Mad to the bone
Reinvigorated in 2009 by the wild critical success of The Liberty of Norton Folgate, ska veterans Madness are mining the richest seam of creativity of their career – and are as nutty as ever, Suggs tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
‘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 , 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.