26
Mar 09

MADNESS – “House Of Fun”

FT + Popular49 comments • 5,968 views

#501, 29th May 1982

“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.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Pete Baran on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I feel extremely sad that I cannot imagine a band like Madness ever charting again. Or at least not with those bow ties.

    Well, maybe the Blackout Crew.

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Cor! For 27 years I’ve thought that he was singing “gorgonzola tip”, a particularly confusing nonsense line…

  3. 3
    SteveM on 26 Mar 2009 #

    That line never struck me as particularly awkward. I prefer this to ‘Embarrassment’ too – never seemed to enjoy that one as much as I perhaps ought to have. I think they’re still up there among the acts with longest run of ‘any good at all’ singles (altho often seeming greater than the sum of their parts and if extracted from the general appeal of Madness as a b(r)and and their superb image, lessened in impact).

    Rather than the actual video i always remember the performance of this on The Young Ones first and foremost (and the “You hum it…I’ll smash yer face in” from not particularly convincing hardman Suggs re ‘Summer Holiday’). Like the Human League, Kraftwerk and others, great that they at least got the one chart-topper.

  4. 4
    Lex on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Aargh – this was re-released in 1992 or so, I remember it from then. Had a visceral dislike to it then and nothing I’ve heard since by this band has changed my opinion – it’s the epitome of “wacky”, “nutty”, “justabitoffun” larking around which I just shudder at. From the comedy accent to the comedy horn parps to the comedy ska beat…it manages to reduce everything to piss-taking without ever being funny. “Pop art melancholy”, Tom? Really?

    In the ’90s, I remember their frontman Suggs (SUCKS more like) had a mini solo career which blighted the charts while I was just starting to pay attention to them – vile, each and every song. The only one I actually remember now is the one which went “Ce-SEEEEEE-lee-a”.

    Zero, many times zero.

  5. 5
    Magic Fly on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I think “Pop art melancholy” utterly nails it if we’re discussing material like 1983’s The Sun And The Rain or ’84’s sublime Michael Caine, both of which are a universe away from this daft, geezerish knees-up – and, indeed, Suggs’ solo material. I think Madness are the true Beatles of the ’80s – there’s a gorgeous, wistful London heart buried beneath the chirpy public image. One of England’s finest, frankly. And new single NW5 is magnificent, a perfect resurrection of their sweeter, music hall-indebted side.

  6. 6
    Martin Skidmore on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Cecelia had one great plus: lisping Chris Eubank was guest host of Top of the Pops one week, and they had brilliantly scheduled this so that he had to say “At number six, it’s ‘Cecelia’ by Suggs.”

  7. 7
    Matthew on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Goodness, as a young lad of 7 I had no inkling at all that this was about buying condoms, or indeed anything other than Having Generic Fun. It seems so blatant now.

    The line you cite is a bit of a clunker to be sure, but it seems mad to suggest that it’s the point at which the lyrics connoisseur must throw the song aside in disgust…!

  8. 8
    Tom on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Haha no I’m not suggesting that Matthew – just that it’s the point where the seams burst on the stuffing-so-much-in song construction. If I was throwing it away in disgust I wouldn’t be giving it a 7.

    The pop art melancholy phase is everything from “Our House” onwards really. “Yesterday’s Men” was particularly what I was thinking of. Lex you don’t like the Kinks or Blur either so you wouldn’t like that stuff, but it’s not knees-up nutty-boys.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I liked this a lot at the time – so I’m sad that it sounds less engaging now – like an old friend with whom you realise you have less and less in common.
    Despite the jaunty tune and the clowning evidenced on the picture disc there seems to be an air of passivity and conservatism which is more than a little depressing.
    The attitude to the subject matter reflects a fear of sexuality that seemed to typify the Two-Tone bands -cf Too Much Too Young -> The Boiler – which is at odds with the libidinal impulse of the original ska toons and most pop music.

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 26 Mar 2009 #

    It seems wrong in the general chronology of these things, but this jumbled effort definitely charted higher than other Madness singles because it was on a picture disc: straight in at 8, up to no.1 the week after, which left me thinking “Wha…?!” at the time. Same with the rhythmically weird, Nutty boys go proto-Timbaland, Driving In My Car which followed it up to no.3.

    The meaning of the lyric is really confusing. Kind of “that’ll learn ya!”, but for what exactly? Surely they weren’t that conservative?

    Yes, The Sun And The Rain is beautiful, as good as the Kinks’ best. Almost all of The Rise And Fall is great from (25 yr) memory, and contains maybe their bleakest 45, Tomorrow’s Just Another Day.

  11. 11
    Tom on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I assumed – and I’ve really no idea WHY I assumed this – that the lyric was a “based on a true story” kind of deal – this had happened to a Nutty Boy, or a friend, and no real moral purpose was meant to be derived.

    Isn’t the “That’ll learn ya!” for not coming out right away and saying “I want some condoms please”, rather than for wanting them?

  12. 12
    will on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Not their best, but the general feeling when this reached the top spot was that they’d earned it just for the brilliant run of the singles they’d released up till then. House Of Fun is almost one of those ‘long service award’ Number Ones.

    And of course it’s impossible to talk about this group without mentioning the videos, which were, without exception, utterly delightful. Once you’d heard on a Tuesday that a new Madness single had entered the chart, you were already looking forward to Thursday and glimpsing the promo for the first time on that week’s TOTP.

  13. 13
    Magic Fly on 26 Mar 2009 #

    I’ve been reaching for a phrase to conjure late period Madness and the best I can do is ‘autumnal vaudeville’.

    I do remember that around the time of The Sun And The Rain there was serious talk of a Monkees-styled TV show. I’m glad it didn’t happen – I think it would have enshrined them as the self-conscious japesters the public had already pegged them as. What’s interesting when you watch things like the TOTP studio performance of Driving In My Car is how close it comes to desperate, tax-office-workers-goon-for-Comic-Relief style twittery: You don’t have to be Madness to work here, but it helps.

  14. 14
    wichita lineman on 26 Mar 2009 #

    Re 13: One of their TV programmes was meant to be a Madness testcard (pardon me if I’ve mentioned this on another post, I think I have) which would be entirely static for 30 minutes until the credits roll and Suggs gently tips his hat. Their Nutty Boys fan club comic was pretty funny too.

    The prosecution could always show the jury Take It Or Leave It, which makes Slade In Flame look like Hellzapoppin.

    Re 11: I’m sure you’re right, Tom. But, bloody hell, I still get faintly embarrassed about having to ask now, rather than just picking the things off a shelf in Sainsbury’s. Sixteen?? I could barely ask for a lager and lime without stammering.

  15. 15
    thevisitor on 27 Mar 2009 #

    One thing that Madness’s success around this time really brings home is that it was a more forgiving climate in which to make pop music – especially pop music that had some sort of element of jocularity about it. People – well, critics mainly – can get make sweeping generalisations about the state of an artist’s career on the basis of whatever the current single happens to be. That sometimes transmits to the record-buying public, which in turn results in a sort of jitteriness among artists. The ultimate consequence of this is a more conservative approach from people who make records. You don’t want to release something that sounds too “out of character”.

    What I think we’ve lost in the wake of bands like Madness is people who bang this stuff out – essentially treat singles like postcards to their fans to tell them what they’re up to. There was a time when music fans – without necessarily articulating this to themselves – knew that. So what if Driving In My Car or Cardiac Arrest weren’t up to scratch? They were continuing the dialogue, and you knew that just around the corner there might be an Our House or The Sun And The Rain. If Lily Allen released her equivalent of a Driving In My Car, people would be far more judgmental. When a certain band put out a not-unMadnessy number one single out in the mid-90s (with video to match) it helped precipitate a huge backlash. I don’t mean to say it’s ok to make bad records, but it’s in a less anxious atmosphere that some of the really brilliant (and more daring) records are made.

    That said, it’s a shame that it was House of Fun rather than Our House that remains Madness’s sole chart topper. For me that was the one where they absolutely aced the nuttiness:red-brick melancholia ratio to perfection. Their Penny Lane. Nice to see them on the cover of Uncut this month.

  16. 16
    vinylscot on 27 Mar 2009 #

    I had always though that this was a well-loved piece, and I’m (pleasantly) surprised that many people seem to have the same view as I have – that it wasn’t up to their usual high standard.

    My problem with it is that, despite the title “House of Fun”, this was the first Madness single which wasn’t actually fun. One or two of their earlier singles (and quite a few of their later ones) had been rather ropey, but at least retained the “fun” element which to me was what the “Nutty Boys” should be.

    This social commentary stuff just got in the way. I don’t want Madness to be the Kinks. I want them to be Madness

  17. 17

    Catchy though! Hasn’t been even slightly out of my head since Tom posted this…

  18. 18
    Conrad on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Good Morning miss
    can I help you son?

    Madness set the scene for their stories in such an economical way, they had it down to a fine art. Yes, they cram a lot into this and it never quite settles down enough for you to just relax and enjoy it (unless heard in the context of watching the video, which is one of their best), but I have always quite liked hearing random lines poking out from the debris. You end up with a “gorgon’s heard gossip” going round your head.

    Actually, Tom I was never sure what that line was, so thanks for clearing that up! I like the stress on SIP. It’s part of their charm that they always seemed to include the odd off-key line, or non-rhyme. This is House of Fun’s equivalent to “I like driving in my car, even with a flat ty-re” or

    Think Of Seven Letters Begin And End In ‘c’
    Like A Big American Car But Misspelt With A ‘d’

    Surely it’s the R and L that are the wrong letters!

    Anyway, it’s good to see them at Number 1 at last. Although not by any stretch their best work (Grey Day, Shut Up, Baggy Trousers and Our House would all have made more deserving Number Ones), I remember “House of Fun” for the video and the general feeling of bonhomie engendered by its presence at the top of the charts in sunny May.

    7’s about right.

  19. 19
    Erithian on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Some interesting perspectives here, far from unanimous, including one or two who didn’t go in for Madness’s later, more serious takes on the world. It’s like they’re the Woody Allen of pop, with the fan saying “I really like your movies, especially the earlier funny ones” (Stardust Memories).

    I’d fallen out with Madness earlier in the year over their previous single – and I don’t seem to be alone in this, as it was their smallest hit in their most successful period and the one that was left out of “Complete Madness”. I hear what they say about it being social commentary and an observation on the rat race; but to be honest, when a song called “Cardiac Arrest” enters the chart the day after your father dies of a heart attack, you’re going to struggle to like it.

    But all was forgiven with this one, one of my favourites of the decade. When the video was on TOTP in our college TV room, those who hadn’t heard the song before fell about laughing at the line “box of balloons with a Fetherlite touch” – at the gag itself and the audacity of getting a brand name of condoms onto the BBC. For me it absolutely is fun, a joy from first to last – a situation anybody who’s ever been a 16-year-old boy can identify with. I can understand your not getting it at the time Tom! Incidentally I don’t think the chemist misunderstands him, more likely she’s seen this kind of thing before and finds the Jack-the-lad routine sweet but tiresome.

    Someone once said of Madness that they were quintessentially English in that only an English band’s influences could encompass music hall, Jamaican ska, the Kinks, Monty Python and Mr Pastry – and you can listen to their greatest hits one after another and hear the darker side coming through. It was always there in some of their subject matter, but songs like “One Better Day”, my favourite among their later singles, show what a range they were capable of.

    “House of Fun”’s second week at number one featured a contender for the all-time greatest top five. This at 1, its successor at 2 (neither drinking nor smoking), Soft Cell’s exquisite “Torch” up from 16 to 3, Yazoo’s “Only You” down at 4 and ABC’s “Look Of Love” climbing to 5. If you think the early 80s was a mini-Golden Age of pop, this is Exhibit A.

  20. 20
    Billy Smart on 27 Mar 2009 #

    It feels slightly heretical to remember this, but I really disliked Madness when I was a child; the relentless perceived jauntiness, the gang show dressing up, the tunes that just seemed to go “nur nur nur!” to me, the overstaffing that meant that I could never remember which one of them was which. I think that I may have been entirely alone in this view amongst my peers. Then when I became a bit more pop-literate and moved out of primary school, I generally felt that there more morose later singles were trying a bit too hard to attain their intended gravitas.

    These days, I find a lot of their songs peerless, ‘The Rise & Fall’ obviously, some of the singles either side of it, all of ‘Mad Not Mad’ apart from the dismal Scritti cover version… But the things that I don’t like, I still *really* dislike: The early “nutty” stuff, horrible, beery, leering, bloke stuff, “proper geezer music” that makes me feel like I’m going to get beaten up. I know of few things more dispiriting than ‘One Step Beyond’ or ‘Baggy Trousers’ coming up on a jukebox.

    ‘House of Fun’ is right on the cusp between what I like and dislike about Madness; The intention of this record is trying to tell a story that’s really interesting and diverting, but the arrangement is so blaring and the chorus so monotonous that it coming across it by chance can chill me to the marrow at times.

    My rather schizophrenic reaction to this can perhaps be explained by the two uses of this song in other works that I know; it looks genuinely funny and cheering when the two girls are watching the video in Alan Clarke’s ‘Rita, Sue & Bob, Too’, but it was also the theme tune to the Friday night LWT post pub Sun-reader Zoo TV mid-nineties nightmare that was ‘Richard Littlejohn Live & Uncut’.

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Does anybody else remember that Bob Monkhouse routine about going into a chemists every day as a boy, and being too scared to ask for condoms from the female assistant, and buying a comb every day for two years? He seemed to tell it on one or other television appearance several times a year, for about twenty years.

  22. 22
    Erithian on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Plus any number of gags about going into a shop to buy a Brighton/Spurs/Manchester City shirt and coming out with a pack of condoms because you were too embarrassed to ask for the shirt.

    There was another 1982 World Cup reference in the video to “Driving In My Car” – when it gets to the line “I bought it in Primrose Hill / from a bloke from Brazil”, the said Brazilian is in full football kit and once he’s offloaded the dodgy motor he runs off celebrating like he’s scored the winner in the World Cup Final.

  23. 23
    Lex on 27 Mar 2009 #

    I had no idea this awful band were this well loved :(

  24. 24
    Conrad on 27 Mar 2009 #

    20, Billy you are so right about the overstaffing! I still don’t know who’s who apart from Suggs …

  25. 25
    Erithian on 27 Mar 2009 #

    I’ve never been a fan of the idea of musicals based on an act’s songs, but I did go and see “Our House” the Madness musical, and it wasn’t bad at all. Written by Tim Firth, who also wrote the much-missed CITV series “Rottentrolls”, which featured the voices of Martin Clunes, Ronni Ancona and John Thomson and was WASTED on kids…

  26. 26
    SteveM on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Still love this advert they did for the Honda City:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RPRG-69l64

  27. 27
    pink champale on 27 Mar 2009 #

    i don’t buy the enforced jollity charge. i think they genuinely *are* good humoured and warm-hearted and this comes through in the records (and the videos too). it’s this warmth and straightforwardness that makes their melancholy songs so affecting – unlike blur or the kinks, they don’t do social commentary by being outsiders constructing characters (or caricatures) for the listener to identify and tick off, but by inhabiting characters and feeling their way into their emotions. actually, for all they are sometimes wonderfully straightforward (my girl’s mad at me) their lyrics, particularly on the ‘issues’ singles (who (carter apart!) ever had more? alcoholism, depression, workplace stress, interracial relationships, homelessness (at least a couple of times), northern ireland, south africa) are often brilliantly oblique – i’ve no idea what the narrative of ‘Michael caine’ or who the protagonist(s) is/are, but i know it’s really a song about fear and shame and regret.
    for my money theirs is the greatest run of singles in all pop. unlike the You Know Who’s they stopped at the right time and even managed to pull of a couple of great comeback singles in the late nineties – ‘lovestruck’ in particular is gorgeous. house of fun not one of their best though, and ‘gorgon’s heard gossip’ is a bit of a stinker.

  28. 28
    LondonLee on 27 Mar 2009 #

    This one was a little too ‘Whizzer and Chips’ for me if you know what I mean (or most likely ‘Viz’ given the subject matter), snickering saucy postcard/schoolboy humour but still a right good knees up I suppose. Far as their “earlier, funnier” records go I wouldn’t say “Embarrasment” was all that jolly and “My Girl” was an early sign of their potential songwriting greatness. “Baggy Trousers” sounded daft but managed to squeeze in a brilliant portrait of school life.

  29. 29
    Conrad on 27 Mar 2009 #

    Erithian at 19 – Exhibit A. I believe Marcello rates this week’s Top 40 (29 May 1982) as the greatest in pop history!

    It does contain some absolutely wonderful singles as well as the Top 5 you mention – Simple Minds, Pigbag, Associates, Patrice Rushen, Junior, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, PhD, Duran, Spandau, Japan, New Order, Kim Wilde, Tight Fit, Depeche Mode, Bananarama & FB3.

  30. 30
    peter goodlaws on 28 Mar 2009 #

    Obviously, being only wee, I, like Tom, had no idea that the sixteen year-old was in a chemist shop on the hunt for pack of three and nor, may I suggest, could have Auntie or else they would have banned the disc in a blink. My own toned-down interpretation was that the lad had reached sixteen (yes, I got that part) and the grown up world beckoned presented by Madness as a fairground in an analogy. And, er, that was it as far as I was concerned. As it happened, “House of Fun” turns out to be a rather clever little piece of work, whether the lad has a girl already lined up or was just very hopeful wasn’t explored. But at least he was responsible!

    Suggs clearly had imagination in abundance and Madness were one of the best acts around at that time. It was good that they got a number one, but for me, this, funny though it was, was probably less deserving than other things on their portfolio.

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