Something extraordinary happened a few weeks after we published a double-header of Camden’s finest in 2023 — that’ll be Neil Tennant spots Madness Driving In My Car and Mark Gibson’s Nutty Boy Perfect 10 — Suggs and co. did the unthinkable when the Cricklewood recorded Theatre Of The Absurd Presents C’est La Vie LP shot straight to the top of the charts. A concept album billed as “the perfect antidote to the chaos of the past few years” became, amazingly, the band’s first studio set to bag pole position, a feat previously accorded to their compilations, 1982’s Complete Madness and 1992’s Divine Madness.
So, in honour of Suggs turning 63, we’re rewinding back to the eighties once more, because in March 1984, Neil Tennant had his second Madness feature published in Smash Hits magazine, entitled Upwards And Onwards. He caught the Nuttys at a peculiar time: founding member Mike Barson had decamped to The Netherlands, a planned BBC TV series, penned by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, never made it past the pilot, while their status as one of Britain’s finest singles acts looked like it applied to the past and not the present, with current offering Michael Caine stalling at No. 11. Indeed, over 40 years later 1983’s The Sun And The Rain is still their last 45 to reach the top five to date.
What was that classic Neil Tennant kicker? “And the rest, as they say, is history.” Well, quite.
MADNESS ARE PLANNING A TV SERIES. THEY’RE STARTING A RECORD LABEL. THEY EVEN WEAR HAND-MADE SOCKS THESE DAYS. IT’S CALLED “BROADENING ONE’S OUTLOOK”.
WELL, THAT’S WHAT SUGGS AND CARL TELL NEIL TENNANT.
LAUGH. THAT’S all they seem to do this afternoon. Remarkably, after six years together in Madness, Messrs Graham “Suggs” McPherson and Carl Smyth are still enthusiastic about their group, brimming with ideas for songs, stunts and performances and laughing at their own jokes. As old friends, they’ve matured together from being North London bad boys to “elder statesmen” in pop music, sipping Earl Grey tea in comfortable homes, without losing interest or confidence in what they do. “We have enthuse upon enthuse,” laughs Suggs and that seems to be their new motto. Even, it seems, when it comes to answering my questions.
Is it still fun being in Madness?
SUGGS: Yes, amazingly so. I still really enjoy it and look forward to the future of the group. It’s funny now that we’re elder statesmen in rock, in a strange way, seeing groups coming up with the same enthusiasm for the business. Enthusiasm for the business – that’s what wears off after a while. But, as Chris has said, the fact that we’re still together must mean something pretty amazing.
CARL: I think we know where to draw the line with each other; we’ve known each other for so long.
What was your reaction to Mike Barson leaving?
CARL: It was on 4th October, 1983. We’d just stopped rehearsing and I made some tea. I walked into the room and laid the cups down, and Mike stood up with a very heavy frown. He said, and I quote, these were his words: “I’ll be leaving the band after this album, you turds.” And we all laughed and said it had been a good run…
SUGGS: We’d had a touch…
CARL: …and had some fun. We’d made some cash and had a splash, we’d travelled far we’d travelled wide, but now the Barso has gone to hide. No it was good that he had the strength to do it. Things happen to us and draw us together and make us a bit stronger.
SUGGS: It was like what I’ve read about dying: that your life flashes before you. I remember when he said it that the band’s whole career flashed before my eyes.
CARL: We still contact him. He might send tapes over. All the doors are open.
SUGGS: It undermined our confidence for a while, though. For about a month we were like headless chickens.
CARL: But we’ve still got a few bucketfuls of confidence left.
What do you think of Tracey Ullman‘s version of My Girl?
SUGGS: We always thought that it would be a good song for a girl to do. Robbo was always saying that he wanted someone to do it, as the head of Stiff. So, you know, they’ve done it and they’ve tried and it’s alright.
CARL: It’s difficult to be objective when it’s yours. I think it’s good that Neil Kinnock’s in the video. If it helps the Labour Party to get in then all’s well and good.
What’s this TV series you’re planning?
CARL: Ooh. It’s going to be filmed. It’s going to have us in it, it’s going to be a bit of a sit-com satire about the state of the nation, sort of like The Monkees, you know. (Laughs sarcastically)
SUGGS: I don’t think it’s particularly because we’re a pop band that we’d like to do it. It’s just the fact that we could do something funny visually. It’s at the written stage now. A few episodes have been written and now it’s got to be sold commercially as a package. So there’s nothing in the can, man.
What’s your involvement with Greenpeace and CND?
SUGGS: We just like them. Greenpeace are ecologists but they do things. They don’t have debates, they don’t have marches, they just do things.
CARL: They’ll put their bodies under nuclear waste which is being dumped in the ocean. They’ll chain themselves to tankers which are about to be dropped.
SUGGS: They’ll go to Norway and physically try to stop them killing seals.
CARL: They get no reward except the satisfaction of what they do and a lot of stick from the press. We support them and that’s all we’re saying. We don’t preach.
SUGGS: I’m a member of CND.
CARL: CND’s different. I don’t know if the way they do things is really positive or is going to get anywhere in the long run …
SUGGS: …but you can’t help but try. They’re aiming specifically at nuclear weapons and we support them.
Why are you starting a record label?
CARL: It seems a natural progression. We’ve got our own studio and we’ve met a lot of people who we get on with and who we’d like to do something with. Just work, really. It means maybe we get into engineering or production, just broadening one’s outlook, like with the TV series.
SUGGS: And it makes us a bit more self-sufficient. We own the building that it’s in.
What do you wear in bed?
CARL: Nothing. Not a sausage.
Describe your sitting room.
CARL: It’s an L-shaped room. It’s at the top of some stairs. It has a black table, two sofas, very little else, a bookcase, a stereo, lots of plants. It has all my record collection which is scratched and abused. It’s got some pictures on the wall, one of them of some tulips, another one of a Polish clown and another one of the Irish 1916 rebellion and a picture of me when I was 11 months old. It’s got a bookcase which we’re looking after for a friend and a little bureau which we’re looking after for a friend. And a telephone which is red and which doesn’t ring often because I’ve changed my number and no one knows it. I don’t like spending much time in there, I prefer the kitchen.
SUGGS: Mine has got a wooden floor. It’s got a kind of patch in the middle where there was a rug and it’s got a hole in my stereo rack where there was a video recorder but there are now a lot of wires hanging out and footprints where a burglar crept in the night before last and stole my video and a rug and my bicycle. It’s got a staircase leading up to our bedroom. It’s quite small but comfortable. It’s very nice; I like it a lot. I divide my time between it and the kitchen.
Where do you buy your clothes?
CARL: These clothes I got in America. These socks I got made by Charlie Allen who’s in Upper Street (Islington) – he makes all my socks. This shirt I got free from the record company. The vest underneath is Fruit Of The Loom. They’re great – five dollars for three. The scarf’s my girlfriend’s and the belt I got five years ago from a mate called Eamonn who found them in gas mask cases and he put the buckle on. It’s from 1917 so I presume it’s a First World War belt – it’s got 1917 stamped on it somewhere. I paid £1.80.
SUGGS: I got this jacket in America, in Disneyland in fact, and in fact from Frontierland which is a small quarter of Disneyland. The trousers I had made years ago by Andy Roseman. The Southend connection! When we started we seemed to be working with about 12 people from Southend.
CARL: All wanted to sell us motors. Know what I mean?
SUGGS: The boots I got from Holts in Camden Town. The socks I got in Texas. The shirt’s from Harvey Nichols.
Will Madness still be together in five years?
CARL: Ah, the old chestnut!
SUGGS: Five minutes silence for that question! Five years silence!
CARL: I mean – can you envisage us in any other band?
© Neil Tennant, 1984
Edited by Steve Pafford
Courtesy of rocksbackpages.com