Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26: Prince Buster, "Madness"

Artist: Prince Buster
Song: Madness
Album: Madness (single)
Year: 1963

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While one can argue that a majority of musical styles were not the result of only one person, there are certain individuals without whom, the genre would not have developed as it has.  Whether it was a certain tone or rhythm, or simply a personality that gave the style more appeal, there are a number of reasons why a specific artist can be seen as essential to the existence of a given musical sound.  This collaborative development has rarely been more clear than within the various styles that came from "the islands" in the 1950's and 1960's, and due to many of them originating from sound-system style parties, it is difficult to cite all those who helped it mature.  However, even with this reality, one would be hard pressed to find a more influential person in the world of ska than Prince Buster, and it is his songs and approach that has been copied for decades.  Releasing a number of moderately successful singles in the early 1960's, Prince Buster remains the definition of the Blue Beat label sound, and even after almost fifty years, his songs remain fresh and exciting.  While from a more modern perspective, his music may not appear as revolutionary, one can easily argue that it was these singles that introduced the world at-large to the ska sound.  Though a number of his early singles remain true legends of the ska scene, it was Prince Buster's 1963 recording, "Madness" that would become the blueprint for the ska sound.

From the instant that "Madness" begins, the rhythm and groove is put into play,  and though it is a very overused term, the sound that comes forth is absolutely timeless.  It is the down-beat that becomes prominent, and there is an upbeat, lifting feel that runs throughout the entire song.  It is the way in which the horn section punctuates the rhythm that sets "Madness" apart from other songs of the era, and it is also this element that remains a constant within the genre to this day.  Furthermore, the sound from the horns is what also makes the ska style different from the other "island sounds," and yet even though they stand so significant within the song, they are a rather subtle part when one looks at the entire musical picture.  The bounce that is provided by the rhythm section instantly captures the listener, and the fact that it never lets go throughout the entire run of the song makes "Madness" a truly special recording.  There is an almost jazz-like base to the drumming, and the lone hand-clap, though a bit random, fits perfectly into the overall musical arrangement.  It is within this aspect that the authentic and organic nature of "Madness" become most clear, and it is the fact that the overall recording seems so effortless that makes it so unique.  Each musician plays perfectly, and it is this controlled, never over-done approach that proves the power of simplicity within music.

Yet even though the musical arrangement found on "Madness" remains the blueprint for the ska sound, one cannot overlook the vocal work from Prince Buster, as this too has been copied countless times since the release of this single.  Much like the music over which he sings, Prince Buster's vocals are rather straightforward and simple, and there are times during the song that one cannot help but compare the sound to that found on Bob Marley's early single, "One Cup Of Coffee."  Clearly, it is this direct and mostly-spoken vocal approach that was the style of the island from which he came, and yet it is the bounce within his voice, perfectly matching the music, that makes it completely unique.  There is also a sense that lyrically, Prince Buster is implying quite a bit throughout "Madness," though the lyrics themselves are rather cyclical.  Having already released a single that condemned many aspects of society, one can hear the words on "Madness" as a frustrated, almost hopeless appeal to these same issues.  The only part of society that he takes on in a more straightforward manner is the way in which the government attempts to manipulate the minds of the general public, and yet even this is done in a rather passive style.  However, the overall level of frustration is clear, and the tension that Prince Buster creates throughout the song makes it impossible to deny the power of the simple words which he sings.

Truth be told, it was "Madness" that found its way into the ears and hearts of people all over the world, and one can easily cite the song as the catalyst for the entire ska and "two tone" movement.  While there were other artists that were making similar music, there is "something" about "Madness" that sets it aside, and it is likely the overall mood that Prince Buster creates.  The fact that he is able to construct such a captivating song without a great deal of musical complexity is the key, as the loose feel and upbeat rhythm never fail to draw in the listener.  Yet even with this in mind, there remains an intangible element to the song, as even this same rhythm was used by Prince Buster on an earlier single.  It is this reality that makes it truly impossible to say exactly "what" it is about "Madness" that makes it so special, but once one hears the song, it is easy to understand.  Furthermore, the fact that one of the most important bands of the "two tone era" took their name directly from this song serves as further proof to its lasting impact, as well as the idea that it was somehow different from the rest of the Prince Buster catalog.  There are few songs in history that are as instantly appealing as one can experience here, and even after a single listening, it becomes completely clear just who Prince Buster is held in such high regard.  From the brilliant bounce of the song to the way in which the horns drive home each musical phrase, there was no other song that was as responsible for the rise of ska music than one finds in Prince Buster's classic 1963 single, "Madness."

1 comment:

MCJ said...

So true. A simple beat and lyrics but important message and medium.