Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • One Step Beyond [Sire, 1980] B+
  • Absolutely [Sire, 1980] B-
  • Complete Madness [Stiff, 1982] A-
  • Total Madness [Geffen, 1997] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

One Step Beyond [Sire, 1980]
We have entered the era of the white drummer--suddenly every young rock and roll band that touches vinyl can generate a moderately exciting pulse. Of course, Madness's pulse is exotic as well, and if at first I compared them to the Kingsmen, seeking fame and fortune by adding local color stories from the Portland bars to their repertoire of borrowed licks and melodies, that was mostly because it wasn't rock and roll enough. But after I heard more ska, lots more, the exoticism faded, and not just from exposure--I realized that a big problem with Afro-polka was that it didn't sound hip enough, and resisted. Anyway, Madness do it more rock and roll than anybody. Homy and bumptious, they're more purely fun than the most giddily self-conscious power pop. B+

Absolutely [Sire, 1980]
Just like the Specials and the Selecter, they have second album problems, with the cockneys soft-pedaling the same subject that confounds the two-toners: "Embarrassment," which saxophonist Lee Thompson says was inspired by his sister's mixed-race pregnancy, sounds like it's about an arrest, or the wrong haircut. And though close attention reveals the same class contretemps and irrational fears that haunt Jerry Dammers, no American will suss these songs unaided. This may be localism and it may be songcraft, but it's probably both. B-

Complete Madness [Stiff, 1982]
These Anglo lads have failed to click Stateside because they offer nothing to snobs and because they're so Anglo they only connect when they hit a song on the nose. Though I doubt they'll ever approach the jaunty excitement of their debut again, the hits here compiled come as close as an open-minded Americna could ask to solving the second problem. Their compassion and common sense are as jolly and traditional and working-class as their ska, which edges ever closer to polka and music hall. And jolly though they may be, they see a lot of pain. A-

Total Madness [Geffen, 1997]
Original white ska band, not to be confused with the Jam except maybe over the telephone ("One Step Beyond," "Our House"). *