Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yesterday's Sweetest, Weather-Focussed, Better, Informant

I'm talking about the five funniest music videos I'd count from Madness.

I've wanted to do this for awhile, with all of their videos, but I never found the time or the energy, even though I'm unemployed and at home every day at the moment. I guess I'm just busy with other things at home.

In the end though, another webpage used to exist that took a critical look at every one of Madness's music videos from the 80s, focusing on the music, the video and the way it portrayed the band.
Yes, it used to exist. But I'm not replacing it with my own. I just want to point out the funny aspects of five videos they made during their more joyless era as a band.

When anyone who knows the band well enough to have known more than their hit single 'Our House' would describe the band, you'd probably get this word: 'nutty.' Yes. In their early days they were known as the Nutty Boys, and on their shoulders they carried a particular sound that propelled the same moniker, which was dubbed the 'nutty sound.' 

Their music videos often had, again, the same style. They started out simple at first, being videos of the band playing their instruments and dancing. In the 'Night Boat to Cairo' video, they played on a sound stage littered with sand and had a big, low-tech green screen behind them to create an Egyptian background. Eventually they progressed to bigger ideas and more complicated storyboards, and put some of their zaniness into it, starting with 'Baggy Trousers,' where Lee Thompson hovers above the band in mid-air instead of on the ground with them.
'Cardiac Arrest,' 'House of Fun,' 'Grey Day,' 'Our House,' and 'Wings of a Dove' were the height of their wacky videos, and then it began to become somber. Mike Barson left the band, and they left Stiff Records, their longtime label, for Virgin. It called for different times.

Ironically, in this more serious, joyless time of 'One Better Day,' 'Yesterday's Men,' 'Michael Caine,' and 'Sweetest Girl,' I tend to find the most humor. I don't know why.

I'm going to go from least funniest to most funniest in my list, and I'm going to give a brief summary of what happens in each of the videos. I'll be pointing out why something's funny, and also explain a bit of the background behind the song/video.

5. One Better Day

The video for the song follows largely the same storyline and chronology as the song itself. The song is mainly about two homeless people, a man and a woman, who find each other and fall in love. The song starts with the words 'Arlington House,' and the video opens precisely with Suggs, posing as the homeless man, sitting on the curb outside the actual shelter. Both him and the woman (played by his real-life wife Anne) walk around London, with scenes of the band in its entirety as homeless men on a bridge, around a fire, and playing in a dimly-lit studio. It ends with the band gathered around the fire, as Suggs and his wife dance merrily in front of them.
It was shot in monochrome with only a few parts in color, and was directed by Lee Thompson, the band's sax player, because their usual director, Dave Robinson, also the head of Stiff, didn't want to produce a video so the band had to finance and produce it themselves.
What I largely find funny about this video is what happens in small instances. There's a sudden scene with a photobooth and a pile of shopping and garbage bags next to it. There's a sudden keyboard hit at the same time, just as it focuses at the bottom of the curtains in the booth, showing Suggs' feet.
They're bouncing around frantically as light in the booth flashes, as Suggs apparently dances in a dramatic style within.

Then the camera pans, low to the floor, around the area, passing the booth (Suggs' feet bouncing in and out of the side of the frame a few times as he moves) and up to the pile of bags, where it reveals the woman resting underneath them.
I get my humor from the frantic feet. Not just how they move, but how  the camera focuses on them for a second (not the booth in general, right at his feet). It makes it look like the attention to the feet is crucial for some reason. Then of course the camera passes by them near the floor.
Another kind of odd instance I found funny was how, after the man throws the woman out of the building, Suggs follows and intentionally wrestles through the man to get by instead of just walking by. This is shown from far inside the building looking toward the open entrance, giving it an interesting vantage point.
Finally, just before the chorus begins, the camera focuses tight on Lee Thompson, sitting by the fire. The director of the whole thing notices the camera, stares for a second, then gives it the most perplexing expression ever, and only for a few seconds. I find his sudden knowledge of the camera funny as well as the expression. Why is he being filmed!?

4. Yesterday's Men

I'm not perfectly sure about this song, but I'm mildly aware that it's about someone who overstays their welcome, over prides himself when he was 'yesterday's news,' 'yesterday's interest,' but not anymore. No longer popular. His turn was over, now he's just 'yesterday's man.'
I have a feeling it's about the band themselves, how they've run the course of their popularity, but they defiantly don't want to become yesterday's men and struggle to 'hang on to today.' It was recorded on their last album and at the height of their decline, as they became less on top as time went on. Without Barson, the band couldn't really work it together nearly as well anymore.

The video, I don't know. The band performs in a black studio in a slow fashion, with Chas dancing mellowly and Woody slowly rotating on a drum riser. It's not very fun or happy, not the atmosphere or the song.
It begins with the band going forward in reverse, which I've talked about before, which is one of the first things I find funny, particularly Mark Bedford's introduction. Just the way he suddenly re-inserts his magazine (he really actually took it out and they put it in reverse).
Then the video becomes a series of footage of the band slowly walking along an endless crosswalk, performing on their instruments, and crashing on the ground after falling. There's humor in their surprise when they walk along, and suddenly the lights turn up and they see themselves playing in the studio near them.

I tend to find the scene where Chas is 'ooing' with Woody in the background. Chas looks nice and all, dancing, but why is Woody facing away from the camera? You see the back of his head and back, and a drumstick sticking away from his body, rim-clicking the drum in front of him. Shouldn't he be facing the camera? No, it was bad timing, because his riser had had him turned away as they filmed Chas ooing. Woody must not have been important, otherwise it would be more of a trend to film a music video with the band facing away from the camera. And if Woody was unimportant to the scene, then why have Chas to the side of the frame, so Woody is clearly shown, facing away, in the centre? So I find that kind of funny.

Lee's rhythmic jumping to the guitar beeps at one point is funny as well. Then it does show Woody properly, as the camera pans away from the band walking and jumping along to focus on him as his riser spins him around toward (and closer to) the camera. As he starts to turn away, he looks over at it and gives it a smile and a contented head shake.
I find it quite out of character for someone who was disappointed in the whole album due to the fact that he didn't even play on it (they used drum machines for the album instead). There he is, beating his drums and spinning (ever faster), as happy as ever, and acknowledging it. Maybe because while he did not play on the album - he got to "play" in the music video, and that was enough to make him grin and shake his head.

Then there's a bit near the end with Thompson flying towards the camera (he flies again in this video) and just before it fades into the next scene, he glances away, uncertainly. The editors faded the scenes too late, because I can see the suddenly distracted and uncertain look in his face as his eyes look elsewhere suddenly, and it's quite funny in result.
The bits with the band walking are slightly funny as well as some of them look half-asleep, and Bedders has his shades upside down, which really look funny when he wipes his face in the simulated hot summer heat the band walks through near the end.
The song has the great honor of being the first Madness song I evoked that girl out of - the one I often see when I hear 'In the City' - because the string section and the organ made me think of her back in drama class that long time ago.

3. The Sun and the Rain

The meaning of this song is much more simple - it's about rejoicing and being happy and positive while out in the rain.
It's upbeat and has a cheerful, bright and positive sound to it, and the string section really helps as well. It was the last single written exclusively by Mike Barson. Yes, it's quite a bit more cheerful than the other two before it, but funnier than both as well.
The video is more hectic. It has mainly scenes of Suggs standing in a rainy street at night, singing and stomping his feet to the beat, and during the choruses and some of the verses joined by the presence and antics of the rest of the band, which dances around him and assumes different stances and poses. There's a subplot with someone (probably Lee Thompson) being lit up with a rocket on his back, as well as the band, dressed as tiny red devils, playing their instruments inside Suggs' head, underneath his brain. In the end the band in the street are joined by a crowd of fans who sing and dance with them, and Lee rockets down the wet street in his booster.

The first crazy thing to me happens right at the beginning: Mike Barson plays his piano part, and in each successive camera angle, his arms get longer and longer, until his has a ridiculous strained look on his face. Then as the drums start, Chas Smash and an unidentified band member in a red hat and sunglasses burst out of the upright piano in slow motion. The looks on their faces are just priceless.
Then as Suggs looks through a shop window, the lights turn on and Chas pivots almost mechanically towards Thompson, also posed in a funny way, leans in and lights his fuse from the end of his nose. The rest of the band merrily walks out in a single-file manner from another shop. Geez.
Bedder's face is just memorable during the first chorus at the upper right corner of the frame. I find the way the band disappears then reappears funny as well, out from the behind the camera suddenly, giving interested and happy looks towards it.
I don't know if people much notice Lee and Bedders falling down during the guitar bridge.
I don't understand the little scene of the guy in frosted goggles looking into a handheld mirror, but it is kind of funny. Looks weird.
Probably the most humorous part of the whole thing is Suggs sticking his finger in his ear, which results in a giant finger prodding one of the little devil-like characters prancing about inside his head. The effects really are simple and silly, but it's a funny and creative effect. It ends with Lee Thompson frantically running around the street with the rocket blasting on his back, finishing the video with him spinning away into the darkness with a flash. Very funny.

2. Michael Caine

This song was largely about the troubles in Northern Ireland, and it talks about the informers involved. 'Michael Caine' in the song is supposed to be the informer talked about.
In real life Michael Caine is a British actor famous for his starring in films such as the Ipcress File, The Italian Job, and more recently in Miss Congeniality and Austin Powers in Goldmember (that should get you to realize who he was - he played Austin's father).
The actor actually provided his vocal samples to the song, saying the words 'My name is Michael Caine.' They wanted to have him appear in the music video but he wouldn't. He originally refused to provide vocals as well, but his daughter, a fan of the band, changed his mind (prior to that Caine had never heard of Madness).
The music video is said to have similarities to his movie The Ipcress File, and the video plays out like a film, using certain camera angles. A bunch of agents that consist of the band watch film footage of an informer, played by Chris Foreman (the guitarist) and then head out to capture him. Chas Smash plays the lead agent, and Suggs is the one who discreetly calls to give him the lead in Caine's capture. In the end, after questioning Foreman, with Bedders hanging out in the background and Woody flexing his muscles, they ascertain that he'll only say his name, and shred a photograph of the real Michael Caine. The band lastly appears dressed up and standing together to sing the chorus, putting their hands to their chests in dramatic effect.

Most of my humor from that video comes from the camera angles. The first thing I find quite funny is the title and credits - it's extremely serious and exact-looking, and I don't know if viewers notice that it's a 'Maurice J. Micklewhite' Production.
That's Michael Caine's proper name.
The silhouettes of the band running on a track, featured on the back side of the Keep Moving album, is shown as well.
The first real hilarious bit comes when it pans away from a stone charter, which is dramatic to begin with, and pans down to an older man thrusting his finger at Chas Smash. It reminds me of my grandpa doing the same thing to me when he needed to get a point across, and this man is doing just that. This is following the lyrics of course, which go 'the quiet fellow follows, points his finger straight at you..." I end up finding the man's gestures too dramatic and crazy, and exact, which makes it crazy.
Then Chas walks down a hall full of purpose and determination, and it's the camera angle that gets me here. So serious and grim.
Next you get another funny camera pan as it moves forward, past Chas, who is asking the questions, towards Chris, tied up in a chair, Woody, standing next to him and rolling up is sleeves, Bedders leaning against a wall and Lee Thompson just standing to the side. I don't know why, it's just the way the camera moves. Then it pans back to Chas just as Lee is leaning in to point something out, and the lens is wide-angle so you get a distortion from the edge of the frame. Anyone reading this would by now wonder why I find such small and unusual things like camera panning and moving so funny, but I just do and it's why this is at #2. I laugh and giggle more throughout the video than I do the other three.

1. Sweetest Girl

This one is the wildest and most odd and unusual video and song I have ever seen/heard. I won't try to describe what it's about because I just don't know and will probably never get it. The music is wacky-sounding, and just not something you'd hear from Madness at all.
The song itself was actually written by Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, in 1981 I believe, and sounded even weirder than this cover does (although not by much). While the video lacks any direction or proper storyline, I can't seem to find it in the lyrics either - there are just a bunch of different verses slapped together, but coming from Scritti Politti, they probably do have some sort of meaning I'm unfamiliar with or ignorant of.
"Politics is prior to the vagaries of science" - where does that fit? Okay, so science comes first. Okay.

The video itself is just as odd, unusual, and in result funny and silly. Mainly the band perform in a white studio, which is interspersed with footage of everyone except Suggs, who is positioned to sing, running around an old Victorian-style water pumping station.

This thing is just full of odd bits that make me laugh. Near the beginning someone's feet are dangling in the air above the camera for a split second. I don't get the floating dress that magically appears over a staircase, and in a pumping station. Woody, eternally in the background, sometimes just looks funny. Lee Thompson, for no reason at all, starts rapidly spinning in circles. Someone with a bow and arrow begins to aim for a target, which he begins to do several times before actually letting go and hitting a balloon.

At the beginning, the band are shown in various poses on black, like on the album cover of Mad Not Mad, and as they sing, the scene is constantly interrupted by rapid shots of band members with clay masks on, doing odd movements. The effect is twitchy and odd, and the movements are weird too - one has two thumbs up, another moves his arms in a wavy fashion, another digs at his face, and so on. It's not easy to capture and freeze these scenes to get a better look at them because they happen so quickly. Why they happen at all - I don't know why. It's kind of funny.
Watching Mark (Bedders) in that little black scene, several times it looks like you can tell he finds the whole thing stupid, and I think I even see him role his eyes at one point.

The big suit is a big source of humor in this video.
The sequence in which Suggs walks along the machines at the water station, slowly, with the camera, while singing, is virtually memorable. Someone once said he looked like he'd rather be in Pennsylvania. I don't know, but you can tell in his face that he's not got any heart in this, and he looks rather uncomfortable and unwilling and bored. Lee Thompson pops up next to him, enthusiastically, and as they both walk and sing, Suggs has the most calculated look of disinterest on his face. It's hilarious. Then a dress appears out of nowhere, blocking Thompson, who disappears, and Suggs continues on mundanely.
Most of the rest of the video has Suggs in close up to the camera, bored and seemingly barely able to endure staring at a camera while lip-syncing the lyrics, while the rest of the band run around aimlessly behind him in the water station. A girl in a red dress runs around with them.
There's an odd bit where Suggs spins around with a model of a person based on himself, held over his head. It goes into slow motion, as he lets go and sends it flying. Whoa. Very exciting and like it fits in with everything else. Suddenly, for the most brief second, someone with a clay mask snaps instantly on the screen with one finger pointed past the viewer, then it returns to the original scene, as Suggs picks himself off the floor, dusts himself off, and walks away, apparently being the person he threw.

The dancing scene with everyone in the big suit is another memorable clip. Chas swings with the woman in red as Suggs, on the other side of the suit, flings his arm out like he's at a disco. Then they spin around, Suggs' feet flying up, guaranteeing their collapse. After all, it isn't easy keeping a suit with six people in it upright.

Predictably, two scenes later, the entire six-piece band, still in the huge suit, are collapsed on the floor, their legs wriggling, only one head noticeable. That would be Woody's head, shaking crazily. It's another hilarious scene.

For some odd, ridiculous reason, the band comes up on the girl, who proceeds to slap Thompson upside the head. Suggs remains in front of the camera at all times, blandly lip-syncing the lyrics. As he sings, his eyes become squints as he artificially smiles and appears interested. It's just weird and unusual. That's not all, though, of course. At the end of the verse, in lightning speed, he reaches out to grab something and puts in in his mouth, sort of like a small child would do. I'd have to guess that it's a piece of balloon (they're being shot down in the background).
The ending of the video consists of Suggs and the woman dancing together, with Suggs sometimes covered in that clay mask. Finally, the woman's head falls off and lands on the ground, wires protruding out from the neck, as it sings the last words. The final scene is of four of the band members using sign language to spell out 'Another cheap video.'

I'd have to agree with that. But of course, part of the result of that is creating something that is so odd, unusual, and in result funny, that it's number one of my list of five of Madness's funniest videos. This one had all the uncomfortable singing, the weird and sudden twitchy mask scenes, random scenes of people somehow throwing themselves, and an archer always preparing to hit a heart-shaped balloon (and eventually doing so during the slow bridge). It finally acknowledges that it was silly by confirming itself as 'another cheap video.'
It was Madness's second-last video to be shot before they disbanded.

Anyway, that's my list and my reasons. Now it's two-thirty in the morning, and I've been at this since just after midnight. I have to go to bed to sleep until tomorrow afternoon.

Justin C.

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