CHRIS: At this point, it was still just something to do on a Saturday. We were still just trying to learn the songs that we liked – Motown, reggae, R ‘n’ B and rock ‘n’roll. We were getting better, but it took a long time. Everyone was working at odd jobs, and no one had any money.
LEE: None of us had any idea what it would lead to. It was just a case of blowing along with friends for a couple of hours for a bit of a laugh, really easy on the mind. It dragged us away from silly things like spraying up walls.
MIKE: The music was still a bit more idiosyncratic back then. It was a hotch-potch of everything – sort of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Motown, pop, old English stuff, The Kinks and that sort of thing. We used to listen closely to old records to hear what was happening in the rhythm and just happened to get a bit more reggae and ska as we went along.
LEE: After a while I started getting the hump a lot. I just wanted to get on with the job and have a good old blow, but we spent too much time larking around and talking about last night’s film. There used to be big rows between me and Mike, which led to me storming out on a fair few occasions. Me and him just couldn’t get on. He used to push and push and most rehearsals ended up in big rows. We were always pretty close to a real brother-to-brother type physical fight. It was only when we started gigging properly that we got that bit closer.
CHRIS: Round about this time, I spent some excellent quality time on the dole, looking after my young son and trying to learn how to play the guitar properly. After a while, I got a job in the UCH Hospital, allegedly helping the carpenters bodge up roller blinds and repair things. I got really sick of it and applied for what was to be my last job, working for the GPO as a cleaner/tea boy which was the best one yet, money/skiving wise. I used to slosh disinfectant over the floors. In a couple of weeks I used six months’ supply because you were meant to dilute it, but no one had told me.
Enter John Hasler, AKA the Bed and Breakfast Man
While sessions progress, Chris’s pal John Hasler slips behind the drums. Then Carl Smyth, who Lee works with as a part-time window cleaner, joins on bass. Although Carl has experience in a school band singing Status Quo covers, he lacks any musical talent and gets a crash course, with Mike adding stickers to the fret board so he remembers the notes.
CHRIS: People started joining us through friends of friends. Our mate John Hasler was very important in these early days. First he was the drummer – terrible. Then he was the singer – awful. Finally he was the manager – appalling. But he was the first to start writing songs, plus he brought a lot of people into the band. In fact he was pivotal really. He’s very important in linking the band, and people forget that. He brought the players together. If hadn’t been around we wouldn’t have had a singer, a drummer or a decent bass player. All I knew was Mike and Lee.
LEE: Hasler’s contribution to the band was crucial. Not as a front man or a drummer so much, but he had a passion for the band and wrote some of our early songs.
BEDDERS: Hasler was a very instrumental figure in Madness because although he didn’t end up in the band, he played and sang at different points, got us together and helped organise things. He was instrumental in kind of keeping the band together.
CHRIS: So anyway, Hasler went and got a drum kit, which showed a bit of keen-ness, and therefore he was suddenly the drummer.
CATHAL SMYTH: Born Jan 14 1959, London
Cathal/Carl is the son of two champion Irish dancers, whose grandfather had also run a dance school. His dad is an engineer in the oil industry, so the Smyths have moved around, from London to Iran to Ireland to Africa to Iraq. Aged 14 in Iraq, he contracts typhoid and receives the last rites. At 15 he tells his dad he won’t travel any more. Instead he leaves school and works in the petrochemical industry as a vendor print clerk, expeditor and junior buyer. He goes on to be a concrete pump operator, before becoming a window cleaner with Lee.
CARL: I was born in London, moved to Ireland, moved back to London, then back to Northern Ireland. So it was hard: ‘Who am I today? What’s the safest voice?’ I tend to think I’m first generation London/Irish. Growing up, it was like being an army kid. Locking into people was hard. My dad travelled a lot so school for me was a bit erratic. I went to school predominately in Muswell Hill, but I lived in Iraq for a bit, and Northern Ireland. That was 1971 and it was pretty horrible then; the other kids were kicking me instead of the football. I was beaten up virtually every day for three weeks so I stopped going to school and missed a year’s education. I was also a choirboy for about a year. My parents made me do it. There was a lot of vicious kicking under the old cassocks during Mass, I can tell you. During my communion I got locked in the toilet by some nuns, and dropped my prayerbook down it, so when I went up to the Bishop it was dripping and covered in urine. I also fancied Valerie Singleton with a passion when I was about 12. She was demure, intelligent, yet demanding. But then I heard gossip. I was gutted. So then I went on to Janet Street-Porter, then Liza Minelli, then Barbara Streisand. Then I started worrying. The school I went to in Finchley was Catholic and semi-private. We had an alcoholic geography teacher who used to spend his summer holidays with just a crate of whisky, tanked up. He would put you on his knee and give you three whacks with a leather strap. Definitely a perv. And the sports teacher would make you get changed and then make you do handstands to check if you had pants on. It was definitely perverted. I lost my virginity in a garage in Hampstead when I was 17. She was big girl and said, ‘Is it in?’ I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I dunno, am I that small?’ I’d been at single-sex Catholic schools and girls were all a bit threatening. I had a cousin three years older that me, who I really looked up to. He was a really sharp dresser skinhead-wise, and I was just at that age when I was too young to be out and about on my own, and I couldn’t really follow the trends. I wasn’t really allowed by my parents. He was a hero figure and the early skinhead dress thing was really sharp, really looked cool. In England, you always had certain reggae records that came in the charts. It wasn’t as big as, say, Motown, but there was a few little things. The majority of the stuff bubbled up in the youth clubs. So for me, it was getting to the youth clubs around 12 or 13 and hearing One Step Beyond, stuff like that. And obviously that sort of stuff had happened much earlier and it was the remnants of those more popular records being played in the youth clubs in 71 or 72. The ska explosion had happened in the ’60s, and when the skinhead/ska thing was happening late ’60s, early ’70s, really I got into it. And then I became a sort of collector, going back, hunting through stuff, old records and shops, getting your fingers dirty, trying to find the right cover for the single, that kind of thing. I really liked things like Laurel Aiken, Jesse James, Blood and Fire – it’s so long ago – Ten Commandments, all that stuff. All the Prince Buster albums were great. I’m terrible at titles. I see everything as a dancer. I don’t go out of my way to remember artists or tracks. I remember all the rhythms, I remember all the breaks. The stops, the full starts, all that sort of thing. At the time I was pretty mainstream, 007, Shanty Town, all that stuff, a real big thing going on for late night cinema, watching The Harder They Come and Rockers. It was a mixture you see. I was also a child of pop – Sweet, T Rex, Gary Glitter, Mud and Bowie, and I collected the weekly magazine Word which published lyrics of songs in the Top 20. At the same time I was listening to Savoy Brown, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Gong. My Dad travelled a lot and would bring back records from Europe. My uncles would play Dvorak, traditional Irish music, ‘cod’ Irish music, even Switched On Bach, the first popular synthesiser album.
Young Mr Smyth leaves school, gets a job – and meets his future band-mates.
CARL: One day my headmaster had pulled me over the coals in his office and said, ‘Smyth, pull up your socks or you’ll find yourself being asked to leave the school.’ I looked him in the eye and told him (as I felt I had been working harder recently to get into sixth form) that it was no problem, I would leave now. I enjoyed the look of shock on his face as I walked out of that office and the school for the last time. My father was an engineer and had had a long career in petrochemicals around the world for some years. He gave me some background on the petrochemical industry and got me comfortable with six terms which would show at least enough knowledge to blag my way through my first ever job interview. He then took me to Burtons, pulled a reasonably-priced blue pinstripe suit off the ready-to-wear rack and got me a shirt and some boring shoes. When, three days after departing the school, I had secured my first interview, he sent me off, saying, ‘Now son, shake his hand with a firm grip whilst looking him in the eye and speak clearly’. I couldn’t believe it when at the end of the interview I was offered the job. It was as a time analysis clerk and it transpired when I met my English teacher a week later on Tottenham Court Road I was now earning more weekly than my teachers. Stick that in your pipe mate! The way I got into the band was, my cousin was a bit of a hard nut in a school in North London, which other members of the band went to, so I was hanging around with a crowd in Hampstead when all these hard nuts came around and it was really frightening. One of them bashed one of my friends over the head with an acoustic guitar and it was like – wow, serious villains – and they seemed like a laugh so I started hanging around with them. Then through them I met the band, there was an extremely violent side and an extremely funny side; we were the funny side, the other lot ended up doing time for armed robbery and extortion, things like that. There were factions. There were people who were always going to be destined for a life of crime, and there was the crowd that became Madness, which was more arty. When I first met Lee, he was so cool. Me and him started a window cleaning business which involved a lot of role playing – all that ‘Good morning, luv’ bit. It was good money as well.
CHRIS: I used to have a sort of imitation mohair suit and we used to go to this club in Barnet where all the skinheads went. We also used to go to the Music Machine in Camden quite a lot, wearing crazy, brightly-painted Dr Marten boots, and with cropped hair. Carl and his brother started the dancing thing. There really was no name for it – it was just jerky, robot-like movements. I think they first got the idea from a track by Roxy Music called For Your Pleasure. We used to sit back and watch these four peanut-heads doing this crazy dance. No one seemed to copy them though. It was very unusual, different – and that was what we wanted to be.
CARL: I never went near a dance floor until I was 17. I was always scared and nervous. I still find it really hard to dance but when you’ve had a few bevvies, you have to move about don’t you?
JUNE 30: Si Birdsall's party, Islington, North London
The Invaders play their first gig at a party in the back garden of friend Si at 8 Compton Terrace, Islington, directly opposite The Hope and Anchor pub. The band originally planned to call themselves The Pirates after a party hat in the back of their van, but Chris then tells Mike about Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. The singer is supposed to be an American actor called Dikran Tulaine. But he can’t sing, and it’s too dark to read the lyrics, so the band play instrumentals instead. Among the meagre audience is a young 16-year-old skinhead called Graham McPherson.
Jailhouse Rock / Swan Lake / I’m Walking / Lover Please / Just My Imagination / For Once In My Life / It’s Too Late / The Roadette Song.
CHRIS: Si said, ‘I’m having this party and I want you to play at it.’ I rang him up later and said, ‘What’s that noise in the background?’ He said, ‘They’re taking the piano in the garden.’ It was the first time we ever played live and we were really terrible. We didn’t even have a proper vocalist then, so we just got this in this kid who said he could sing. Awful it was! At one point there was a lot of people there, then there were two people there, then there was someone being sick in a bush.
DIKRAN TULAINE (The Invaders’ first vocalist): I knew them because Mike was dating my sister, Araxi. I wasn’t really close with their group; I was more of an offshoot. I was an outsider who’d grown up in the States and elsewhere, plus I was a couple of years older. But we still hung out and followed bands like Darts etc – we were devoted to that old rockabilly and rocker style. They were great times. Everyone was too young for drugs or drink to be a problem. I never auditioned to be in The Invaders – Mike just asked me to sing and I rehearsed a few times with them. Then I did my one and only performance at their very first gig at Si’s birthday in Compton Terrace.
CARL: Dikran was meant to learn the words but he came along with them written in a book. We had to play in the garden and it was too dark for him to read, so we told him to get lost and converted our set to an instrumental session.
DIKRAN TULAINE: I was a catastrophe, having a very personal sense of rhythm and no confidence at that time. I think I stumbled through Poison Ivy or I’m Walking, but trust me I was awful. They were great guys – really very nice – and just played instrumentals like Tequila and Green Onions for rest of the night. However, I must have done something right as, after butchering two songs, I was still inundated with groupies. After that one gig I was gone from them into the world of acting. I went to Drama Centre in Primrose Hill and I changed – now it was Shakespeare not Fats Domino! I later became an actor and moved back to the USA but I remained fond and grateful as they made life easier for me during a turbulent time, as late teens often are.
LEE: So we started out as The Invaders and we did one gig under that name. We then found out that there was another band around with the same name, so we changed our name to The North London Invaders, but it was too long on the posters — too much ink.
[NB: Lee’s memory of the order of the names is different to Mike’s]
MIKE: We were called the North London Invaders at first, but had to change the name because there was already another band called that. It didn’t do them much good, either. We didn’t talk about whether we liked the name or not – we never talked about anything in those days. I said we were The Invaders and we were The Invaders.
DIKRAN TULAINE: When they eventually made it I was so happy for them. The music was rare and fresh; part of that whole Bluebeat thing that they made their own. I’d often go to see them playing live and they were just terrific dudes. Strangely, they reminded me of The Beatles – very witty. I’d been to the Roundhouse and seen The Stranglers, The Clash, Generation X and Patti Smith; these guys were part of the next wave and in my opinion they ruled it. They were the best for a while, right after the seriousness and brilliance of punk. I’m still a huge fan.
LEE: Round about this time we’d knock about with a few boys down at this youth club, The Aldenham Boys Club, in Kentish Town. But for socialising we’d go up to Hampstead because we could get a drink. There was one pub, The Holly Bush, which had bar billiards, and The Duke Of Hamilton, which had a jukebox and some good beer. After rehearsals we’d adjourn to the Holly Bush for a few jars. We’d all sit and talk music and that’s where we started to make it all happen.
KERSTIN RODGERS: I met Mike at the Duke. He was very ambitious, very focused. The first date I had with him, he said, ‘I’m going to be a pop star.’ I thought, ‘Yes you are.’ Like many kids, especially boys, with only one parent, he was absolutely determined to succeed. He was quite uncommunicative and, like many talented people, he’s got some issues. But I think it was all gurgling away inside.
CARL: The Duke had a great jukebox, but we’d get thrown out, then bounce to another pub. There was a mad side and an arty side to our crowd. The nutty side of the crew would turn up, it kicks off, we go somewhere else. We were the cool bit, and they’d follow and fuck it up again.
LEE: Suggs hung about in the same area and it was pretty much like, ‘Hullo mate, you’ve got a vocal box. Do you fancy popping along and singing?’
GRAHAM McPHERSON: Born January 13 1961, Hastings
Suggs’s Glaswegian father, William Rutherford McPherson, leaves the family when he’s three. His early years are spent living in bedsits or rooms in people’s houses in London, with his schools chopping and changing constantly. He and his mother then move to London, where she works as a barmaid and singer.
MIKE: Suggs had a West End theatre background, quite bohemian.
SUGGS: I had a very strange upbringing, certainly. I mean, it’s so colourful, it’s hard to know which bit of it to talk about. I can’t really remember all that much about my early childhood, but my earliest memory is weeing in a saucepan. The McPhersons were from Newtonmore, near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. My mother’s family were the Gowers from Wales. Dad left home when I was three. I have no recollection of him and I’ve got one sort of faded photograph of him somewhere. Heroin was his drug of choice, it’s a one-way street that takes you further and further away from real life and he spent a lot of time in hospital, so there was never a time when I can remember him being around. It’s a shame that I don’t know what his side of the story was and why he left. As far as my Mum knows he just buggered off and that was the end of it. It was upsetting and I didn’t really understand what was going on. Mum was always very vague about the details. I suppose she wanted to protect me. There was a time when I was interested in finding out about him, and times I could have tracked him down, but it passed. People told me I could go through the Salvation Army or one of those organisations. But then I got to a certain age when I thought, ‘I’ve never known this person, and it’s a bit like getting in touch with someone you’ve never met before, well obviously it is, but why would you want to meet a stranger?’ There’s plenty of strangers in every pub, living room and street in London, so it started becoming more the emphasis on the fact that I didn’t know him than the fact he was my blood relation. I thought about it most when I was about 18 or so, when I was becoming a man. I realised that I had some elements of my Mum, and of course all people are people in their own right regardless of their parents, but there is an element of both your parents, and I just felt there was something that wasn’t my Mum that I would have liked to have known. He’d never figured in my life, so there must be huge holes in my psyche which I have managed to fill with other things. At one time I was looking for a father figure, but that doesn’t mean I was looking for my father. I’ve wondered what would happen if he ever turned up on my doorstep. I remember reading that happened to John Lennon and he told his father to piss off. I don’t know if I’d have the heart to say that, but it’s probably what I’d feel. I feel I have an innate insecurity because there wasn’t a security. There was a security in my Mum, so I’m not saying I was an orphan or anything, but we did move around a lot – it seemed to coincide with when the rent was due.
EDWINA (Suggs’s mum): When he was at Park Walk Primary School in Chelsea there was a hamster that belonged to the school and parents had to take it home during the summer holidays. So we brought it home and it was called Bonetti, after the Chelsea goalkeeper of the time. So he was a Chelsea fan from that day forward.
SUGGS: When I was eight, my mum dispatched me to her sister, my Auntie Diana, in Haverfordwest, South Wales. We used to go there for holidays, and then one time they said, ‘You’re going to stay here for a little bit’. Because my Mum was moving around a lot, she felt I’d be more secure there than the erratic life she was leading in London at that time, so I stayed there for a few years. To be honest, I’ve been through a period of analysing all that bit of my life, and there’s comes a certain point when you realise actually, there’s nothing to be gained from portraying it any worse than it was – it was what it was. What I did remember, is that I’d come from London to a really nice village in Wales, and at that age all I really did was go out all day running around in fields, haystacks and woods. There were a lot of painful, emotional what-nots, but at the same time children are very resilient, and it was a bit like being evacuated during the war. It was harvests and hay bales and torchlight processions in the woods; Van Morrison stuff. And whenever I ran away the people who brought me straight back always seemed very nice. Then when I was 11, I was sent back to my mum in London. So many things were waiting for me there, like the gangs. I went to Quintin Kynaston on Finchley Road, about which I later wrote Baggy Trousers. The school was a social experiment – an early mix of a grammar and a comprehensive – and was massive, with 1,800 pupils, all boys, and very rough. I’d been living in Wales and I arrived half way through the first term. I had a uniform from the grammar school that I’d been to in Haverfordwest and my mum said, ‘It doesn’t look that different’ – apart from the fact that it had red braiding and the one at Quintin Kynaston had green. So I went in the uniform of another school, just having come from Wales. As soon as I got off the Tube two kids started attacking me. That’s just the way it was. Talk about one extreme to the other. The first day, I bought myself an ice cream on the way in and this kid grabbed it off me and jammed it on my head. I had a pretty rough time for the first few days, the usual kind of being a new person. Unfortunately I started half way through the first term, so a lot of the kids had got to know each other, and I’d come from Wales and I think I had a bit of a peculiar accent at that point, which is why I still have, it’s not completely London, it’s not completely anything. But at that time it was mixed with a bit of Welsh as I’d obviously kind of ingratiated myself into speaking with a slight Welsh accent. So I had a peculiar time. We had a teacher called Mr Pringle – he wasn’t called that but the more he went on about the fact that he wasn’t, the more we shouted it around the school. He eventually went mad and had to leave. The youth tribes in our school were mainly just the cool people and the daft people. The cool people being the ones who did sweet FA, left school and were stupid, and the daft ones being the clever people who sat at the front and learned something. I really respect the ones who had that discipline to learn, although I obviously didn’t at the time. There were a lot of very tough kids but when I look back I realise the toughest were the four or five down the front trying to concentrate while all around them there were doors being slammed, fire extinguishers being let off, people being hit on the head with desktops. So it was a madhouse. You were given 10 minutes to get between classes, and anything and everything did happen in those 10 minutes. I slowly started fitting in, so if you follow my school career, the further downhill I went academically, the more integrated I became…
CHRIS: …until he became the most popular boy in the school!
SUGGS: Yeah, I was really integrated then. My downward progression was very obvious. I started off quite well in the first year, but then I began hanging around with the wrong people, and soon I wasn’t going to school at all – I was a bit lost and stopped showing any interest. Although I wasn’t stupid, education held no interest for me as I was too busy trying to fit in with the hard kids. When I arrived from Wales my school reports were great, and then they just started tailing off by the time I got to 13. But that was largely because I knew that the teachers themselves hadn’t got any interest in whether I had any interest. After Wales, it was like a holiday coming to school in London. It was so chaotic that no one even cared if you went in the end. The teachers used to say things like, ‘Don’t bother coming in, it’s such a big school, no-one would miss you’. So I did. I had less and less respect for it until in my last year I hardly went at all. I used to bunk off and hang around Hampstead School, where my best mate, Chalky, went, because it had girls and it was funkier.
Suggs joins the Hampstead scene.
Suggs’s friend Andrew ‘Chalky’ White – the son of his mum’s boyfriend – introduces the teenager to his friends and to a weekend social scene in Hampstead based around local pubs and gatecrashing parties. Among this crew are Mike and Lee.
SUGGS: I was about 14 or 15 and still at school when I first met Lee, Chris and Mike. They were all pretty local to where I was living at the time in North London. The bonding took place in Hampstead because that’s where the girls and the parties were. The Duke of Hamilton let in underage drinkers like me and also had a happy hour for girls. So there was a real ‘scene’ – you had all these yobbos from Kentish Town and Highgate with all these girls who had big houses and parents away for the weekend. Like, Peter O’Toole’s daughter would have a party and there’d be 150 people in her house for a weekend. Most of the time the door would slam in my face as I was two or three years younger than the rest of them, but that’s how we all started hanging out. We weren’t horrible, but we must have been pretty intimidating.
LEE: We invited ourselves and sometimes left with an odd record or two. A suitcase appeared out of the window with a knotted sheet.
SUGGS: There were lots of connections, like there always are through friends of friends. They were in a notorious North London gang called the Aldenham Glamour Boys, who mixed the skinhead look with a bit of glam. Every area had its own little gang, like Mornington Crescent, Somers Town, Regents Park estate. There was a gang down in Swiss Cottage, one up in Kentish Town, the older gangs who were really heavy in the 60s. You were aware of them from school. The Aldenham Glamour Boys were all leaders of their own little scene. When I met them, because I was a bit younger, they seemed so cool. I remember I’d seen a lot of them at Hampstead Fair when I was younger. It was just before punk and everyone was dressed like Kevin Keegan or Status Quo, but I saw these blokes who were into wearing old clothes. They just seemed more interested in style than the average person. So we were friends first and foremost, before the band formed. It made it a very strong bond between us all. We all had a similar interest in doing something that involved NOT looking like Kevin Keegan and NOT listening to Status Quo. I desperately wanted to belong to a family – a movement. I had no family or roots, and thought of replacing them with this gang of skinheads.
CARL: It wasn’t about entertaining people initially. Although I think, unbeknownst to all of us, we all sought attention. When the band came along they were the first friends I’d ever had. As a child I was alone, so I found my education in books. So I was over the moon to be in a gang. I was a people-pleaser, grateful to have friends.
LEE: We all had our own fashion, we all liked the same sort of music, we all had the same interests, we all smoked the same brand of cigarettes… it was a very happy time. We had the odd punch-up here and there but it’s all part of growing up.
SUGGS: Like all teenage boys, the young me went through some difficult stuff. If I could go back and talk to him I might say, you don’t really need to hang around with this crowd so much, all showing off and wasting their time, really. And I’d tell him not to worry so much about what people think of his trousers, whether he has a spot on the end of his nose.
A change of name.
Mike and Lee introduce Suggs to the joy of graffiti and he duly uses his new nickname to fit in with pals ‘Mr B’ and ‘Kix’.
SUGGS: At this point, I was like an ethnic minority at school. There were lots of Irish, Greeks, Pakistanis and West Indians but I was the only Scottish person. I’d had to very quickly adapt to the quick-fire wit of a North London comprehensive and had got fed up with the Welsh/Scottish thing. When they weren’t calling me Haggis or Flea-Bitten Jock C**t, other kids called me Gray or Mac and I wanted something more distinctive. I got fed up of being picked on so I decided to change my name. I was looking through my mum’s encyclopedia of jazz musicians, took a pin and stuck it in the middle of a page. I thought I might get ‘Fingers’ or something, but I opened my eyes to see it stuck in the middle of the letter ‘e’ of ‘Peter’, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Then I read his second name, which was ‘Suggs’, which somehow resonated with me; he was the drummer in an obscure Kentucky jazz band. I went to school the next day and said, ‘My name is Suggs’ and told everyone that’s what they had to call me from now on. Then I went through a ridiculously extensive period of not answering unless people called me Suggs. When the register was read out, I refused to answer unless they said Suggs – which only added to the demise of my education. My best mate also changed his name to Keg, but he gave up after a couple of weeks. He got fed up of it. The obvious thing would, of course, be that I wanted to change who I was. I think it’s true to say I created Fortress Suggs to give my life structure. It was also at a time when people were writing their names on walls in unsuitable places – I think the modern vernacular is ‘tagging’ – so I had to have some pseudonym that people wouldn’t be able to trace my phone number from. I used to write things like: ‘Suggs is our leader’ and ‘Suggs is everywhere.’ I made my own myth – it was slightly extraordinary and preposterously self-aggrandising. People would say, ‘Are you Suggs? Are you the Suggs everyone is talking about? You’re that bloke who’s everywhere.’ Graffiti was a great introduction I’d had from the rest of the band – it gave me an outlet for something more creative than being an idiot. They used to walk over to the overground line in North London at night and write on the railway stations. People would see you and you got chased, but I never got close to being electrocuted. It was a very brief period but I had some funny situations, like being in Highbury Magistrates Court, and the curtains went up, and there was my name in 9ft letters on Highbury overground station.
Suggs becomes a Soho regular.
The near-delinquent Madness singer is a source of worry to his local social services department while at school. By this time he is living on the edge of the city in a tenement flat with his mother, who has become dispirited with her singing career and abandoned it, earning money instead by working in West End pubs.
SUGGS: Mum always had books at home, things like Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, so I always had a relatively good amount of words in my head, which was very helpful. English was always something that I was pretty good at. So when I later started writing songs, it helped that I’d some sort of literal upbringing. Mum herself was a good singer – when was younger she sang at The Blue Angel in Liverpool and nearly had a go. But it just didn’t work out for her financially, so she ended up as a barmaid in Soho. She worked long hours, and because pub work and bar work isn’t very well paid, there were a lot of late nights. I don’t remember any bad times, although I had a lot of ‘uncles’ through the years. And I loved being around Soho and places like the Colony Room. You’d walk up this rickety staircase into a tatty old room with a toilet and a piano in it, full of artists and actors. Amidst all the booze, it was a creative hotbed and a colourful place for a furtive young mind like mine. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, George Melly, Jeffrey Bernard were all regulars. Was it an unsuitable place for a child? Absolutely. I remember staring up through the fug of tobacco smoke, the occasional hand ruffling my hair or giving me a florin, sometimes even a ten bob note. There was a feeling of community. These places had names like the Kismet Club to evoke the mysterious East in some kind of cheesy way. They were licensed to open when the pubs were closed, supposedly for people that worked in the theatre, but they would be full of gangsters and prostitutes, actors and lords. I loved all that, the faded grandeur, the colourful characters. My mother-in-law was a dancer on roller skates. You used to have acts who only had three minutes’ worth of ideas, the people who did the sand-dancing outside the Odeon in Leicester Square, or the snake charmer who came from Southend with a dab of boot polish. They practised their whole lives for one three-minute routine. There’s no one out there who can do any of that stuff any more.
EDWINA (Suggs’s mum): I was always out at work. I felt that he was OK with everything and didn’t take into consideration that he was missing out so much. I just had to work for a living, had to find babysitters for him. That was our life for quite a long time. He must have missed out on a great deal of being parented. And I regret that; I think he had an awful time, really. All he felt was a sort of abandonment, in a way.
SUGGS: I stayed on to the sixth form for social security reasons, and got two O-levels and a CSE on the way. Then I left school and had quite a few jobs, one of which was cleaning cars at a second-hand car dealers in Warren Street. Every day we’d wheel out the cars onto the pavement. We’d pour this thick white stuff over them, wait for it to set rock hard, then spend the next hour and half polishing it all off. The idea was to make the cars look newer than they were. I gave it up for a job at a butchers in Chapel Street market, which turned out to be even worse. It was the winter of 75/76 and I was paid £11 a week. I was on the lowest rung of the ladder, the evolutionary amoeba of butchery. I got all the crap jobs. I remember cleaning the huge steel drawers in the back yard with cold water taps in the freezing cold. If you’ve ever tried to get fat off anything in the freezing cold with cold water, it’s not easy. Then I was the one who had to go into the huge fridges and get out the great chunks of frozen meat. I remember the very early mornings and being cold all the time. Whenever I could, I’d try and sneak off and have a kip in the toilet. Then they’d come and find me and drag me back into the yard. It all came to a head one Christmas when the Christmas box – absolutely bulging with five and ten pence pieces – came to be shared out. I didn’t get a thing, not a sausage. But there were many horrific aspects of working in a butchers and one was that you got to see what they put into the hamburgers and sausages. The hairy ears and the snouts. In fact, all the bits with hairs on. Everyone knows that now, and it’s bad enough imagining it rather than actually having to see it. Apparently keeping the hairs on the skins makes the meat more tasty, the maggots certainly thought so. Then there was the continuing cycle of having to take the guts out of things. They absolutely ponged. I left in the end because I realised that in order to get on and earn more than £11 a week I would have to climb up the apprenticeship ladder and I really wasn’t cut out for it. So one lunchtime I left and didn’t go back. I lasted about six months in all. Maybe looking back it was all a kind of turning point. I had the kind of brain that wouldn’t take anything in. So really, it could have motivated me to find something in life that didn’t require strict time-keeping and any form of discipline. So, what else but the music business?
A life-changing trip to the flicks
After being overheard singing at the Hampstead Cinema, Suggs becomes the sole auditioner as the Invaders’ vocalist. He turns up with ‘Chalky’ and sings the same verse of See You Later Alligator three times. Spotting his talent for improvisation, the band immediately welcome him as their new singer.
SUGGS: I’d never really thought about singing before; it happened completely by accident. I’d been to see American Grafitti, which was about Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 50s, and I was coming out of the cinema and walking down the road singing my head off, something like See You Later Alligator. And some of the guys just happened to be there and heard me and said, I dunno why, ‘Do you fancy singing in this band that we’re going to get going?’
MIKE: We spotted Suggs singing on his way out. He sounded good and we asked him if he wanted to join us.
SUGGS: They were just mucking me about really but I had a lot of front so I played them at their own game and went along. Before that, I’d had all these images of art college, yet had no academic things at all: ‘Yeah I’m going to be a commercial artist, I’ll worry about it next week.’ And then I did nothing, left school and was poncing about doing gardening and other things. It was very fortunate. I’d arrived in London late and wasn’t really involved in any particular area or culture. I didn’t have any roots and was ready to find something I was interested in. I’d never sung in my life apart from at the football: ‘You’re going home in a fucking ambulance’… all those old folk classics.
CHRIS: I met Suggs when he was a 16-year-old skinhead and he and Chalky came to the audition at Mike’s mum’s house. I was walking along the road on the other side and didn’t know who they were but I was thinking, ‘Look at them two, flippin’ skinheads, who do they think they are?’ I got there before them, cos I knew the way there, then suddenly they turned up. Suggs came bursting through the door with a bottle of vodka and sang See You Later Alligator. Because he had a crop I thought, ‘Who is this young whippersnapper? Where was he in 1969? Probably in his nappies!’
SUGGS: I remember arriving at Mike’s bedroom and hearing him play a Fats Domino song on his out-of-tune piano with Chris singing. They were just The Invaders back then – established in Mike’s bedroom and playing in someone’s back garden. Three of them were sort of serious about it and that was it. I wasn’t even thinking of becoming a member of a group until I met them. I wasn’t really asked to join, either. It was just that there was nobody else around so I thought I’d have a go. I had no inclination to be a singer – I just had a bit of something and they recognised that, and the singing was a bit of an afterthought. I remembered seeing them at Si’s party and thinking how good they were. Even then, I thought they were really original, very different from anything else around then. My mum was very encouraging , but there wasn’t any kind of professional advice. I mean, at that age I probably wasn’t even at home that much; I don’t remember speaking to her between the ages of 14 and 17. Who knows? Her talent may have rubbed off in one way or another but I had no intention of getting into music at all. I’d had some drumming lessons but I was terrible. My mum used to give me £2 to go and have lessons once a week, and I only went to the first three. I also played in the school orchestra once – the double bass. All I knew was, I had vaguely artistic leanings. You know, sort of drawing and painting. But before I had a chance to think about where that might lead me, the band started – and a good job too. Lots of paths were opened to me but creativity is something that stopped me from ending up in a place like prison. In the background I came from there was sport, music or crime – that’s the way it was. Everybody from the estate I grew up on went to the football, and you ran around shouting at people and booting people up the arse. We were all prone to behaving badly. More so for Lee but, for all of us, the band was a saviour from getting stuck in the world that had been preordained. Plus I had too much of a feeling of self-survival to get into any situations where I wasn’t going to be a ‘free’ man. Also, I’d seen a lot of drugs around when I was a kid and already had this very clear notion of my father being taken away to an asylum when he tried to inject himself with paraffin. And so when that type of stuff started appearing, as it does in most teenager’s lives in London, I was very wary of it and that had a dramatic effect on how I behaved myself.
The new five-piece take their first tentative steps.
The line-up of Mike (piano), Chris (guitar), Lee (sax), John Hasler (drums) and Suggs (vocals), stays together for a few months. But Suggs is sacked for singing on the terraces, rather than at the rehearsal room in Muswell Hill. John Hasler moves to vocals, bringing in ex-William Ellis classmate Gary Dovey on drums. At this point Lee, is in and out of the band too.
CARL: Mike would ask you to come over and you’d go, not knowing what to expect. When we realised that what we were doing was making music, it was really funny.
SUGGS: We used to have a blanket over the drum kit and just the old stand-up piano and everybody else was just plugged into one small amp.
CARL:We were a gang before we were a group; we were skins, suedeheads, a real mixture. There was a fight in Belsize Town Hall and one of our friends got chained because he had a crop. Back then it seemed quite legendary. If you saw a load of bikers going to a party you’d kick all their bikes over. We weren’t going out looking for trouble. We were dressing different, that’s all. Actually, one of my mates had to have his head shaved because of a nasty cut on his head because of a fight with some greasers at the Hampstead Classic cinema. So he was the first. Then Lee said he’d pay for anyone who’d dare to have a crop and that was that.
SUGGS: I’d taken to wearing my hair short and sporting clothes from the 50s and 60s, which weren’t easy to come by… it certainly made us stand out and would sometimes engender aggro.
CARL: A couple of us were skinheads for quite a while because we liked the whole style of it and some of us had been skins first time round. We did get quite heavily into skinhead culture and music, the boots and braces. I loved all that. We were into collecting old Motown, reggae and R&B, stuff that people weren’t really into because there were hardly any other skins then. We also used to follow Bazooka Joe, Adam Ant’s first band, because Mike’s brother was in it.
SUGGS: We were drawn to each other because of our similar tastes, with Ian Dury as the binding factor. Out of the 20 or 30 of us hanging around came the nucleus of the band; people were coming and going all the time. I didn’t join as a professional musician, I joined because we were friends from when we were 15. And to a greater or lesser extent, it probably saved my life.
CARL: Tagging was a big thing, plus we were very much into Ian Dury and Roxy Music, as well as Americana. We started out being nostalgic, rather than creating something. Our look was a mixture of 60s and Americana; spraying our DMs, wearing American bomber jackets and having crops. Looking back, it was probably a bit gormless.
SUGGS: I used to go to a lot of football matches, but it was never my destiny to be a hooligan. I was never a mindless vandal; I was just a lot more influenced by the bad kids than the good ones. I’d started going home and away with Chelsea in the mid-70s, to all those exotic places like Scunthorpe, Carlisle and Luton. I was part of Eddie McCreadie’s Blue and White Army and all that. I had Chelsea scrawled all over my books, pictures of footballers over my walls. Great days, but back then, of course, the highs were so much higher and the lows were so much lower. When I couldn’t get to the game, I really missed it, especially the away trips. We used to go to places like Cardiff and, until I started going away with Chelsea, I’d hardly been outside of London. The whole thing about getting on a football special was really exciting and I think that those types of experiences are how a lot of our generation got our wherewithal.
CARL: At this point we were into things like early Roxy Music, Kilburn and the High Roads, Alex Harvey, The Kinks… ska was just a part of it. I bought a bass for four quid from one of the Hampstead crowd and played covers in the early days, before we did any original material. Mike put stickers along the neck indicating where the notes were.
SUGGS: They were always talking about Kilburn And The High Roads, who played in a Kentish Town pub, the Tally Ho. Lee got me the album, Handsome, which was a huge influence. Punk was the prevalent musical force then but here was a band who had attitude, yet also used saxophone and piano – all elements that later became Madness. We used to go and see them when they became the Blockheads and they had a massive influence on us. Ian was certainly the inspiration for me because he was writing about ordinary life; it was something you could understand. He was also singing in his own voice which is something not a lot of other people were doing. His lyrical quirkiness was another big factor. We liked Razzle In My Pocket because it was about stealing magazines from newsagents. I liked all the details he put in, and the aspects of ordinary London life. Jack Shit George rings particularly true, having had that sort of education myself – old-geezer teachers with tweeds, dandruff and halitosis, the blackboard rubber thrown in frustration and the smell of whisky after lunch. One of the great things Ian could often do was make poignant things have a bit of humour and have humorous things a little bit sad. It’s a difficult balance. He was such a great performer too. In between the songs he would pull a handkerchief out of his pocket or these gross pornographic magazines with people with clothes pegs on their nipples. It was amazing and it was how I imagined music hall must have been like in its heyday, a real theatrical performance. But my favourite lyricist and vocalist was, and still is, Ray Davis from the Kinks. I’ve always liked his eye for detail, the elevation of the mundane and the recording of ordinary life. Along with ska and reggae influences, that was always something I’d always liked. Growing up, I think the first record I bought, not pinched, was Wall Street Shuffle by 10cc. The first gig I went to was The Who at Charlton FC in 1974. I was 13 and we just bunked in. And it was just a load of blokes throwing beer cans at each other and pissing down the back of your legs. There wasn’t a woman in sight and there was certainly no food. It was a rite of passage. It also had another mad band called the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and was a complete revelation. There was a cardboard brick wall and he burst through with a stocking over his head shouting, ‘I was framed!’ The theatricality and that comic menace sent an electric shock through my system. Unconsciously I think it was one of those, ‘I want to do that’ moments, even though I was still very young.
Deaf School were a chaotic live pop act who never numbered less than eight performers. Camp, theatrical and supreme entertainers, they were signed to Warners and made three albums between 1976 and 78. Guitarist and chief songwriter Clive Langer went on to produce Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Morrissey and Elvis Costello, with whom he wrote Shipbuilding. Vocalist Enrico Cadillac, AKA Steve Allen, formed The Original Mirrors with Ian Broudie before becoming a record executive. Bassist Steve Lindsay became The Planets and vocalist Bette Bright, alias Ann Martin, went solo before marrying Suggs.
MIKE: Deaf School were also quite a big influence.
SUGGS: Yeah, Deaf School were definitely another band that really inspired us to go and make our music. I always loved them. I first saw them when I was 16 in London and it was a revelation. There was nothing like that around – it was all dinosaur rock. In fact, I was so taken by them that I later married the singer.
LATE 1977: Hampstead Trade Hall, London
The Invaders perform at a birthday-party for Mike’s school friend Evelyn. First song See You later Alligator goes down well with the Teddy Boys in attendance, unlike the reggae oriented songs. John Hasler gets targeted in the head by a beer can but bravely plays on despite all the blood.
CHRIS: The first dates we ever played were at the Hampstead Trade Hall. It was pretty good. It was someone’s birthday party and we were in a charge to get in. The first song we did was See You Later Alligator, and they all really liked it. We did Swan Lake and then they started throwing things at us and we just kept on going til the end.
SUGGS: Hasler got knocked out by a Party Seven – that’s seven pints of beer in a giant tin. It must have weighed about a stone. But I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is brilliant.’ It beat hanging around on street corners, going home in a bus with all the windows kicked in, working in the butchers. The first time I stepped up to a microphone I was very self-conscious, but I really liked it. And as it went on, even though I knew I didn’t have the greatest voice, I also knew there was something going on in the way I performed. People liked what I was doing. I didn’t have a life plan. I’d just bumped into these blokes who had this idea of making a band and I suddenly realised it might be something I could actually do. I certainly had no idea I’d be a singer; I just happened to be around at the right time.
MIKE: Ska wasn’t the ruling music of the set. It was mostly R&B at first. But Madness was one of the first songs we ever did, so it was always there. But we used to do a lot of Coasters songs. Lee, a lot of his work is like King Curtis [Coasters sax player].
SUGGS: We were learning to play old records and there were similar types of things like Fats Domino, The Coasters, and then that sort of led sort of naturally into doing some of the early ska and reggae stuff. The feeling back then with us was, ‘Flared trousers – you’re no good; Straight trousers – you’re alright.’ We didn’t mind rock’n’roll – it was just when it became pompous rock, with no roll.
LEE: Prince Buster was very much the sound that we wanted to capture, but I also wanted to develop my own way of playing. I tried to style myself around the Coasters and the Kilburns, who were both humorous groups and the way they played their saxes seemed to go with the humour of the lyrics of the songs. The first chance I got I’ve gone, ‘I want that solo! I want that!’
SUGGS: Musically, I was inspired by people like John Lennon, Bob Marley, Prince Buster, Ray Davies and Ian Dury. Lee had got me going on Blue Beat records. He had two biscuit tins in his flat – one had 2p pieces in it, the other had rare 45s. There was a stall in Berwick St market that also sold Blue Beat singles and I really started getting into it – I liked the covers and the labels. This stall had a lot of Prince Buster records and Madness was one I remember buying. By the time I was 17 or 18 I had about 1,000 of these records. And then we would try mixing these old styles in a new way. People thought we were a punk band, but we really weren’t. We used to say we were a jazz band because we had horns but people didn’t believe us. We tended to be a band that wasn’t heavy with the guitar compared to some rock bands, so we had this distinctive sound. I think the way Mike played piano and the way Lee played sax was quite distinctive, plus the way I sang and so on and so forth. I remember taking One Step Beyond into a music shop in the King’s Road to play it for the punks. A guy says he remembers me coming in and saying, ‘I’m in a band called The Invaders and we’re gonna do this song’ and he went, ‘That’ll never catch on, it sounds like the flamin’ Glen Miller Band, with all the trumpets and stuff’. So when we played, we made sure we blended traditional ska with our own kind of, well, I guess you’d call frenetic style.
CARL: It got freaky – all that naive energy. You just don’t know who you are when you’re that age. You haven’t got a clue what’s going on, you’ve just got that youthful energy buzzing through you.
SUGGS: All of us lived either in Kentish Town or in Hampstead or the surrounding areas, and Camden was just somewhere you came to meet to have a drink. At that time, there weren’t any girls here. It was just hordes of old fellas and Irishmen pouring out of pubs and taking wild swings at fresh air. So it was really all about meeting up every Friday and Saturday to try and get some extra dosh and get some interest from the girls. It was a classic case of playing at being a pop band. In those early days we’d rehearse around each other’s houses with brooms and mirrors.
CARL: Our mate Si Birdsall had a massive mirror and me and Lee used to rehearse in front of it, so we were able to get our dance going. We had dance routines based on The Bogus Man by Roxy Music, which we’d try to get played at nightclubs. It was quite physical and the other thing is it was threatening – to us!
SUGGS: More time was spent working on how we looked than how we sounded. We’d go round the shops nicking clothes then take pictures of ourselves with nicked cameras. Shoplifting played a big part in our formative stages. We used to get our records from Rock On in Camden, where they made the mistake of leaving the records in their sleeves. Mike used to do this special sort of sniff as he leaned over, with this big pocket in his coat that the records would disappear into. Then we started mutating into this peculiar thing which eventually became the band. Punk came, the door was open and away we went. We had our own life going on – our own pubs, our own records on the jukebox. The other interests we had in common were things like Tommy Cooper and, via Ian Dury, the last vestiges of what people now call music hall.
CHRIS: We used to get really excited – we only had to do about one gig a month.
SUGGS: For those first six months, we were happy to see 20 people in the audience – even if they were just 20 of our mates.
MIKE: The thing is, when you’re young, nothing you do is contrived, is it? It’s better that you don’t know what you’re doing.
CARL: It was around this time that I got a postcard from John Hasler addressed to ‘Chas Smash’ for some unknown reason. The name just stuck.