When you hit the top, the only way to go is down. 1982 had seen Madness crown their rise to fame with a number one single, “House Of Fun”, a greatest hits album Complete Madness that sold shedloads on both audio and video formats, and a fourth studio album, The Rise & Fall, that was hailed by the critics as their best to date. And while 1983 didn’t bring a new album, it did bring a US hit with “Our House” and a pair of non-album singles (“Wings Of A Dove” and “The Sun And The Rain”) that kept their profile and their momentum high at home. Although to my mind one of the slightest singles they released in their original run, “Wings Of A Dove” actually came within a whisker of repeating “House Of Fun”‘s number one success. On the face of it, there seemed no reason to fear for Madness’ future.
However, changes were afoot in the Madness camp. Their next album would fulfil their contract with Stiff Records, and keyboard player Mike Barson decided it would be his last too. The announcement prompted a flurry of speculation – either that the group was splitting up entirely, or that lead singer Graham “Suggs” McPherson was about to quit too. For the time being, both of those rumours were incorrect, but there was still a feeling that Madness wouldn’t survive without Barson – a feeling that would, to a large extent, be borne out by subsequent events.
The release of “Michael Caine” as the first single from Keep Moving did little to stop the gossip. A moody number which the group explained as being about the paranoia of an IRA informant living under an assumed name (although the lyric is so oblique that you would struggle to work that out without being told), it wasn’t an obvious choice for a lead single – but then again, the similarly gloom-laden “Grey Day” had been the lead single from 7, and that had done them no harm at all. And having the “my name is Michael Caine” hook intoned by the real-life Michael Caine was a masterstroke. The fact that the single barely featured Suggs at all, instead having a lead vocal by its writer Cathal Smyth, alias Chas Smash, was a bit of a shock, but with Barson on his way out, perhaps now was the time for the other members to demonstrate their versatility?
And maybe that’s how it would have been seen, had “Michael Caine” peaked just one measly place higher in the charts. But when you’re used to a top ten single every time, number 11 doesn’t cut it. Especially when it’s the first single from an album with great expectations piled upon it.
A remix was prepared and a release date announced for the album’s second single, “Victoria Gardens”. The more upbeat track had been picked out as an album highlight by many reviewers. But at the eleventh hour, “Victoria Gardens” was replaced on Stiff’s release schedule by the downbeat “One Better Day”. This may of course have been simply because “One Better Day” was thought a stronger track. Certainly, it’s a well-regarded song, often mentioned as deserving a better chart placing than it ultimately got. And the video (which also features McPherson’s wife Bette Bright) is a fan favourite, and clearly tied in to the lyric, so maybe it was partly a case of going with the song for which they had a stronger visual concept. But you’ve got to suspect that there was also an element of cold feet about releasing a second song fronted by Smyth directly on the heels of “Michael Caine”.
The fact that it so prominently featured vocals by Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling, formerly of The Beat and then fronting General Public, may well have counted against it too; although Madness had brought in additional performers on previous singles (“Wings Of A Dove” saw them comprehensively outnumbered by a gospel choir and a steel band), perhaps such a significant guest contribution – one which under normal circumstances would surely warrant a “featuring” credit – would have been thought to send out the wrong signals at a point when Madness’ future looked – and was – uncertain? By this time, contract negotiations between Stiff and Madness had broken down, and with no prospect of Madness re-signing, Stiff declined to fund a video for the single, whatever it was, so Madness paid for it themselves. In the circumstances, a conservative choice may have been preferred.
There’s also the possibility that they suddenly thought better of releasing a single to radio that contained the word “bloody”. A mild expletive perhaps, but it would surely have resulted in the loss of some airplay. Why risk it?
“One Better Day” is a fine piece of work, but it seems a shame that “Victoria Gardens” didn’t get to be a single. Its fate was to be hidden away as a 12″-only bonus track. A double “A”-side of “One Better Day” and the thematically similar, but musically contrasting “Victoria Gardens” would have made a cracking 45. Both songs clearly show Madness as a grown-up band, and as a pairing they would have been a great advertisement for the album.
“One Better Day” peaked at number 17. The now Barson-less Madness set up a new label, Zarjazz, under the Virgin Records umbrella, and invested in their own recording studio, but the next album Mad Not Mad failed to halt their decline. When they split in 1986, “Victoria Gardens” was included on the farewell compilation Utter Madness (as of course was “One Better Day”). Even now the fandom, though near-unanimous in its acclaim for “One Better Day”, still generally regards “Victoria Gardens” as the great lost Madness single. Quite right too.