous character the protagonist’s established, but to cram it in Suggs has to put the stress on the “-SIP”. Yes, this is a lot of fuss to make over one phrase, but it’s rare for the wheels to come off a lyric quite so noticeably.
For all that, “House Of Fun” is a good record. Not as good as the best of their nutty style – if only “Baggy Trousers” or “Embarrassment” had got to #1 – and not as good as the underrated, reflective material they did later. But the reeling and mocking calliope ska makes for a great backdrop, and I love the way the chorus starts as a boast, then shifts into a nervous hope and finally a taunt. As with nearly all Madness singles, a lot of thought went into “House Of Fun” – in their first career at least, they were far from the laddish goofballs they sometimes posed as – but on this run-out the craft didn’t quite match the ambition.