By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine
It's 25 years since Madness hit the charts with a jaunty pop song that hid a bleak story about a mixed-race pregnancy. In a generation, attitudes to inter-racial relationships have changed strikingly. And the song even has a happy ending.
From a standing start, piano, cymbals, brass and bass guitar blast in unison the opening two notes to Embarrassment.
Then, suddenly, Suggs is at the microphone, his distinctive cockney tones singing about a letter and not wanting to be known. Eight bars in and that jaunty Madness beat takes over.
As was often the case with these 80s pop supremos, there was a sharp contradiction at the heart of Embarrassment, a number four hit for the group 25 years ago this week.
Madness were the "Nutty Boys" with a cartoon-like dance, whose stream of jocular sing-along hits were interspersed with songs about homelessness and depression. They unwittingly, and unwarrantedly, drew a violent skinhead following despite being avowed anti-racists.
Embarrassment might have sounded harmless enough, but strip away the bouncy music hall instrumentation and you're left with the chilling story of a young white woman who has been rejected by her family because she is carrying a black man's baby:
The song was a deeply personal response by Madness' saxophone player Lee Thompson to the news of his teenage sister's pregnancy by a black man. Written on tour in 1980, just as the band were starting to break big, it sketches the unfolding turmoil as uncles, aunts, mum and dad faced up to Tracy Thompson's mixed-race pregnancy.
Lee, who was on the road, was picking up snippets of news over the phone, through letters and family crisis meetings.
Tracy (right) and daughter Hayley
To fall pregnant, as Tracy had done, at 17, was frowned on - but out of wedlock, and to be carrying a "half-caste" baby was beyond the pale for some in the family, Lee recalls, as he thinks back to the experiences that informed the song.
Its one-word title says a lot about the prevailing attitude of the day.
"It was just not accepted in those days. She was shunned by a few people in the family. My father tried to talk her into getting it terminated," says Lee. "My sister dug her heels in and I was caught in the middle, wanting everyone to be happy."
Yet this was not an isolated experience. Prejudice against interracial couples and their mixed-race offspring, was commonplace at the time.
Lee recalls, while growing up in the 1960s, how the brother of a white friend provoked consternation when he married a black woman and had a child.
"I remember all the chat, the gossip, the cold-shouldering. He moved out of town in the end."
In the generation that has passed since Madness' chart hit, attitudes - in some quarters at least - have changed beyond recognition.
GRAHAM SUPPIAH, 35
Half Malaysian, half Greek-Cypriot, he grew up in Milton Keynes
'I never considered myself Asian, I was sort of stuck in the middle'
Family subjected to hostility - 'We had eggs thrown at our windows... between the ages of 10 and 15, in the playground I'd get called names'
'I was frowned on 25 years ago but Milton Keynes now has many more mixed-race people: 4% of the population'
'The last census was the first to have a mixed-race category, before it was just Other'
Cross-racial relationships are becoming just another part of the diverse ethnic landscape. The UK has one of the fastest growing mixed-race populations in the world, not only through Caucasian-Caribbean relationships, but a whole variety of ethnicities coming together.
The number of mixed-race people grew by 75% in the 1990s. According to the 2001 Census, about 1.5% of the UK's population classes itself as mixed-race.
Madeleine Champagnie is just one of those. Born in the UK to an Italian mother and Persian father, she celebrates her mixed parentage and has a husband, Simon, who is half black-Jamaican, half white-European. Together they have two young children and live in inner London.
"Because my skin is Mediterranean I never encountered open hostility when growing up, although my husband did where he grew up in the East End of London," says Madeleine, 36.
Her current family has never known prejudice in London, but she is wary of life outside the capital.
"Before the children, if Simon and I went away to the countryside, say the Cotswolds, he would feel people were looking at us for being a mixed couple. In Italy, they blatantly stare at you. They think: 'what's a black guy doing with one of ours?'"
But it's not only geography that has a bearing on such attitudes. Social, or class, factors do as well.
Gillian Olumide, who has studied children of mixed parentage, says there is more pressure on mixed-race couples further down the social order and on single mums with mixed-race children.
Lee Thompson today."She's gorgeous now," he says of his niece
The fact that a disproportionately high number of mixed-race children are in care is, perhaps, partly a result of how extended family networks can break down in such situations.
And hostility doesn't always come from the white, British side of the family. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author of Mixed Feelings, the Complex Life of Mixed-Race Britons, says white people today are less prejudiced against mixed relationships than Asian and Black Britons.
Factors like this, combined with the sheer ethnic diversity of UK society, make for a complicated picture when trying to understand society's attitudes. But in one case at least, there's a clearly positive outcome: that of Lee Thompson's sister Tracy.
Lee recalls how much of the rancour suddenly vanished the moment Tracy's child, Hayley, emerged into the world.
"My mum and dad were all over her. They were forever baby sitting. They loved their first grand-daughter. All the bad feeling just fell away."
"She's gorgeous now," says Lee of his now grown-up niece. "Intelligent, attractive, you wouldn't want to change a thing."
Tracy, now 44, says the wider family eventually came round to their new mixed-race addition "within a couple of years".
"Attitudes have changed without a doubt," she says. "I've got four mixed-race kids and am now married to a white man. He accepts them without a second thought."
And looking back on the song that so graphically detailed the family fallout that she had caused? "I feel really proud of it."
Thanks to People in Harmony for help with this article.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Fascinating. This story reveals that what, on the surface, appeared to be a jaunty pop single was actually an extremely clever comment on a serious issue. Nice to realise that things have changed so much for the better since the single was a hit.
Dave Godfrey, Swindon, UK
I was a big Madness fan in the 80's. Heart warming to see the bad feeling melt away. I've just returned from a trip to India with my husband and 'mixed race' children. Some people were curious but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive even in a country like India. The funniest comment was that an elderly gentleman assumed my husband and children were Indian 'but had turned white from living in the UK too long and had forgotten how to speak their language!'
How nice to read something positive with all the negatives about today. I will be long dead when people just accept a person for what they are (good or bad) and not what religion, colour or beliefs they may have.
One hopes it will happen sometime but the world today makes you think it is worlds away.
Russ Beale, Surin, France
I have two mixed race step sisters (Asian/white) and everyone in my family accepts them without thought to their race but their Asian family (with the exception of their father) refuses to acknowledge their existence.
Clair D'Alby, Falkirk
What a wonderful article. I knew the history of the track and why it was written, so to hear what happened later is fantastic! With the natural movement of populations throughout the UK and indeed the world, surely racism is a doomed philosophy that will eventually be extinct.
I was born 50 years ago in Cardiff, a mixed race child. My father is West Indian/Welsh (my grandfather came to this country in the 1890s) and my mother is Channel Islander French. I can honestly say I never really saw much racial prejudice when I was growing up. Admittedly a lot of that was down to the fact that most of my large, extended family lived in Tiger Bay, the second oldest ethnic minority community in the UK after London. The first time I ever came up against it was probably working as an apprentice electrician on the building sites. I was lucky in that there was always older Black men working there, but I found that the ones that caused problems were the Asians. I look Mediterranean rather than Caribbean, so that undoubtedly kept me away from some of the more blatant racists.
John Sinclair, Cardiff, Glamorgan
I am half of a mixed couple (I'm Scots/English and my wife is Sikh). We originally met and lived in London but seven years ago moved to Worcestershire. Our experience has been quite the reverse in that we have been welcomed here whereas in London my wife did experience abuse form fellow Asians for being with a Gora (white man).
Iain Paston, Droitwich, UK
I'd never realised exactly what that song was about- the lyrics suddenly make sense now. It's a shame that 25 years ago, intelligent songs charted. Now we just get processed pap. What are the chances of Westlife singing about mixed race kids, homelessness & depression?
Speaking as someone with Nigerian and Irish parents, the term 'half-caste' is offensive. It quite literally means 'half-made'. It's very disappointing to see such a term in use on the BBC's website.
Mark Mulqueen, Liverpool
I have to take exception at part of your article; 'violent skinhead following'. As one we were never violent. Music, clothes, scooters, and having a good time were our interests. We never caused anyone any harm and were certainly not racists. A minority in any walk of life will always try and ruin it for the majority but please do not tar us all with the same brush.
As an avid Madness fan at the time, I remember Embarrassment coming out. Four years later, at age 18, my daughter was born out of wedlock. Though not a mixed-race baby, the attitudes of where I was living were similar to those expressed by Lee Thompson. And, like Lee's niece, as soon as everyone saw her, the bad feelings just disappeared.
Dave Robertson, Wokingham, Berkshire
While some families still do not accept mixed-race marriages, I notice that the attitude of neighbours and friends has really changed in the last few years - my husband's Asian parents have never really accepted our marriage, or their grandchildren, but the wider family think his parents are foolish - which has made it easier for their grandchildren to deal with the rejection.
The landscape of prejudice (about skin colour/ethnicity and other things) is both varied and complex, and as someone who has lived in Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester and London I could not single London out as significantly less prejudiced towards "mixed-race" families than "the provinces" - whatever they are.
Thank you for the good article. As a former Madness fan I never really gave any thought to what the song was about. Meanwhile I have a 2.5 year old mixed-race daughter myself (afro-caribbean/white) and I would agree that very often initial "embarrassment" concerns are swept away at the sight of a beautiful child.
Andrew Naughton, Brighton, UK
25 years ago I wasn't old enough to be aware of what this song was about. I liked it but never understood it. Now I know, I like it even more. Madness were always a great band and their ability and willingness to tackle contentious issues of the day is what's missing from much of today's throw away 'pop'.
Sarah W-G., Sheffield
"They unwittingly, and unwarrantedly, drew a violent skinhead following despite being avowed anti-racists." This sentance you've used gives the uneducated and ignorant about one of the longest surviving youth cults suggests that Skinhead was all about racism and violence. Typical middle calls rubbish from BBC journalists who goes someway into catagorising the cult as just a bunch of maruding, muggy boneheads bashing anyone who doesn't have the same skin colour. Real skinheads are not racist.
Carl Beck, Portsmouth
I would like to point out that only a small minority of Skin Heads are infact racist or violent. A majority of so called 'Skins' that followed bands like Madness and The Specials where well aware of the anti-racist Lyrics, and because of the way we look get labelled instantly as Neo Nazi racists, due to a few very rotten apples. Groups like S.H.A.R.P (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) would not exist otherwise.
A very interesting article.
Dan, Somerset, UK
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