You are here

Classic Tracks: Madness 'Our House'

Producers: Clive Langer, Alan Winstanley By Richard Buskin
Published June 2006

Madness performing on cult British sitcom The Young Ones on 19th August 1982. Left to right: Mike Barson, Suggs, Chris Foreman, Dan 'Woody' Woodgate, Chas Smash, Mark Bedford, Lee Thompson.Madness performing on cult British sitcom The Young Ones on 19th August 1982. Left to right: Mike Barson, Suggs, Chris Foreman, Dan 'Woody' Woodgate, Chas Smash, Mark Bedford, Lee Thompson.

Producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley helped to make Madness one of the most successful British bands of the '80s.

It was in 1979 that Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley co-produced together for the first time, on the debut album by a zany bunch of ska-loving North Londoners known as Madness. Originally known as the Invaders when formed by Mike Barson, Chris Foreman and Lee Thompson in 1976, the band then evolved into Morris and the Minors with the addition of Graham 'Suggs' McPherson, Mark Bedford, Carl 'Chas Smash' Smyth and Dan Woodgate, before settling on the Madness moniker in homage to a Prince Buster song. Several of the members were also fans of Deaf School, the group that had launched Clive Langer's career as a guitarist during the mid-'70s, and, having got to know him, they impressed him with a demo of 'My Girl' and persuaded him to produce several tracks, including their debut single, 'The Prince', recorded on eight-track at Pathway Studios and released on Two-Tone in 1979.

CLASSIC TRACKS: 'Our House' by Madness

Alan Winstanley, meanwhile, was in the midst of doing several projects for Stiff Records, engineering Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich and Rachel Sweet, having previously started out at TW, a tiny basement studio in Fulham, south-west London, working with the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks, Joe Jackson and Generation X. So, when Madness' Top 20 UK success with 'The Prince' led to a record contract with Stiff, the stars were evidently in alignment. The band wanted Clive Langer to stay on board as producer; Langer, in turn, requested the technical cooperation of Winstanley, who had previously engineered some Deaf School demos and produced Langer's solo work. The fact that Stiff co-founder Dave Robinson was familiar with Winstanley basically sealed the deal.

For all concerned, it was the start of a beautiful friendship, not least between Langer and Winstanley, who would become one of the most acclaimed production teams of the post-punk 'new wave' era. As well as 13 top 10 British singles with Madness, they had hits with Elvis Costello, Dexy's Midnight Runners, the Teardrop Explodes, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions and China Crisis, not to mention David Bowie and Mick Jagger's recording of 'Dancing In The Street' and Bowie's Absolute Beginners movie soundtrack.

The Right Balance

"While I engineered, Clive would get more involved with the songs' arrangements and we'd meet somewhere in the middle," is how Winstanley describes the collaboration. "Both of us worked on getting the performance, and that was probably one of our strengths — one could walk out of the room and the other could carry on, even with vocals. No one was in charge, we just took it in turns. In fact, when someone was singing, we were usually both there, so it was pretty equal, and then when it came to the vocal comping I would do that on my own. We were both also there for the other instruments, but if at some point one of us wanted to bugger off for a half-hour break because things were getting intense, that's what would happen; one of us could leave the control room while the other carried on alone. Still, 95 percent of the time or more, we were in there together."

Given all of the judgement calls that have to be made, is it always possible to be on the same wavelength? "We've had our arguments," is Winstanley's laughing reply. "Early on we'd both argue our point, but as you grow older and a bit longer in the tooth you tend to think 'Oh, bollocks. Whatever.' In the early days, if either of us really felt strongly about something we would stick up for it, and sometimes we might even try something both ways. Neither of us was too proud to say 'OK, yeah, your idea is better.' So, it always worked out in the end."

"At the time of doing Madness we were kind of flying along together," adds Langer. "Alan's very precise and very particular, and I'm more slapdash and in a hurry and probably tend to like rougher-sounding records. That's a generalisation, because in the end we do like the same records, but sometimes the whole process with Alan can be laborious for me. He normally does the vocal comps whereas I'll do a lot more work in the rehearsal room on the arrangements, deciding what instruments should play what where, how long the chorus should be and things like that. Still, we've got on fine considering how long we've worked together."

Growing Up With Madness

It was in June 1984 that Langer and Winstanley opened their own Westside Studios near London's Notting Hill Gate. A couple of years later, they bought Dave Gilmour's residential studio in Oxfordshire, which they renamed Outside. Outside would be sold to the Sarm Group in 1996 and be renamed Sarm Hook End, yet the duo would retain Westside until 2002, when a timely offer from Sanctuary Music would enable them to quit studio ownership just before that line of business became really bad news.

Meanwhile, as the hits flowed, the Madness sound began to evolve, retaining a ska influence whilst conquering the world of mainstream pop. "We were creating fashion and following fashion," says Clive Langer. "As with most bands, we were looking over our shoulders to see what the Jam and Elvis Costello and the Specials were all doing, just checking out everything at home while being influenced by American records. So, I think we just evolved with the times, and obviously the songwriting also became more introspective, and that's because they were growing up. They were very young when we started and they were just having a laugh — they'd be happy to play in a bar and just get people to dance. But then they began writing about their life, having missed out while spending so much time on the road, and the result was these amazing songs that kept popping up and saving the albums.

"Even though I think many of the album tracks were really good, you'd have to be a fan to get into them, but then we'd get a big single and we'd be off again, flying along. In fact, at one point they went to see Trevor Horn when Stiff thought it was maybe time for a change, but that's when 'Our House' popped out and so we maintained our relationship. I mean, we always had a great relationship with the band, but our professional relationship was maintained by their choice of songs or their songwriting and then us arranging the numbers and going through the studio process."

Fresh AIR

It was their fourth album The Rise And Fall, recorded at central London's AIR Studios as well as Genetic near Reading — built by Winstanley and producer Martin Rushent — that contained 'Our House'. "The first Madness album was recorded at Eden and TW, the second was recorded entirely at Eden, and by the time we got to the third album we had the clout and Stiff had the money for it to be recorded at AIR," says Winstanley. "That's when the sound started to change and get a little bit more sophisticated. The guys' songwriting got more slick and so did the studio techniques, and that's why things evolved from the raw, rough sound of One Step Beyond to the slicker sound of The Rise And Fall."

The layout of AIR's live room for the initial drum tracking sessions on 'Our House'.The layout of AIR's live room for the initial drum tracking sessions on 'Our House'."Many of the songs on The Rise And Fall essentially weren't up to it," adds Langer, "and that was maybe due to them being on the road and Mike [Barson] beginning to get a bit pissed off with the whole situation, but I still enjoyed making that album. Even though the songs weren't all that commercial, they were colourful and we could go down a certain road with each of them, whether we were adding a brass band or getting a bit of bhangra in there. So, it wasn't boring."

The Rise And Fall was recorded in AIR's Studio 1, which was equipped with a recently installed, custom-built 56-channel Neve A7971 console. "We recorded the rhythm section on 16-track, and then made up a 24-track slave for bass and drums and put away the 16-track tape to keep it fresh," Winstanley recalls. "We did everything else on the 24-track slave, and then, when it was time to mix, the 16-track came back out with bass, drums and piano. Because of the extra width, 16-track sounded a bit better than 24-track — at least, that's what we all thought. Whether you can hear the difference or not, I don't know, but we thought we could at the time. Still, by the time we got to the next [1984's Keep Moving] album and songs like 'Wings Of A Dove', where everything including the choir and the kitchen sink was on there, we really needed 48 tracks.

"We loved recording at AIR, and I was assisted there by Jeremy Allom and David Wooley, who were both house engineers. Even though I was the one with hands on the desk, those guys contributed a lot and deserved their credit. They did more than just assist and tape-op. I'd get them to do bits and pieces, and I've always done that. I mean, when the SSL came along with the tape remote in the middle of the desk, producers and engineers could sit there and operate that while the assistants made the tea or scratched their bollocks. Well, I wanted them to get involved. And also, if we were doing vocals and I was trying to concentrate on Suggs or whoever else was singing, I wouldn't want to be fussing around with drop-ins, so I'd get the assistants involved in all that sort of stuff. That's why quite a few of the guys who worked at Westside have ended up being successful engineers and producers — they had a good start and good training."

You've Got To Have A Chorus

Stiff Records' Dave Robinson certainly knew what made a hit single, and when Madness were recording the Mike Barson and Lee Thompson composition 'House Of Fun' as a one-off single, its original title was 'Chemist Facade'. That was until Robinson turned up at the studio towards the end of the sessions and demanded to know 'Where's the fucking chorus?' At that point, what is now the bridge was then the chorus — 'This is a chemist, not a joke shop.'

Robinson wasn't impressed. "You've got to have a chorus," he insisted, and the result was that Mike Barson immediately sat down at the piano and wrote the 'Welcome to the house of fun' refrain.

"That meant we had to record it," says Alan Winstanley. "However, we didn't want to re-record the whole song, so I copied the entire multitrack from that bridge and just used the drums, and then we overdubbed all of the chorus instruments and vocals onto that before I had to re-edit it into the multitrack. In this day and age, with crossfades and Pro Tools, it would be a piece of piss, but back then it was a nightmare. When Suggs sang 'Welcome' it was just before the downbeat of the bar, so when I edited it in it went 'elcome to the house of fun,' completely missing out the 'W'. The only solution was for him to go back in and dub in all the 'welcomes'. That was quite a challenge, and all because the song's focus moved away from the chemist shop."

House Music

When Langer and Winstanley first heard 'Our House' being performed at a rehearsal studio prior to the AIR sessions, both immediately thought the Chris Foreman/Carl Smyth composition was hit material. "It had a great beat, almost like The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' or 'All Day And All Of The Night', where the snare drum lands in a space," Langer recalls. "All of the parts were there and Mike worked hard on it, as did the rest of the band, and I just thought we had the chance of making the perfect pop record. I actually thought that a few times with Madness.

"I remember putting in two key changes instead of one at the end of the song, so as the outro went on you never knew where the beginning was; you'd probably lost sense of the key that the song was in. It was really exciting working on that, and if I say so myself, I was quite proud of it because the whole thing was quite clever and it worked. I've actually used that trick a fair bit. I normally go a tone and a half down — lots of people who've worked with me have heard me say 'What's this chorus sound like a tone and a half down?' — because it's a bit cabaret when you just go a tone up. It was during rehearsals that I suggested doing the 'Our House' outro a tone and a half down, and when it came back it sounded a little bit boring, so I suggested then going to another key, Mike got very excited about that and we basically worked together on it.

Clive Langer (right) and Alan Winstanley working with Madness around the time of 'Our House'.Clive Langer (right) and Alan Winstanley working with Madness around the time of 'Our House'."Even though we had a solid song, we could really push it to its limits and get David Bedford to write an exciting string arrangement. I think that really lifted it, the Western film-type strings in the background."

Recorded at AIR, these comprised four first violins and four second violins, broken down into pairs that were each miked with a Neumann U87, as well as four violas that were each miked with an 87 and two 'cellos that were miked with FET 47s.

"Then there was Carl's really fast vocal in the last verse, almost pre-empting rap," Langer continues."It was just so much fun and absorbing to work on that song, because you knew you were creating this very clever thing, without trying to be too clever."

"Carl had come a long way in a short time," adds Winstanley. "On the first album he wasn't even in the band. Only the other six guys appeared on the sleeve, even though he was the one shouting 'Hey, you!' on 'One Step Beyond'. That's all he was at that point; the kid who got up on stage and did the introduction as well as the nutty dancing. Then they let him into the band for the second album, and he was great, because he really wanted to contribute. He learned to play the trumpet, and even though he wasn't the greatest trumpet player in the world, he played it on 'Our House'. It took him a long time to actually nail it, but he wanted to do it and we didn't say 'Nah, bollocks, let's just get a session guy in.'

"On some of the tracks, including 'Our House', we actually did have a brass section, but Lee and Carl played as a part of that section, and on other songs Carl played the trumpet on his own. So, he really evolved from being the kid who just did the nutty dancing to someone who played the trumpet, learned to play the guitar and also wrote songs, including one of their biggest hits; certainly their biggest hit in America."

Getting The Drums

Whereas Madness played together as a live rhythm section on the first album, this changed over time to the point where, on The Rise And Fall, they still performed together, but only to capture Dan Woodgate's drums. All of the other parts — Mark Bedford's bass, Mike Barson's piano, Chris Foreman's guitar and Suggs's vocal — were subsequently re-recorded, usually in that order.

Clive Langer (right) and Alan Winstanley at their Westside Studios in 1998.Clive Langer (right) and Alan Winstanley at their Westside Studios in 1998."Since the drums were initially the main thing we were going for, they were placed on a riser in the middle of the main room with no screens around the kit," Winstanley says. "There were booths and ante-rooms in that studio, so while Mark played just to the left of Woody, we'd have the bass amp tucked away in a small room, and the same went for the guitar amp of Chris, who played to Woody's right. That meant the separation was fine. At the same time, we screened off the Bosendorfer grand piano that Mike was playing, and as we weren't using this performance it didn't matter that the drums were spilling onto it, whereas the piano wasn't loud enough to spill onto the kit. Suggs was also screened off while he did his guide vocal.

"During that period I was using an AKG D12 on the bass drum, a couple of Shure SM57s on the snare — one on top, one underneath — and Sennheiser 421s on the toms. On a later album, Woody also got into using tom-tom pads going through a drum synthesizer, but it was all real kit on The Rise And Fall. In fact, I remember overdubbing a real tom-tom beat on choruses two and four of 'Our House'. As for overheads, I used AIR's Coles mics, while there was an AKG 451 on the hi-hat and a couple of Neumann U87s as room mics.

"I remember renting a Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum from a record company for that album, and Woody actually ended up buying one because he liked the sound of it so much. At the same time, it became a staple part of Clive's and my drum sound for quite a few years — 'If you haven't got a Ludwig Black Beauty, we're going to rent one in.' And another trend that we started on that album was using a rifle mic, positioned high and pointing down on the kit as an extra room mic, trying to pinpoint the snare more than the other stuff. To be honest, I don't know if it bloody worked, but it sounded all right... It would have been hard not to get a good drum sound in that room. AIR Studio 1 was fantastic. It's a shame they moved to Hampstead, really."

Key Moments

While the piano was miked with a couple of Neumann U87s, Chris Foreman's Fender Twin and Mesa Boogie guitar amps were each recorded with a combination of Sennheiser 421 and Shure SM57, Mark Bedford's Ampeg B15 bass rig was miked with a FET 47, Lee Thompson's sax and Chas Smash's trumpet both went through U87s, and Suggs's vocals were sung into a valve Neumann U47. "His voice doubled sounds amazing," states Langer. "If it didn't have life, we'd always say 'Let's try doubling it.' That would normally work. And it was only if we wanted vocals at 11 in the morning and he was tired that we'd ever have problems."

"By that point he'd become quite a proficient singer, really," adds Winstanley. "Earlier on, he wasn't particularly great, but again, his voice was part of the band's sound. It wasn't hard getting a performance out of him. Occasionally, we might have to take him to the pub, get a few beers in him to loosen him up and then go back to do another vocal, but most of the time we'd do three, four takes and pick the best one. Occasionally, we'd do a comp, he would go back in and do another three or four takes, we would re-comp it and that might go on three or four times. To be honest, I can't remember what the case was with 'Our House'.

"What I do remember is that the vocals were a bit of a problem on that song because of all the key changes that Clive had come up with, and when the guys did the backing vocals it was always a problem trying to pitch to come back in for the key change. That was really hard, and so it took a long time to do all of the vocals and backing vocals on that song. They just couldn't get the pitch right for each upcoming key change."

Not that any of this bored or frustrated Clive Langer.

"I was quite excited because we all did backing vocals, and so I finally got my voice onto one of their tracks," he remarks. "Since the difficult thing was pitching into the next chorus, we had to play a piano part and have it on a spare track and we then sang along to that piano in order to enter the change in the right key. Now, having been on the road with that song for nearly 25 years, the guys are good at it."

Beyond Harmony

Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley produced Madness' entire debut album One Step Beyond in three weeks: a week of recording at Eden Studios, a week of overdubs at TW and then a third week for the mix at Genetic. Towards the the mix, Stiff Records' Dave Robinson dropped in to have a listen, and then announced that the title track would be the first single.

"We said 'Hang on a minute,'" Winstanley recalls. "At that point the track only lasted one minute, 10 seconds, and it was never intended to be a single. It was just a short instrumental, but Robbo insisted: 'Go once more around the houses and double up the whole song. If you remix it now you can have it on my desk by 10 in the morning.' When he said this it was about three in the morning, so when he buggered off we felt it was a bit late to do a whole remix. However, to demonstrate — and work out for ourselves — how the song would sound at twice the length, we just put the second half through [an Eventide] Harmonizer to make it sound a little bit different to the first half, tagged it together and copied it to seven-and-a-half ips, quarter-inch tape so Robbo could listen to it on the Revox in his office.

"Clive shoved the tape through the Stiff Records letterbox on his way home that morning, and then we returned to the studio to mix it properly at double the length so that the second half sounded a bit different. However, by the time we got to the studio, Dave Robinson had already been to the mastering room and cut the record and it was practically on its way to the shops! So, we never really mixed it. That record was actually cut from the quarter-inch tape, with the song going through a Harmonizer halfway through. You can hear the guitars clanging, and the saxophone — as it happens, we always Harmonized the saxophone, and that was all part of the Madness sound, but on the second half of that song everything goes through the Harmonizer.

"Possibly thanks to his time as Jimi Hendrix's tour manager, Dave Robinson was partly deaf. I mean, his ears had no top end whatsoever. I remember one time when we were in his office, playing him mixes, and I noticed that one of the tweeters on his speakers had blown, but he couldn't tell. That's why I was quite disappointed with the finished master of the One Step Beyond album. As he couldn't hear much top end, he got the mastering engineer to really, really brighten it up. Of course, in those days we didn't have FM radio, it was all medium-wave, and by doing that it did make it sound better on the radio, but I also wanted it to sound good when the kids got the record home. That wasn't the case, so over the years as the compilation albums have come out we've remastered those tracks and hopefully made them sound better.

"As for the Harmonized sax, that just came out of us trying to disguise the fact that Lee Thompson couldn't play in tune. And since it was such an identifiable part of the Madness sound, we would never consider getting in a session guy to play those parts. It was all part of the charm. In fact, when Lee taught himself to play sax, he didn't realise that it's a B flat instrument."

"We eventually discovered that his fingering was a semitone out," adds Langer, "so he was kind of blowing and moving the mouthpiece to try to compensate for that. It's because he wasn't quite on the note that he always sounded slightly out of tune, and that aspect of Madness was very exciting. We wanted to keep that old pub-y vibe, basing what we were doing on things like Thunderclap Newman's 'Something In The Air', while also going in for the whole German cabaret feel. And that's why, by the time of the Rise And Fall album, it was more a case of 'make it out of tune' than 'keep it out of tune'. I mean, when Lee found out that he'd been playing the sax wrong, he did learn to play it properly, but slightly out of tune was still what we wanted."

Preparing Pianos

While Mike Barson played organs and synths on The Rise And Fall, his main instrument remained the grand piano, albeit one whose tone was considerably altered. "We went for that kind of bright honky-tonk sound," says Winstanley, "and in quite a lot of cases we double-tracked the piano and then varisped the machine slightly so that the double-track was out of tune. It was like the old trick George Martin used to do with the Beatles' arpeggio guitars, double-tracking them to make them sound like a 12-string. We did that a lot with Mike's parts and it was a bit bizarre, really, because we had one of the most expensive pianos in the world, a Bosendorfer, and we'd try to make it sound as cheap as possible. In fact, I remember us sticking drawing pins into the hammers of that piano at AIR so that when they hit the strings the sound would be a lot more metallic. We didn't use that effect on every song, but it worked on some of them."

"I think Alan is really good at separating things," Langer adds. "We all wanted exciting sounds, and they weren't heavy sounds, so we couldn't just jack the amp up, and we were also dealing with piano on a lot of things. That bright piano was quite exciting. Because this was pre-sampler we used to try to get every sort of piano sound we could — we'd get marimbas, we'd get uprights, we'd get honky-tonk piano, and we'd have to get the real thing. Sometimes we'd record four tracks of piano; one basic track, a second with the left-hand low notes, a third on which Alan might slightly detune the higher right-hand embellishments, and a fourth on which we'd possibly double the right hand with another octave.

"Still, the energy you hear on those records was also down to the playing — everyone played in an exciting manner. Mike Barson hits the keyboard very hard, and it doesn't sound the same when someone else plays the same parts. He has a style of his own that jumps out, and Dan was also really into his drum sounds so that they were always punchy and really controllable in the mix. Snare drums were very bright in those days, the bass was punchy and very audible — it wasn't subsonic or anything — and so if you put those elements together the results were often quite exhilarating. What's more, the fact that Alan does record in a very clean way means you have total control in the mix."

At The Mix

The mix of The Rise And Fall took place at Genetic in Berkshire, where most of the Madness mixes had taken place since day one... well, almost. "The One Step Beyond album was scheduled to be mixed at Genetic, but the studio wasn't finished at that time," explains Winstanley. "Martin Rushent and I were still building it, so when the equipment arrived we slung it in what was virtually a shed and that's where the first album was mixed. Thankfully, the studio itself was ready for the second album to be mixed there a year later, using an MCI console, and by the time of The Rise And Fall it had been replaced by an SSL E-series desk. We also did some stuff up in AIR Studio 4, which was a little SSL mix room.

"I like mixing on an SSL because of the computer, but I'm not a big fan of SSL EQ. So, sound-wise I was always trying to get things as good as possible on the recording so that I wouldn't have to EQ too much on the mix. Obviously, that's not always possible, and so if I did have to then resort to EQ I would get a bit of outboard EQ for the mix.

"During recording of backing vocals, for example, if there were seven or eight parts I'd never leave all of those to the mix. That would have driven me nuts. I'd try to pre-mix them down to a stereo backing vocal track and then go the mix with that. To me, it always sounds better when you record them and do the mix right then and there than trying to recreate that a month down the line. So, once I'm happy with the balance, I just mix to stereo.

"I would quite often use a bit of slap delay on Suggs's vocals during the mix, and if we needed a bit more room on the drum kit I'd use some kind of digital reverb on the snare. Of course, there was a lot of Harmonizer for Lee's sax, and in the cases where we hadn't double-tracked and varisped the piano for that honky-tonk sound I might sometimes put Harmonizer on that as well to add a bit of sparkle."

"In the end, I remember we removed one of the sections on 'Our House'," adds Langer. "After listening back to the whole thing we basically decided there were too many sections, so that required a big edit. However, it was a great track, and everytime we put it up to do some more work it would be really exciting. When I hear that stuff now I still enjoy it, although it sounds very '80s in that it's quite precise and could have been a bit fatter. At the same time, I think they're interesting records to listen to, like a jigsaw where the different parts fit together really well, and the fact that they are so representative of their era is due to the songwriting and the band's character and the guys' talent."

As well as being a huge UK hit, 'Our House' would become the only Madness song to attain top 10 status in America, where the band had previously been dropped by Sire due to disappointing sales. This caused The Rise And Fall to remain unissued there, yet 'Our House' prospered largely thanks to the efforts of the fledgling MTV, which played the video in heavy rotation following the single's Stateside release on the Geffen label in the summer of 1983. The track would subsequently be included on the hastily assembled US compilation, Madness