Heckle yourself: Madness’s solution to an audience-free gig

Who needs punters? Madness on-stage at the London Palladium  - Aron Klein
Who needs punters? Madness on-stage at the London Palladium - Aron Klein

Playing a concert without an audience? That would be madness, surely? Please excuse the terrible pun, but it’s been a very long year. Since the pandemic shut down venues back in March 2020, music fans have had to rely on so called “livestreams” to provide a facsimile of the concert experience: shows filmed in socially distanced settings and broadcast over the internet.

There have been spectacular examples but even the best have suffered from an absence of human interaction, the crucial compact of communication between artists and audience that is arguably the essential element of the live experience. And for a knees-up, singalong party band as joyously personable as Madness, the prospect of performing to an empty room seems antithetical to their very nature.

For a livestream debut billed as The Get Up!, the superannuated Nutty Boys came up with a pleasing solution. Using split-screen effects and clever cuts, the six surviving members served as their own audience. They were shown seated at the otherwise empty London Palladium, applauding and heckling their own performance on stage. “I’d forgotten how rubbish we were,” snorted singer Graham Suggs McPherson as he watched his band delivering rowdily energetic versions of early hits on a set built to resemble the bedroom of keyboard player Mike Barson. “I told you we should have gone to the Sting livestream.”

Wittily scripted by comic actor Charlie Higson, with plenty of space for improvised badinage from the band, the concept was that the band were attending the gala opening night of a Madness musical in a haunted Palladium. The beautiful venue was deserted but for Higson himself as the tatty ghost of an usher theatrically lamenting the effect of the pandemic on live theatre, and Barson in drag as Her Majesty the Queen, dancing surprisingly energetically in the Royal Box. Filmed interlinking passages offered affectionate ruminations on theatrical life. Lost in the mazey corridors of the Palladium, saxophonist Lee Thompson asked the ghostly usher “How do I get on the stage?” “Three years in Drama school, get yourself an agent and go to as many auditions as you can,” Higson responded. “And you may need to sleep with the producer.”

In the “first act,” Madness played their younger selves at a slapdash rehearsal, interspersing songs with corny gags delivered with all the enthusiastic gusto of amateur panto. Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals (“they’ll never get anywhere with a name like that!”) and Paul Weller (“Apparently he’s forming a band called The Jam, but don’t spread it about”) turned up to audition as lead singer. When Thompson arrived late to his seat, Suggs shrugged: “You haven’t missed anything. The geezers playing us are far too old.”

Drama queen: keyboard player Mike Barson drags up - Aron Klein
Drama queen: keyboard player Mike Barson drags up - Aron Klein

Well, he had a point. Madness have been around a long time, a teenage north London gang from the seventies punk explosion who have grown up to be regarded as national treasures, performing Our House from the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Jubilee in 2018. For the second act, the band returned as their older selves, nattily dressed in suits and backed with percussionist and horn section to deliver a slick set packed with life-affirming hits. It was an uplifting reminder of how Madness earned their place in British pop hearts, blending English Music Hall silliness with sleek reggae grooves and giddy melodies, all topped off with bittersweet Kinks-style observational songcraft. It was a crowd-pleasing affair, even if the crowd they were pleasing was themselves.

Madness will tour the UK from December 2nd this year. Tickets are on sale now