11 Nov 40 years of Our House
BEDDERS: I remember how this one started; we were all going somewhere and Carl said, ‘We should write a song about our families. Let’s give it a go and see what happens.’
CARL: On a flight back from America I got the kernel of the idea and wrote it on a napkin. I was thinking about the house where we lived in North Finchley when I was 14. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I’m sure two years of solid touring and being away from family and friends influenced me. It came out of a certain isolation you feel; you’re away from family and friends, thinking fondly about home. Your house is your reality anchor, where you go to rest. You’ve got to recuperate and have a shoulder to cry on, and that’s where you can be yourself. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu album and their song Our House had been seminal for me when I was younger and had suited my melancholic nature. So the title was always in my mind.
CHRIS: Robbo had given us all tape machines with little built-in drum machines. They were the precursors of Portastudios and were cutting-edge technology for the time. I was living in a council flat with my brother because I’d just split up with my wife so this little gadget was very helpful creatively as I worked up the tune.
CARL: I walked into the rehearsal rooms and Chris was playing a tune and shouting chords at Mike on the piano. The lyrics I’d written on the plane came to mind so I started singing the words and it grew from there. It’s all about letting your subconscious do the work.
CHRIS: Carl came in and said, ‘I’ve got these lyrics’ and it was pretty easy from then on. It didn’t take that long to write – even though it was needing a chorus and was originally a bit of a dirge.
SUGGS: Because we were all burgeoning songwriters, we were looking for the best pickings of the riffs that were going round. Carl beat me to the punch and I was a bit disappointed – I might have sulked internally.
BEDDERS: The tune that Chris had come up with was quite different to the final version and we needed to work on it quite a lot.
MIKE: I remember Chris’s chords sounded a bit wonky, and I said, ‘You’ll never get a tune stuck to that.’ I thought it was going nowhere – it just didn’t work as a song. Then suddenly we got a little rhythm going, Carl sang the melody and I thought, ‘I didn’t see that coming – it sounds bloody brilliant.’
CHRIS: When we got in the rehearsal room it sort of came to life. It was a great example of why we split the songs 50% to the writers and 50% between all seven members of the band. It was an incentive to play well but most importantly, it was about what the bass line/sax honk/fire extinguisher/chorus line melody/keyboard part could bring to a song.
CLIVE LANGER (producer): Straight away we knew we were on to something, so we went for it. We spent about a day on the brass parts with Lee and Carl, and another day just doing backing vocals to get them absolutely right.
BEDDERS: Some songs are written in ten minutes and it all sounds great, others take treacherous journeys. With Our House, we could never get the rhythm right and were never really satisfied. We recorded it at Air studios on Oxford Street, which was run by George Martin, and Woody and I spent quite a few nights trying to get the rhythm right. And then late one evening, as we were recording, there was a real sense of achievement when we thought we had it. We came back in the next morning and it just went from strength to strength from there. The only thing was, we still didn’t have the middle eight – it was a mess – and we sat there for hours and hours. Then I made a suggestion very late, just before the take, that we should play the middle eight like the choruses. That sort of da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. So it took a lot of work to get it to where it was, but when it did, it really paid off. It’s a great example of the way we all have an input.
CLIVE LANGER: Even though we had a solid song, we still wanted to push it to its limits so we got David Bedford, who had orchestrated Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, to write an exciting string arrangement. Maybe it was inspired by Chris’ Western-style guitar. I might have said, ‘Go a bit Hank Marvin’ but Chris made it sound like a John Wayne Western, really brilliant. I think that really lifted it, the Western film-type strings in the background. David took off from that and his string part lifted it to somewhere else. He really was great – I’d explain what I wanted and then he’d come back with something that was miles better.
SUGGS: When we met David, we were talking about miniature works of art for the first time, even though it was one of our simplest songs. It was clear to him what the record needed and he did great things for us.
DAVID BEFORD (arranger): They were really good but they didn’t know the first thing about music. If you said, ‘What key is this one in?’ they’d have no idea what you were talking about. But they had the most extraordinary chord changes without realising they were extraordinary, so it was really fun. My instructions from Clive were, ‘I want an English Tamla Motown feel.’ I wasn’t given any ideas by means of musical notation; it would be onomatopoeic. Clive might say, let’s have a ‘daga daga’ here, which I took to mean four semi-quavers. The discussions centred around where the string lines should start to help the song best – say, in the first or second chorus.
CARL: The musical references to Stax and Motown were obvious and the spaces in the bass line were perfect for the stabbing horn parts and the string section.
SUGGS: So we had this really fantastic string part, then we got to the chorus and there’s no strings because we put the chorus in after. Clive said, ‘We’ve got to have some sort of chorus’, so we wrote this quite prosaic, ‘Our house in the middle of our street’, which I thought was a bit boring. But actually, because the song was so melodic and fabulous, it really worked. It was totally outside of the idea of crafting in any way.
CHRIS: Clive then said, ‘It still needs another bit.’ So I took the middle eight from another song I had, then worked out the guitar solo when we went to record it. You still had to be quick on your feet, even though the pressure had eased off a bit.
MIKE: Clive stuck another couple of bits in and before you knew it, it sounded really good.
CARL: I came up with the double-time piece, where you sing everything twice as fast, in the studio. It gave the recording of the song a great momentum.
CLIVE LANGER: It almost pre-empted rap.
SUGGS: That line, ‘Something tells you that you’ve got to move away from it’ made all the difference. Like so many Madness songs it’s a coded version of what our lives were actually like. For me, and the general public, I think it was a hint that things weren’t as perfect as the rest of the song might suggest.
CLIVE LANGER: It was just so much fun and absorbing to work on, because you knew you were creating this very clever thing, without trying to be too clever. We went for a big build up – adding things, keeping the excitement going. The intro is a bass slide because we always put in bass slides or piano slides wherever we could and that was Mark’s best effort of the day.
ALAN WINSTANLEY (engineer): Even though Carl wasn’t the greatest trumpet player in the world, we let him play 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.’ He’d come a long way in a short time and was great because he really wanted to contribute. He’d evolved from being the kid who just did the nutty dancing to someone who played trumpet, learned to play the guitar and also wrote songs, including one of their biggest hits, certainly in America.
CLIVE LANGER: 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 and I’ve actually used that trick a fair bit since. During rehearsals I suggested doing the 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.
ALAN WINSTANLEY: I remember that the vocals were subsequently a bit of a problem because of all the key changes that Clive had come up with. When the guys did the backing vocals, it was a problem trying to pitch to come back in. It was really hard, so it took a long time to do all of the vocals and backing vocals. They just couldn’t get the pitch right for each upcoming key change.
CLIVE LANGER: A long time was spent getting things right, half a day just doing the backing vocals in the chorus. I helped out because they couldn’t hit the high notes; I was quite excited because it meant I finally got my voice onto one of their tracks.
CARL: Every time I hear the chorus I remember Clive joining in on the vocals. He lisps a little bit and I can hear – or think I can hear – him sing, ‘Our houth’. It brings back that nice feeling of being gathered round the mic, trying to get the harmonies right.
SUGGS: I’d never had a house in the middle of anyone’s street or a sense of community. I don’t think Carl did either. Maybe that’s why we were all so fond of the idea of it. It’s strange now to think we were so philosophical about such everyday things.
CARL: The line ‘Brother’s got a date to keep / He can’t hang around’ was about one of my brothers jumping over the back fence when the police were at the front door with a warrant. Not that you’d know that from the lyric – but I know that.
CLIVE LANGER: 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. 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.
SUGGS: Clive said we wanted to make English Motown – and that was it exactly. We were flying. It was a terrific time.
CARL: We really were on the crest of a wave.
CLIVE LANGER: We knew straight away that it sounded like a single, although we did have to remove one middle eight because the arrangement was too complicated. I think it was Dave Robinson who said, ‘We don’t need that bit.’ When you’re immersed in the studio you can’t tell these things sometimes, but he came in with fresh ears and said, ‘That bit can go.’ And so it went.
CHRIS: I knew when I heard the finished article that it was a smash. It was a song that was pretty perfect, everything fitted – you don’t look back and say. ‘I wish I’d stuck a 12-string or something on it.’
The single is accompanied by one of the band’s most memorable videos, with the terraced house scenes shot outside No47 Stephenson Street in North London.
BEDDERS: The video is one of my favourites because we reached new heights of choreography…
WOODY: …and there was a lovely Jacuzzi.
CARL: It was the first Jacuzzi in England, I believe, and was shot down at a place belonging to Victor Lownes, the Playboy fella. It was quite a nice house.
CHRIS: We filmed other bits at this grand old house. I really felt sorry for the old boy who owned it. He was sitting there in his kitchen while we were causing chaos.
MIKE: It was another good video – possibly one of the best.
SUGGS: On the day of filming, we ended up ad-libbing about 50 per cent of it.
WOODY: The knocking-on-the-door bit where somebody comes out, goes, ‘Where are they?’ And the others sneak in and close the door… that’s pure Fred Flintstone. We stole lots of ideas from the Keystone Cops and Benny Hill.
LEE: Unlike the Baggy Trousers video, the harness they used to make me fly was made of leather and metal and bits of foam, so it was quite comfortable.
CHRIS: For my guitar solo, I thought, ‘I’ll do a Thommo.’ So we had a young kid with a tennis racquet, then a rocker from the 50s, a 60s Beatles fan and finally a 70s glam rock star. I was supposed to represent the spirit of rock and roll; a wild trip through time, maaaan.
MIKE: I remember we had to hang around for hours while Chris got ready.
CARL: If you look carefully, at one point I’m dancing like Kevin Rowland and taking the mickey out of him.
MARISA MERRY (resident of Stephenson Street location): I remember the band having races on our bikes up and down the street and at the end of the day, the crew bought all the kids fish and chips for tea.
Released on November 12 1982, the single (BUY 163) goes on to spend 13 weeks in the UK charts, peaking at No5. It also becomes the band’s first hit in America.
CARL: It’s my favourite song and the one I’m most proud of because it really was about my house; my father, my brothers, my sister. It means a lot and people love it too, which is always a bonus.
BEDDERS: It’s definitely one of our strongest songs and probably the most popular Madness song in different countries around the world.
CARL: Someone said to me, ‘Why did Our House translate in America? Why was it a hit?’ And I said that it’s essentially a Motown song, so it’s familiar. The issues within it were universal issues too – mum, dad, house, children, mucking around, going to work, ironing clothes.
SUGGS: The house in the middle of the street is a big thing in the British psyche. You realise you’ve touched on something no matter how simple it is. I mean, someone said to me, ‘It’s almost like folk music in that you write about your immediate surroundings, that’s what folk music is.’ And although we’d never in a million years thought of ourselves as a folk band, we always did write about the things that were happening immediately around us.
CHRIS: People now try to tell me it’s a ska song. Our House a ska song? No it ain’t mate. Yes, we were 2-Tone to begin with, but we never aspired to that. We always wanted to go beyond it. We were always more a pop band.
SUGGS: I remember the first time we played it live we were at some funfair in Australia and it was like a bomb had gone off in the crowd. It’s still the same, years later.
CHRIS: Because it changes key several times at the end, doing it live now at my age I can never remember where it’s going.
CLIVE LANGER: Our House was the song that saved our skin, really, because Dave Robinson had taken the band to see Trevor Horn just before as a possible alternative, so me and Alan Winstanley were on trial again. I just remember thinking, ‘Thank goodness, we’ve got a good one.’