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29th January 2024

Madness live in Manchester: The Theatre of the Absurd matters

Madness are more than just a band. As they bring their Theatre of the Absurd tour to Manchester, we explore what being a Madness fan really means and how their music has an impact beyond the stage
Madness live in Manchester: The Theatre of the Absurd matters
Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

In dedication to Joseph McCarthy.   

The only way to possibly describe Madness as they cavorted around the stage of the AO Arena is just how you would describe my Uncle Joe; not only hilarious and witty but also so cheeky that they pull at your heartstrings and stay with you long after they’re gone. He was a huge Madness fan and, once a Madness fan, always a Madness fan.

For this band, it is all about the fans. This was certainly proved during Saturday night’s celebration of Theatre of the Absurd presents C’est La Vie, Madness’ 13th studio album. The group’s charisma and charm has earned them a lifetime’s worth of committed fans, many of whom came together adorned in the trademark red fez, perched precariously on bobbing heads. Bearing witness to the hypnotising performance really highlighted the impact Madness has had on a whole generation of people. The fans have truly solidified the group as a national treasure.

Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

I was taken aback straight away by the level of commitment and wholesome behaviour presented by the concertgoers. Hordes of fans fought through the wind, rain, and tornado of red fezzes to first witness a wet but strong set by the greying Lightning Seeds.

The stage was revealed to be draped in theatre-like curtains, and so began the brilliant absurdity. As the undeniably cool Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson swaggered onto stage, complete with trademark blacked-out sunglasses and air of soft menace, the crowd roared to the opening Prologue; “It’s time… your audience awaits…”

Not just any band can say they have been together for nearly 50 years and are selling out arena tours with thousands of people flocking to be witnesses. But Madness are not just any band. They are carving their iconic sound into today’s world and navigating modernity in their own style.

Swinging into the new album’s disconcerting tone, Madness seemed to cement their voice in a world that is a far cry from their funky ska years of the 1970s. The new album has an undertone of wariness for the present, with tracks full of cautionary tales. In ‘Run For Your Life’, “tick tock, doomsday clock” gave the concert an air of gloom. But “C’est la vie,” sang Suggs, as he explored these themes and brought the fans along for the ride.

Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

As the band drove into more classic hits such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Wings of a Dove’, it was instantly clear that it is the fans that really make this band who they are. Men became boys again. There was youth serum in the air. I really wanted to explore what it was about Madness that elicited such frenzied behaviour from their fans, and got speaking to fez-clad Damon and Matt, who expressed how much Madness means to them.

“It makes me feel young again!”

These songs were the soundtrack to their youth; the songs that remind them of their childhood. This gig was a time machine (“It all just takes me right back”). It was heart-warming to see men embracing one another, elated to be drinking a pint together with the band’s upbeat and effortlessly timeless sound filling the room. Madness seemed to be single-handedly ending toxic masculinity.

Joanna, another dedicated fan, was a university student when Madness hits such as ‘House of Fun’ and ‘One Step Beyond’ were being played in bars and pubs across the country. She was delighted to recount how these songs reminded her of the “only time she ever saw boys dance” as Madness made them feel “cool” with the casually fun ska beats and ‘skank’ dance moves. And there they were, the boys now men.

Suggs’ showmanship and banter with the band and crowd was truly a feat to behold. His energy and stage presence was fantastic; he really was tremendously cool. Introducing ‘Embarrassment’ as his favourite Madness song, the jaunty keyboard seemed to possess the audience. The best kind of mayhem ensued; security tried to herd rowdy audience members back to their seats as they ran amuck up and down the arena stairs. I watched on with glee as they escaped every time. In the words of fan Matt, everyone was experiencing “pure happiness,” the raucous atmosphere was akin to that of children being let out to play. Men were jumping in unison, their legs kicking and eyes sparkling. They were children in a 50-year-old’s body. It was a heartwarming sight.

Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

For the run of Madness favourites like ‘Baggy Trousers’ and ‘Our House’, the sea of fezzes bopped and swayed and, in some cases, became completely lost in the fray. Fans were holding them high above their heads, waving and jumping. They became a landmark to find a friend on a gig-pint-pilgrimage. However, they were also a landmark for a place in time. A place in music history. When ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ was released in 1979, saxophonist Lee Thompson sported the fez, and the fan-favourite piece of merchandise was born. The fez is now synonymous with the band and with Kix/El Thommo. The cheeky, wheeler-dealer lit up the stage and the double act of him and Suggs together exuberated youth.

With a sing-a-long rendition of ‘It Must Be Love’, the arena was a glow with 20,000 voices ringing “I never thought I’d miss you half as much as I do.” Each person was singing about someone dear to them, it was a precious moment to be a part of. Madness ended on a solid encore of ‘Friday Night, Saturday Night’ and ‘Madness’, followed by ‘Night Boat to Cairo’, under a glittering and shimmering disco ball. With beautiful visuals and a stage full of suited and booted musicians of excellent charisma and talent, the show was a love letter for the fans.

Madness meant a lot to everyone there and as we walked out to Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’, I thought of Uncle Joe and how he always looked on the very brightest.

Anna Marsden

Anna Marsden

Anna spends her time as a student photographer, mostly reading and drinking sparkling water.

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