Shut Up: Madness (1981)

One of the most criminally overlooked bands from the UK has to be Madness. Mostly, they are remembered today for their jokey videos and a couple of massive hits that skirt perilously close to ‘Party Song’ territory – namely One Step Beyond and House Of Fun. In my opinion, however, they should be mentioned in the same breath as The Kinks in terms of songwriting chops. First off, in case you’re unfamiliar with the song, here is today’s song in question: Shut Up, dating from 1981.

Like most of Madness’ hits, the first thing that probably hits you from the off is the tempo and what could fairly be described as the ‘fairground’ vibe that derives from the piano riff. Pianos were a big part of the Madness sound and here they are: up front and centre and showcasing the often disarming virtuosity of pianist Mike Barson. Coupled to the choppy off-beat common to most Madness songs this serves to make the song sound faster than it actually is (although it is fairly brisk).

Lyrically the song is concerned with the protestations of someone accused of some kind of theft-related crime. As such, it is presented with two third-party personae: the main protagonist and a second voice – that of an accomplice.

It also contains a brilliant throwaway lyric which is actually easy to overlook in the general pace of the song’s delivery: “I’m as honest as the day is long / The longer the daylight, the less I do wrong.” Altogther, the lyrics are rooted in the kind of day-to-day realism of the kind used by The Kinks, Who and (less frequently) The Beatles.

Where it gets really interesting from a songwriting perspective is the sheer oddball eccentricity of the chord changes. Where most songs content themselves with perhaps 4 or 5 chords – and if you’re lucky a key change – the chord changes in Shut Up are quite bonkers if you break them down.

The first verse begins with a relatively straightforward G-B7-Em run (“I tell you I didn’t do it..”) before stepping up a tone for the second half: A-D7-F#m (“You listen to their side…”). That is slightly unusual in itself, as a full tone step in pop is usually reserved for a ‘climax’ of a song. You’ll be most familiar with that trick from the final chorus of every winning X-Factor song since 1888. Still, formally, it isn’t that outré – certainly not in comparison to the chorus, which runs like this (hang on to your hats):

Em – G – Bm
Pass the blame and don’t blame me

Dm – F – Am
Just close your eyes and count to three

Gm – Bb – Dm
Then I’ll be gone and you’ll forget

A#m – Db – Fm
The broken window TV set

In terms of tonal normality – i.e. things you’ll be used to hearing – this is way outside the regular tropes of pop. In effect, the chorus changes key 4 times in four lines! It is testament to Madness’ skills as melodicists that this somehow hangs together tunefully. If you can play a guitar or piano, just run through the change in order to see how odd it is when unaccompanied.

Em – G – Bm – Dm – F – Am – Gm – Bb – Dm -A#m – Db – Fm

At the end of the chorus, the song now sits in Fm – down from the song’s opening in G. To complete a dizzying succession of changes, the second verse switches to the key of C!

It wasn’t me either
I’m just his mate

Before swapping again(!!) to the song’s home key of G for the second half.

I’ve got a wife and three kids you know…

When I first sat down to study this song, this constant and bewildering slipping of keys was a big surprise to me, as a casual familiarity with the song gives it a very natural feeling. Looking close, it’s anything but – and the band’s arrangement of the song becomes a work of genius in this light. Few bands I am aware of could pull of a trick like this. Musically, this song is a dense kaleidoscope of keys, cleverly put together in such a way that hides its innate cleverness behind tight musicianship and a relatively simply melody.

Madness repeat this kind of trick in dozens of their songs, and anyone with even a passing interest in songsmithery should listen to their back catalogue with open ears to discover new ways of constructing songs.


I tell you I didn’t do it
‘Cause I wasn’t there
Don’t blame me, it just isn’t fair
You listen to their side
Now listen to mine
Can’t think of a story
Sure you’ll find me sometime

Now pass the blame and don’t blame me
Just close your eyes and count to three
(One two three)
Then I’ll be gone and you’ll forget
The broken window, t.v. set

It wasn’t me either, I’m just his mate
He told me to stand here and watch the gate
I’ve got a wife and three kids you know
They’ll tell you I’m straight, at least I think so
I’m as honest as the day is long,
The longer the daylight, the less I do wrong