Mar 09

MADNESS – “House Of Fun”

FT + Popular50 comments • 7,330 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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  1. 31
    anatol_merklich on 28 Mar 2009 #

    Just rewatched the video and it’s endearing how the small glitches are left in: at “that pop in the night”, Carl forgets to turn 90 degrees to the right with his trumpet, while Lee still dips. I guess this is somehow related to “people who bang this stuff out – essentially treat singles like postcards to their fans”.

    The three Proper Chemists and their dance is close to terrifying!

    7 seems about right to me. They had a lot of nines among their other singles though. For your information not asked for, “Mr Speaker (Gets the Word)” would be a ten, but was wisely not singled.

  2. 32
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Mar 2009 #

    Hm. I think this was my first experience of Madness’ back catalogue (possibly due to the ’92 re-release that Lex mentioned) but while it encouraged me to explore further, House of Fun is probably my least favourite of their better-known singles. One Step Beyond (the album, I mean) obv sticks closely to the ska sound which I hold v dear and hence the nutty stuff became a bit wearing in comparison. However I do have a soft spot for Baggy Trousers thanks to a rather raucous Lower School Disco set by R3b3cc4 W4ts0n’s older brother where he played it straight after Smells Like Teen Spirit and I ended up being the only girl in the ensuing bundle of 12-year-olds.

  3. 33
    Malice Cooper on 29 Mar 2009 #

    A fantastic pop record though not their best. I loved them at the time and still do. The bizarre Fairground Keyboard solo is almost macabre . There is much more to any Madness track than just some short novelty. Suggs isn’t the greatest singer in the world but when compared to the horrendous, half an octave ability, monotonous droning of Morrissey, he’s on a peak.

  4. 34
    fivelongdays on 29 Mar 2009 #

    First band I ever saw live, Birmingham NEC 1995.

    As loads of other people have said, I think it’s a shame that this was Madness’ only number one (FWIW, I’d give “Night Boat to Cairo”, “Baggy Trousers” and “Our House” all 10, and I think “One Step Beyond”, “My Girl” and “Grey Day” would all get 9), as I think they were the quintessential British singles band.

    Top tune, mind, and the lyrics have a certain charm.

    Eight for me.

  5. 35
    Matthew H on 30 Mar 2009 #

    I’ll join the crowd and say this wasn’t my favourite Madness single, but I like the idea of its No.1ness being a Long Service Award (#12).

    Mind you, it’s still pretty triffic innit and happily married in my head with the housewives bowling in and doing their ridiculous dance. Kills me every time.

  6. 36
    intothefireuk on 4 Apr 2009 #

    Loved Madness for years and still do – they embody everything that I think a pop band should be. Clever, witty & perceptive lyrics, danceable rhythms, catchy tunes, a darker underneath and ,most importantly, a huge sense of fun (see also The Beatles). ‘House Of Fun’ continues their ska-lite trip into pop and just about manages to pull off a wordy lyric and rollicking music hall/fairground tune. My personal fav from around this period (well, alright, a year earlier)is ‘Grey Day’ – there is no doubt though they should have had more number ones.

  7. 37
    Gavin Wright on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I’ve got a strong personal attachment to Madness – the 1992 Divine Madness compilation was the first album I ever owned (on tape, for what it’s worth), a birthday present from my parents who remembered I’d liked listening to them as a very young child. Some time soon afterwards my brother got a VHS copy of the accompanying video collection, which only made me love the band even more (it probably also set me up with unreasonably high expectations for music videos in general but there you go). ‘House Of Fun’ was definitely one of my favourites in that respect (I thought the bit with the band in barbers’ chairs was hilarious) but looking back I’d have to agree that it’s not their best single. That said, the relentless energy and queasy fairground feel do elevate it above something like ‘Driving In My Car’. A 7/10, this one.

  8. 38
    Nicole on 8 Apr 2009 #

    I never worked out it was about buying condoms until I read Rip It Up and Start Again — I guess I never paid close attention to the lyrics.

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 14 May 2009 #

    NMEWatch: 15 May 1982. Lynne Hannah made this a shared single of the week, alongside ‘Goody Two Shoes’ and ‘Cantonese Boy’ by Japan;

    “Only Madness could manage this serio-comic tightrope trick, and although they don’t seem the types to come over all precious about a pop skill that time seems to be further refining, ‘House of Fun’ is excellent. Switchback twists and sleight-of-hand subtleties mark out the perfect scenario for an ’80s cartoon caper, and like all good clowning theirs is an act that contains an unstressed sterner element. The subject matter of this particular amusement arcade seems to be the difficulties in reaching the magical age of consent only to find the doors to adult pleasures remain still resolutely shut. All of which goes to prove once again that you don’t have to force a grim and grudging Social Realism on your listeners to create a personal and highly pertinent pop entertainment.”

  10. 40
    Conrad on 25 May 2009 #

    Blimey, have just finished watching Willy Russell’s “One Summer”.

    Not sure I can ever hear this in the same way anymore…

  11. 41
    wichitalineman on 26 May 2009 #

    K-Tel watch: opening track on Turbo Trax, followed by Tight Fit’s Fantasy Island, Shakatak’s Night Birds, Kim Wilde’s View From A Bridge, and Roxy Music’s More Than This. Quality.

  12. 42
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    The problem Madness shared with The Police was that they had more than one songwriter in the band but only one of them was any good (until Carl Smyth’s late emergence in Madness’s case). Madness’s albums were always patchy; you let Lee Thompson’s sax romps and Suggs’s sub-Minder tales of petty criminality slip by while waiting for Mike Barson’s next bittersweet vignette to come round.

    Barson didn’t write this one and it shows. It was also the one “new” track on their first compilation “Complete Madness” (Midge Ure makes a bogus claim in his autobiography that Ultravox were the first band to employ this marketing technique) so I’ve always suspected that it was a quick knock-off job.

  13. 43
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    #42 Mike Barson – strangely underrated genius of the band in my opinion. Watching “Take it or leave it” again after 20 years when it was given an airing on TV again last week, I was struck by how much it seemed to be his band – the keyboard sounds, the goading and cajoling the others to take it all more seriously .. (to Lee Thomson ” Your playing it wrong again Lee. Why dont you bring the book anymore? You seem to fink you can play the fing now”, leading to another “walkout” by Thomson)…and yet, its Suggs whom everyone knows and remembers. Oddly, one of the worst lead singers of any of my favourite bands.

    House of Fun – not one of their best – not even close. My all time favourite Madness record is “The Prince”, which pumps along and gets under your skin…. but with hindsight I really could do without Nightboat to Cairo, or Our House…..

    Madness – I luv em, but they were a seriously flawed group. Dodgy awkward singer, and various pastiche songs that really have no place on an album.. But as the last poster says, when Barson (usually) cracks the whip, they were terrific.

  14. 44
    Brooksie on 21 Feb 2010 #

    House of Fun was flanked by two of Madness’ weakest singles; on one side Cardiac Arrest and on the other Driving in My Car. For this reason, if no other, it seemed to stand out when released as a good song. Unfortunately, both those weak singles were flanked by a couple of their strongest singles; Cardiac was preceded by It Must Be Love, Car was followed by Our House. House of Fun is simply average. I do agree, however, with the school of thought that they earned a # 1 with all the hits they had, and while it’s a shame it couldn’t have been one of their better songs, it’s good enough.

  15. 45
    inakamono on 24 Feb 2010 #

    Kinda surprised no one’s mentioned the piece of trivia I associate with this.

    One-thousand-nine-hundred-and-eighty-two years after Christianity got started, and for the first (and as yet, only) time in history a reigning Pope deigns to visit England … and, to welcome him when he arrives, a song about contraceptives tops the chart.

    I mean, it’s not like there’s a huge lineage of songs about contraceptives getting to number one — it was almost as much of a singularity as the Pope’s visit. The synchronicity almost defies belief.

    (So maybe it’s proof that there is a god, to arrange things with such perfect serendipity?)

    (But if that was the case, who exactly was he trying to give a message to?)

  16. 46
    hectorthebat on 23 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 871
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 86
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Uncut (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles from the Post-Punk Era (2001) 81
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 27

  17. 47
    phil6875 on 15 Apr 2015 #

    MIKEMCSG @42

    ‘House Of Fun’ has a Thompson (Lyrics)/Barson (Music) credit.

    re. Mike Barson their only good songwriter.

    Chris Foreman wrote the music for ‘Baggy Trousers’ (Lyrics – Suggs), ‘Shut Up’ (Lyrics – Suggs), ‘Cardiac Arrest’ (Lyrics – Carl) and ‘Our House’ (Lyrics – Carl).

  18. 48
    Tommy Mack on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Re: only one good songwriter.

    I can only speak for the One Step Beyond album but I remember enjoying all of it.* It feels a bit like an early Beatles album in terms of having tracks that are obviously low-key/light-hearted diversions away from the style of the big singles, rather than just poorer versions of the famous songs. There are a couple of songs which are only so-so musically but they hold the attention by virtue of being half decent short stories (Rockin’ in A Flat being a sort of shaggy-dog band origins story and then there’s the one about National Service). Barston’s Bed and Breakfast Man is a bittersweet gem of the kind MikeMCSG mentions, too.

    *(it was one of a dozen CDs in my bag when it was stolen from outside a pub on Brick Lane and since I found a copy of Divine Madness for a quid in a charity shop, I never replaced OSB)

  19. 49
    Mostro on 17 Apr 2015 #

    Have to admit I’m genuinely surprised that “House of Fun” got such a mixed reception here. I’ve always considered it one of my favourite Madness songs.

    Monotonous chorus? Aside from the fact it’s great(!), it’s too short for that. It’s even shorter- and comes with a nice key change- the second time around. And the song itself is comfortably under three minutes, doesn’t even have time to get boring before the fadeout!

    It’s got a great little middle eight that diverts things via the scenic route and returns at exactly the right point as it should.

    Agree with Pink Champale (#27); I’m really *not* a fan of forced or overbearing jollity, and this isn’t. IMHO, that accusation (Lex, #4) would be better levelled at “Driving in my Car”, too self-consciously trying to be funny and relying on this- and its intentional naffness- for its appeal. In other words, it’s essentially a novelty/comedy record. However, it’s the exception rather than the rule- most of Madness’ “fun” singles work because underneath that, they’re still great tunes, and any sense of fun comes naturally, often being mixed with other elements to give them more depth and interest than they’re often credited for.

    (And yes, Suggs’ mid-90s solo career is almost universally considered to be… not great. Not sure the band as a whole should be tarred with that brush, though(!))

    Interestingly, the version of ‘House of Fun’ on Divine Madness- which many of us might be familiar with- apparently isn’t the single release, but the album version. (The difference is that the original single ends suddenly in a cacophony of fairground music.)

    SteveM, #26; Re: the Honda City advert. They did a full version of this as “In The City”, which was the B-side to Cardiac Arrest. You can buy it as an MP3 (they included it as a bonus track on the ‘7’ album reissue).

  20. 50
    Gareth Parker on 30 Apr 2021 #

    I think Tom’s right with the score here. Not their best for me, but I’m glad they made it to the top of the UK singles chart.

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