1 May 2009
Yesterday's Men by Madness. As vibrant and enjoyable as the nuttier end of the Madness discography remains all this time later, songs like this are the ones that remind us of the musicianship and professionalism of the band.
Much had changed for Madness by the time this 1985 single was issued. Mike Barson, pianist and default songwriter, had left because he had married a Dutch woman and relocated to Amsterdam. The band had set up their own label, Zarjazz, and were already in the throes of new projects which would eventually herald their decision to split, along with a general feeling, not least within the words of this song, that previous peaks were never going to be revisited.
We'd not heard from Madness since the glorious, complicated One Better Day more than a year earlier. Although they were still only in their mid to late 20s, there was a feeling that a band previously known for being youthful, exuberant and not weighed down by politics needed to grow up. Certainly there is a nostalgic bent and a sighing acceptance of the times within Yesterday's Men - the title itself is a giveaway - and it ambles along, gently and commandingly, with some smart and understated saxophone.
Madness got into trouble for not being political in their early days, hence the issue of Embarrassment, but even as their career mainstreamed itself they never bothered too heavily with political statements. Famously, they wrote about buying contraceptives, living in a two-up two-down, getting caught in a monsoon and witnessing a death via myocardial infarction, hardly a threat to people's opinions but nonetheless expertly crafted and worthy songs. It was their willingness to have fun, make fun and be fun that kept a wide span of audiences all transfixed; pop kids were attracted as much as the ska second wavers of the late 70s. But with Yesterday's Men, it was clear that they wanted to make their own point; one that showed off their musicality even though the most evidently skilled musician in their ranks had beetled off to play happy marriages.
To make up for the seriousness of the song, the video did the job that all Madness videos do - to embellish the song's meaning while making us laugh, or at least chuckle. Each member, being introduced by a 1985-typeface caption, appears individually at the beginning, climbing into a dustbin or being squashed by a falling tree (then being seen to do the opposite by crude reversal of the videotape), prior to a few standard Madnessisms with the aid of some zebra crossings. And when Atlas chucks the earth away, only for it to rebound back and knock him clean off his feet - well, that's slapstick I can still laugh at now. Maybe that says more about me than anyone else.
I think also this song, along with One Better Day, gives Suggs real credit as a vocalist. The brand of music Madness made and the subject matters therein often meant that vocal quality was never the greatest priority, but he still delivered it. Reeling off a 100mph list of school memories in Baggy Trousers made textbook singing both irrelevant and impractical, but the more thoughtful stuff allowed him his moment.
Yesterday's Men got to No.18 in the charts, and Madness released Uncle Sam as a follow-up, another delve into politics which questioned the serving American regime of Ronald Reagan through the eyes of a veteran GI. Despite the crucial presence of a whistled Sailor's Hornpipe underscore, it became the first Madness single not to reach the UK Top 20.
Madness took the decision to disband shortly afterwards and Barson returned for (Waiting For) The Ghost Train, an anti-South Africa tirade. Worthy as the subjects were, Madness had become serious. However, writes speaks warmly of Yesterday's Men, for which he was the lyricist, in his liner notes on the Utter Madness compilation, stating it was "a joy to write and record" and claiming it incorporated jazz, reggae and "a heap of irony". One assumes by this he meant that the band knew better than anyone that they were long past their prime. This song at least made it clear that whatever their relevance, they were still more than proficient.