This will be, without a doubt, the most biased review I’ve ever written. I can’t help it; this is my youth we’re talking about here. Madness was my first concert (Warner Theater in Washington, DC) as well as the foundation of what would become my love of “indie” (alt?) rock. Not that Madness was an indie rock band when I first heard “One Step Beyond”. No, the term hadn’t even been coined yet, but there was something decidedly out of the mainstream about loving ska, and Madness in particular, when I was in high school. I will freely admit to wearing skinny ties and silly suits, to skanking at clubs where I’d gained admittance by virtue of my older brother’s driver license, to starting a band called (get this) Sanity 6, to having arguments about who was cooler Suggs or Chaz, to adopting “It Must Be Love” as “our” song during a 10th grade romance. Without Madness I would never have heard The Specials, English Beat, Bad Manners or The Selecter. And without 2-Tone I never would have been led down a path that brought Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, R.E.M., Nirvana, Galaxy 500, and so many others to my ears. So I guess it’s likely that The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 will get a passing grade from me even if it’s complete shit, thus tarnishing my hard earned reputation as a reviewer worth trusting. Fortunately, it’s not shit. It’s even pretty good, at points. The Nutty Boys are still doing their thing, and after all these years that’s got to mean something.
The Dangermen is the alter ego for the boys in Madness; really it’s an excuse to make records and book gigs without the responsibility of having to trot out “Night Boat to Cairo”, “Baggy Trousers” and “Our House” every time they play live. While this is sure to disappoint those who only want to relive the glory days of youth, it’s a sensible strategy for a band pigeonholed to play the role of human jukebox for middle-aged men who shout, “play fooking ‘My Girl’ ya bastards'”, from the cheap seats. So The Dangermen were born in an effort to play some unmolested shows and, specifically, to play music in the style they founded the band on so many years ago. The album that results from these efforts is a heartfelt homage to a different time and place. While this strategy could easily have led to an album of pitiable songs played in the key of desperate attempt to recapture a long faded youth, instead we get an album of covers imbued with everything that made the band good.
Consisting entirely of ska cover versions of everything from The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” to Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” to The Kinks “Lola”, each song gets a loving rocksteady treatment: bouncy fairground jutter set to a skank begging beat. It continues to amaze that a bunch of north London white boys can so religiously recreate the feel of a sound that originated in Jamaica. But that’s always been Madness’ greatest asset: their ability to invest an honest, joyful passion into a sound that at its most fundamental level they have zero in common with.
At 13 songs The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1 is a bit too long. All the songs bop along at about the same pace, all interpreted in the same rocksteady style, and this makes the proceedings a bit wearisome towards the end. But when Madness does it right it’s clear they’re still very much in possession of the skills that made them so unique. Covers of The Blues Busters’ “Shame and Scandal”, Max Romero’s “I Chase the Devil”, Lord Tanamo’s “Taller Than You Are”, are all filled with Madness’ inimitable combination of keyboards, sax, chugging rhythm guitar, and Suggs’ charismatic but nearly tuneless voice. It’s a winning combination that only fails when the band tries to be too true to a song’s roots (a dull version of Bob Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World”) or too clever (Jose Feliciano’s “Rain”). All in all though not a bad go for a band that’s been written off more than once. Well done boys, you’ve made me proud.