I Wrote That: Madness' Mike Barson on 'My Girl'

The multi-instrumentalist on the making of the beloved band's 1979 hit, Madness' longevity and his top songwriting tips.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 24 Jun 2024
  • min read

London, the musical home of pop mavericks Madness, has changed a huge amount in the last 45 years. The streets and thoroughfares of the city where they formed may have evolved, but the band’s love of melody, songwriting flair and huge success have all endured.

Alongside early Madness hits like The Prince and Night Boat to Cairo, 1979’s My Girl helped build momentum for the band’s influential debut record, One Step Beyond.

‘It was a very pleasant surprise to have a hit at that time. I felt like Mr Big for a little while there,’ laughs Mike Barson, My Girl songwriter, keyboardist and Madness’ musical architect.

‘No one knew how long our music would sustain for,’ he continues. ‘We didn’t think about that back then. We were just caught up in this surge of musical inspiration coming out of London with artists like ourselves, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury. It was a great time.’

The band, featuring Mike, frontman Suggs, Mark Bedford on bass, guitarist Chris Foreman, drummer Dan Woodgate and saxophone player Lee Thompson, are still on the receiving end of commercial and critical acclaim. Having released their 13th record — Theatre of the Absurd Presents C'est la Vie — last November, it’s these latter career stages where, Mike feels, Madness are finally receiving their dues as songwriters.

‘We were always seen as a cheap, end of the pier act and slagged off for not being proper musicians,’ he tells M. ‘But our critics had no idea about how much work went into our music. It’s only been at this stage that we’ve been compared to The Kinks and considered serious artists.’

'Madness' critics had no idea about how much work went into our music.'

Initially raised in Kentish Town, it was in Crouch End where Madness first started to germinate under the moniker North London Invaders. The band formed out of an inner circle of friends who were passionate about music, regularly descending on each other’s homes in search of a record player to listen to the latest releases.

‘Back then, music felt precious and removed from the mainstream, you had to seek it out,’ Mike recalls. ‘We used to share records and try to listen to Radio Luxembourg, which would be hard to get due to the interference.

‘We had a lot of different people around us then. When we started the band, those who were keen — me, Chris and Lee, basically — were the ones who wanted to get instruments and get our hands dirty with our own music.’

Madness’ sound is affiliated with early ska and two-tone, but many of their influences and inspirations were more far-reaching. Mike cites a love of Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound and Motown alongside Jamaican artists like Prince Buster.

‘I loved Diana Ross and the Four Tops, then I used to listen to Carole King: her album Tapestry was a big thing for me as a kid,’ he adds. ‘Alex Harvey was brilliant as a performer too, the attitude he had and how he got into characters in his songs. He was a big inspiration in terms of how he chose to celebrate the underdog and anti-establishment heroes.’

My Girl was written by Mike at his home in Crouch End, where his brothers ensured there were plenty of vessels for his creative ideas to float on.

‘My brother bought himself a baby grand piano and was always more technical about his approach,’ he explains. ‘The way I play isn’t particularly technical, but I like to work with melody and nice chord progressions and how the vocals sit within them. My goal is to hit a sweet spot, taking all the parts and fitting them together so they become a solid piece of music.’

The track’s lyrics focus on the friction of a relationship, drawing inspiration from contemporaries like Ian Dury. Rather than imagining a glitzy, Hollywood lifestyle, this was unpretentious songwriting taken from Mike’s own experiences of a stilted phone conversation with a girlfriend.

‘Ian was writing in a very British style, encapsulating the focus for writers at that time who would be plaintive in their songs,’ says Mike. ‘Compared to bands like Duran Duran, we were celebrating something more mundane.’

Several different recordings of the song were captured, with an initial demo version even being recorded in the basement of a dentist’s. The band subsequently ended up in Pathway in Stoke Newington with Clive Langer, a studio producer they’ve worked with throughout their career.

‘We knew Clive through his work with this band Deaf School, and it was amazing to end up in the studio with him,’ he recalls. ‘After rehearsing in a bedroom, then a basement, when you go into a studio to record, it was mind-blowing how great it sounded.

‘The song came together so well it had me questioning if I’d nicked it from somewhere!’ he continues. ‘That’s sometimes a less positive aspect of songwriting. But then it came together, the chorus, the verse. I like the minor to major movement: job done.’

'My Girl came together so well it had me questioning if I’d nicked it from somewhere!'


In celebration of their longevity, Madness received a PRS for Music Heritage Award at The Dublin Castle in 2017, marking the scene of their first gig. M is speaking to Mike just as Madness have returned from a US tour, and the band are now looking forward to another series of big summer shows in the UK. What’s the key, then, to their success from a songwriting perspective?

‘One thing about songwriting is not to take it too seriously,’ Mike replies. ‘Once you do, then it gets very sticky and hard to change things. When you end up there, nothing is good enough: you think it’s so great you can’t work on it. So I think trying to avoid worrying about it too much is important.’

While he admits that one recent song stemmed from a dream he had (‘something which does sound a bit Terence Trent D'arby’), Mike is a firm advocate for trying to capture inspiration when it happens.

‘Prince once said that when you have an idea, don’t do it later: later will never come. Do it there and then,’ he says. ‘It’s something I believe in.

‘When you are really inspired, work with intensity and don’t criticise yourself. Keep it simple and pure. Sometimes a song pops up from nowhere, and you need to get it.’

Madness’ enhanced edition of Theatre of the Absurd Presents C'est La Vie will be released on 28 June.