REAL GONE GOES OUT: Madness – Dreamland, Margate, Kent 14/6/2024

It’s a bright evening in Margate and the seafront is buzzing. There’s a massive crowd outside of the local Weatherspoon pub, and a lot of pork pie hats on show. It’s even busier than usual, but with good reason: Madness are in town. After a couple of postponements due to the pandemic lockdown, they’ve finally arrived in the legendary seaside town. What’s more, they’ve now got a better show in tow. The ever popular band are currently riding high with a number one album ‘Theatre of The Absurd Presents C’est La Vie’, proving there’s far more to the “Camden Nutty Boys” than treading on the cheap coattails of nostalgia.

Taking the stage at 9:10pm to the all too familiar intro of ‘One Step Beyond’, Suggs and the lads are immediately in good sprits and good musical shape, but there’s a feeling that the classic track feels just a little flat in comparison to formative years, but it’s just a case of the band warming up. What’s immediately clear, though, is that the sound is excellent for an outdoor space. Despite things being a little breezy, weather wise, the sound isn’t blowing around unnaturally. By the middle of the short ska workout, Dan Woodgate’s drumming and Lee Thompson’s sax come with a huge amount of power, and the keys sound particularly solid. It’s when breaking into ‘Embarrassment’ that everything really comes together, however. The opening notes cut through with a real immediacy, and the arrangement – as sharp as its 1980 studio recording – shows off how tight Madness are, and always have been. A giant video screen filling the entire back of the stage is put to good use, too, animating the song’s themes of prejudice and family disagreements with a selection of photos from Thommo’s personal archive.

The screen will come into further use throughout the night, illustrating various song themes via newsreels, photographs and animations – one of the best set ups Margate’s scenic stage has seen in recent years; so much more thoughtful than The Specials’ bare-bones show in 2021 – but, first and foremost, the songs speak for themselves through superior musicianship. A spirited rendition of ‘The Prince’ brings a flood of ska based memories from the beginning of the Madness journey, and the opening notes of ‘My Girl’ gee up the fez-wearing crowd even further. Somewhere around the midpoint of this much loved single, it becomes clear that the set will deliver a lot of great treats, but the early part of the evening is also keen to highlight how good the band’s current material is. The title cut from ‘C’est La Vie’ in particular is every bit as tight and powerful as any of the Madness cuts from 1984’s pop oriented ‘Keep Moving’ onward, and on this night, the number’s blend of ska and pop comes with a real vigour, with Mike Barson’s keyboard stabs jostling against a mid-tempo rhythm and strong sax lines throughout. Suggs adds an ever nonchalant vocal, sounding almost exactly like his old self of forty years previously, and the blend of immediate chorus hook and darker musical undertone makes it classic Madness, regardless of era.

Greeting the audience, Suggs seems positively thrilled to be in Margate (again, a complete contrast to Terry Hall’s sneering demeanour from a few years back). “We’ve finally made it”, he says, “after various delays and lockdowns”. He then breaks into a line from Chas & Dave’s ‘Margate’, which won’t go down so well with the members of the crowd less keen to cling onto a shabby seaside past and are celebratory of the town’s newer semi-gentrified qualities, but we’ll forgive him, as it’s said without malice. He praises the weather for holding up, noting that the last couple of weeks have been especially grim for June (“not like the summer of ’77”, he mis-remembers, with a certain glee), before keys man Mike Barson breaks into the opening riff of ‘The Sun & The Rain’, a track that still holds up as one of best examples of the band’s perfect pop. It’s immediately a set highlight, but it’s soon eclipsed by another non-album single from ’84, ‘The Wings of A Dove’. This is one of the set’s bigger surprises; the band have played it at other recent shows, but unlike some other hits, it doesn’t necessarily have a guaranteed place in the set. Its really busy qualities make it one of the harder tracks to reproduce live, but with the help of extra brass and percussion, it comes across absolutely fantastically, even without the Afrodisiak backing vocals that dominate the studio cut.

A couple more outings from the still-new elpee (‘Round We Go’ and ‘Hour of Need’) capture the band in fine form, and a detour via ‘Lovestruck’ from the band’s 1999 “comeback” record ‘Wonderful’ sounds really strong. Back at the time of single’s release, the studio cut never really felt like top tier Madness; with years of distance, and half a career’s worth of solid pop since then, it now fits the live set very comfortably, and with Suggs in great voice on this occasion, the band really seems to enjoy sharing one of this set’s (arguably) lesser loved tunes. Another new track, ‘Run For Your Life’ adds a slightly darker tone to the evening with its busy Pigbag-ish rhythms and lyrics concerning media induced paranoia, and stripped of the album take’s vocal effects, it sounds better than ever.

As the last notes clear the air, the audience is left in near silence. It’s not clear what’s going on. A few people shift around the stage. The crowd murmurs, awaiting the next track. It doesn’t come. Suggs explains there’s been a delay due to someone being taken ill in the crowd. Moments pass; voices chatter. Apparently, it’s a “spinal injury”. This moment seems to go on for an uncomfortably long time. Thankfully, things are set back on course, and the climax of the night quickly eclipses the first half of the show and this unfortunate incident.

‘Bed & Breakfast Man’ is immense, with obvious crowd participation, and the still brilliant ‘Shut Up’ meets the audience with a terrific energy, driven by Barson’s flawless piano work. In a throwback to recent Vegas shows, guitarist Chrissy Boy Foreman sings Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ really badly (a stunt that American audiences likely found more hysterical than it actually isn’t), before ‘House of Fun’ brings the band and crowd together as one. With a run of hits – a suitably manic ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘Our House’ and ‘It Must Be Love’ – used very effectively to close an already brilliant show, Madness win over even the most hard to please audience members, before bidding everyone farewell.

“We’d normally go off now, and come back if you want us to”, Suggs says, “but since we’re short on time, we’ll just turn our backs and then play some more if you make enough noise!” As an on the spot device, this actually works. It doesn’t rob the encore of any of its anticipation, and performances of ‘Madness’ and a storming ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ ensure most of the important crowd pleasers have been shared during the last hour and a bit, whilst still making ample time to showcase the enjoyable newer tunes.

At the point the band leaves the stage and the sell out crowd wanders through the amusement park, into the car park and out on to the seafront, there’s a real nip in the air. It’s now very cold for June. Very obviously too cold, but this doesn’t kill the inner warmth tonight’s audience has felt in the presence of pop legends. This gig might have been four years after their Dreamland headline was first confirmed – but it’s been a wonderful night and well worth the long wait.

Words by Lee Realgone
Photos by Katy

June 2024

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