While it's been said that imitation is the best form of flattery, those imitators run serious risk of tampering with a classic, and even still, the impact of a cover song will probably never overshadow the original. Plus, covering an original is a phenomenon exclusive to musicians; it's not like we see accomplished painters repainting the artwork that inspired them! For these reasons, the songs of Madness should really be left alone. Although a tribute attests to the band's impact, cover songs are for cover bands, in my opinion.
Yet there is some irony here, since Madness themselves started out by covering songs. On House of Ska: A tribute to Madness, there's more than just bands starting out. Bands relatively new and others that have been around awhile are banded together by their musical tastes. Even the Selecter, contemporaries of Madness, lend a track.
The tracks they've lent encompass many specific factions of ska, and other genres entirely. Selecter's "Madness" is distinctly reggae-based, while Stiff Breeze updates "Bed and Breakfastman" for the third wave. Poblers United refurbishes perhaps the most widely recognized Madness single, "Our House," and makes it nearly unrecognizable as an Oi! punk song. I believe that's a kazoo Poblers United use for the saxophone solo. Tic Tox take "Nightboat to Cairo," one of my favorite Madness songs, translate the lyrics to Spanish, and infuse the whole song with Latino rhythm and instrumentation. While it could be argued Tic Tox's tribute is the most different from the original of any of the tracks here, clearly Tic Tox is having the most fun updating this classic. It is equally fun to listen to, and it helped me with my Spanish homework.
Albeit the musical styles are diversified, what is equally diversified on House of Ska is my opinion of the songs on it. After listening to some tracks, I want to hunt down the band, take them by their shoulders, and shake some sense into them, asking "What were you thinking, man?!" Duck Soup's "The One" has yet to grow on me, and with Skanker's version of "My Girl," I really had to think if they're was another definition of "skanker" (besides one who engages in a particular ska dance) because you could not "skank" to this song at all. It's not even ska. I was confused, and I didn't like that feeling; I was scared and needed to be held.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, on House of Ska some bands stay incredibly close to the original Madness song. This is not because the bands don't have the creative capacity to alter, or "update," the original, it's more that sticking with what makes the original special is more important to those performing the ultimate homage to Madness. Inspecter 7's "One Step Beyond" has vocalist Guiseppe Mancini applying one of the most loved Madness song's rallying call to Inspecter 7's home base, Hub City. And saxophonist Skooch easily takes this saxophone-prevalent song, and, while keeping the notes true to the original, plays it in his own unique style. This, and the Skalatones version of "House of Fun," keep the original intact but bring the band's own unique nuisances to the songs. Inspecter 7 and the Skalatones show respect to their influential predecessors by not desecrating the sacred.
Yet Cult Records, the distributor of this compilation, has desecrated the name of one of the bands that appears on this very compilation. Inspecter 7 has been renamed Inspector 7 here, as apparently Cult records thought in all their wisdom the band should instead spell it that way. Yet Selecter keeps its "correct misspelling" intact? I have serious reservations about an album when its designer cannot even list the band's name correctly. What a serious disservice Cult Records has done by misspelling Inspecter 7's name with an 'o.' Cult Records also does a serious disservice to Madness with the album cover, where you find the title center, checkerboard on the sides, and flawed reproductions of Madness pins scattered. Some bootleg cds take more time in designing the cover. I take the trouble to describe the album cover, because in some ways it is indicative of the music contained therein.
Ultimately if you are a devout Madness fan and like little else but the style of ska they play, stay far away from this album indeed. It might encourage some madness of its own. I would suggest those Madness fans that were connived into purchasing this album cope with this possibility by sticking to the covers by Dr. Ring Ding & the Senior All Stars, Inspecter 7, Agent Bulldog, and the Skalatones.
Madness was not calling for its own tribute by pleading in the song "The Prince" to "bring back the prince," they meant Prince Buster. Throughout the years, several ska bands have played similar tribute to their influences (as Madness did in "the Prince") by writing songs about them. The Busters' "Come On" comes quickly to mind as an example. The more fitting tribute is to not just cover someone else's song, but to create an entirely original piece about the impact they've had. You won't find that on this compilation, the somewhat misnamed House of Ska: A tribute to Madness.
Catherine Galioto is a contributing writer. Contact her at msmatildarockzone.com.