“HOUSE OF FUN” (WRITERS: MIKE BARSON–LEE THOMPSON)
RELEASED 1982 ON 7”45
The British band Madness, which emerged from the late 1970s ska revival in Britain, soon proved itself an unstoppable hit machine, cranking out catchy single after catchy single and even cracking the U.S. charts on occasion.
Their overwhelming success made the likeable, funny seven-piece almost a national institution, the U.K.’s most popular singles act in years. Using the fairly new medium of rock video to its greatest advantage, the band enjoyed 19 straight top 20 singles in the British charts at one point. But “House of Fun,” issued in 1982, was the band’s only #1.
The band had progressed quickly from its ska origins and, with five songwriters and several singers, proved itself a worthy emulator of such utterly British writers as Ray Davies, Noel Coward, and David Bowie.
Madness refused to call its music ska, pop, or rock, instead referring to it simply as “nutty” for its bouncy mix of horns, keyboards, rollicking rhythms, and a wide palette of sound.
Written by the band’s keyboardist, Mike Barson, and its sax player, Lee “Kix” Thompson, “House of Fun” is probably the nuttiest Madness single of all.
An odder subject for a smash hit might be harder to find. The lyrics concern a boy, who has just turned 16, attempting to buy condoms in a drugstore. Not only is his slang for condoms misunderstood by the salesperson, he is also consistently interrupted in his quest by people he knows walking into the shop. Oh, the embarrassment! The salesperson thinks the kid is just messing around and advises him to visit a novelty shop.
These goofy lyrics are backed by a singular, whirling, rollicking sound that feels a bit like being at five carnivals at the same time. The sax and trumpet provide disorienting discord, Barson’s keyboards evoke funhouse mirrors and rickety rides, and the rhythm section bounces along, about to go off the rails at any moment. The chorus is teetering, catchy, and utterly mad. It’s a truly capital 45, one of the most enjoyable three minutes I can imagine.