Songs I Love — Madness, “Yesterday’s Men” (1985)

Everyone has a guilty pleasure record. A collection of songs that are not particularly good, or well made, but you cannot help but listen to anyway. For whatever reason. Awfulness is not a consideration. It just isn’t.

Madness’ 1985 album, Mad Not Mad, is my guilty pleasure.

I remember the day I bought this cassette. Not knowing there was a even a Madness album coming, I remember walking into Rhino Records in Claremont, seeing the single for “Uncle Sam” on display, and going “really?” I bought the cassette, popped it into the player in my car, and as the first notes of “I’ll Compete” came pouring out of the speakers, I remember thinking:

What the hell is this crap?

Oh, because Mad Not Mad is a pretty crappy album. From top to bottom. From agonizing beginning to computerized end. I’m trying to give serious consideration to which song on this wretched collection is the worst — the tawdry political awfulness of “Burning the Boats,” the Yamaha DX-7 bells from hell on the title track “Mad Not Mad,” the utter parody of a Madness pop song with “White Heat” (and the banjo! the &*@$% banjo!), the never-ending nightmare that is their send up of Scritti Politti’s “Sweetest Girl” (I once did a whole radio newscast with the extended instrumental mix as my background), or the fourth-rate I-love-you-because-you’re-my-brother schtick of “Tears You Can’t Hide.” There’s just so much awful to pick on this album, it’s hard to know exactly where to start.

And yet. The first single, “Yesterday’s Men,” is a gem. It’s a lovely little song. Yes, It’s almost completely ruined by the production, which has too much percussion, some keyboard thing sequenced rhythmically in the background, something that sounds like a French horn that doesn’t really belong there, and between Afrodiziak and the army of Jimmys singing backing vocals (what ever happened to Carl Smyth singing anyway? you would think a band with two dedicated vocalists wouldn’t need a troupe of backup singers), there’s almost too much here. (At least the UK version of this song didn’t have the harmnoica solo.) This would have made a sweet little reggae song — guitar, organ, bass, a little less drum, a section of saxophones, trombones and trumpets doing what the strings are doing. Suggs and Carl and maybe Lee doing all the singing (although it probably needs the girls of Afrodiziak to fill in some things). This could have been, and should have been, a much simpler song.

And yet. The words get me. They got me from the beginning:

An insolent speck of youth
Being taken for a walk
So tightly by the ear
That he can hardly talk
Yesterday’s men hang on to today
To sing in the old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run

A metropolitan marathon
Has been held today
But who you need to catch
Will be coming the other way

Yesterday’s men hang to today
To sing in any old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run

Because when you’re told to start
How far can you go
When your race is won
And you already know…

There’s an air of resignation to this song. You can hear it in the sound of Suggs striking the match at the beginning of song, lighting the cigarette and taking a drag. This is a tired song, sung by the tired singer of a tired band, a band tired of the world. Which is why Lee’s sax works better than Judd Lander’s harmonica — Lee sounds a bit tired too. It’s one of Lee’s better solos. And yet, there’s hanging on. To today. I’m not going to give these lyrics a depth they don’t deserve. But as tired as this song, there’s an almost hopefulness to it as well.

Watch the official video for “Yesterday’s Men” here (the content is blocked outside of Youtube). Yeah, it’s an 80’s video, and some of the visual images only kind of make sense. What can I say?

Here’s the 12-inch extended mix which highlights some of what’s overdone in this song. It also manages to have both the harmonica and the sax solos (basically, the song plays twice, more or less).

Now, the interesting thing about Mad Not Mad is the b-sides of all three singles were actually really good songs. In part, they weren’t produced in the same way, so they weren’t overdone. “All I Knew,” the b-side to “Yesterday’s Men,” is quite possibly a better song than the a-side. I think the drum and bass parts could have been better — again, this wants more of a reggae feel than the band gave it. But there’s a beautiful simplicity to this song that the a-side could have used. (I think that’s the reason this is one of a tiny handful of b-sides included on the 3-CD Guided Tour of Madness collection.)

The b-side to “Uncle Sam” was a little guitar ripper called “Please Don’t Go,” which sounds ever so vaguely Beatles-esque. (I am not responsible for any damages to your mental faculties caused by listening to the “Sweetest Girl” extended mix. You have been warned.)

And even this, “Jennie (A Portrait Of),” which was the b-side to “Sweetest Girl,” manages to work reasonably well, largely because it’s done so simply (even with the flanged synth sound, which is probably a high hat trigger) and yet in a way that plays to the band’s post-Mike Barson musical strength, especially the tenor and baritone sax honking away. (That Madness would call it quits by the end of 1986 really wasn’t a surprise, because they were a tired and worn out band after Barson left in 1984.)

Yesterday’s men hang to today
To sing in any old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run…