Thursday, October 25, 2018

Madness' "Michael Caine" and The Troubles

The deceptively happy cover of
Madness' 1984 single "Michael Caine."
I've been reading Stuart Bailie's extraordinary "Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland" (bands like The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, The Clash, Dexy's, Rudi, and many more are covered) and was surprised to come across a passage about Madness' "Michael Caine"--a track I liked well enough when I'd first heard in 1984 on WLIR, but always though of as sort of lightweight pop single. From what I could discern from the chorus ("And all I wanted was a word/or photograph to keep at home"), I imagined that it was some sort of scenario of romantic cinematic regret/longing related to one of Michael Caine's movie roles, perhaps "Alfie"?  It turns out that the track actually refers to something much more weighty: The early 1980s UK state policy of using a "supergrass"--a paid informer or IRA member who was granted immunity from prosecution for identifying and testifying against other IRA members (who then has to go into witness protect and live under an assumed identity).

Bailie writes: "'Michael Caine' draws on this feature of the conflict. The character in the song is anxious and startled by the sound of a phone. He wishes he had a photograph or memento of his past life, but this is unsafe and not permitted by the programme. The name repetition is a technique to resist interrogation and by using Michael Caine (who obliged Madness with a voice sample) it references the dark espionage of films like "The Ipcress File." The song also draws on Cathal's [Smyth AKA Chas Smash's] memories of Coleraine and Porstewart in 1971:

'Woody [Dan Woodgate, Madness drummer] sent me a cassette of the music and the lyrics came to me immediately. I don't know why. I thought of my time in Northern Ireland, you know, Bernadette Devlin, the people banging the dustbin lids on the floor [to warn people that the British Army was in the area], that comedy tune, 'Belfast, Belfast.' I remembered going to the shops and being frisked. I remember thinking back to when rubber bullets were being used, thinking, 'Jesus...' It was a general mood of suspicion and fear.

'At the front end of the song I said, "we'll get the IRA and yah yah," which was like, we'll get the IRA and shit, but I was too scared to be obvious. And then the concept of Michael Caine put a veneer over it, which made it like a spy film, like "Get Carter." But it was totally inspired by Northern Ireland. I was scared to be overt. I wanted a song to have a sense of the fear and the underlying suspicion that was present. It was almost tangible in the air. You know, that thing of the right street, the right pub...the wrong street, the wrong pub.'"

Indeed, during the spoken opening of the official music video for "(My Name Is) Michael Caine," Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson drives up in car that stops in front of a bag of trash, gets out, and addresses the camera "If there's one thing worse than a murderer, it's a dirty, rotten, stinking 'grass'." Then he picks up the bag of garbage and tosses it off-screen, saying, "And that goes for litterbugs, as well."

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Read more of The Duff Guide to Ska's writings on Madness:

The Liberty of Norton Folgate

Can't Touch Us Now

Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da

Total Madness

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