09 March 2007
One year short of 30 years old, Madness are more British than a pint of fish and chips served up in a Millennium Dome-sized sporting disaster. A likely bunch of cockney school mates who banded together to craft urban tales of playground bullying and getting drunk too young, they became the ska-stepping voice of a generation galvanised against the struggles of the '80s - but one with a permanent cheeky smile and a pair of shades on its face.
Synonymous with the 1980s, synics may today view Madness as another desperate novelty act, a washed up Chaz'N'Dave. But they'd be missing the point that Madness did, and still do to an extent, matter. Look at some of the acts around today - from Goldie Lookin' Chain to Jamie T - and you'll see traces of Madness' cultural impact. Fully aware of the chasm in time since their heyday, the band have reached out to some of the artists doing now what they did then - representing real life - to help collaborate on their forthcoming album. The first single 'Sorry', out now, features rappers Sway and Baby Blue.
The band will be at Glastonbury and if they create the same crowd reaction they did at their Finsbury Park festival, Madstock, back in 1992, there may be a few petrified residents running for the hills. As far as we're aware the only band to have registered on the Richter Scale at a festival, we thought it about time we caught up with Madness' charismatic frontman, Suggs, to find out more. We got good vibrations...
VF: So, a new album coming out?
Suggs: "We have with any luck, though at the moment who can say. I've realised that there's a whole different time-space continuum that is Madness. We think it's been a short period of time since we've been away but it transpires it's been years."
VF: Seven years apparently..
Suggs: "It is, but again it doesn't feel like it. It is a funny organism Madness, because the whole thing is that we started off as friends when we were at school and it was always a by-product of our friendship. I think what often resonates is that we really were having a good time when we were making all of those records and videos, and we still are. Obviously, as you get older and your life takes you all off in different directions you're not that same gang going round in a mini-bus. So now just to get everyone in the same room takes at least 14 phone calls and plane tickets from all four corners of the world. What month are we now? Whatever month it is now, we were supposed to finish this album a while ago. It's coming along."
VF: You've got
Sway and Baby Blue collaborating on the new single 'Sorry'. Were they easier to hold down?
Suggs: "Yeah, to be honest! We got some new managers halfway through the album recording process last summer and they were like "Yeah, its going great, we'll have the album wrapped up in no time and do a tour at Christmas". But we just weren't ready so they compromised and settled on us recording a single to help galvanise the rest of the album. We didn't have a very clear intention of what it should be but I just had this memory of reading an interview with Sway. He said that Madness were one of his favourite groups and said it was fate that his next door neighbour gave him his first album, which was a Madness one. I really like what he does, I heard a great track he'd done with the Mitchell Brothers about going into Harvey Nicholls and being treated like a burglar and I thought that was really amusing."
VF: Sounds like you know your hip hop..
Suggs: "Well, you know, I don't have an obsessive interest in modern music; it gets unhealthy when you get to a certain age. My kids certainly bring in a lot of hip hop and that sort of stuff and I really like the way British hip hop is going. It definitely has its own identity now and is about all the things we identify with in this country. I just thought he'd be the perfect person to work on a Madness album, without it being too contrived or grafting in Puff Daddy or something."
VF: Are Madness as relevant now as they were 20 years ago?
Suggs: "I think to a certain extent yeah. I've heard guys sampling bits of Madness records. One of the things about popular music in the truest sense of the word is that you hit certain pieces of people's lives, in a bubble of that time. You know, when you have a hit record for two weeks it's the most important thing in your life. This might be the two weeks when you fell in love for the first time, went to your first rave or whatever it may be. So there's this generation of young geezers who've been listening to Madness who you wouldn't associate with Madness, which is great. Since 'Sorry' we've been talking with Sway about doing even more collaborative stuff and one of his ideas is re-doing 'Baggy Trousers'. We've been talking about how relevant that was then and how relevant it is now in terms of what happens in the school playground differently. Many things are rougher in the playground than just throwing plastic cups at each other but it wasn't an entirely civilised experience at my school by any means either."
VF: A comparison of the ages through the eyes of the playground. I like
Suggs: "Exactly, an update on what it was like in his time at school, but keeping the theme: we had fun, but it was bad and boring at times. I think that'd be very interesting. The relevance is that we were always talking about things that were going on around us, and that's the connection."
VF: Madness have a distinctly British sound. Last summer you
went to Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and Benicàssim in Spain. How did it go down there?
Suggs: "Unbelievable. Funnily enough we went to one in Germany that we'd been to 20 years ago. Back then it was literally in someone's back garden in this tiny little town in the middle of Germany. This guy was fed up with local kids saying they had nowhere to play, so he put up a marquee in his garden and invited them to bring in their instruments. We go back 20 years later and it's this massive festival of 30,000 people and it's still a free festival. All the people in the town take it in turns, rotate round and do the security, and that seems to happen all over Europe. Like you mentioned Benicàssim, I'd barely heard of it and suddenly there's 50,000 people. It was really good fun, Benicàssim especially, because there was no Glastonbury last year so there was a huge contingent of British people down there. The Fuji Rock Festival, again, was amazing - a full on rock festival with all the big American bands and loads of crazy Japanese."
hear you're playing Glastonbury this year?
Suggs: "So I'm led to believe. Yeah, it's all sort of up in the air but I've seen them advertising us, so I assume that we are playing there. We were going to do the Sunday afternoon bit but then I think Shirley Bassey came in so it's all being rearranged. But I very much look forward to playing there. We probably haven't since 1981."
VF: I think it was '86.
Suggs: "86? Well done, well spotted! And I'm sure it's changed a lot since then. I expect it to be a lot of fun. We're planning on going down for the whole thing and we're very much looking forward to it. I know a few people who go down all the time, my kids aside. Keith Allen is a vaguely familiar face to me and he loves it, so I'm very excited yes."
VF: What other festivals have you enjoyed since 1986?
Suggs: "I've been at V Festival doing bits for Virgin Radio but that's literally sitting in the cocktail lounge which makes it almost impossible to leave and wander around. The funniest one was Reading. I got really razzled and was talking backstage to Ian McCulloch from Echo And The Bunnymen, someone who I've known for a long time. I said "What you doing here, man?" To which he replied, "Suggs we've just come off stage", sweating with a guitar round his neck. That's the problem: you start getting liggy backstage and get through the whole day just sat there drinking free booze."
Surely your best festival moment must be at Madstock in Finsbury Park when your fans caused a mini-earthquake, hitting
4.5 on the Richter Scale?
Suggs: "That's very true, yeah. It's very high up on my list of favourite achievements. We'd kinda broken up in 1988, for various reasons, primarily because we'd run out of steam and weren't as popular as we were and all the usual sort of things. But then 1992 came and we had a bit of a comeback, our Greatest Hits went to number one and it was mooted that we should do a tour. But I didn't really want to do it. I thought about doing a one off 'thank you very much, great that you still care about us' show. So we met Vince Power (founder of Mean Fiddler) and he had all the fences set up after Fleadh or something and he asked us if we wanted to do a day in Finsbury Park. It was the first time we'd opened a gig with 'One Step Beyond', and it's a fairly up-tempo song, so there were about 45,000 medium to large middle aged men all jumping up and down at the same time.
VF: Could you feel it on the
Suggs: "You could and the whole Richter Scale thing started because a woman in a block of flats opposite felt her sofa moving towards the window. I don't know how they worked it out, are people surveying the surface of the earth at all times? Who knows, but a guy came down the following day and worked it out. Apparently you can judge it from what's still vibrating and they reckoned there's an underground lake under Finsbury Park so the effect of all that dancing was like soldiers marching across the bridge kind of thing, the crowd creating huge waves underground. Whatever, it was an amazing sight seeing all those people going nuts, the whole thing was amazing.
other plans for the summer?
Suggs: "It's really moving around all the time. We keep being offered this and that and then maybe we can fit this or maybe we can fit that in. But I'd like to do some more festivals, maybe do a few more around Europe again. There's one in Hungary that someone was telling me about which is really fantastic. It's impossible to keep up with them all. What we did last time was really nice; we managed to do Spain (Benicàssim), then Portugal, did a couple there in Lisbon and sort of wiggled our way around Europe in the most civilised fashion. To do something like that again would be great."
VF: Do you think you'll
have some of your collaborators on board? Will Sway be on the tour bus?
Suggs: "Hopefully so. What we'd love to do eventually, not this year but maybe next year if we get this record going and get our profile in the right situation, is to do another Madstock and do a few mini ones around Europe. Take a load of bands that are like-minded with us and have our own sort of mini Lollapalooza kind of thing which would be great fun.
VF: What bands would
Suggs: "There are all sorts of really fantastic artists at the moment. I really like that Jamie T, I think he's great, he's done a very good album. Kaiser Chiefs are sort of pals of ours and Franz Ferdinand have a Madness-y kind of vibe. Maybe take some reggae artists, take a bit of hip hop, take a nice sort of mixture of stuff. I can't imagine anything more fun than taking a lot of like-minded musicians and all having a bit of a scene together."
single 'Sorry' is out now on Lucky Seven Records. Catch Madness
live at Glastonbury Festival.