It’s easy to forget that most cartoons begin as crude sketches in graphite. The Madness of ‘House Of Fun’ and ‘Our House’ fame are no different: behind the knockabout veneer of the balloon-trousered ska pop princes of Camden Town lay a history rooted in the poverty and petty crime of a distinctly un-gentrified north London of the 1960s and ‘70s, and in febrile, wired-to-the-mains gigs in the often violent ska underground.
It’s also easy to forget just how successful these natty, Jools-friendly nutty boys actually were – arguably the biggest UK band of the early ‘80s, they bent, then broke the charts with 15 top 10 singles in just three years. AMC UK’s new three-part Madness docuseries Before We Was We doesn’t set out to remind you either; it focuses strictly on their pre-fame beginnings, tracing their story from light-fingered childhood troublemakers, as familiar with the inside of courtrooms as classrooms, to their pop breakthrough with third single ‘My Girl’, and not a flying saxophone solo further. As such it’s a lesson in the grit and authenticity behind the novelty – the “comic malevolence” they shared with the likes of Alex Harvey and Ian Dury, as singer Suggs so neatly puts it – and will leave you desperate to be banged on the head with at least three more episodes.
Interviewed individually and in full supergrass mode, the Los Palmas 7 have salty tales of their various broken-home upbringings to impart. From the sounds of it if anyone stole your scooter, nobbled records from your shop, graffiti’d your bridge or (in Eurovision singer Lynsey de Paul’s case) broke into your house purely to eat your cereal in the early ‘70s, these were the scrotes responsible. The colour-drained stock footage of crumbling London slums, dirt-smeared toddlers and flower-pinnied grannies used to accompany tales from the band’s upbringings relies on 1970s poverty clichés to Dickensian extremes (Oliver Smash, anyone?), but once they begin to depart their lives of crime and street art (Suggs relates a tearaway youth as one of Kilburn’s most notorious bridge-taggers) for more wholesome rock ’n’ roll pursuits, the series takes a sharp turn from the hackneyed to the hyper-real.
In 1981 the band self-funded an autobiographical film called Take It Or Leave It, an early form of TOWIE-style scripted docudrama recreating their formation and rise with everyone involved playing themselves, including previous members who had drifted out of the band or quit over practice room punch-ups. When the appropriate scenes from this film begin to illustrate the band’s memories of gang fights at gigs or tootling around north London in knackered Morris Minors, Before We Was We takes on a surreal, incisive edge which, but for the odd bit of plasterboard acting, almost makes it feel like a fly on the wall at Madness’ every dramatic plot point.
Add in actual footage from National Front skinhead riots that plagued the band’s early club gigs and the wildest nights on the 2 Tone tour of 1979 alongside The Specials and The Selecter and you have a docuseries that, in terms of immersion, goes one step beyond. Don’t watch that, watch this.
‘Madness: Before We Was We’ premieres on May 1 at 9pm, exclusively on BT TV and AMC (the first episode will be available for free on BT’s YouTube channel)