ROCK / Too good to be continued

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TROOPS of geese wheel over Finsbury Park; getting ready, somewhat prematurely, to fly away South. This, of course, is what Madness did, which is why the Park beneath - never the loveliest of London's green spaces - is fenced off with corrugated iron, and there is no green space, only pasty English flesh, big boots and plastic beer cups.

A large part of Madness's piquancy, right from the beginning, was nostalgia for things that could never have been quite as sweet as they made them sound, so their return, six years on, is a complicated business. As a one- off (well, two-off) goodbye to the mass audience which they'd lost by the end (but which has rallied round their recent greatest-hits album), it probably cannot fail. But if it all goes too well, they might be tempted to give the whole thing another go - they're still young, they've got all their own teeth - and that would be playing chicken with posterity.

The show is opened by Camden artful dodgers Flowered Up, who turn out to be the most musically supple and sophisticated act on a fine bill. Waves of progressive house wash off the stage, carrying luminous slabs of rock guitar. The open air, which reduces many bands to sludge, leaves this lot fresh and precise.

On the mellower second afternoon, the crowd is rougher than the proverbial dog's bandage, but good humour prevails. The day before, the shaven-headed fraternity was meaner and gave Morrissey the bird in no uncertain terms. Traditional inability to cope with men in lame blouses obviously played a part in this, but the Mancunian's ill-judged recent flirtation with the badges of Anglo-fascism - a British Skins button and an England T- shirt - gave it an element of poetic justice. Accounts differ as to what it was that hit him on the first night to make him pull out of the second; Suggs says a cigarette paper, he says a 50p piece. Whatever it was, I hope it was accompanied by the realisation that identifying your own feelings of alienation and self-pity with a resentful underclass is not clever.

'Shall I mourn your decline with some Thunderbird wine?' asks Ian Dury, rhymester supreme, in 'Sweet Gene Vincent'. Hornchurch only knows when he and his Blockheads last played in public together, but Dury's current incarnation as television's most convincingly cultured arts presenter does not stand in the way of a sprightly run through a darkly saucy and surprisingly hard-hitting back catalogue. The distance between punk rock and pub rock was never as far as everyone thought. John Lydon, Finsbury Park's most famous Californian exile, pops out at the end to hail Dury him as 'my friend and hero', which is probably not something he'd say of many people.

Madness's reunion is more problematic than the Blockheads', because they changed so much in the course of their career. At what point should they pick things up again? With the moving, ultra-liberal melancholy of their magnificent, but not top- selling, Mad Not Mad swansong, or the popular, chirpy ska revivalism of their origins? You can't blame a pop group for following commercial logic, and from the moment Carl Smyth, record executive, leads a 30,000-strong battle cry of 'Hey you, don't watch dat, watch dis]' it's clear which way things are going.

Not that there is anything wrong with the earlier material. No other songbook has such a direct line to the emotions of everyday adolescent Englishness, and the band, more relaxed on the second night, perform their biggest hits with spiritand accuracy. It's strange how all the old critical snobberies, which sought to stave off appreciation of Madness's not-so-hidden depths when they were first together but vanished in misty-eyed nostalgia when they were gone, have suddenly resurfaced. The way songs like 'House of Fun' and 'Embarrassment' work as mass singalongs is proof, not denial, of the subtlety with which they tackled serious subjects.

But by choosing to do nothing later than 'Bed and Breakfast Man', Madness cut their present selves off from their past. Suggs's jokey asides - 'We'd like to play some contemporary music, but we don't know any' - show that he understands as well as anyone the ambiguity of the band's position. 'Madness] . . . Madness]' chant the more terrace-minded sections of the crowd. 'Absolutely correct,' comes the gently mocking reply. 'Right again.' We need pop groups like Madness more than ever, which is why it will be a shame if the money persuades them to spin the reunion out and stop meaning what they used to. The triumphant encores of 'One Step Beyond', with the band's inspiration, the mighty Prince Buster, joining Chas Smash on 'chuckachuckchuck' noises, and the ecstatically tired and emotional 'It Must Be Love', would be a great way to bow out.