Suggs and co have battled through knife (and fork) fights, fascist fans and being banned from TOTP (four times). Is their 12th album further proof the Nutty Boys have survived ‘Rod Stewart syndrome’?
We’re sitting outside a pub in Camden Town, north London, watching the world go by. This is Madness’s old stamping ground. Forty years on, it’s still their stamping ground. The man who just passed, says singer Suggs (Graham McPherson), is the richest fella in Camden. A couple of hundred yards away is the Dublin Castle, the Irish pub where Madness were given their first residency. You’ve got to watch the world, says saxophonist Kix (AKA El Thommo, AKA Lee Thompson), drink it all in. If you aren’t watching, he says, you might as well call it a day.
Which is what Madness did for six years from 1986 to 1992. The fun had gone for pop’s most fun band. The self-proclaimed Nutty Boys had spent years bringing smiles back to the upper regions of the charts – Our House, It Must Be Love, Baggy Trousers, House of Fun, My Girl, Embarrassment, and so many more. Like the Kinks before them, they chronicled London, but their version was less lyrical; more singalong, more laddy. It was music at its most infectious.
Now Madness are back with Can’t Touch Us Now, their 12th album. The tunes haven’t changed much over the decades, but there is a new depth to their storytelling. Here are wonderful character vignettes, about Mr Apples, (devout by day, whorer by night) and Pam the Hawk (London’s most skilled tramp, who pisses her earnings away on fruit machines).
I’m hoping to meet all six of Madness in the pub, but their publicist says that will be impossible. Why? Well, it’s hard to get them all together at any one time, he says. Which is true. But it turns out there is another, more important reason. You won’t be able to cope with them all, he says. In the end, we settle on Suggs and Kix. It turns out the publicist was right. Just the two are a handful.
Madness was every bit as nutty as they made out. Kix had done time in borstal for stealing cars; Suggs was an aspiring football hooligan. There was nothing special about that back then, Suggs says – they were all hoolies. “Everybody from the estate I grew up on went to the football, and you ran around shouting at people and booting people up the arse. We were all prone to behaving badly.”
Kix doesn’t like to think what would have become of him if he hadn’t found Madness. He talks of an old friend from the criminal fraternity who recently died. “There were only two people at the church. His son and his brother. They couldn’t bury him for four or five weeks because they couldn’t afford the coffin. Very sad. Real sad.”
“More so for Kix but, for all of us, that band was a saviour from getting stuck in the world that had been preordained,” Suggs says. He pauses. “Pre-whatever-it’s-called.”
Suggs is a big lad these days, with imposing gnashers and a hint of James Bond’s Jaws about him. Kix looks like the kind of wheeler-dealer you would have second thoughts about returning soiled goods to. They are smoking liquorice-flavoured rollies and supping on half-pints of lager while reminiscing about their pre-Madness days.
“Peter O’Toole’s daughter would have a house party in Hampstead and they’d be away and there’d be 150 people in the house for a weekend,” Suggs says.
Wow, I say, how come you were invited to such posh parties?
“We didn’t get invited, no!” they say simultaneously, and start giggling.
“We invited ourselves and sometimes left with an odd record or two,” Kix says. “A suitcase appeared out of the window with a knotted sheet.”
A police car passes with its siren blaring. “They’ll never sell ice cream at that speed,” Kix says. And they’re in fits again.
They were funny old days, they say – rough, too. Mods, rockers, Teddy boys, all spoiling for a fight, and hapless hippies caught in between. They had a pal with long hair and opinions who had cause to regret both. “He turned up at a Bazooka Joe gig. Adam Ant was the bass player, and [Madness keyboard player] Mike Barson’s elder brother was the singer. They were the band the Sex Pistols supported in the first-ever gig they did at Central St Martin’s. That’s the history of that,” Suggs says, who does pride himself on being a bit of a social historian.
Kix: “Anyway, our mate with the hair had a disagreement about something and he took a chain over the head.”
Suggs: “They were the days … bicycle chains.”
Kix: ‘“Bicycle chains, yeah.”
At times, they sound like a Derek and Clive sketch.
What happened to their mate?
Kix: “He ended up getting several stitches in his head and shaved his head from that day on.”
Suggs: “Legend has it that’s why we all got short hair at that time, when it wasn’t fashionable.” Though, to be fair, he says, he can’t remember.
Madness formed as the North London Invaders in 1976, and by 1979 they were making hits. The all-white band playing black music attracted a racist following in the early days. “It was very tough for us,” Suggs says. “No one can know what we went through, seeing a thousand people sieg heiling. We’d jump in the audience to try to put people off, but there came a point where it was overwhelming. It was fucking everybody, and you’d see the NF geezers at the back organising these skinheads. You’d see people you knew with a swastika tattooed the wrong way round on their forehead. I don’t think they even knew what the fuck they were on about. We got the credit for it, but they were doing it at Specials concerts, too. It was all over the place for a bit.”
Suggs says Madness took the blame because, in one interview, one member had said he didn’t mind who came to the gigs so long as people had fun. “The headline comes out that we don’t care who comes to our gigs, with the implication that we were encouraging racist skinheads, which we certainly weren’t. All we could do in interviews is say, ‘We don’t like it,’ and continue to make music of black origin.” He grins. “We weren’t the brightest sparks.”
Apart from that, they say, those were wonderful days. “It was a bunch of fellas just having a whole lot of fun,” Kix says. Music seems so much more manufactured these days, he adds.
“Chrissie Hynde said that London in the 1970s was made for musicians; transport was cheap, you could go on the dole, you could squat,” Suggs says. “Nowadays, you can’t even find somewhere to rehearse unless your mummy and daddy can pay for you. All the arts are just fucking old Etonians and that is a big problem. And it’s boring. Where are the urchins? We certainly wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
Madness were a constant presence on Top of the Pops back then. They would get to Television Centre early and pass the day boozing.
“We got to know the commissionaire at the BBC bar, an old Irish geezer who would let us in because he liked us. And we’d have eight hours in the fuckin’ bar,” Kix says.
“By the time we went down to the set, we were off our crackers,” Suggs says. “D’you know we got banned from Top of the Pops four times?”
He starts counting on his fingers. “Well, there was the time our saxophonist turned up with a T-shirt that said, ‘I need the BBC,’ and he pulled it off and the one beneath said, ‘like a hole in the fuckin’ head’. Another time we got banned because one member whose brother was in prison pulled out a card that said: ‘Hello, prisoner number B46244’ or whatever. It was: “Cut! CUT!” Deadly silence. And the producer, Michael Hurll, pointed at your main man and said, ‘You’re an embarrassment to yourself, an embarrassment to the BBC’, and I’m sure he said, ‘You’re an embarrassment to the Queen’, at the end.”
And then there was the time, 10 minutes before the show went on air, that they deliberately stopped the lift they were sharing with a group of dancers by jumping up and down. “There were 10 of us in there,” Kix says. “They had big fur coats on and, if you opened the fur coat, there was all the tackle on underneath. There was a lot of rubbing going on, a lot of jumping up and down. I was full of beans. I was in a lift with a load of furry things, and I just couldn’t help myself. The fire service had to rescue us.”
Suggs snorts so much at the memory that his beer goes down the wrong way. “Don’t choke on that, Suggs,” Kix says. “It’s coming out of your nose.”
Any excuse they had to dress up, they did. “The costumes got more bizarre and extreme,” Suggs says, “and one day our saxophonist turned up like an exploding traffic warden. Hehehehe! Hoohoohoo!”
“One time we got our hands on authentic coppers’ uniforms,” Kix says. “Now, can you imagine the fun we had out on the streets in them, truncheons and everything? When we discovered the Clash were rehearsing around the corner … ‘Nobody move! It’s the police!’ Two of them run in the toilet. Just the sound of doors slamming and toilets flushing. They never spoke to us for five years. It must have been good gear, eh? The fun we had.”
Why did they split up? “Medical reasons,” Suggs says. “We were sick of each other. We got pissed off with each other all the time. I mean Chris and Kix nearly killed each other.” Guitarist Chrissy Boy Foreman attacked Kix with a knife and fork. Another time, Chrissy Boy came at him with two bottles. “If it had been Jack Daniels bottles, I wouldn’t have minded, but he’s come in with two Perrier bottles. I thought: ‘Chris, what are you going to do with those?’ Then we ended up hugging a couple of hours later. As you do.”
“Yeah, the odd blow has been thrown,” Suggs says, “but not many, considering.”
After the band split up in 1986, they fell on hard times. “We all got a bit potless,” Suggs says. But you became a successful television presenter, I say. Yes, for a while, he explains, but then he blew it. “I won three awards at the Royal Television Society, I got on the stage and said: ‘You can stick television up your arse.’ Needless to say, I was only joking, but I never worked again. It’s true – never got another job again. They don’t forget that stuff.”
In the 90s, Madness reformed but, creatively, it was a sterile period. “We were tempted into the black hole of 80s nostalgia,” Suggs says.
“It was like dancing on the spot,” Kix says. “Doing the same thing over and over.” It solved their money problems, but little else. They talk about artists who go on forever, reheating the same old classics. “They call it Rod Stewart syndrome,” Suggs says, “If you’re just sitting on artificial grass next to your swimming pool in LA, there’s not much to fuckin’ write about, is there?”
Madness did not have Los Angeles homes, but they had their own homegrown version of Rod Stewart syndrome. They had stopped observing life. If they were to produce something worthwhile, they realised they had to take a fresh look at the world. The result was the 2009 concept album The Liberty of Norton Folgate, which is as rooted in historical London as Peter Ackroyd at his finest.
After a disappointing follow-up album, the band are back to their observational best with Can’t Touch Us Now. As soon as you hear the songs, you want to know more about the characters who inspired them. Who’s Mr Apples? “If I said Keith Vaz, we wouldn’t be a million miles away, but it isn’t him. It’s an old, old story – the judge with the suspenders on and all that,” Suggs says. “I only mention Vaz because it must be very exhausting spending your whole day at a committee talking about the rights and wrongs of prostitution and your whole night doing the research.”
The gorgeous Pam the Hawk was written about Soho’s most successful tramp, Suggs says. “She was a friend of my mum’s. She used to earn about £200 a day, but it all went on the bookies and fruit machines. She just had this incredible knack for getting money off people. She used to give you that toothless smile and she’d go to give you a hug, and you’d give her a pound not to get a fuckin’ hug, you know what I mean?”
The most poignant song, Blackbird, is a tribute to Amy Winehouse. “Three or four days before she died, I saw her walking down Dean Street with a guitar over her shoulder. She said: ‘All right, nutty boy?’ as she walked past,” Suggs says. “It made me laugh because I’m 55 fucking years old, but it’s such a Winehouse thing to say. ‘All right, nutty boy?’ It really got me. What a sad thing.”
And, for once, the banter stops. Suggs stares across the street and you can almost see the memories revisiting. This place, this town, this city, has provided such inspiration down the decades. He talks about some of the amazing residents he has met from Arlington House, a local hostel for the homeless. “The fella in an undertaker’s outfit, the fella dressed as a sailor, full of stories. The main thing is to be able to sit here like this and chat and watch. If you’re on a bus just travelling around the world, you don’t get that. This is where you get the inspiration.”
And, with that, the boys empty their glasses, dump their rollies and set off down the streets of Camden Town to continue their 40-year odyssey.
Can’t Touch Us Now is out now. Madness tour the UK from 1-17 December. For more information, visit www.madness.co.uk