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Concept Album Corner - 'The Liberty of Norton Folgate' by Madness

Updated on December 3, 2012
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Not too long ago, I reviewed a concept album that focused on the fallacies and faults of post-war Britain entitled Arthur: Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. I still hold that album in very high regard for its amazingly catchy melodies, instrumentation, and its witty lyrics that unabashedly shined many a spotlight on the uglier aspects of England (at the time, at least). In fact, Arthur seemed to nail down something that is key to many Rock Operas and Concept Albums that seems to be sadly missed: focus. I sort of rambled on about this poorly in my In Bocca Al Lupo review, but regardless of how broad or narrow the topic of a concept album is, elements of tone, atmosphere, and ‘theme’ do best when focused to give clarity to the listener. In this regard, today’s piece is sort of the perfect doppelgänger of The Kinks’ Arthur.

In 1976, one of the most influential British pop bands through the 80’s was formed in Camden Town, London. Originally known as The North London Invaders with a six-member line-up, a seventh member by the name of Graham McPherson(stage-name Suggs) joined in 1977 and formed the band into Madness. Madness not only played a major part in the pop music of the 1980’s but was also the major band to bring back the 2 Tone Ska Revival in Britain. Their style can easily be described as reggae/ska fused with Beatles-esque, Kinksy pop. Or, as Rolling Stone once described them, ‘The Blues Brothers with British accents’. The band split midway through the 80’s sadly, but formed a reunion in the early 90’s, moving from pop to theatrics. In 2003, one of their most popular singles, ‘Our House’, became the basis for a musical of the same name. Then 2009 came around just in time for them to create The Liberty of Norton Folgate.

Based on an English landmark of the same name, the term ‘liberty’ here meaning a piece of land in which the rights that would typically be reserved for a king were given to private hands (think of a royal city complex, in a sense), The Liberty of Norton Folgate was heavily inspired by Suggs’ first attempt at creating a concept album entitled The Rise and Fall, wherein the songs would correlate to the childhoods of the band members. It didn’t work out in the end, as one might guess, as only three or four songs fit the intended concept. But as the band got back together released a few more albums as a group, Suggs not only wanted to do an album about growing up in London, but an album about the majesty that is London. They released a heavy deal of their album in 2008 before its release a year later and even got a film treatment by music video director Julien Temple.

1.) Overture – As with any operatic piece, an overture seems perfectly suitable to introduce the audience to the upcoming leitmotifs of the piece and musically set the tone of the album. In a strange way, it does so completely right and yet completely wrong at the same time. The section is composed of strings, brass and woodwind, creating an image of a Threepenny Opera-esque, Victorian era sideshow performance of mimes, acrobats, tight-rope walkers, etc. While it is true that most of the album focuses on the Victorian era of Britain, the music for the rest of the album is, once again, ska music. The tune being played, however, doesn’t really show up until the final track comes into play.

2.) We Are London – The Overture comes to a halt as the band lulls into the real first song of the piece, playing up the jazzy reggae tunes that they’re well known for. The song, like ‘Victoria’ from Arthur, introduces the listener to the setting of the whole album and describing its sights and sounds, from Regents Park to Compton Street. I’m not certain if Madness is attempting to be satirical or mocking in its chorus, but it describes London thusly: You can make it your own hell or heaven/Live as you please/Can we make it if we all stick together/As one big family.

3.) Sugar and Spice – From here on out, the album sticks to its major theme: growing up in London, taken from the experiences of the band members. I’ll admit, my knowledge of the band is limited, knowing nothing of their backstories, so this is all purely interpretational and shouldn’t be quoted on. From the sounds of things, the narrator reminisces on a girl he loved from early on and fell out of love with. Many songs from here on out seem to revolve around loved ones and regret. The sound of guitars buzz and whine smoothly to the happy tune in a lovely bit of lyrical dissonance of the subject matter.

4.) Forever Young – Supposedly a song that Suggs wrote to one of his children, Forever Young warns the pupil of the piece that there is still time. You may be growing older each day, but you’re still young enough to make up for your sins. The tune begins to really pick up on a tropical sounding jazz piece like that of a Harry Belafonte song, but crossed with the regret and mourning of something like ‘Sixteen Tons’. So stay forever young/Don’t you do what I have done/Stay forever young/Before Paradise Lost and Innocence Gone.

5.) Dust Devil – With another switch, the music returns to more reggae stylings and organ hollering, sounding like a tropical, exotic Hawaiian party number. My assumption is that the piece is about the onset of puberty and hormones from the point of view of a boy spying on a girl from across the street. Not much to say outside of how catchy the piece is. Madness is certainly capable of making fantastic dance music.

6.) Rainbows – While not so much reggae, the organ music certainly sticks around to make some form of electronic music about, what I assume, is a character experiencing the rush of drugs, possibly hallucinogenic. While I have gone on long enough about my hatred for synth-music, I will make an exception for organ/keyboard music. The sound is something that is completely its own thing, otherworldly and odd. The quickening pace of the whole thing mixes perfectly with the idea of being high, so good show on Madness’ part.

7.) That Close – Back to jazzy and heartfelt with piano swinging and organ pieces, That Close I suppose details a near-fatal accident between one of the band members and a loved one or two, traveling in a broken-down car to a summer getaway, skidding away from certain death. Remember them summer days/When we took whatever came our way/And getaway yeah but not too far/We’ll take a spin round in your rusty old car.

8.) MKII – A sad little piano ditty revolving around abandonment. MKII is an abbreviation of Mark 2, referring to the second version of a product, a poor man’s version, a second-rate comparison. A rich man leaves a woman he’d previously had a relationship with to the dust for something else, having found something better than ‘The poor man’s version’. The woman is left empty and nearly catatonic, ashamed to say anything about the situation. The piece is surprisingly short and goes by quickly, ending with the slow, soft piano motif and the chirping of birds.

9.) On The Town – Mainly piano oriented again, but lively and bursting with strings and quick, wild drum beats, of a couple mourning their failed relationship, stuck in one of the worst romantic hells: stuck in a world of problems without solving anything, going through the motions, lying to each other to stay good in each other’s eyes to prevent a bad reputation. The wife of the piece confesses to her infidelity, having been ‘on the town’. Though it’s merely a thought, the wife could be the woman from MKII. The song fades away as a saxophone blares along with the piece.

10.) Bingo – As a polar opposite to On The Town, this song also has livid piano sections mixed with saxophone and other instruments, but seems upbeat and cheerful about it. The song seems to be a traveling song through Camden Town where the band grew up. From this point on, this seems to be the major kind of song that The Liberty of Norton Folgate focuses on: the sights and sounds of London and England, mixed between a haze of old and new like some kind of Steampunk setting. Frankly, this might be my least favorite track on the whole album if only because of how bland and confused it seems to be.

11.) Idiot Child – Arguably the best ‘thematic’ song on the track, based on the idea of being treated like an idiot, which is certainly a universal dilemma. Judging by Suggs’ cockney singing, one could assume that this would be a very personal song for Suggs if he grew up treated like a fool by his elders and by society in general. Again, the piano comes in but is used in a more honky-tonk, comedic manner. It does bring to mind the idea that children and, in general, people tend to be smarter than we give them credit for, being wiser than others in some areas, particularly in the creative department. Idiot child, just clutching to life/The boy who never grew up/Always told to shut up.

12.) Africa – In a surprising twist, this piece doesn’t take place in England…sort of! Considering the title, Africa certainly has a… ‘history’ with the United Kingdom. Ah, how the Empire has changed over the years. The narrator at least seems ready to leave England to trek all the way to Africa. Here, the music certainly takes a change of pace. Opening with the chirping of birds and echoes of wild animals that morph into the whistling of a steamboat, conga drums and exotic instruments play a heavy role in the piece. The entire piece is very serene and calm until it fades into the echoing orchestra of some Bollywood dance number far in the background, one of the major themes that will show up soon…

13.) NW5 – Until then, we are treated to a surprisingly epic song complete with piano, bells, and string, as though action and drama are ready to burst forth from an adventure film, imagery of the apocalyptic looming over the setting like zeppelins over a peaceful town square. Rather, the song focuses on the shattered relationship between one of the band members and a friend who used to live at the street address of NW5. Both grew up in poverty and were rambunctious. But while one clearly reached levels of fame and glory in a band called Madness, the other died the way he grew up, devious and bitter. The song is a sorrowful ode to that friend and might be the most poignant piece on the album. Though you have become a burden/One thing remains that’s for certain/I will love you all my life/But without you in my life…. The epic nature of the piece, while dissonant to the subject matter, certainly adds a whole new level of power to the piece that is oddly understated in some way that I just can’t describe.

14.) Clerkenwell Polka – In a rather sudden and somewhat odd shift in tone, the next song goes for a very Tom Waits-ish tuba and piano piece, no longer praising the jolly, fantastical nature of Britain’s sights and sounds, but rather looking at the poverty and debt-ridden streets with cynicism and weariness, focusing on street smarts and the like. Why deny that the lie that is sent/Makes you work, live, and die for some rent. The string solo also plays in as a key part to the climactic song coming up next…

15.) The Liberty of Norton Folgate – We finally come to the title track, promised the story of The Liberty of Norton Folgate…though we’re not exactly treated to it. Well, in an odd sense we are. The social history, at least, of the various figures who lived there. Again, it is very much what the album has been like: focused on only the sights and sounds of Britain rather than the actual stories behind them. Lasting for a good ten minutes, the whole piece could be considered a mini-opera, switching between themes and tunes at the drop of a hat, from the solo melody from ‘Clerkenwell Polka’ to the orchestral waltz of the Overture to the Bollywood, Indian dance piece of ‘Africa’. Musically, this is a fascinating piece but leads to the major problem of the album: lack of clarity. The song jumps between setting and time period with little rhyme nor reason, attempting to get an image of London as a whole while only making it maddeningly confused. Even worse, while it claims to be focused on The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the listener would almost be unable to figure out what it was without any prior knowledge to what was being sung about. Like actual madness itself, the song comes out as a haze, confused, fast-paced, lively and uncertain. Though it is still musically catchy and captivating.

I’ve heard The Liberty of Norton Folgate described as a Rock Opera and certainly a Concept Album. Going back to a previous album, In Bocca Al Lupo, I admit that my argument that the theme was too broad and muddled to know what the concept was didn’t hold up. For In Bocca Al Lupo, the intent stuck clear enough to the music. For The Liberty of Norton Folgate, the concept or the story of the Opera itself is so hard to find that calling it a Rock Opera is nearly infuriating. Clarity between tracks as to what the major idea are confused and inconsistent. The concert film by Julien Temple seems to make more sense and is more coherent, as snippets of Suggs and the band members act out the actual history of characters throughout London in-between songs, sort of like a Quadrophenia thing where Roger Daltrey would explain the story between songs.

That said, the album still manages the major element of making an album, at least: catchy songs, fascinating instrumentation, and setting scenes. As an album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is still able to cook up wacky, jazzy songs, both dark and joyous. If for nothing more than the rhythms and beats, The Liberty of Norton Folgate is listenable. The concept may be muddled or hard to decipher, though.

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