Tricky, a British musical treasure in his own right, summed up the early 80’s musical landscape perfectly, when he stated that The Specials & Madness were his generations Beatles & The Stones. They were also mine, as a pre-pubescent just getting the first rush from music. His comparison does not hold up to too much scrutiny (The Beatles & The Rolling Stones worldwide success and cultural impact are unmatched and never likely to be equalled). But in an era where there were other bands loosely affiliated post-punk, it is arguably Madness & The Specials who have the edge, having that star power, the presence, the tunes, over The Beat or The Selector or many of the other 2-Tone / sort-of-mod-sort-of-skinhead bands that emerged in their wake.
Following the success of their first 2 albums and a string of singles that, while never getting to number 1, regularly made the top 10, plus a strong visual identity boosted by their effective use of music videos, Madness did something that many great bands had done before – they made the band movie.
The Specials had their own movie (of sorts) out in 1981, called ‘Dance Craze’ (a celebration of the 2-Tone / Ska revival scene, the film was largely concert footage, including Madness). Madness were going to do a film that was more personal and all about Madness. Self-funding to the tune of 20,000 quid per band member, plus cash from their label, Stiff, they were unencumbered by expectations from movie studios or financiers. ‘Take it or leave it’ is a film about the origins of Madness, how they came to be, covering a relatively short period of time (1976 to the then present 1981).
The film covers the difficult early beginnings of the band, as wannabe pub band ‘The Invaders’, with their out of tune and out of sync takes on rock n roll standards. As the band comes together you get a feel for the trials and tribulations of bands as they search for the right configuration of players and personalities until the ‘chemistry’ is achieved. As far as the acting goes, it is safe to say that if you are uncomfortable with naturalistic performances this is one you need to miss. Or go in with an open mind.
There are varying degrees of nasally London accents, some of the time mumbling into their chests, and one or two of the actors are clearly embarrassed at the whole process. But i think this adds to the charm. Mike Barson (aka Monsieur Barso), the keyboard player and de facto leader and driving force comes across as belligerent and hard work. Apparently his characteristics were exaggerated for the film but it’s to his credit that he is willing to portray himself in an unflattering light. Suggs comes across as a bit cheeky, Lee as a bit of a loose cannon and a bit dodgy, Bedders looks and sounds about 12 and you are rooting for Chrissy, if only for the fact that he has a wife and baby in a flat to look after (in another bit of artistic licence, there was actually no baby, only a wife in Chrissy’s life at the time.)
There is some footage of the Dublin Castle venue, a crap fight with some skins (probably to put to bed any discusion that they were a band for bonehead-type skins), and some great scenes that are a validation of the fashion of that subculture and era (Harrington Jackets, Ben Sherman, Doc Marten Boots, that green bomber jacket that Woody loved to wear).
Personally, the big pay off is the footage of them playing live, when you get to see Madness at their jittery, bouncing best. All that pent-up, awkward energy, channelled into 3 minute mash-ups of ska and new wave and jerky, jumping bodies, it’s a reminder of why Madness were such a potent visual and audio force over 30 years ago. Their early years are where their potential was still being brought out, their youth and energy undimmed, and ‘Take it or leave it’ (thankfully) captures them before they started maturing into a better songwriting band, but with that maturity went some of the early teeth bared, fist clenched punk attitude.
As a document of how a thousand bands try to strive and evolve, it captures the frustrations and funny moments well. As a British social document, it gives some insight into a subculture in early 80s britain, as well as brief glimpses into life on the dole and the struggle of working class young men trying to achieve something more, something better. As a British film it has that early 80’s glom and greyness about it, that captures a mood and a time. As a portrayal of a well loved British band, it’s an honest and entertaining 90 minutes. When they finally emerge as Madness, and you hear ‘Bed and Breakfast Man’ or ‘One Step Beyond’ you will be reminded of why you loved them first time around.