CHECK MATES

Three decades on, and the two-tone Mad­ness con­tin­ues un­abated. Front­man Suggs talks to Tony Clay­ton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

‘It’s un­be­liev­able – we just got news that our new al­bum is num­ber five in the pop­u­lar mu­sic charts.”

Gra­ham McPher­son, aka Suggs, is pos­i­tively trip­ping over him­self with the news that, 36 years af­ter they first formed in Cam­den Town, Mad­ness can still sell enough records to dent the charts. True, the sales fig­ures to­day for re­cently re­leased al­bum Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da don’t com­pare to the multi-mil­lions sold in the late 1970s, but for Suggs that isn’t re­ally the point. With the ex­cep­tion of U2, nei­ther of us can think of a band of pre­cisely sim­i­lar vin­tage that is a) still op­er­a­tive with the same per­son­nel, and b) still able to dent pop charts around the world with mu­sic that, while brand-iden­ti­fi­able, still of­fers some kind of valid cre­ative work ethic.

“Oh, God, the record sales as­pect has changed out of all recog­ni­tion,” posits Suggs. “But with­out shov­ing one’s big nose in to all the dark cor­ners of mod­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture and ask­ing why, you have to ac­cept that. The most im­por­tant thing for Mad­ness is that we’re all still here.

“I was sit­ting in my back gar­den the other day with Mike Bar­son [Mad­ness key­boardist and song­writer], and his son was do­ing a col­lege film about how down­load­ing has af­fected old farts still oper­at­ing in the mu­sic busi­ness. Mike was moan­ing about the down­load­ing thing, but then he and I quickly re­alised that as a band Mad­ness are do­ing bet­ter now fi­nan­cially than we were all those years ago hav­ing sold all those records.”

That sit­u­a­tion then, re­calls Suggs, “was arse about face”. Mad­ness sell nowhere near as many records as they used to, but now make good money per­form­ing live. “The fact that it’s the other way around doesn’t mean it’s any less suc­cess­ful. You adapt, it’s sim­ple as that.”

Back in the mid-1970s, Suggs was one of sev­eral likely lads buzzing around Cam­den Town. Spurred on by punk but more in­ter­ested in soul mu­sic and the mod aes­thetic, he and his mates (in­clud­ing Mike Bar­son, Chris Fore­man, Lee Thomp­son, Cathal Smyth and Daniel Woodgate) latched onto the TwoTone mu­sic move­ment, and went through band name changes (in­clud­ing The North Lon­don In­vaders and Mor­ris and the Mi­nors), set­tling on the ti­tle of one of their fa­vorite ska/reg­gae songs, Mad­ness (by Prince Buster). The rest, as they say, is his­tory. But what glo­ri­ous his­tory it turned out to be.

From their 1979 de­but sin­gle, The Prince, to their 1985 sin­gle, Yes­ter­day’s Men, Mad­ness scored 20 UK Top 20 hits. They out­paced ev­ery­one with songs of poignant wit ( Baggy Trousers, Our House, My Girl) and, quite sub­ver­sively for the era, top­i­cal so­cial com­men­tary re­gard­ing teenage preg­nan­cies ( Em­bar­rass­ment), crime ( Shut Up) and sex ( House of Fun). These early days, re­calls Suggs, were spent in some­thing of a head spin. “It was all a blur, yes, and so I couldn’t take much of it in. I think I was too busy won­der­ing whether or not my trousers were point­ing in the right di­rec­tion, wor­ry­ing about whether my mates would take the piss out of me for my trousers point­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, and more con­cerned to not let

the door slam in my face at house par­ties in Hamp­stead. We were a gang of kids run­ning around, and my main pre­oc­cu­pa­tion back then was try­ing to fit in and be one of the blokes, try­ing to make sense of stuff that goes on when you’re a teenager.

“Cer­tainly, some of the band had am­bi­tions, but I was a bit younger than the rest of them. But the things you re­mem­ber! I re­call get­ting our first res­i­dency at the Dublin Cas­tle, in Cam­den, and the Ir­ish owner – God rest his soul – asked us what kind of band we were. We said coun­try & western, but then at our first gig he saw seven skinny teenagers in two-tone suits leap­ing about play­ing ska. The Ir­ish regulars were some­what amused, I’m sure. But that was it, re­ally – we thought we made it with our Fri­day-

night res­i­dency. We reck­oned we’d make a tenner each and some birds might turn up. That’s as far as our pea-brains went in those days.”

Fast-for­ward a bunch of years: from 1985 on­wards the band’s pop­u­lar­ity de­clined, and fol­low­ing a bout of ‘mu­si­cal dif­fer­ences’ Mad­ness split up. Things cropped up to keep the band in the pub­lic eye, how­ever. A se­ries of an­nual re­union shows throughout the 1990s kept in­ter­est tick­ing over, and then in the early 2000s came the West End mu­si­cal, Our

House, which in 2003 won an Olivier Award for Best New Mu­si­cal. And then? Well, in 2009 along came The Lib­erty of Nor­ton Fol­gate.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s,” be­gins Suggs, “there was a black hole of nos­tal­gia-driven mu­sic that was suck­ing Mad­ness into it. We had to put on the Warp Fac­tor 7 to pre­vent nos­tal­gia from af­fect­ing us on a re­ally detri­men­tal level, and that’s where Nor­ton

Fol­gate came about.” Re­leased in the sum­mer of 2009, The

Lib­erty of Nor­ton Fol­gate is a con­cept al­bum/mini-opera (of sorts) about the mul­ti­cul­tural/so­cial evo­lu­tion of Lon­don that plugs into in­spi­ra­tions as di­verse as Ray Davies, Martin Amis, Charles Dick­ens, Peter Ack­royd and Noel Coward – all to the tune of sub­tle and tex­tured pop, ska, bhangra, klezmer and dance­hall beats

“I re­mem­ber think­ing that if Mad­ness only ever did one more al­bum, then at least The Lib

erty of Nor­ton Fol­gate was as good – or bet­ter – than any­thing else we’d ever done. And we did that, in my opin­ion. That al­bum spun us out of the or­bit of 1980s nos­tal­gia and into where we are now. Mak­ing the new al­bum was just about mak­ing an al­bum – it wasn’t a test or a chal­lenge in the way that Nor­ton Fol­gate was.”

Was it dif­fi­cult for Mad­ness to look at the nos­tal­gia cir­cuit and refuse to join it? A lot of money can be made that way, can’t it, what with so many bands of sim­i­lar vin­tage hav­ing no prob­lem what­so­ever bang­ing out the old hits again and again?

“It was in­cre­men­tal,” says Suggs. “We did out first come­back tour in 1992, and there was a great feel­ing at that time within the band. We were all do­ing our own thing, and the com­mon ethos in the band was let’s get back each Christ­mas for some ma­jor gigs, make a few quid, fuck off, and hope that no one no­tices. But af­ter about 10 years of that, the modus operandi was get­ting bor­ing, and we thought it would be a good idea to ei­ther change that sce­nario or just pack it up. We sat around, talked about it, and de­cided to give re­ally orig­i­nal and new ma­te­rial a go.”

Such a de­ci­sion takes courage, ef­fort and a will to change. The pri­mary in­ten­tion, im­plies Suggs, was to sever as many ties as pos­si­ble with the nos­tal­gia cir­cuit.

“There are other ex­am­ples of peo­ple of our age do­ing it. Paul Weller is a great one. Not that we’re com­par­ing our­selves to him, but he has put a lot of work – more work than we have, that’s for sure – into get­ting him­self out of the whole nos­tal­gia trip. Kevin Row­lands is an­other one – and look at how long it took him to do that. So it’s not just the time it takes, it’s also the in­cli­na­tion and de­sire.”

So – more than 35 years later, a place in pop mu­sic his­tory, a price­less back cat­a­logue, and a valid, cred­i­ble resur­gence of cre­ativ­ity? Not bad, is it, for band that, col­lec­tively, was once a bunch of likely lads on the razz?

“You know what? One of the best things that hap­pened to us was that we split up for about eight years – be­tween the mid-1980s and early 1990s. To­wards the twi­light of that first in­car­na­tion – if I can call it such – we were record­ing songs like Yes­ter­day’s Men and One

Bet­ter Day. It was all a bit melan­cholic, of which there was a strain in the band’s mu­sic, any­way. But we weren’t play­ing some of the early hap­pier mu­sic, ei­ther, pos­si­bly be­cause we were in the frame of mind that we had to grow up in some ways.

“But when we came back, we thought, fuck it, we’ll play all the sin­gles. And it was only then that we re­alised the power they have. Yes, some are a bit daft, but House of Fun and

Driv­ing in My Car played to­day gen­er­ate smiles of en­joy­ment on peo­ple’s faces. And most im­por­tantly, it makes their trousers face in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion.”

Mad­ness new al­bum, Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, is out through Cook­ing Vinyl. They play Dublin’s O2 on Wed­nes­day, Novem­ber 28th

Chris Fore­man, Suggs, Lee Thomp­son, Dan Woodgate, Chas Smash, Mike Bar­son

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