Weekly updates:


Upfront: Madness

"Have you seen our house?"

Words by

Madness fell into music off the back of teenage boredom. Growing up around Camden Town in North London, the group met in school and started playing gigs together to add purpose to their generally dreary environment. Experimenting with punk and ska tones, they soon found mass popularity with 15 songs entering the Top 10 charts including the iconic pop hits ‘Our House’, ‘House of Fun’, and ‘It Must Be Love’.

Just prior to headlining the Sunday night of Bluesfest, Madness front man Suggs contemplates the life they might have had if they had not returned to music after the group disbanded for an eight year hiatus in 1984. Suggs barks over his shoulder to his manager to “keep it down in the back”. He chuckles, “30 years on and I can always hear his voice above everything else”. Despite the dim lighting, Suggs wears shades. He insists solemnly that Madness “was always about friendship and a touch of friendly rivalry too”.

How did your hometown environment influence your early music?

We were friends from school; we all grew up in the same area around Camden Town in North London. It was mostly Irish but it had a great Greek-Cypriot community, so for a young man it was fantastic. We had pubs that had lock-ins that you could stay in all night, then they had these fantastic Greek-Cypriot restaurants where you could eat really reasonably priced food, so it was the perfect sustenance for a teenage boy. The only problem was, no girls came to Camden Town until 1983, they weren’t invented [laughs]. It was just a load of blokes in pubs. The other advantage of that place was all these big pubs had function rooms in the back for christenings and weddings, which was a big Irish thing. It meant there was space to play so when we started the band we’d go around asking for gigs, often pretending we were country and western or folk, which might’ve gone down better with the Irish contingent. Bit by bit we developed a following and band started to get somewhere. People started to know who we were.

What was the purpose of creating music and art back then?

We were just friends, we were messing around. We hadn’t really concentrated on our education and the outlets for us were getting thinner and thinner. It was something to do and an opportunity to get out of this rather dreary situation that we found ourselves in which was mainly labour and crappy jobs. We were just so happy to get a gig in a pub, which was enough really to start. Then we made our first record and thought “Well if nothing else we made a record, no-one can take that away from me” but it just kept going on and on here we still are 150 years later.

Were there ever points where you were just over it all and wanted to stop playing music and just drop everything and go work in a factory or something?

Yes, there was. In 1984 we had been going for about five or six years and we’d be constantly touring. There’d be no complaints; we were doing very, very well. We had hit single after hit single, which became a wild out of control rollercoaster. By 1984, with 15 Top 10 hits in Britain, we’d done five world tours and not been at home. Most of us were getting married and having kids so we decided to have a break at that period. So from 1984 to 1992 we all went off to our normal lives, which I think was a great thing because it’s such a bizarre world being in a pop band all the time. It has the tendency to stunt your emotional growth if you’re not careful, just look around. Look at the great catalogue of pop philosophers that haven’t been.

What made you want to want to come back to music after that hiatus?

Some of the band such as our keyboard player went off to live in Holland and we all scattered around the world but we stayed in touch. Bit by bit we started to talk about getting back into music. We never really split up, we had just fizzled and people didn’t notice for a couple of years. So we thought, let’s do a one off farewell concert just for a bit of fun. We played in a park near where we live in North London and 70,000 people turned up. That was an indication that there was still more to do. It took a few years after that before we started to make a new record and bit by bit we started to roll back into it. I think all the better for having had some time out, spending time with our families and re-establishing ourselves in our own neighbourhood with our friends. All that kind of stuff, I think was the greatest thing that could have happened.

So now you’re back into making new music and have a new album Can’t Touch Us Now. What motivates you to make music today, in comparison to when you were younger?

It was kind of unconscious when we were young, we started like most bands playing cover versions. Then our drummer came in and said “There’s a song I’ve written myself” and I thought if that thick bastard can write a song, I certainly well can. Then we all started writing songs. It’s an odd phenomenon. All seven of us in the band write songs so there’s a bit of competition between us all, trying to write better songs than the other. But in the mid ’90s there was a big call for ’80s nostalgia as there is with every post-decade, there’s always a nostalgia for the previous decade. We thought we really have to get away from this ’80s nostalgia kind of thing. That’s when we really started working on new material and we have been ever since and we kind of dragged ourselves. We’ll be remembered for a lot of that stuff we did in the ’80s but certainly in Britain we’re getting to a position where we’re seen as a working band, which is all we ever wanted really.

At the start of the clip for ‘Our House’ you guys are hassling people in the street asking “Have you seen our house?”. Did you like to take the piss a bit?

Yeah, video was a new medium back then. There was no MTV or anything; we were just making it up as we went along. Then we’d have these VHS things where you could compile all of your clips and sell it. We thought it’d be amusing to link all the clips together and went out for a day and shot all the stupid stuff on the street. We always did have a lot of fun and we still do, as much for our own amusement as anything else.

What about your new venture My Life Story? Is it song and spoken word like John Cooper Clarke or is it more like stand up comedy?

It’s not dissimilar to John Cooper Clarke. It has its serious element. It’s very hard to pin down. I sing songs, tell some funny stories and tell some very sad stories. It’s a mixture of a lot of different things, but basically it’s me telling the story of the ridiculousness of my life. It started very grim and bit by bit the sun came out.

I think music and comedy come from a place that is quite candid. Do you find there are similarities between the two?

Yeah, I’d say that’s true. I think you can say things in comedy in the same way you can say in music. What’s that phrase “Often thought, seldom said”. Comedy can often be quite sad and you can capture a lot of things that way. A lot of the songs we wrote were serious songs but we kind of added a bit of humour. Sadness and happiness at the same time is what we’ve always been aiming at. It’s funny you say comedy because every time I meet an Australian they talk about The Young Ones. You’re probably too young to remember The Young Ones.

I love The Young Ones!

It’s sort of a rite of passage for every Australian generation. For instance, that was the most amazing parallel because at that point in England before punk it was really getting stodgy with very old guys making very old boring music. To be young in itself seemed to be a really kind of novelty. The same with comedy, there were a lot of old comedians being racist or misogynist, old geezers doing those terrible old jokes. Then people like The Young Ones came along and people like us came along and livened the whole thing up. We knew then in the same way, that they were in the same world as us. Even though they weren’t in music they were trying to do something to liven up the whole situation, so we had a great empathy with them for sure and there was a bit of a crossover in that period.

Which young one do you identify with? I’m guessing it’s Vyvyan or Rick.

[Laughs] I’d say I’m a complete mixture of the two. I can be Vyvyan and I can be Rick at any given moment.

Follow Madness:

Special thanks to Bluesfest and Bluesfest Touring.

Weekly updates