AS YOU skirt the perimeter fence between the car-park and the entrance, before you have even got into the concert, you see the leaflets littering the grass outside. 'On Sale Soon', they read. 'The Video Of This Concert'. Blimey, you think, give us a chance to help you finish making the damn thing before you try to sell it back to us . . .
The punter was never put under such pressure before the recession started biting, was never requested to become a second-stage consumer before the first stage was indulged, enjoyed and over. Now, it is virtually impossible to go to a pop concert without being herded like cattle towards the merchandise stalls, blitzed with leaflets advertising future attractions, and generally canvassed for future pickings by promoters.
Long gone are the days when a T-shirt would be bought after the concert as a mark of special satisfaction with the performance; now, we are asked to buy into the event before it has taken place, as if some special kudos attached to being part of something involving only a mere 70,000 others.
The obligations of spectatorship are not as onerous in Finsbury Park, admittedly, as at the Michael Jackson concerts at Wembley - masterpieces of cold manipulation passed off as warm sincerity. For one thing, you knew here that when Madness finished a song, it was over and wouldn't return for a few unbidden encores of its own, like so many of Jackson's; for another, Madness play like a real band, rather than a bunch of session lags on just another job.
The momentum of Madness's performance, of course, is completely opposed to Jackson's. While he goes to absurd extremes to persuade you of his unique, alien specialness, Madness are always just good blokes, out for a lark and a laugh with their mates, tens of thousands of whom just happen to have congregated together in Finsbury Park for a day's beery nostalgia.
'All back to Chas Smash's after the show]' says Suggs at one point, to broad acclaim; and spiritually, he's not far wrong. 'Madstock', the T-shirts call it - ho ho] - though the huge letter 'M' towering over the stage is more reminiscent of Metropolis, even when it's flashing on and off, sending the Mad-signal out in the vague direction of Hornsey.
A varied supporting bill has fared in varied ways, from the rowdy good humour of Ian Dury - a sort of Nutty Boys' dirty uncle, let out for improbable good behaviour - to the gold lame flounce of Morrissey, who, having replaced The Farm, was accorded the proverbial 'mixed reaction' for his trouble. But then, Morrissey has never been exactly the most blokeish of performers.
Despite the undertones of laddish boisterousness - small knots of skinheads push each other around playfully, porkpie-hatted youths assault the ear with loud cockernee patois, and the cardboard beer cartons favoured by the promoters encourage much random flinging of booze - a wave of affection and good humour sweeps across the park once Madness takes the stage.
Helicopter noises and disembodied dub fragments give way to 'Hey you] Don't watch that, watch this] This is the heavy heavy monster sound . . .', the intro to 'One Step Beyond', shouted back at the stage like some oafish catechism even as Chas Smash announces it.
The instrumental serves as a limbering-up exercise for nutty-boy callisthenics (Nuttercise?) before audience tonsils are tested on the back catalogue, every last word of every Madness song being shared by the multitude, rising and falling in volume according to the cuteness of the quips: 'You're an embarrassment . . . it's not quite a Jag-yew-arr . . . bless the bees, and the buurds . . . in the middle of our street . . . I want to stay home and watch tee-veeee . . . welcome to the lion's den'.
These songs are the sacred texts of blokeism, salt-of-the-earth working-class tracts spiced with a modicum of wit and an occasional improving subtext in the Ray Davies manner (a decade on, the pre-Aids 'House of Fun' remains the least didactic and most enjoyable of condom anthems), and they are rattled out with Jesuitical fervour. It is quite staggering, really, how many different varieties of off-key the cockney dialect is capable of, particularly after a hard day's boozing, human-pyramid-building and chip-guzzling.
'We'd like to do something a little more contemporary,' says Smash at one point, ' - but we don't know anything, so we'll have to do this]' It's intended as a joke, as they jump smartly into 'Wings of a Dove', but there's a resonance to the gag that goes a bit deeper. The atmosphere tonight is thick with nostalgia for the kind of decent pop songs that you could sing along with, for a time when lyrics were more than just a hysterical soul soundbite, and videos were an excuse for panto-flavoured fun rather than a headache-inducing barrage of flashing lights and dancing silhouettes.
This comes home all the more when, on the encore of 'Baggy Trousers', Lee Thompson and his sax loop out over the front of the crowd on a line, reprising one of the greatest Madness video moments. For a few seconds, a dozen years slip away, and we're all back behind school desks, flicking inky pellets. Sadly, Michael Caine couldn't make it.
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