Growing Out Of It: Machinations Before Madness (Omnibus Press)
Lee Thompson with Ian Snowball, foreword by Martin Freeman
Published: 22nd April 2021
An autobiographical account of the ’70s and early pages of Madness’s story by one of the Nutty Boys.
“We must have looked like extras from Oliver Twist”. Indeed the way Lee Thompson, saxophone player and founder member of Madness, describes his younger self and his bandmates evokes associations with coming-of-age stories akin to those by Dickens and Twain.
Growing Out Of It, Machinations Before Madness unveils the story of Thompson’s life before and during the early career of the band. Born into a working-class family, the musician recalls the atmosphere of the ’50s as “all grey background and peasoupers”. Thompson grew up in Denyer House on the Highgate Road where bombed-out sites and railroads served as playing fields for post-war generation children. Using their imaginations, they were able to bring colour into the monochrome palette of North London streets. For Lee Thompson and his friends, disobedience became their primary artistic tool. Still, those places are remembered warmly: “Looking back now, the grassed areas of Parliament Hill and Tammo Land were my playgrounds and I have fond memories of them. Places like those indirectly found their way into my songwriting with Madness, because that area, NW5, was of such importance to me. It was the site of my humble beginnings”.
Written in a confessional manner, the book almost reads like a diary, addressed to an imaginary discoverer. About a third of it depicts the setting – the time and place from which Madness emerged. Thompson, who is a Londoner born and bred, tells a story, interspersed with urban legends, anecdotes and tales about hazardous experiences, e.g. jumping on freight trains and “getting into scrapes”. In other words, he delivers the sense of genius loci from the perspective of a local and a time witness.
Reading delicious stories of petty crimes, one might question whether they are fictional. The extreme adventures of Lee and his future band-fellows – Chrissy Boy (Chris Foreman) and Mike Barson – are reminiscent of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’s shenanigans: “We’d also find the odd dead fox, cut off its tail and tie it to one of our bicycles. This was the mid-60s so we’d probably seen the mods with their Vespas and Lambrettas, with foxtails hanging off the back”. Later in the book, the chapter on the quick transformation of Madness from a humble pub rock act to an international headliner provides similar astonishment. Still, it’s a fact.
After setting the scene and sense of time, the book then leads further into the world of music. Comparing the ’70s to the foggy ’50s and swinging ’60s, Thompson speaks of the decade as a liberating time music-wise, a time of artistic freedom: “[…] the 1970s was a brilliant era for music. So much happened: from reggae and soul to glam and pub rock, from punk and new wave and then, towards the tail end of the era, to the second mod and skinhead waves, and 2Tone”. Citing his Motown, reggae and glam rock influences, self-taught Thompson recalls The Upsetters’ Return Of Django, particularly the saxophone part by Val Bennett, and Andy Mackay’s inspiring style of playing.
Other socio-cultural aspects defining the period, such as fashion, are presented in progression and detail. Thus, a skinhead look with a short haircut, Sta-Prest trousers and Dr Martens boots is distinguished from ‘suedehead/bootboy/smoothie style’. These visual descriptions are supported by cultural references such as Richard Allen’s books and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Naturally, the words nutty and madness are endemic. Referring to the socio-cultural and musical contexts, Thompson finally gives a definition: “Nutty” was a term that I came up with and it has stuck with the band. It described us, as a gang of mates, and our sound perfectly. In my mind, the Madness sound was something along the lines of the theme to Steptoe And Son meets Kilburn And The High Roads”.
Infused with voices from Thompson’s bandmates, friends and relatives, the slightly chaotic narrative delivers an idea of “madness” as a spirit of the time as well as a lifestyle. All the more it’s a funny and educating read, telling a personal story and contributing to the ’70s music chronicle.
Growing Out Of It: Machinations Before Madness can be ordered here.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.