501. ‘House of Fun’, by Madness

On then with the next five hundred. With only the second ska act to hit top spot…

House of Fun, by Madness (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 23rd May – 6th June 1982

In many ways this is a world away from The Specials, both the punky snarl of ‘Too Much Too Young’ and the subtle anger of ‘Ghost Town’. And yet there are clear similarities too. There are a lot of the same instruments here, for example. They’re just being used in a more fun way. A lot of horns (‘horn’ being the key word here…)

Not many songs have been written about the ordeals of teenage boys trying to buy their first box of condoms. There may only have been one: this one. But ‘House of Fun’ is pretty definitive. After this, nobody else needed to bother. Sixteen today, And up for fun, I’m a big boy now, Or so they say… The lad knows what he wants, but he can’t bring himself to say it. He asks for ‘balloons’, ‘party poppers’ and ‘party hats with the coloured tips’…

Welcome to the house of fun, Now I’ve come of age… Fittingly, the song title itself is a double-entendre. The ‘House of Fun’ refers to the terrifying world of sex that this boy is glimpsing… Welcome to the lion’s den, Temptation’s on its way… But it’s also the name of the joke shop that the cashier packs him off to with a flea in his ear.

I’m loathe to say it, because I don’t think our sense of humour is as unique as we like to think, but this is very British. Very music-hall-for-the-1980s, pantomime, nudge nudge wink wink… It’s cheeky, and chirpy, and genuinely funny in the third verse when the boy’s nosy neighbours enter the shop and sense gossip unfolding. Madness are not a band I know especially well, away from the big hits, and I’ve always found them slightly… annoying? ‘Driving in My Car’ and ‘Our House’ are a bit too perky for my liking. Here, though, the cheekiness of the song sees it through. I’m glad that it was this record that gave the band their sole number one.

Another similarity to their chart-topping ska predecessors is the way in which this record mimics ‘Ghost Town’s fairground vibe. That was the haunted house, obviously, while this is a runaway rollercoaster. The album version in particular has a pretty cool finale in which the song crashes to an end and fades out on an old-fashioned organ. Interestingly, ‘House of Fun’ existed for a long time without the chorus, which was created in order for it be released as a single.

Madness, then, join the illustrious club of huge acts with just one #1 to their name… Dusty Springfield, Status Quo, ELO… ‘House of Fun’ was the band’s eleventh Top 10 single. I was first aware of them thanks to lead singer Suggs’ solo career in the mid-90s, when he re-introduced the world to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Cecilia’. But his band were untouchable in the early-‘80s, with only one release from a run of sixteen (!) failing to make the Top 10, between 1979 and 1983. They are the band with the highest number of weeks in the charts for the entire decade (tied with UB40), and were scoring hits well into the 21st century.

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482. ‘Ghost Town’, by The Specials

When a song both begins and ends with police sirens, then you know things might just be getting a little tense at the top of the charts…

Ghost Town, by The Specials (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, 5th – 26th July 1981

What makes this record great, though, is that the tension, the anger in this record, is controlled and channelled into a brilliant pop song. In The Specials’ first #1, ‘Too Much Too Young’, the message was spat out, obnoxiously. ‘Ghost Town’ still has that two-tone anarchy, but here it’s under control. They have a plan: every note and lyric is set for maximum impact, and it’s catchy as hell.

This town, Is coming like a ghost town… The band look around Coventry, their hometown, and see clubs closed down, disenchanted kids kicking lumps out of each other… Bands won’t play no more, Too much fighting on the dance floor… They look around, and they know just who to blame.

What makes this record great (Pt II) is that they perfect a ‘haunted house’ vibe with creepy organs and eerie flutes, plus the high-pitched, ghoulish backing vocals, but at no point does it sound like a novelty record. It does mean that this song is fated to be wrongly included on Halloween playlists for the rest of eternity; but that’s a small price to pay for such a unique sounding chart-topper.

Is this the most political number one single yet? The Jam might argue their case, but I think, compared to ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Going Underground’ sounds a little one-dimensional, as great as it is. Here the social commentary is blended with the funky horns and the catchy chorus line. The anger comes through slowly, peaking when Neville Staple starts chanting: Government leaving the youth on the shelf… No jobs to be found in this country… before ending with the succinct: The people getting angry!

‘Ghost Town’ was at #1 as riots broke out across the UK in the summer of 1981, with unemployment rates heading rapidly towards three million, making it sound very prescient. Sadly, the band couldn’t enjoy their ‘told you so’ moment: they split up, according to the history books, as they were waiting to record the song’s ‘Top of the Pops’ performance. Many Coventry locals weren’t too impressed either, hearing their home described as a dying town on radios across the land. Perhaps the truth hurt too much?

I’ve got to the end of this post without mentioning my two favourite bits of this song. The brassy middle-eight, that sounds completely different to the other three minutes, all swinging and upbeat, as they reminisce about the good old days inna de boomtown... And then there’s the drumbeat, that only becomes obvious as the song fades out. It sounds really modern, like ‘90s trip-hop. It sums up a very cool, and very important, moment at the top of the charts.

450. ‘Too Much Too Young – The Special A.K.A. Live! EP’, by The Specials

The 1980 ‘statement of intent’ continues… Following on from The Pretenders’ cool and cocky ‘Brass in Pocket’, the decade’s second #1 is some hardcore ska. Live ska.

Too Much Too Young – The Special A.K.A. Live! (EP), by The Specials (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, 27th January – 10th February 1980

Too much too young! the band announce, to a drum-roll. You done too much too young, You’re married with a kid when you could be havin’ fun with me… The drums and organs skip and thump – ska is basically reggae on speed – as Terry Hall spits out the lyrics. Ain’t it cool, No it ain’t, He’s just another burden on the welfare state… I mean, it puts a different spin on rock music not being child-friendly

Musically this is ska, or two-tone, but really this is as punk as things have gotten at the top of the charts. Hall sneers at the girl who went and got pregnant… Ain’t you heard of contraception…? and lists all the reasons why getting married and having a kid was a terrible idea (number one being that she won’t come get jiggy with him). The ferocious guitar solo is also as raw and gritty as we’ve heard in a chart-topper for a long old while. As great as the disco/electro years have been, it has all been bit glossy. There’s nothing glossy about this nasty little record. (The album version is slightly slower, and longer; but there’s a lot to be said for the rawness that comes across live.)

The best bit comes at the abrupt end – this is a record that barely makes it over the two minute mark – with possibly the finest closing line to any #1 single: Try wearing a cap! Unsurprisingly, the BBC would not play this bit. We’re only two number ones into this bold new decade and we’ve already had aggressive references to contraceptives.  

While ‘Too Much Too Young’ was the hit, this is an EP – only the second ever to top the charts – and so we should give the rest of it a quick listen. The second track on side-‘A’ is an instrumental, ‘Guns of Navarone’. It’s a cover of a 1961 hit by the Skatalites – great band name alert! – which was in turn a cover of a film score. It’s another short, sharp blast of ska, with some unintelligible (to me at least) scatting from Neville Staple. The lead trombone on the song is played by Rico Rodriguez – a near fifty-year-old ska veteran, and not a full-time member of the band.

The flip-side is where my patience with ska wears thin. It’s fine in small doses – I think ‘Too Much Too Young’ is a wonderful kick up the arse – but stretched into a seven-minute, three-part ‘Skinhead Symphony’, the relentlessness of the genre starts to grate. You don’t get any downtime. The final part is the best, a full on wig-out called ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’. The band yeah-yeah-yeahs, as Staple calls on all the rude boys and rude girls to stomp their boots to an ever quickening beat.

Phew! Away from the music, this is an interesting record. TMTY is very short – the shortest #1 of the entire decade and the shortest since ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in 1965. It’s also… I think… only the 4th #1 single to have been recorded live, after ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, ‘The Wonder of You’, and ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ (though I’m sure I’ve forgotten one, or two.) Interestingly, half of this disc was recorded in London, and half in Coventry… where Chuck Berry had also recorded his classic (yes, I said classic) hit in 1972. Who knew Coventry was such a hot-bed of live music. Though, to be fair, The Specials were formed in Cov, so that could explain it…

This is a fun, palate-cleanser of a record, that again proves that January is often the most interesting month for chart-toppers. The Specials will be back next year, with their masterpiece. And we’ll be back, in a couple of days, with a recap.

Catch up with everything so far, before the next recap: