After that appearance on Buckingham Palace, Madness found a brand new audience . Duncan Seaman caught up with front man Suggs
AS the leader of Madness, pop’s eternal Nutty Boys, Suggs still regularly finds himself hymning the escapades of “naughty boys in nasty schools” in the song Baggy Trousers.
The singer’s current stand-up show My Life Story in Words and Music, however, was prompted by reflections of a more middle-aged kind.
“The specific things were I got to 50, by coincidence in the same year that my kids – well, I call them kids, they’re actually 28 and 26 – my daughters left home,” the singer, whose real name is Graham McPherson, explains.
“Primarily them leaving was an opportunity for me to think about myself. Until then I’d been concentrating on the complications of bringing up my own family.
“On the morning of my birthday my cat fell off the shelf and died next to me. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.
“I started thinking about my father and how I got to this point in life. I began a journey of discovery about my father who I never knew.”
Suggs was born in Hastings in January 1961. His parents, Edith and William, separated when he was young after which he and his mother moved frequently before settling in St Johns Wood, north London. He never saw his Scottish-born father after the divorce, hearing only that he was a drug addict.
“The only thing I knew was that he left when I was three. He ended up in Tooting Bec asylum, so I did not have high hopes,” the singer says of the starting point for his research.
“I spent hours and days in public records offices, then I did something I’d never done before and looked myself up on Wikipedia and there it all was. They knew more than me and mum put together.
“It was not a shock. The sad thing was he lived a lot longer than I thought. He moved to Birmingham and remarried [before dying of drug-related conditions at the age of 40]. There was a chance we might have met somewhere. I had not anticipated that.”
From his Welsh mother, a jazz singer, the young Graham McPherson inherited a love of music. His nickname was borrowed from the American jazz musician Peter Suggs and Suggs remembers his mother always singing. “I had no voice like her,” he says.
“There was always music around. I loved it but becoming a singer [myself] was a complete quirk of fate.”
After flunking out of school and working in “various rubbish jobs” including a butcher’s shop in 1977 he fell in with a band then called the North London Invaders, becoming their frontman “because I was quite charismatic, not for any vocal talents at all”.
For a short while he was thrown out of the band for preferring to watch Chelsea football matches than rehearse yet was asked back.
When in 1979 the seven-piece changed their name to Madness and released the ska single The Prince on 2 Tone Records they began a long and successful career which continues today and has included the hits Baggy Trousers, Our House, It Must Be Love and House of Fun.
Becoming famous at the age of 18 was not without its difficulties. Much though he enjoyed the opportunity to travel the world with his friends in the band – “In 1979-80 we were touring a lot, it was great, in a van flying around the country” – coming home to find Press photographers outside his house was less pleasant. “Life had changed dramatically,” he says. “You lose a sense of community with friends from home who you had not seen for six months.” There was a troubling period in the mid-1980s seeing contemporaries such as Boy George falling prey to drugs and realising “that possibility was lurking” for Madness yet thankfully they avoided succumbing to the darker temptations of fame.
Suggs’s favourite memories of the past 35 years include headlining their own Madstock festival in Finsbury Park in 1992: “Seventy-five thousand people turned up – it was then that we realised the impact we had had, up to that point we thought our time was up. We realised we had 20-odd hits and we had forged some path in the consciousness of the British public.”
Another high point was performing last year for the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
The experience surpassed playing at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Suggs says. “We’d never had such a reaction. Playing Our House in the Middle of our Street at Buckingham Palace, it resonated in a way we had not really anticipated.”
Could Madness continue like the Rolling Stones, rocking into their 70s? “I don’t know about like the Stones – I’m unlikely to ever put leather trousers on,” Suggs quips, “but in terms of age, possibly.” Having once seen Cuban musicians in the Buena Vista Social performing in their 80s, he appreciates musical careers do not have to be finite “if you can do it with some dignity”.
“We will know when the time is right [to retire],” he says. “But at the moment it’s fun, we like what we are doing. It doesn’t seem like it will end.” At 52, he says, he realises the “great fortune” he has had in life to come “not from the very bottom but near it, to the top” and the strong bond of friendship within Madness. “Money and fame are great,” he says. “There’s nothing romantic about being skint. But the greatest success in life are your friends, it’s not something you can buy. That’s the greatest lesson life has taught me. It’s not got a point this show [My Life Story] with a capital ‘P’ but if anything, it’s that.”
Suggs: My Life Story in Words and Music, St George’s Hall, Bradford, April 27 (01274 432000), Harrogate Theatre on May 20 (01423 502116) and Bridlington Spa Theatre on May 21 (01262 678258). www.suggslive.com
A life of utter madness
Suggs was born Graham McPherson in Hastings in 1961. His mother was a jazz singer and his parents separated when he was three.
He moved frequently in childhood before settling in St Johns Wood, North London.
He formed the band the North London Invaders, later Madness, in 1977. Their hits include Our House and It Must Be Love.
The musical Our House, based on their songs, ran in the West End and toured the UK.
Suggs has worked as a DJ for BBC6 Music and hosted the TV shows Night Fever and Salvage Squad.