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.
“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 multi-cultural/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 Liberty 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
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