Of all the bands I loved as a child, there's only one I abandoned when I put aside childish things. That band was Madness. For years, as a grown-up, I looked back in bafflement at my obsession, wondering what I ever saw in them.
Oh, I was obsessed, all right. I joined the MIS (Madness Information Service) and collected all the Nutty Boys comics. My Harrington jacket clanked under the weight of Madness badges. I took piano lessons to be like keyboardist Mike Barson. I got a severe crew cut just to look like them. The Specials radicalised me, but Madness entertained me.
Thirty years since "The Prince" changed my life, I'm standing in what looks like a giant school gym looking at the bovine necks of shaven-headed blokes about my age with "England" tattooed above the nape, while seven middle-aged men in fezes, boaters and trilbies lark about on stage, trying to reconcile it all.
It comes at the end of a year when Madness have released the most acclaimed album of their career. The Liberty of Norton Folgate is something of a concept album, inspired by a tiny London parish which, for arcane reasons, enjoyed independence until 1900. It also blends social observation and melodic music-hall ska-pop with the effortlessness you'd expect after three decades. It's on records like this that Madness, more than anyone, remind you that music hall, when viewed through a certain lens, is to London what Weimar cabaret was to Berlin.
Inevitably, from the moment Chas Smash bellows the words "Hey you, don't watch that, watch this!", it's the singalong singles – "Embarrassment", "My Girl", "Sun and the Rain" – that dominate a festive December knees-up like this, much to the delight of the Cross of St George tattoo crew. When Suggs does announce a track from Norton Folgate – tonight we hear "NW5", "Idiot Child" and "Forever Young" – the bull-necks in front of me say, in unison, "To the bar..."
They go off script with a few old album tracks ("Bed and Breakfast Man", "In the Rain", "Ernie") and a rather fantastic reggae cover of Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion", but when Chris Foreman announces an "all-killer, no filler" finale, he isn't kidding. The closing run – "House of Fun", "Wings of a Dove", "Baggy Trousers", "It Must Be Love" and an encore of "Madness" and "Night Boat to Cairo" – crushes all resistance. Yeah, I remember what I saw in them.
In my family, music at Christmas meant my mother playing "O Come All Ye Faithful" while my cousins and I yowled the descant. But then, most families don't have one thousandth of the musical talent of the Wainwrights.
Rufus and Martha, the singing siblings, have begun a tradition of sharing their seasonal singalong with the world, and this year it's the turn of the Royal Albert Hall to play host. The combination of Christmas, London and Victoriana has inspired irresistible Dickensian associations, and most of the extended family are costumed like urchins from Oliver Twist. The central pair, for example, are wearing tartan trews (Rufus) and a rag-doll dress (Martha). If you're already familiar with Rufus Wainwright, you'll know why it was necessary to specify.
The personnel include Québecoise folk legends Kate and Anna McGarrigle (the former being the mother of Martha and Rufus) who look like penurious match-sellers, Anna's daughter Lily, Linda Thompson and her daughters, Martha's and Rufus's respective partners, and a few star guests.
Guy Garvey, looking very Dickensian himself, croons Joni Mitchell's "thoroughly depressing" Christmas song "River". A frock-coated Ed Harcourt duets with Martha on The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York". Boy George, giving a reggaefied "White Christmas", defies the dress code with a rakish pink hat and diamanté suit.
The whole thing has the chaotic, ad-hoc feel of a lock-in at a Hebridean pub rather than a slick package show – which is perfect. The McGarrigles spontaneously debate whether angels have sex, and everyone chuckles as though we're party – to quote guests French and Saunders – to "a mulled-wine log-cabin Canadian vibe".
And everyone loves Rufus Wainwright. Women and gays, especially, adore him. Technically I'm neither, and even I find him likeable. He's the sort of host who has people chuckling before he's even said anything.
However, it's a mention of our own NHS that draws the biggest cheer. Martha gave birth prematurely to a son four weeks ago, lending extra poignancy to songs such as "Il est né le divin enfant". His life was saved by University College Hospital, and for no fee. "If I'd been in the States," the new mother shudders, "I'd have been up shit's creek."Reuse content