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Madness' Suggs on the Band's First No. 1 Album, Covering Supergrass, and the Importance of 'Norton Folgate'

"They'll say, 'Can you do [the "One Step Beyond" moves]?' And I'm like, 'Mate, I'm 62 years old. You do it, alright?'"

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Source: CTUN LLP / BMG

Suggs proudly holds his cuppa aloft whilst surrounded by all of the Madness.

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Once upon a time, there was a band called the North London Invaders, who then switched it to Morris and the Minors, before finally changing it to Madness.

That time was 45 years ago, and although they've taken a few breaks here and there, with a few lineup changes taking place along the way, Madness is still around. In fact, not only are they around, but they've just scored the first chart-topping album of their career: Theatre of the Absurd Presents C'est la Vie, which not only topped the UK Albums chart this past week, but did so by knocking none other than Taylor Swift out of the top spot.

Q had a chat with Madness frontman Suggs to discuss the process of putting together the record, his continued enjoyment of the band's live shows (even if he can't do the old "One Step Beyond" moves like he used to), and his disappointment that the band never made it as big in the US as they did in the UK.

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Source: CTUN LLP / BMG

The members of Madness giddily return to the recording studio for a truly theatrical album.

I was so glad to see that Madness was releasing a new album. I didn't know if the ship had sailed on any future studio recordings or not.

Yeah, time flies. What's the saying? Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana. [Laughs.] Anyway... Seven years! I know. Obviously, then, you had that huge chunk of lockdown which took a couple of years out of the whole process, so it took a little bit longer than we anticipated.

So did you always feel that you had another album in you, then?

Yeah! It's a slow-moving organism, Madness, so you're never exactly sure what's coming 'round the corner, given that there's so many of us to organize. And as we all know, it was a very different period, that whole pandemic, and we were all locked indoors. But we all write songs, so in fact, it was a very creative period as well, because we're all pretty lazy. [Laughs.] So at least had something to do: writing songs!

What is the writing process like for Madness these days? Do you write independently, or do you collaborate?

Yeah, the six of us at the moment, we all write, and...it just depends. On this album, we did tend to write more individually, just because we weren't in proximity of anybody else. I mean, there were a few tracks that were sent over on the Zoom or whatever, but it's really difficult. It's also slightly out of sync when you've got more than two or three people on a Zoom, and our music's already out of time enough! [Laughs.] That'd just make it even more bizarre! But, yeah, it's always been... Well, it changes with every song. Sometimes I'll write a tune and someone else will write the words, or vice versa.

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It's funny to think that this was written so independently when it's effectively a concept album of sorts.

I mean, we wrote about 40 songs. We got together, we rented this industrial space, which was great, because it just meant we didn't have any time constraints in terms of the recording process. So we recorded 40-odd songs, and then we boiled it down to the songs that resonated during that period of the lockdown. And I know we're all bored of talking about it, but that is the facts of what we were all going through. And everyone had a very different opinion of what was right or wrong during that period, and we had a lot of conversations where we had to agree to disagree. But this is what people felt while they were going through that process, so you've kind of got a beginning, a middle, and hopefully an end, where you're on the other side of it.

How did you go about deciding which songs to release as singles and when?

It's difficult. I dunno, I feel so out of touch with what's going on out there. You want to set the scene somehow, but...what is a single anymore? A single used to be a physical piece of vinyl with a B-side. I was talking to my kids... One time one of my nephews was trying to stick a 45 in a new CD player, but now it's evolved so that kids don't even own a CD player! It's funny, I was recalling that it took a long time for us to realize that we made as much money out of the B-side of the single. So you could write "A Hard Day's Night," and the B-side could be an instrumental, and you made as much money with that as the A-side! But those days are gone. I mean, I don't know, you're just putting out stuff hoping to keep the people interested while we carry on.

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As far as the live shows go, there's clearly still a market for Madness, but do you still enjoy getting out there and playing?

Yeah, very much! I think possibly even more now, because we've had this huge period of doing nothing. When I look back to when I was a kid, it was very much a blur of arms and legs and amphetamines. I can't really remember much beyond that from the first five years. But now I can have the wherewithal to see what's going on in the crowd and how much joy we've created. It's a privilege, and I really enjoy it. And if we don't play all the time, then when we do play, it kind of gives it some meaning for us.

When you're compiling a set list, you obviously have a lot of hits to potentially consider, but do you try to find room for the occasional surprise track from the archives?

Always. I mean, we've been through periods where we didn't play any of the old hits. Now, believe me, we play them incessantly. [Laughs.] But now we play... I dunno, 20-30% new or older interesting stuff. We've got some good stuff in the pipeline to play. Obviously, you don't want to end up just being '80s nostalgia, but you have to try and get the balance with what people want. Especially for us, they come to have a good time. We're not here to change the planet! So you've got to try and get a mixture for your own mind and a mixture for their minds, and normally we do that.

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Martin Freeman pops up on this album, and it just strikes me as funny that the friendship between him and the band only began because he was in a meet-and-greet line.

Yeah, it was really rather sad that he'd queued up with his dad. I said, "If you'd let us know, you could've come to the dressing room!" [Laughs.] But he's such a humble person that he just thought he'd go through the process that everyone else did. But he's also a huge music fan, and he's got the most extraordinary collection of records. That's one of his real passions. So it was very kind of him to do that for us. We just tried to make it something a little bit interesting. But I think he enjoyed it.

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Source: Mega

Madness during rehearsals, circa 1980.

Even though I'm in the US, I've managed to find your solo albums, and I've really enjoyed them.

You must've had to search high and low! [Laughs.]

I did. It was pre-internet, so it was a much harder process at the time.

That's right! I give 'em to my nephews, and they go, "Uncle, how come your records still sound so good?" I said, "You know, I had to go out and get on the bus, mate, and buy these f**king things, and each one of those was a huge decision. One record a week, and that was it." And now... It's a very different time. I was talking about listening to albums, and...I'm starting to sound like a grumpy old man. [Laughs.] But to play the A-side of an album and then the B-side of an album and know that that artist wanted them to be in that order is still, I think, a very rewarding process, rather than just skipping about when you get a bit bored.

Well, I know it wasn't on the album proper - it was actually a B-side - but your decision to cover Supergrass' "Alright" was inspired.

I don't think they were too impressed by it. But you can't have everything. I always liked that song! But it was getting a bit risky even then to sing, "We are young..."

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When you look back at the Madness discography, is there a particular album that you consider to be underrated?

You know, I dunno. I think we were kind of underrated for a long period, because we had so many hit singles, especially in England, that the albums kind of got missed. But when we recorded [The Liberty of] Norton Folgate however long ago that was now, it seemed to be a turning point in terms of intellectual criticism...in a positive way! [Laughs.] And, yeah, some of the people started to realize that maybe we were quite good. I mean, we made those videos and pop promos and all that, and the publicity... It was a rough go, because it just looked like we were having too much fun, when in fact we were putting a lot of work into the music. But I don't really have any begrudgement about it. I mean, it is what it is. I've ben doing it for more than 40 years. I can't complain!

If pressed, I find Mad Not Mad to be an underrated album. I hadn't heard it for years, but I revisited it, and it still holds up.

I haven't heard it for years either! But it is interesting, because that's the record where Mike [Barson], our keyboard player, who was a very important component of the band, left, and we had to try really hard to do something without him. A lot of work went into that record, for sure.

Regarding Norton Folgate, though, I'll just take a moment to say that the title track of that album is a masterwork.

Yeah, I think so, even if I do say so myself! [Laughs.] And that took about two years to write. I just knew that we had to do something that was gonna kind of change the trajectory of the black hole of '80s nostalgia that we were being drawn into. And it was successful in that respect. It changed people's attitudes towards us. Certainly in this part of the world, anyway.

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It's not Madness-related, but out of curiosity, how did you find your way onto Morrissey's "Piccadilly Palare" single?

Well, one of my friends introduced him to the rockabilly scene that was going on at that time, and then Clive Langer, my producer, got the job of producing whatever that album was, and he just asked me to come down and do some vocal bits on it. Because my mum was brought up in Soho, and I sort of knew a bit about that sort of language of gay people in the 1960s. He's a funny character, Morrissey. Very funny bloke. He's got funnier as the years have gone by. [Laughs.]

I should mention that, when I posted on social media that I was going to be talking to you, someone immediately followed by posting the video for "Mutants in Mega City One" and said, "Please ask him everything there is to know about this."

A-ha! Well, again, it was just one of these things. There was a comic, 2000 A.D., featuring Judge Dredd, which they later made a movie out of. But it was a huge cult thing in England, and we loved it. And me and Carl [a.k.a. Chas Smash] from the band just decided we were gonna do an homage to Judge Dredd. God only knows why. [Laughs.] But, yeah, we did that single. "Sixteen muties on a dead norm's chest!" It was just a bit of fun that achieved little or nothing in terms of creative or commercial success!

Well, the video was pretty funny.

Yeah, us two leaping about. I still remember that. Some TV show let us on. God only knows why. But, yeah, these things come along, and you're not sure about them yourselves, but you do them because you can!

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Madness is viewed as such a definitively British band. Has it ever disappointed you that the U.S. didn't embrace you similarly?

Enormously! We wanted to be as big as the U.S. itself! But again, it's just one of them things. You can't have regrets in this business when you've still got a career and you're selling out concerts all over the place. But we're coming to America again soon, and I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been there for ages! It's kind of nice, if in a bit of a self-deprecating way, that we're still sort of a cult band, unlike in England, where they're sick to f**king death of seeing us. [Laughs.] But, y'know, you get what you get. I mean, we were quite arrogant when we were young. I think we might've been rude to a few American journalists, and that didn't help! And we didn't like traveling much, either, so we were quite happy to just be in England, farting about.

Cult band though you may be, you still made a mainstream impact: for just about any American of a certain age, if you say, "Madness," they immediately think "Our House."

Yeah, that was bizarre, because that was about two-thirds of the way into recording [another album] when suddenly out of the blue, "It's a hit in America!" We were, like, "You must be joking!" It was, like, "Too late now!" But, of course, it's a great privilege to have a hit anywhere. It's just funny: you don't know what's going to resonate and what isn't. But that's the way it goes.

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I know you did a show awhile back - a live stream - where Paul Weller popped up, and you did a tour not long after that with Squeeze. Were those some of the artists who Madness considered to be their peers?

Well, Ian Dury were a big thing. And the Kinks. Without getting too parochial, they were both very much the same in that they were singing in their own vernacular, singing about ordinary life, the things that we ascribe to. But funnily enough, Paul Weller... We were on tour, I think it was '79, and we were both in America, and he was going down even worse than we were. [Laughs.] So we shared a bond from that experience! I see Paul every now and then. He heard about the new album. He said, "I heard you got the Hobbit on your record!" [Laughs.]

Lastly, is it harder to do the "One Step Beyond" moves these days?

Yeah, we do 'em very rarely now. The knees can't handle that sort of carrying on anymore. [Laughs.] It's funny, 'cause we'll go on TV shows, and they'll say, "Can you do that?" And I'm, like, "Mate, I'm 62 years old. No. No, I can't. You do it, alright? You show me how you do it." But it was funny that it was such an iconic thing. It was like Chuck Berry and the duck walk. He kept doing it, and best to him, but my knees can't take it anymore!


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