Madness spend the first half of the year rehearsing and recording the upcoming album, with some personal projects interspersed.
CHRIS (speaking in January 2016): We still have to select the songs and producer and studio, but it’s all going well. The album will be out some time this year.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): Carl is still on sabbatical and I really don’t know if he’ll come back. It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about.
JANUARY 17: Lee appears on Johnnie Walker & Friends, Radio 2
The sax man talks about starting Madness, avoiding a life of petty crime, how he acquired his instrument, loving songs with quirky lyrics and meeting David Bowie.
MARCH 7: House of Common gig announced
Tickets go on sale for a Bank Holiday Monday summer gig in Clapham on August 29. Around 20 support acts and DJs are promised for the event.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): We feel like we’ve been given on opportunity since Norton Folgote and the feeling is ‘Fuck it, let’s just try to plough on.’ We’re a working band again now, so it’s up to us to just do what we do. Which is obviously making records and playing to as many people as still want to come and see us.
MARCH 17: Suggs and Friends, The Emirates Stadium, London
Suggs hosts his fourth annual fund-raiser for Pancreatic Cancer UK, with special guests tonight including Chris Difford and Jools Holland. The event raises another £97,000 to add to the £330,000 collected so far for the charity.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): We’ve spent three years trying to raise the profile of pancreatic cancer – relatively successfully, I think. It seems to slip through the net a bit, but with the advances in breast cancer it’s coming up the list of priorities.
MARCH 22: Suggs appears at Hastings Pier
Suggs screws the last plank into the town’s pier to mark the end of its £15million renovation, and also announces the band will be playing there later in the year.
APRIL 18: A Concert to Save Norton Folgate, London
Hosted by Griff Rhys Jones, this special fundraiser is organised by The Spitalfields Trust to help save Norton Folgate from the demolition ball. The variety of performances includes Suggs reciting the lyrics to The Liberty of Norton Folgate, interspersed with presentations about the Trust’s achievements.
APRIL 22: My Life in Words and Music, Scarborough Spa Theatre
Suggs begins another 10-night tour of his one-man show, ending in Sheffield on May 4.
APRIL/MAY: Clive Langer returns
After months of rehearsing, the band enlist the help of their veteran producer to help fine-tune the new album tracks.
SUGGS: We keep trying to get away from Clive but we can’t escape him; we’ve been friends since we were kids and share a long history and empathy for the same music.
CLIVE LANGER: I usually get pulled in when they don’t know what to do and get a bit stuck. It was the same this time, so I came in and spent a few weeks with them in the rehearsal room, just like we’ve always done.
SUGGS: Clive’s very good at arranging drama and theatre in music and it’s always fun working with him. He has a lot of influence and doesn’t just turn on the tape recorder, so it was good to bring him into the fold again. Most bands have one or two people who decide things, but we can argue for hours. That’s why we have Clive as producer – he’s as much a referee and umpire as anything else.
CLIVE LANGER: What I really liked about it this time was that decisions were made quickly. So you didn’t have a committee meeting about the high-hat – it was done and gone.
MIKE: It was satisfying all round. We’d used quite a few producers previously on some albums and there was some discontent. You start working with people you don’t know very well and there’s a whole new sort of discovery that has to take place. Sometimes change is great but we’d done quite a bit of that on Oui Oui and weren’t overly satisfied with the results. This time we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do it ourselves?’ We didn’t even get management that involved.
CLIVE LANGER: Once we had the songs sorted, we had to decide how to record it. Alan Winstanley now lives in Portugal, so he was out of the picture. We’d loved working with Liam Watson at Toe Rag studios on the beginning of Folgate, so we decided to decamp there.
Recording at the retro analogue studio is completed in under a month, with extra percussion provided by the Ska Orchestra’s Mez Clough
SUGGS: There’s a lot of technology around in studios these days, but we wanted to go back to a basic place with very limited technology, ie no computers or anything. We’d been rehearsing somewhere very basic and grounded for all those months, and I think we just wanted to continue that vibe. And Toe Rag is a fantastic place.
MIKE: We went there precisely because it’s an analogue studio and I like old analogue records. I think recordings from the Sixties have the best sort of sound – they just sound fantastic because of the techniques they developed in those days. It’s just not the same with a load of computers, even though you have more control now.
SUGGS: Sometimes making music is as much about the place you’re in and the atmosphere as it is the words and the music. Liam Watson is like this gatekeeper to this other world where all the equipment looks like something out of Doctor Who.
MIKE: He’s fanatical about old analogue gear, so he had all these old organs, old drums and old recording equipment.
SUGGS: It was just nice to be around gear that you know legends like The Beatles and The Kinks have used; it was very inspiring.
MIKE: So there we were in this tiny little studio, using only an eight-track tape recorder, which I think was an old Studebaker.
CLIVE LANGER: Only having those eight tracks means Liam records in a very old-fashioned way, so straight away the sounds were different.
SUGGS: It meant we could only record our own instruments, compared to modern studios where you can record 72 or 100 or as many as you like if you have a powerful enough computer. Because there are six of us in the band, that meant we had a track each, then a couple left to fight over whether we were gonna have an extra tambourine, a flugelhorn or a glockenspiel. Only having eight tracks to play with really did focus the mind – it was a lot more exciting than having 72 million channels and farting around for the rest of your life mixing on computers.
MIKE: It really was inspiring and sort of moved us on a bit, compared to normal. We just liked the sound of what we were doing. Plus, because we didn’t have the opportunity for too many overdubs, we knew we had to do something decent if it was going to be on the record.
SUGGS: We just felt like we wanted to make a record that relied more on the songwriting and the playing than the production. That’s why we spent more time writing and rehearsing the songs than we did actually recording them. Once we were in the studio, we just sat around in a room and made music together, which is how we used to do it. We played each song six or seven times, looking for a ‘take’ that captured the mood. So we weren’t endlessly fiddling around with things, trying to give it some atmosphere – the atmosphere was already there, as we were playing it.
MEZ CLOUGH (percussion): I was chuffed to be asked to come and play percussion. I turned up at Toe Rag not quite knowing what to expect. A quick chat with the band and Clive Langer and half an hour later a couple of songs were already in the can; Good Times and Mumbo Jumbo if I recall. The whole band played live, together in one room with minimal separation – the way records used to be made back in the Fifties and Sixties. It was brilliant. No tricks and no room for error.
SUGGS: Because all the effort had gone into writing and rehearsing around 20 potential songs, actually recording it was as painless as possible – it only took three weeks.
CHRIS: The actual recording process was very quick compared to how we’d done it before.
SUGGS: There’s something very different about sitting in a room with the rest of the band, looking at each other and recording music; it does create something quite magical. What we wanted was to capture the feel of a Madness performance. Once you write a good song, all you really want to do is to arrange it and rehearse it. To do that, you should do a few takes of it in a room together, just looking each other in the eye and performing it until you’ve practiced it enough. That way, you capture something more than the modern method, where you lay down the bass, then the drums, then the guitars, doing it all separately. Even if there are bumps and bruises, you just know immediately if a particular take has got a certain atmosphere. Capturing the spirit of our shows is really what has excited the band all along.
MEZ CLOUGH: The boys were on stellar form and everything went down in just one or two takes. No messing around, thank you and goodnight.
SUGGS: We’d all stopped larking about a bit and were concentrating again. So the actual recording part was a relatively painless process. We all met in the middle somewhere and collided together in a sandpit of joy.
Unlike previous albums, the band convince Clive to use all the recorded tracks.
SUGGS: Before we started recording, we probably had about 20 songs lined up, and we then jettisoned about four of them so we had our final 16.
MIKE: Clive didn’t want to do that many songs, but we felt all the tracks were really good.
SUGGS: We didn’t intend to do 16 songs, we just kept doing them and they became like little babies that couldn’t be ejected from the pram. So the pram got full.
CHRIS: I campaigned strongly for all the songs we recorded to go on the CD so there were none left for any bonus discs etc. After all, that’s what we do – we write songs. So we took control, with no interference from anyone, and everything we recorded ended up on the album this time.
MIKE: With Clive often you’d say, ‘Well maybe you know best…’ but this time we were like, ‘Well maybe you know best but I’m still not happy with this and I’m not happy with that.’ We did things the way we wanted them but at the same time, not blindly, where people became self-indulgent. I think we had a balance to it but we tried to see through what we wanted and it seemed to work out.
BEDDERS: The rules went out of the window really. In the old days we had to limit things because you could only fit in 20 minutes per side of a vinyl LP. But now there’s no worry over time at all, so we decided to put down all the tracks we’d recorded.
CHRIS: My thinking was, our first two albums both had 14 tracks, and we had enough good songs this time round too, so why not go the whole hog?
SUGGS: We really didn’t compromise in terms of our attitude, feeling or enthusiasm and there were no blips. Arguments sure, but great, proper arguments, full of passion.
CHRIS: I would have liked to put a DVD in there too but we had to have it ready for release very quick.
The finished tracks are mixed by Charlie Andrew, who previously helped out on Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da.
SUGGS: We took the tracks to Charlie so he could sprinkle his technical wizardry over them.
MIKE: It was funny – after starting out with the most basic of eight-tracks, we finished it with all of Charlie’s computers. The technology is endless, so you can do as many takes as you want, but we still retained the basic analogue sound.
CHRIS: I made sure the guitar was nice and loud in the mixes – it was the only part of recording that was a bit stressful.
SUGGS: After it was finished, all the record companies came along and there was a bit of a bidding war, which was very exciting, I didn’t even know you could get a record deal any more. Universal in particular were really enthusiastic, so we went with them. After a few years of doing it ourselves, it was a great feeling to have this big machine behind us, and to feel like we were really giving it a go.
MAY 21: The Pier, Hastings
The band’s summer concerts kick off in Suggs’s birthplace. Out of the new album tracks, only Herbert gets an airing. With no Carl in the band, One Step Beyond still appears lower down the running order, with Embarrassment now the show’s opener.
Embarrassment / The Prince / NW5 / My Girl / My Girl 2 / Take It Or Leave It / Herbert / The Sun and the Rain / Dust Devil / Return of the Los Palmas Seven / Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day) / Lovestruck / Bed and Breakfast Man / Shut Up / Girl Why Don’t You / One Step Beyond / House of Fun / Wings of a Dove / Baggy Trousers / Our House / It Must Be Love / ENCORE: Madness / Night Boat to Cairo
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): I was born here and went up and down this pier as a kid myself but the band never had an opportunity to play her in our first incarnation. So when the chance arose, they had no choice in the matter – we were playing here.
MAY 26: Indigo, O2, London
Madness play a secret gig at a small venue attached to the O2. Only one new song – Where Did All The Good Times Go? – is aired during the set, which opens with House of Fun.
MAY 28: Dauwpop Festival, Netherlands
Lee is absent from tonight’s gig after allegedly missing his flight.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): We don’t go on the road now for as long we used to, so we can do the excess in short bursts. We take it in turns to blow it one night or the other and pass on the baton. We’re like the SAS – in and out, with a few dead bodies around, and then we’re off to the next place. We actually have two tour buses now – the good bus and the naughty bus. And what happens is, we set off and bit by bit all the good boys get on the naughty bus and it gets overcrowded. And at a certain point, at a motorway service station, we swap over and we don’t tell them. So all the good boys are left on the naughty bus and we’ve jumped on the good bus. You can guess which one I start on. Of course there’s people in the band who can’t drink any more and that’s fair enough. I totally respect that; it’s just about tolerance and you have to keep a lid on the drinking when we’re working. When the show’s over, everyone’ll do what they like, but before and during the show, you try and keep it sensible. I mean, I drink but I’ve never had a problem with it – I’m a good drinker. It has caused problems in our family, as it does with a lot of families, but it’s never become an issue for me personally. I can’t drink as much these days anyway because I can’t cope with the hangovers. The mental side of them is unbearable. The other thing is, the non-drinkers in the band will still say ominous things, like, ‘There’ll always be a place at the table for you, Suggs.’ All that, arm around the shoulder, knowing wink, while you’re sitting there in your cups. The last thing I need is that patronising helpfulness.
JUNE 8: 100 Club, Oxford Street, London
The band play an intimate 19-song set at this famous tiny venue, with an audience made up of competition winners. New songs Herbert and Don’t Leave the Past Behind get an airing, with ex-Belle Star Jennie Matthias joining the band for a rendition of Madness.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): When I think about old people playing pop music, I look at Buena Vista Social Club, where it’s possible to play pop music with some dignity. You don’t have to flounce about in leather trousers. If you still enjoy making pop music – which we most assuredly do – and you feel there’s same go in you, that’s the main thing about deciding whether or not to carry on. Our job as a band is like reggae and soul artists who don’t have a miserable bone in their body or their music, despite the shit they’ve been through. It’s about trying to make the effort look effortless.
JUNE 25: Glastonbury Festival
Madness make their third appearance on a main stage at the festival, 30 years since they first played the world-famous event. Arriving on stage in a shaggy wig, Suggs announces: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this special edition of Top Of The Pops. When we started this band, Glastonbury was still a twinkle in its grandfather’s eye.’ The band play an hour-long set that includes new song Mr Apples, with an encore that includes the David Bowie classic Kooks. Suggs also plays a DJ set the following day.
Madness draw an immense crowd to the Pyramid stage. ‘I’d like to apologise to anyone who’s camping near my family – some of them seemed to move away this morning,’ says Suggs, who does have the air of a man who has recently been enjoying himself in time-honoured Glastonbury style. The success of their performance is about as close to a foregone conclusion as you can get – the sun comes out during Our House, It Must Be Love retains its nonpareil ability to make everything seem temporarily all right with the world, the crowd let out a collective ‘Ahhhh’ when the stage is flooded with the band’s children and grandchildren. But it’s not without its surprises; quite aside from Suggs’s increasingly wayward between-song pronouncements, there’s both a beautiful cover of David Bowie’s Kooks and a baffling interlude where proceedings are halted in order for guitarist Chris Foreman to sing a karaoke version of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.
SUGGS: We had a great weekend – it was great, really fantastic. We’ve been going there every few years and slowly climbing up the ladder of notoriety. It was a great audience and a really great afternoon.
LEE: Woody turned up on the day and hit the floor running. Suggs, on the other hand, got there three days before and he was fucked. He’d been wandering around in another dimension so he didn’t really save his voice and was a little bit croaky on stage. Luckily, his daughters were there to look after him.
SUGGS: The trouble is, my wife doesn’t come with me to Glasto. She says, ‘I’m over all that, I’m not 18 and you’re not Suggs.’ I say, ‘I am for that weekend’. So my kids and everyone else goes instead, and I do get caught up in the spirit of it all. I remember meeting Steve Davis there. I’d seen that he was doing a psychedelic soul set and thought, ‘I’ve got to go and see this!’ It was quite something to behold, so I went up behind the decks and gave him a hug. We’d met years earlier on a TV show. At the time he was talking about being a big soul fan and wanting to get into DJing and he said one of his dreams was to DJ at Glastonbury – and sure enough, a long time later, there he was. Apart from that, all I remember is waking up every morning and one more neighbouring tent dweller had left. There was like a firebreak around our particular encampment by the end of it – they’d all moved away from us. The other thing is the hangovers. Oh god the hangovers! The body doesn’t bounce back and you certainly pay the time for the crime.
JULY 2: Soho Food Festival, London
This charity gig sees Suggs on vocals alongside Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson. Suggs’s wife Anne is on backing vocals as the makeshift band perform an eclectic set.
Sunny Afternoon / Baggy Trousers / LadyTron / Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick / Get Back / Kooks / Our House / Love Is The Drug / Clean Up Woman / Mocking Bird / Whiter Shade Of Pale / Jealous Guy / Night Boat To Cairo / Do The Strand
JULY: Lee appears in new TV ad
The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra are the stars of a new national television advert for Boots hearing aids.
LEE: At first I thought, ‘Are you taking the fucking piss?’ But I came to realise they were not, and after going for a hearing examination as part of their requirement, I found I was moderately deaf in one ear at the high frequency end. Not bad for someone that has stood in front of speakers at rather loud gigs for the last 40 or so years. They even gave me a free unintrusive hearing aid that I can switch off when my wife screams at me. Oh joy!
JULY 16: Latitude Festival, Henham Park, Suffolk
Suggs plays a late-night DJ set, arriving on stage wielding a pint and a cigar before adopting a supervisory role as an assistant plays the tunes.
JULY 30: Kendal Calling, Penrith
SUGGS: I remember being on the bus coming back from that Kendal festival. I was looking down at Lee, my old warrior of the road, who was covered in flour, and someone else’s trousers were torn off. It was like we were coming back from a fight rather than a gig.
JULY 31: Y Not Festival, Matlock
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): Nile Rodgers says Chic’s music has HDM – Hidden Deeper Meaning. That’s the story of our career, too, that we’ve always got a hidden deeper meaning. And we’re happy for it to be hidden because you don’t want to shout about your meaning. People aren’t stupid. People get patronised enough as it is without us patronising them too. We know that however people are portrayed, they’re not stupid. Appreciating that is one of the big reasons we’ve continued, I’m certain of it.
AUGUST: Suggs stage show to be turned into a film
The singer reveals that his autobiographical stage show, My Life Story, is being turned into a film musical directed by Norton Folgate collaborator Julien Temple. The film will combine live performance and archive clips with dramatised scenes from Suggs’s life, shot in Hoxton and to be released in 2017.
AUGUST 4: Corn Exchange, Edinburgh
During the first gig in Scotland, Suggs announces that Mr Apples will be the band’s next single.
LEE: The first Corn Exchange gig was a blast. No cans were thrown, but I did manage to demolish two ceiling tiles with my head by jumping up on the speakers and not judging the height and measurement. Some of the loyal Mad fans came back to the hotel and joined me in a white Russian and dark rum and coke into the wee hours. I was also invited out to a cosy piano bar with a 5am licence but opted to sit out on the decking with the Bed & Breakfast Man himself ‘Rockin’ Billy Whizz, AKA John Hasler.
AUGUST 5: Corn Exchange, Edinburgh
LEE: The second night saw a much more boisterous and sweaty crowd – I’ve not played a gig as hot since The Dangermen at the Dublin Castle. I came off for the encore and kept running straight out of the exit doors, where a chap was having a nosebleed due to the compact sweaty bouncing bodies. I gave him my handkerchief and jogged back to stage to do Mr Apples, Madness and Night Boat to Cairo. A veritable stonker!
AUGUST 6: Belladrum Festival, Inverness
LEE: Even though the rain fell relentlessly in Inverness, the band played on and it was another excellent performance from the dripping crowd. Of the new tunes played, Mr Apples and Can’t Touch Us Now went down a storm.
AUGUST 11: Cropredy Festival, Oxfordshire
AUGUST 13: Boomtown Festival, Winchester
Madness play the aptly-named Lion’s Den stage on Saturday night of this four-day festival at Matterley Estate. As headliners, their set is accompanied by pyrotechnics, lasers and even waterfalls, much to the delight of the 30,000 crowd. The Dangermen-era cover of Prince Buster’s Girl Answer Your Name is in keeping with the heavy ska and reggae presence at the event, which also features Bad Manners, The Selecter and The Neville Staple Band.
One Step Beyond / Embarrassment / The Prince / NW5 / My Girl / Take It Or Leave It / Wings Of A Dove / Herbert / The Sun And The Rain / Don’t Leave The Past Behind / Iron Shirt (AKA Chase The Devil) / Can’t Touch Us Now / Bed & Breakfast Man / Shut Up / Girl Why Don’t You / House Of Fun / Baggy Trousers / Our House / It Must Be Love / ENCORE: Mr Apples / Madness / Night Boat To Cairo
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): The past five years have been a revelation in terms of our output and our popularity. We did about 25 festivals last year, so we thought we might take a break this year, but here we are again. Nobody is more amazed than myself that we’re still here and that people still come to see us in their thousands.
AUGUST: Film video for new single
The band assemble in Lewisham, London, to shoot the Mr Apples promo – the first proper video by the band since 2009’s Sugar & Spice. Chris shares directing duties with Jim Canty, who had filmed previous promos for Twin Atlantic and Biffy Clyro. The video takes viewers on a journey through two worlds; one of a devout religious man, the other a pious, small-time gambler on the perennial search of a good night out. The single itself is a special single mix, prepared by Charlie Andrew during recording of the new album in Toe Rag studios.
CHRIS: I had the idea for the video with Lee playing Mr Apples himself. We had fun making it – it was the first ‘real’ one for many years.
LEE: Filming it was a most enjoyable experience. Fantastic crew and director – although Chris gave him a few tips of course.
SUGGS: Strangely enough, Lee found it very easy to play the part of a pervert in a grubby mac.
AUGUST 14: Chelsea Pensioners press conference, London
To announce details of the new album, Madness visit the Pensioners at their headquarters in Chelsea’s Royal Hospital. An audience of 30 veterans quiz the band about topics including memories of Amy Winehouse and how they can get free tickets to future gigs.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): God knows how we come up with that particular concept, it must have been in the pub. We wanted to find an institution even older than Madness. The only other one we could think of was The Rolling Stones, and we didn’t want to do a press conference with them. I’ve never met such a bunch of interesting and amusing characters. It was a very fun afternoon.
AUGUST 19: Cyfartha Castle, Merthyr Tydfil
AUGUST 20: Belsonic, Titanic Quarter, Belfast
AUGUST 26: Bite The Bullet is released by the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra
The second LTSO album is a 50-50 mix of covers and new compositions by various members of the band, and includes four instrumentals. A 13th song – Sweet and Dandy – misses the cut at the last minute. The album was recorded at Fishmarket Studios in Neasden under the watchful eye of Dave Robinson, then mixed at the Ironworks in Brighton by Mike Pelanconi, who co-produced its predecessor.
The quizzical piano stabs, metallic sax solos and bathetic vocals recall Lee Thompson’s familiar setting in Madness, but on his second album the saxophonist seems like he is usurping Jools Holland as Britain’s premier swing to ska band leader. Willie Mitchel’s Memphis soul fave 30-60-90, Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me and The Coasters’ jaunty Hongry all get a Jamaican skank. Conversely Harry J’s classic rhythm on Lloyd Robinson’s Cuss Cuss is given the big band treatment. Best of all is a lavishly arranged version of John Barry’s theme On Her Majesty Secret Service, all growling baritone saxes, languorous trombones solos and heart aching chord changes.
LEE: I was absolutely chuffed with how the last album went down – it even got a bit of praise from the Madness boys – so I wanted to take that gamble again.
DARREN FORDHAM (Ska Orchestra singer): The recording sessions were great fun and everything was done in a relaxed, fun way, with no pressure. Not forgetting we had the enigmatic Dave Robinson on board, and if you don’t do it his way, the whip’s out! The songs kind of chose themselves, really. We had a bunch of songs that got emailed about, and we rehearsed most of them. You can kind of sense the ones that are working because you just have to look around the room at people’s faces, their reactions.
SUMUDU (Ska Orchestra backing vocals): The first rehearsal I went to. I stood next to Lee and he started playing his sax completely unplugged. It was amazing hearing his raw unamplifed sound – beautiful. I saw how he completely commits to it even in rehearsal. He’s so real and surreal at the same time, which is a magical combination. I also like standing next to him in general as he makes me laugh all the time. He’s so unpredictable it’s hard to sing through the giggles sometimes. I like fun and funny and Lee is both.
BOB DOWELL (Ska Orchestra trombone player): Being a biggish band, it can take a few attempts to get it feeling just right. Hopefully we all peaked at the same time. As the horn section were locked in a cupboard, I had to watch my mouth between takes in case the mics were still live.
LEE: The last album was doffing the cap to Sister Mary and the ska artists of the time, this one was more the band’s own songs. So I said to them, ‘I want a song off you each, and I want them on my desk on Monday.’ And pretty much everyone got it done.
BEDDERS: I wrote Bite The Bullet. The inspiration was the old ska tunes that took their influence from jazz, like the great version of Caravan by The Skatalites, which they called, Ska-Ravan. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was another really interesting one to do – it was a different kind of reggae.
MEZ CLOUGH (Ska Orchestra drummer): I wrote Step It Up Sister after the chorus just popped into my head one day when I was messing about on the piano. It didn’t take long really, once I’d found a few words that rhymed with ‘sister’. When I was writing it, I was trying to imagine Mr Thompson singing it, which helped things along.
BOB DOWELL: I wrote Western Standard Time. Although the title refers to Don Drummond’s Eastern Standard Time, it was actually inspired by the 1960 theme from Exodus, which was covered by The Skatelites
LOUIS VAUSE (Ska Orchestra keyboards): I wrote Wickerman – that is I came in with the idea and the verse, Andy supplied the middle eight and Lee supplied a lyric. The ‘apple tree’ he keeps citing is in the Garden of Eden methinks.
LEE: I’d started writing the lyrics for Wickerman a few weeks before, then put the idea to one side due to a few mental blocks with the chorus. Then on the way to debut new material at the Dublin Castle, I had a revelation on the A263 South and completed it by Camden Town.
SUMUDU: For the backing vocals, Lee wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted. It was at the end of a session and time was limited so we ended up pressing ‘record’ and I just had a go. I came out with all this New Orleans Mardi Gras voodoo-type haunting death vocal stuff and Lee was really surprised and chuffed so he kept it. He’s a theatrical chap.
LOUIS VAUSE: I really liked the way it all turned out – it was a really enjoyable one to do.
LEE: As well as the original numbers, I handed the song covers Hongry and Cuss Cuss over to the band and asked them to better them. Once they got the groove going the rest, as they say, followed. Of the two, I would say that I was happier with Cuss Cuss. I should have made the sax on Hongry more raw and staccato but I took my eye off the ball.
STEVE WHITE (Ska Orchestra trumpet player): They’re all nice to play live but my favourite is probably Feel A Little Better; I think it suits Lee’s style, voice and personality.
LOUIS VAUSE: Feel A Little Better is a great single. Western Standard Time and Bite the Bullet are also epic and funky respectively, plus I’ll Be Back has a killer sax solo and lovely chord sequence.
AUGUST 27: Talking Musical Revolutions, Bangor
Suggs travels to Northern Ireland to take part in a discussion as part of the Open House Festival.
AUGUST 28: Commoners Against Cancer, Dublin Castle, London
Lee plays a special DJ set at this fund-raiser for the Specialized charity, followed by a stomping rock ‘n’ roll set from Mez and the Fezzez, which features the LTSO drummer, Bedders on bass, Lee on sax and some vocals, and Violin Monkey Joe Auckland on trumpet. Other bands appearing at the House of Common warm-up event are Indeed, The Launchers, The Skiff Scraps, Offbeat Offensive and The Inflatables. Lee enjoys himself so much at the event that he has to be carried out of the pub and driven home by Scottish fans Derek Dawson and Stewart Rennie.
LEE: It really was worth it – great fun. Both Bedders and myself thoroughly enjoyed jumping up for Mez and the Fezzez even though I’d learnt Tequila a semi-tone out –what’s new, I hear you say. I should have left after that but it’s hard once you get the flavour. So I later had to be carried out by a couple of hefty Scottish geezers who dropped me home with the wife.
AUGUST 29: House of Common, Clapham Common
Madness travel south of the river for the Bank Holiday special, with support acts that include Lee Scratch Perry, Toots and The Maytals, David Rodigan and Norman Jay. A very hungover Lee gives a shoutout to the Scottish fans who got him home the night before, before later writing a diary of his slightly frazzled day.
Madness’s status as a great British band is assured. Their last two albums have been as strong as ever and the north Londoners still have the commercial clout to headline their own festival south of the river. All the same, last night they squandered a chance to remind us why they’re so beloved. Recent departure Chas Smash was the spirit of Madness and they miss him more than they must have feared: they’ve suddenly grown old. A disastrous early cameo from reggae legend Toots Hibbert on The Prince set the tone. Usually super-smart and super-wry, singer Suggs was curiously disconnected, whether rambling “I feel like we’re all in the priority queue for easyJet; you just wait longer on the staircase” as introduction to Wings Of A Dove, impersonating Jarvis Cocker and lurching into Respect during Take It Or Leave It, or fluffing the opening to Bed & Breakfast Man.
LEE: On the morning of House of Common, I awoke semi-clothed in my dog’s bed with what must have been a hangover running through, over and into every molecule of my being. Not big, clever or professional as I had something pressing to do that day that my bank manager said YES to and my whole living existence said NO. A Rainbow six-seater arrived to take me to Clapham at 1.30pm, Madness weren’t on until 9pm but I wanted to catch Lee Scratch Perry and most definitely Toots. And I certainly didn’t want to be sat backstage surrounded by a never-ending tap of free alcohol and Twiglets. After watching Dave Rodigan and Toots it’s us, and there’s a new intro tune for Madness to enter stage, The Beatles’ Because (The World Is Round) followed by various sounds of life in the big city and culminating in a tremendous thunder. We walk to the front of stage as per Madstock ’92, not feeling quite the same as Finsbury Park and rightly so – history should never repeat. And they’re off! House Of Clapham opens with me holding a little back to get second wind for Embarrassment and The Prince solo. Woody is as tight as ever, keeping time like GMT, while, as always, Bedders is popping out bass notes as smooth as velvet. Chris also keeps everyone sweet with some unusual guitar riffs throughout – when he’s on fire don’t stand too close, and today he is as solid as a stick of rock, with Bon Jovi running all the way through him. We are 50 minutes in at least, maybe 60, and my throat is burning, my thighs are cramping up and my arms are like lead. I tell myself to just breathe, breathe and stretch, tense the old thighs and try not to think about keeling over. Tommy Cooper crosses my mind in one of the songs, so I grab the mic stand for support; not now, not here. Oh please, where is that fucking light at the end of this tunnel? Will this nightmare ever end? No, it must not, not at least until It Must Be Love. Now it’s One Step Beyond, so I move to the front of the stage to blast a few bars of the solo when suddenly I’m in Hell’s Kitchen with singed fucking eyebrows. I completely forgot about the pyrotechnics – thank God I never jumped down to the next level of the stage for a real Ring Of Fire. I can’t really remember playing the next two tunes, Baggy Trousers and Our House, and just recall Suggs saying, ‘Go to school or you will end up like this good-for-nothing lightweight boozer’ as I casually bite my nails to hide the shaking. And then there’s the light, that wonderful glow to the opening piano chords of It Must Be Love. Oh Mr Barson, you sweet and giving fruit cake, bring me the soothing comfort of a Slumberland king size and Bed Knobs and Broomstick me away. I need juice to replenish and a dash of vodka and tequila with ice and a slice to take the sweetness slightly elsewhere. Ding dong! Round whatever it is! Madness are going out with both barrels tonight but we are pretty much home and dry – well dry-ish. Suddenly it’s M.A.D.N.E.S.S and the Bermuda triangle at the front is absolutely crazy. I’m tempted to stage dive into the middle of it, but I’ve made certain promises that I cannot break. Now, at last, Night Boat To Cairo and oh deary me, where the fuck are my fucking towels? No I don’t want a black fucking handkerchief, I want a big white fuck off towel for Night Boat To Cairo! I’ve never seen so many spooked members of our team, running around like headless chickens looking for a decent sized towel that will reflect the light for Suggs’s traditional waving towel moment. I rarely see Suggs ruffled, it’s not his style. All the pressure building up to this gig, the album, at last in its cellophane, the politics of it, the mixes, the chosen ones, the promotion, the solo ventures, the price of a can of Tubourg or whatever that shite lager is called, the spirit of this band and the fear of what’s to come. Has it all been worth it? Oh, more so than ever. You Can’t Touch Us Now.
SEPTEMBER 3: Crammerock Festival, Belgium
SEPTEMBER 4: Jersey Live Festival
MIKE (speaking in 2016): Back in the 80s, if you’d said that we’d still be doing this now, I would’ve thought, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I always felt like we could have initial success and could see that happening. But I couldn’t envisage longevity. It’s been a surprise for everybody I think.
SEPTEMBER 7: Release Mr Apples as single
Backed by a lively video, Radio 2 make the first single from the upcoming album their Song of the Week. Like the previous three releases from Oui Oui album, it fails to chart.
SUGGS: The song is a light-hearted look at the powers-that-be. Maybe it’s a British thing, but there seem to be great swathes of the upper echelons of society who tell us how to behave, but behave in a completely different way themselves. So during the day they’re on a committee discussing prostitution and drugs, and by night cavorting with those very same things. If I said Keith Vaz, we wouldn’t be a million miles away, but it isn’t about him per se. It’s just an old, old story – the judge with the suspenders on and all that. I only mention Vaz because it must be very exhausting spending your whole day at a committee talking about the rights and wrongs of prostitution and your whole night doing the research.
CLIVE LANGER: It wasn’t as simple as some tracks were to do. I had the idea that the track needed more light and shade in the arrangement and got the band to drop out of the first eight bars of verse one and generally fiddled with it. It didn’t work and we ended up re-recording the track in its original more primal form. It worked and is the wonderful recording that you hear on the album and on the airwaves to this day.
SUGGS: Writing-wise, the song came very naturally. You know, you’re always looking for new ways to present yourself; you never want to think we’re just going round in circles. But sometimes something pops out like that and you think, ‘That is just an evocation of who we are and who we’ve always been.’ Popping holes in the balloons of pomposity.
SEPTEMBER 8: Prince Buster dies
The Jamaican ska superstar – real name Cecil Bustamente Campbell – passes away at his home in Miami aged 78. He had been in poor health for some time after a series of strokes, including one in 2009 that left him unable to walk.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): We loved Prince Buster; his sense of humour and obviously the music that he made. He gave us our name, our album title and many other things. He may also have had an influence on the way we were moving about. I would say his soul will live on it what we do in some way or another.
LEE (speaking in 2016): I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for him, for certain. That guitar syncopation that he invented, look what it’s brought us; it’s infectious stuff. His legacy just goes without saying. He’s left us with music to make you smile.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): It’s a tragedy. He was enormously important. The fact he came from the streets and he had a terrific sense of humour and energy – it really appealed to us and it had a huge impact on everything we did, really.
SEPTEMBER 11: A Festival in a Day, Hyde Park, London
Madness perform in front of 50,000 people at Radio 2’s extravaganza alongside Elton John, Status Quo, Gregory Porter and Travis. Before The Prince, Suggs pays tribute to Prince Buster, announcing: ‘It’s like the old Monty Python joke: What did he ever do for us? He gave us our name, he gave us our first hit, and he gave us our album title, One Step Beyond. God bless Prince Buster.’
One Step Beyond / Embarrassment / The Prince / Don’t Leave The Past Behind / NW5 / My Girl / Can’t Touch Us Now / Wings of a Dove / Herbert / House of Fun / Baggy Trousers / Our House / Madness / Night Boat To Cairo / Mr Apples / It Must Be Love
SEPTEMBER 23: Later…With Jools Holland
Madness perform Mr Apples, Herbert and Can’t Touch Us now, with Suggs also interviewed.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): I keep thinking that when the Rolling Stones pack up then maybe we should, but they keep going. They’re in Cuba at the moment – so long as they come back alive we’ll keep going.
SEPTEMBER 30: Gröna Lund, Stockholm, Sweden
Madness jet off for a short European tour, with their first appearance at this popular amusement park.
OCTOBER 1: Rockefeller Music Hall, Oslo, Norway
MIKE (speaking in 2016): When we first started, the record industry was quite different. When you made an album you made a lot of money and then you went on tour and you lost money. And now it’s the other way around, for us anyway. We don’t make a lot of money with record sales but live, these days, you can earn a lot. I don’t know exactly how it changed or why, but it did.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): All I know is that every time I look out at an audience I just think what a privilege it is to still be here.
OCTOBER 3: Tempodrom, Berlin
During their first night in Germany, the band visit some old graffiti on The Berlin Wall, which they’d originally sprayed more than 35 more years ago.
OCTOBER 4: Ruhrcongress, Bochum, Germany
OCTOBER 6: Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Dubai
SUGGS: Dubai was certainly an interesting place – like Las Vegas, but without the fun.
OCTOBER 13: The Arts Show, Radio 2
Suggs chats to Jonathan Ross about his favoured cultural treasures, including Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?, the poetry of John Betjeman and the life and works of Francis Bacon.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): Singing and dancing is not a bad way to live your life. It’s a remarkable position to be in.
OCTOBER 14: Herbert released as a teaser
The Suggs-penned track is made available as a download two weeks before the album launch, complete with an animated lyric video in the style of the album’s artwork.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): We’re all quite extrovert people and it’s a very intense relationship, but we’re still a democracy. So we can spend two days arguing over what trousers we’re gonna wear, never mind what we’re gonna record. It means we have a lot of meetings about having a meeting, to have a meeting about having another meeting, which is why I takes so long for us to do anything and why recording an album is a very convoluted process. But once we do decide to do something together, it’s a very whole-hearted process and full of the energy people have come to recognise as Madness.
OCTOBER 16: Strictly Come Dancing
The band appear on the BBC’s flagship weekend entertainment show, performing Mr Apples.
OCTOBER 26: The One Show, BBC1
Madness perform Mr Apples on the early-evening magazine show. Before the performance, Suggs is interviewed on the sofa, alongside comedians Susan Calman and Harry Hill.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): You’re never going to beat being a teenager, as that’s the best time of your life, but I think I prefer it now. Looking at the audiences we get these days, I appreciate even more that people still dig what we’re doing. I mean, why should they? We’re very lucky.
OCTOBER 26: TalkSport
Suggs appears to discuss the Christmas tour, Butlin’s, festivals, the new album, some footie, and exactly what is a Herbert.
OCTOBER 27: Television advertising begins
Promotion for the new album includes an animated TV advert, with the band running through various city scenes, some dressed as robbers, the others in top hat and capes.
OCTOBER 28: Can’t Touch Us Now is released
Madness’s 11th studio album is released on the UMC label to great acclaim, with almost universally positive reviews. The album features three tracks – Given The Opportunity, Can’t Touch Us Now and (Don’t Let Them) Catch You Crying – that started off as Crunch! songs in the 1990s and have now been resurrected and given a new lease of life. Whistle In The Dark sees Bedders on tuba – an instrument he learned to play in 2013 – while Chris plays Mellotron on the title track, and Violin Monkey Joe Auckland swaps his usual trumpet for banjo on Mumbo Jumbo, which Lee co-wrote with Dance Brigade pal Keith Finch. Backing vocals on several tracks are supplied by the Ska Orchestra’s Spider Johnson, as well as Ade Omatayo, who previously sang for Amy Winehouse. A special edition – dubbed the Greatest Show on Earth box set – is also available, featuring a pop-up parlour game and a bonus CD of early demos. On these raw tracks, Lee sings Mumbo Jumbo, I Believe, Don’t Let Them Catch You Crying, Soul Denying and Whistle In The Dark, Nick Woodgate performs home demos of Another Version Of Me and Good Times, while Mike does initial vocals on You Are My Everything. Also included are Chris’s original instrumental arrangements for Blackbird and Grandslam. The album – which is dedicated to ex-Invaders drummer Garry Dovey, who had passed away earlier in the year – eventually peaks at No5 in the UK charts.
TRACK-BY-TRACK: Click on song title
CHRIS: I wrote the song a very long time ago with Lee and we presented it to the band who all liked it.
SUGGS: I think originally it was supposed to be about Princess Di and Dodi, but to my mind, it’s also about the British public being in too deep with us because we’ve created a depth of culture over the years. So whatever happens, Madness can go off and come back and we’re still wanted.
CHRIS: The mellotron had to go back to the person we hired it from, so I didn’t actually do the bits I wanted to do. All you hear on the track is me mucking about at the beginning. It was a fantastic device though – it has all these long strips of tape with the sounds on. I also used it on Blackbird, just some low string sounds in the verses.
CLIVE LANGER: If you listen to the drums, they’re not hi-fi, they’re not how Alan would have recorded them, with the snare drum all bright. It’s just the room and a couple of old-fashioned mics – you get what you’re given.
CHRIS: Mr Apples never stops. By day, a pillar of society. Very clear on how people should behave. Strict, moralistic, judgemental. But, when that old sun goes down, he’s heading off up the wrong side of town. Exhausting. We worry for him. He’s a very naughty boy.
WOODY: Lee’s loud hailer spoken parts replaced Suggs singing the same lines. Maybe it’s more ‘theatrical’ but it wasn’t really for me.
CHRIS: I said to Suggs, ‘I want to write a ska song that’s also like James Bond.’ I think I managed it.
SUGGS: It’s well documented that this is about Amy Winehouse, who I used to see around Camden all the time. She used to hang around the pubs that we did; the Dublin Castle and the Hawley Arms and places like that. She’d be sitting on the bar, just playing her acoustic guitar. Then there’d be an explosion of flash bulbs outside and you’d think, ‘Hello, Amy’s leaving the boozer.’ So our paths crossed over the years and we saw her incredible rise and amazing talent emerge, followed of course by her very sad demise. Shortly before she died in 2011, I saw her in Soho, walking down Dean Street in the rain with a guitar over her shoulder. As she walked past me she said, ‘All right Nutty Boy?’ which made me laugh because I was 55 fucking years old – no one had called me a Nutty Boy since 1979. It was such a cheeky Winehouse thing to say and it really stuck in my head, so I just felt compelled to write a song about that moment and about her. I’d already started it when she died, and then Chris sent me a tune not long afterwards that had a very nice soul motif that seemed to fit perfectly.
CHRIS: It was one of those lucky moments where the lyrics seemed ready-made for the music.
SUGGS: It was too soon after her death to put it on Oui Oui… but the experience kept going round and round in my head and I kept thinking it was all so sad. When you stop doing the drink and drugs and then suddenly start again it can be too much for the system, especially when you’re that delicate. Saying that, I didn’t want the song to have any morbid crap about it – we all knew she had a great sense of humour, so I wanted it to be a celebration of her life. I just hope it did her justice.
WOODY: Listening to it now, I can get lost in it; it’s very descriptive and atmospheric.
SUGGS: I just think it’s a shame that Amy couldn’t go to the pub because 85 people were pushing her, trying to make her say something outrageous. She needed space and she was so vulnerable. It would have been a different life if we’d had that level of attention. It would have destroyed my creativity if I hadn’t been able to observe life go by. Back then, pop wasn’t covered in newspapers and you didn’t have magazines like Hello! and Heat. If the paparazzi had been around in those days, I’d have just chinned the lot of them.
MIKE: This one’s about about unconditional love. It started out a bit simpler many years previously but I was pleased with how it ended up.
CHRIS: We’d recorded a very good demo of this way back before Norton Folgate, maybe even earlier, before Wonderful.
SUGGS: I certainly remember it being around for a while – I recall doing a version with Mike in the dim and distant past and everyone saying, ‘It sounds a bit naff.’
MIKE: Clive didn’t like the track at all – I almost had to have a physical fight with him to get it included. He said he didn’t like songs in minor keys and I said, ‘Well I don’t give a **** what you think, get in the studio and produce it.’ So with the goalposts set, we went in and recorded it and then someone started talking about giving it a Marvin Gaye sound and, typically, that got Clive excited. It was a slow burner.
SUGGS: Mike wouldn’t let it go, and then Chris came up with this Isley Brothers guitar part and it suddenly came to life.
CHRIS: I did a really good solo using wah-wah and fuzz – a good combination that I was very pleased with.
MIKE: Chris’s wah-wah guitar did sound brilliant, but it still wasn’t coming together for me, so I wrote a string part for it, which seemed to do the trick.
SUGGS: It just shows that the alchemy of one element can change the whole atmosphere. It wasn’t that the song was suddenly any better, but it just took on this feeling and started to work.
WOODY: The best day in Toe Rag studios was when Clive suggested putting a Ticket To Ride drum pattern on this. It had been bugging us for a while, that the track was a bit mundane and lacked interest, but the new drum beat it brought it alive. Very rewarding.
NICK WOODGATE: Someone thought it was about your own children being versions of you. But it’s just about an experience I had, after which I wrote the song immediately.
KEITH FINCH (co-writer): Lee and I started writing this in 2011 and I was still sending him bits from Spain in the summer of 2016, so it was a long track, drawn out over thousands of miles. Lee’s lyrics are fantastic.
SUGGS: Lee just turned up with it and we knew it would be good live. That kind of ska thing is something we’ve always loved. Plus it’s also a little bit political in itself; this disillusionment with the powers-that-be that had led us to Brexit and all the other shit we were going through at the time. As the title says, it’s about the mumbo jumbo we’re constantly being fed as people and not knowing where this chaos is going to end up. All we could do is try to filter our thoughts about the state of the country into some kind of sense. It just seemed to sum it all up, plus it’s uplifting and got a good chorus.
KEITH FINCH: Funnily enough when Lee was over here that same summer I played him some Hayseed Dixie and then suddenly the banjo and Jew’s harp appeared on the final track.
JOE AUCKLAND (banjo): I’ve never seen Clive so excited – he loved the banjo. I was, needless to say, delighted.
SUGGS: This is a good example of how I was trying to write more about characters for this album. On Oui Oui, my lyrics were more abstract than usual, so I concentrated on getting back to the narrative side of my songwriting. I wanted stories again and to get back to being more like the writers who inspired me, like Ray Davies and Ian Dury. I wanted to write very specifically about people and paint very specific portraits of characters I’d met or seen in the street. It was something we used to do on our early records and I wanted to recapture that attention to detail about the small things that happen in our everyday lives. So Herbert is a stern would-be father-in-law, Mr Apples an uptight antihero, and Pam the Hawk a beggar. All I can really write about is what I see, and I think it can be just as philosophical as trying to work out what being a human being really is. Writing about universal things just seemed too abstract to me. I learnt very early on that you can be just as universal talking about something that’s very personal to you. Everybody’s got a mum and dad. Everybody’s got a broken relationship. Everybody’s been chased by the police at some point, whether you’re in Brazil or America or wherever. I mean, everyone goes on about us being a London band or quintessentially British or something but I think if we’d been born in Sydney we would be doing the same kind of thing, just about a different set of people in a different place. Of course, sometimes you think, ‘Ah, it’s too obvious.’ But then you think, ‘Well, no one else has said it so fuck it, let’s say it.’ You think it’s not really high art, it’s just writing about all the ordinary things that happen to you, but why has no one else done it? It’s like what they always say about great writing, ‘Often thought, seldom said.’
WOODY: This one was originally called Leave The Past Behind because I wanted to do just that and move on. It was also a reference to the fact that Madness were depicted as this old gor-blimey London band always dressing up in Victorian clobber. It used to frustrate me that people would constantly go, ‘One Step Beyond! Baggy Trousers! Our House!’ It seemed like we weren’t allowed to move on, so it was just saying let’s do just that. But Suggs didn’t like that. He said, ‘It’s because of the past that we are who we are now. So yes, by all means let’s move on, but don’t ignore the past completely, let’s celebrate it.’ In the end it was a good collaboration of ideas.
CHRIS: This is one that nearly got away. Lee and I wrote it years ago, but it was always intended for Crunch! not Madness. Because it was supposed to be like Roxy Music, I never thought it would suit us at all. Then Lee came up with a good vocal version and most of the band liked it – although it was still very hard to actually get it recorded.
SUGGS: We were grafting away in the rehearsal room and then at the end, just when we thought we’d done what we needed to do, Chris sent a demo of this one through via email.
MIKE: Lee was singing and I thought it had a lovely tune, really nice chord progressions and a nice bit of piano. Some people were saying, ‘The rehearsal’s fucking finished, we’re not going to do any more songs.’ But this was great so we had to do it.
CHRIS: It was very hard to get it recorded the way I wanted to – in the end I used a drum machine. I also wanted some sort of synth part, so Charlie Andrew had a Juno 6 on which I played a simple tune in the chorus. Let’s just say a few people didn’t think it would be any good, but I’m glad I persevered.
SUGGS: It’s very different to what you’d expect from Madness; it is almost like Roxy Music. If you play it a few times it really gets you. It’s got something – a nice atmosphere.
CHRIS: I could never have written a song like that when I was 18, so it gave me great pleasure to get it included.
SUGGS: On the same day, Mike also pulled You Are My Everything out of the bag. So these two great songs came out of nowhere – it felt a bit like Absolutely, when I wrote Baggy Trousers and Lee and Mike wrote Embarrassment right at the very last minute.
SUGGS: Pam was an amazing character. She was a friend of my mum’s who used to be a beggar around Soho, and was enormously successful. She just had this incredible knack of getting money off people. She used to give you a toothless smile and go to give you a hug, and you’d give her a pound not to get a fucking hug. She used to earn about £200 a day, but she used to spend it all in the bookmakers or in the arcades on the fruit machines. Unfortunately she passed away a couple of years ago.
CHRIS: It’s a lovely song, but sad too. It’s very poignant and is another example of how Suggs writes really good lyrical vignettes.
SUGGS: Just like on Herbert, I wrote the lyrics almost like a poem, then sent them to Mike and he came up with the tune.
WOODY: I put together the fruit machines, sound effects and soundscapes and also programmed a very subtle drum loop.
LEE: I’d written this one at least ten years previously after being inspired by a pushbike theft. My wife ran a mountain bike shop at the time and had bought me a bike. I then went to a brass shop in Kentish Town and left the bike outside, upside down and out of gear, while I went in to look at some mouthpieces. As I looked out of the window I saw a fella riding off on it, so I chased him and missed him by a fag paper. So it’s about opportunists.
CHRIS: This is a really old song we never got round to finishing.
MIKE: It came about because I was reading a music paper in which the Pet Shop Boys were gabbing on about how easy it is to write a pop song. Neil Tennant said, ‘All you need is four chords and you’ve got a hit record.’ So I thought, ‘OK Neil, I’ll have a go at that.’ So I did this little track that was a little Pet Shop Boy-ish and then Lee wrote a lovely little vocal around the tune.
LEE: It’s all about regret and a love lost; will you still be here when the birds have flown? Can we make this work? The subject is a bit of a nomad, a bit of a traveller, who comes back to his roots, hoping that his love will grow.
MIKE: After that, it lay dormant – it kept getting put back and put back and put back – until it came time to do this album when I thought, ‘Well, maybe its time has come.’ I never really thought of it working as a Madness track, but it came together and finally found its place.
CHRIS: I really like it because it reminds me of the early albums – the 7 period.
LEE: This one is about one night in particular, when I was caught trying to half-inch the contents of a gas meter from a party and had to leg it out of the nearest window across the roof. I’ve gone, ‘Fuck!’ and was hanging onto the tiles, going screech with my fingernails. I managed to grab hold of this lead downpipe with little nips on it. So I’ve slid down that bastard, lacerating me hands, hit the deck and ended up like them Tom & Jerry scenes where they run through fences and bushes. That sobered me up, I can tell ya.
MIKE: There’s all this mad music hall music, and then the words give the idea of Lee toppling on the roof of these flats, with all the police trying to chase him. Which is obviously something that used to happen quite a lot.
SUGGS: I don’t think the people at the record company were particularly excited about it. Some journalists from Holland said, ‘If you wanted to put something in the post about what it is to come to London, you’d put that song in.’
While still retaining traces of the ska influences that initially propelled them into the charts in the ’80s, Madness have long since evolved into exemplars of a peculiarly English tradition of songwriting, typified by iconic bands like The Kinks and The Beatles. Their twelfth album Can’t Touch Us Now continues the tradition, with wryly-observed sketches borne of life’s hard experience. Recorded under the watchful eyes of long-time collaborator Clive Langer and Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios, the band turn in 16 tuneful tracks of trademark plinky-plonk piano and rasping saxophone. As Suggs strolls the streets of Camden, his gimlet-eye takes in the heroes and villains on every corner. There’s the priggish Mr Apples, furtively winging his way down the street – up to no good but sanctimoniously critical of anyone else who might be. Later on in Soho – who’s this tottering through the puddles in pencil-skirt, stiletto heels and mascara’d eyes with ‘just a peek of pink La Perla bra’ (Blackbird)? It’s Amy Winehouse on a date with destiny. Or there, ducking out of the bookies, it’s Pam The Hawk ripping up another failed betting slip: “She’d be the richest woman in all of the West End/ If every single penny earned she didn’t spend.” If you want to know more you’ll have to buy the album. Do it – after all, we all need a bit of Madness in our lives.
Sam Steiger, Hot Press Magazine
A touch of class from the not-so-Nutty Boys. There are two Madnesses: the fez-wearing, festival-headlining knees-up band, and the thoughtful, sophisticated sextet who release mature, medium-noir albums such as Can’t Touch Us Now.
Suggs and Mike Barson’s songwriting here is adorned as usual, with a subtle undertow of ska rhythms and nightmarish fairground psychedelia. There are elegies to the dead: I Believe references debut single The Prince (whose subject, Prince Buster, recently passed away), while Blackbird is a dream-like narrative of encountering Amy Winehouse on a rainy Soho street. But any darkness never overwhelms an album which feels as welcoming and warm as an unscheduled drink with an old friend.
Simon Price, Q
The title could be the pay-off line in a British crime caper, scribbled on a V-flicking postcard to Scotland Yard by some veteran crims who’ve finally made it to a cushy retirement in Brazil. Thirty-eight-odd years after they debuted at the house parties and pubs of north London, Madness have in some respects pulled off a similar coup. Irrevocably stitched into the national pop fabric, they’re equally secure playing their jukebox-worth of hits Ito the people as they are appearing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, as they did, surreally, during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee bash in 2012. Realising, perhaps, that they no longer have much to prove has paid dividends in the recording studio. After the hesitancy of 2012’s multiple producer affair Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da – an unfortunate follow-up to 2009’s mighty concept piece The Liberty Of Norton Folgote – Can’t Touch Us Now is Madness to the core, wholly at ease in its London demi-monde of black music-indebted pop, mirth, nostalgia and reflections on the common people’s travails.
Cooked up mainly at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag studios with long-standing producer Clive Langer, the group have likened it to 1980’s Absolutely. It is striking how old school and immediate it sounds: emphasising the time-slippage even more, the group is back to its 1979 formation, now that nutty avatar Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth has gone solo. And just as there was at the beginning, there remains something fractured and doleful in Madness’s world. Coming in on Mike Barson’s one-fingered piano note, the opening soul-ska title track is anxious and guilt-ridden, like The Pardoner’s Tale reimagined for a particularly harrowing episode of Dixon Of Dock Green. Themes of desperation persist: Tamla-Camden frowner Good Times reflects on debt and the downsides of too much living for today, evoking The Kinks’ Dead End Street. But the songs are never simply about lamenting. Pop-eyed Mumbo Jumbo excoriates government hypocrisy and deceit; singer Suggs’s Soho waltz Pam The Hawk, an elegy for the late panhandler extraordinaire Pamela Jennings, is tender rather than funereal. Also satisfying for the long-term listener are abundant echoes of songs past, and the way that every element, be it the Bedford/Woodgate rhythm section or Lee Thompson’s Andy Mackay-like sax, is instantly familiar and integrated into the cracked whole. Groups of Madness’s vintage don’t often last this well, while remaining cognisant of time’s threshing machine. But as Suggs reflected earlier this year, it’s the old Zen Buddhist thing. When you’re a kid and you live next to a mountain, you just see that mountain, you run around on it.
SUGGS: We worked a bit harder on it, definitely. Having seen the reaction to Norton Folgate, we thought, ‘Well, let’s try and put that sort of effort into it again.’ This one explored everything we’ve gone through over the years – the reggae aspects, the happy aspects, the melancholy aspects, plus a bit of politics too. It’s the full spectrum of what Madness is; six very strong individuals with lots of very strong feelings and emotions.
MIKE: As you get older you get better at what you do. So the album felt like a mature album and I enjoyed it a lot. In the early days, we often meant stuff to come out alright, but it was often a bit haphazard. Now we’re a lot more experienced. So although our mentality may still be the same as when we started, when you listen to it, things sound a lot different.
SUGGS: Because we recorded it so quickly, I think we captured the early energy of the band.
CHRIS: The only thing was, I felt the mixing was very rushed; we needed more time to reflect on the mixes.
SUGGS: The cover is certainly very impressive – it’s the one we wanted from Peter Blake last time.
CHRIS: For the vinyl version, I wanted a double-gatefold but of course that didn’t happen. Plus because we could only have 12 tracks on the vinyl version, it soon became a ‘vote for your own tracks’ scrabble. Some people said, ‘Hey Chris, why didn’t you vote for Catch You Crying?’ I didn’t pick it for the vinyl version because I didn’t think it fitted in with the other 11 tracks. Most amusing.
SUGGS: The title is a slight taunt to anyone who thought we wouldn’t last nearly 40 years. So we’ve been through lots of ups and downs, been castigated by the press, but have kind of circumvented the ‘industry’ and things are better than ever. Nowadays, we just tend to think that the intelligentsia and the authorities can’t touch us, and we can kind of do what we like. So it seemed like a fitting name for the album. Is it an arrogant title? Well, maybe. But it’s a fact.
OCTOBER 28: Suggs sings with The Clang Group
Suggs guest stars on Clive Langer’s new album, performing vocals on Had A Nice Night.
CLIVE LANGER: Had a Nice Night started life on the Clive Langer and The Boxes album, Splash, back in 1980. Suggs always really liked that song and so when we came to making The Clang album I got him along to adorn it with his lustrous vocal tones. The great thing about recording was what we thought was a run-through to refresh our ageing brains of the intricacies of the arrangement was being recorded. In the end we kept it as the finished track, vocals and all.
OCTOBER 29: The Dermot O’Leary Show, Radio 2
With just Suggs on vocals and Mike on keyboard, the duo play Mr Apples and David Bowie’s Kooks. In between, they talk about recording the album at Toe Rag and hint at the setlist for Friday night at Butlin’s. Asked how he keeps fit, Mike replies, ‘Black T-shirt.’
OCTOBER 30: Sunday Brunch, Channel 4
Standing in at the last minute for LeAnn Rimes, Mike and Suggs again appear on their own, playing a stripped-back Mr Apples.
NOVEMBER 2: Q Awards, London
Dressed in top hats and capes, Madness climb aboard a traditional funeral horse and cart, travelling from Camden Town to the nearby Roundhouse, where they are inducted into the Q Hall of Fame.
NOVEMBER 18: Can't Touch Us Now is released
The third download single from the album is accompanied by a new video that contains a mix of a performance by the band and footage from the album’s ad.
NOVEMBER 18-21: House of Fun Weekender, Minehead
The sixth annual Butlin’s jamboree kicks off on Friday with ‘album track night’, as the band perform tracks from their first two LPs in front of a backdrop of Chalk Farm Tube station. Lee even manages to play through the pain after suffering cracked ribs in an alleged altercation with a radiator, although a fourth Violin Monkey, John O’Neil, is drafted in on saxophone to help out. An additional sax man, Philip Toogood, also takes to the stage for House of Fun. Saturday night’s fancy dress theme is screen icons, with an audience full of Dinnerladies, Laurel & Hardy, George Dawes, Patsy from Ab Fab, Mrs Slocomb and a quartet of Groucho Marxes watching the familiar Greatest Hits set, with seven new album tracks thrown in, plus the return of Cardiac Arrest and Yesterday’s Men. As on the new album, Mez Clough joins the line-up on vocals and percussion. Special guests performing across the weekend include The Lightning Seeds, Rhoda Dakar, Craig Charles and David Rodigan, with The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra – plus Bitty Mclean – again filling the Sunday afternoon slot. A particular highlight of the weekend is a preview screening of a new comedy biopic, Who Is Lee Thompson? Made by Jeff Baynes of Cardiac Arrest video fame, the film sees various friends and family telling tales about the sax man, with Lee himself dressed up as each character and lip syncing to their voices. It is revealed that the film is still a work in progress but could be released in 2017.
Land of Hope and Glory / Believe Me / Tarzan’s Nuts / In the Middle of the Night / Razor Blade Alley / Swan Lake / Rockin’ in Ab / Mummy’s Boy / E.R.N.I.E / Close Escape / Not Home Today / On The Beat Pete / Shadow of Fear / Disappear / Overdone / In the Rain / You Said /House of Fun
SUGGS: It’s one hell of a scene – 6,000 Madness fans squashed into a holiday camp for three days; not even the Carry On films could have imagined the goings on.
NOVEMBER 25: Chris Evans Breakfast Show, Radio 2
Appearing without Chris, the band perform House Of Fun, Mr Apples, It Must Be Love and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon. In between, they discuss the upcoming Christmas tour and Suggs claims he’s given Elaine Paige his cold and caused her to lose her voice, before joking he doesn’t have much of a voice to lose.
NOVEMBER 28: Good Morning Britain, ITV
Suggs appears with Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, talking about the new album and upcoming tour.
DECEMBER 1: International Centre, Bournemouth
The Can’t Touch Us Now tour begins on the south coast, with The Lightning Seeds in support. In a new departure, the audience at each gig is encouraged to shout the famous intro to One Step Beyond.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): For this tour, there’ll be five or six new ones and then we’ve got 20 odd hits to pick from so we’ll be able to rotate a bit. I’ve been to gigs where artists play their whole new jazz fusion album and you’re stood there going ‘Where the fuck are the hits?’ So we’ll aim to get the balance between showing off the new album and a big dollop of hits.
WOODY (speaking in 2016): We’re normally very wary of putting too many new songs in our set, ‘cos 20-odd Top 20 hits is a long enough set as it is. We try and mix and match it, because obviously people come to see the hits. But it’s surprising how people have been demanding that we put more new songs in the set. We snuck in three, and we thought, ‘Let’s see how it goes’, and it went down really, really, really well. So we added another, and all of a sudden we’ve got about six songs from the new album in the set.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): You’ve got to play new tracks for your own sanity as much as anything else so you don’t disappear down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. You’ve got to be loud and proud and give them a go and every now and then one will take off. We’re not like a band I saw recently where the singer was apologising for playing new stuff, ‘I’m really sorry, here’s a new song.’ What’s the point of that?
CHRIS (speaking in 2016): I do most of the set list these days. I was very tired of playing Bed and Breakfast Man, Shut Up and Take It Or Leave It, so I wanted to put as many new songs from the new album in the set. In previous years we would maybe do three new songs a night and change the three new ones every show. I thought it better to have the same set every night so the band, the lighting man and the sound man and so on all know all the songs.
DECEMBER 2: Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
DECEMBER 3: Brighton Centre, Brighton
Due to demand for tickets, tonight’s show is preceded by a matinee.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): These days, the sound of the band playing together is what really cheers me up. And if I’m cheered up, then who knows? Maybe other people are cheered up as well. Of course we still have arguments, and it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t, but there’s no real resentment any more, and no stone left unturned, so when we do launch into something, it’s with a very clear idea of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
DECEMBER 5: De Oosterpoort, Groningen, The Netherlands
Unusually, Madness interrupt the domestic Christmas tour to play two shows in the Netherlands.
DECEMBER 6: Poppodium 013, Tilburg, The Netherlands
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): I’m aware the band have had as many downs as we’ve had ups, but we’re at the point where we’re outside of the boundaries of whatever the music industry is called these days. National treasures? No thanks. If you show the reality of what goes on behind the scenes in Madness, we wouldn’t be allowed to be treasures. The same goes for talk about us being an institution – some of us should have been institutionalised, that’s for sure.
DECEMBER 8: Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle
DECEMBER 9: Sheffield Arena, Sheffield
DECEMBER 10: O2 Arena, London
For tonight’s show in the capital, Clive Langer’s Clang Group are also added to the support acts.
Can’t Touch Us Now / Embarrassment / The Prince / NW5 / My Girl / Herbert / Wings of a Dove / Good Times / Cardiac Arrest / Blackbird / The Sun and the Rain / Yesterday’s Man / Mumbo Jumbo / Grey Day / Tomorrow’s Just Another Day / You Are My Everything / One Step Beyond / House of Fun / Baggy Trousers / Our House / It Must Be Love / ENCORE: Mr Apples / Madness / Night Boat to Cairo
The venue’s website billed it as a night with ‘Britain’s favourite pop band’. It’s a bold claim, but indeed, the Camden gang’s enduring popularity can often be underestimated. Much of this stems from the fact that Madness have never taken themselves too seriously, but that has also worked in their favour. With a heavier touch, the nostalgic vein of Britain that frontman Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson constantly taps into – all clumsy coppers, Routemaster buses and Tommy Cooper gags – would run the risk of jingoism, but instead it celebrates that wistful, world-renowned sense of kookiness instilled in the nation at large. A patriotic fervour had been whipped up long before the band even appeared on stage, with support from the Lightning Seeds prompting a jubilant sing-along to their 1996 football anthem Three Lions (which, unlike the English national team, remains unbeatable). When the lights finally turned to the headline act, they did so to the squeal of air raid sirens as Suggs and co emerged from an elaborately staged jail cell. Suited and booted, with a smattering of shades and pork pie hats, it was business as usual from the band Rolling Stone magazine once cruelly dismissed as ‘the Blues Brothers with English accents’. Opening with Can’t Touch Us Now, the underwhelming title track of their latest record, it was a gentle start to the evening, but the confidence Madness have in their new batch of tracks is clear. ‘Even if we say so ourselves, it’s a masterpiece,’ Suggs bellowed. However, a euphoric rendition of 2008 single NW5 remained the shining light of their recent hit-and-miss output. A late onslaught of greatest hits woke up the crowd, which had battled a cold, wet night for the sheer thrill of hearing Our House in London’s biggest echo chamber. The snaking reggae groove of One Step Beyond remains beguilingly fresh nearly 40 years on, while the poignant candour of It Must Be Love transformed into a powerful call for unity. The encore performance of Night Boat to Cairo saw a conga line of exotically dressed friends and family take to the stage, sending the veritable Red Sea of fez hats in the audience into waves of delight. Yes, it was all rather predictable, but after a year of such seismic social upheaval, it was a comforting slice of normality, like coming home for Christmas.
DECEMBER 10: Liz Kershaw Show, 6 Music
Suggs discusses his varied career, the current tour and the new album.
DECEMBER 11: X Factor Final, ITV
Madness appear on the grand final of the TV talent show, playing Mr Apples, Our House and It Must Be Love. Suggs also plugs the new album before giving some parting advice to the finalists: ‘I always say the same thing and it’s basically just keep going.’ Also appearing on the show are Kylie Minogue, Little Mix and The Weeknd.
Little Mix and Kylie Minogue were both ideal X Factor final guests, but who invited Madness? Their performance was inexplicable. Was this a last ditch attempt to win over some of Strictly’s more distinguished viewers? Bit late for that, huns. Not only was Suggs out of tune, but his decision to plug his new album with about as much charm as Honey G made the whole thing feel even more uncomfortable. We cannot imagine how this booking came about.
SUGGS: Madness wouldn’t have made it past the first round on one of those shows, that’s for sure: ‘Can’t sing, can’t dance, get off!’ Plus these days it’s all about, ‘Ooh, my granny died’ and their flipping ‘journey’ and ‘I really want this’ and all that crying. The best thing about appearing was telling Simon Cowell that our album was No1 in America and he believed me. His face lit up and he ran over to me and kissed me. He said, ‘Is it?’ I said. ‘Of course it isn’t.’ He’s never going to live that one down.
DECEMBER 12: Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham
Getting off to a bad start on Herbert resulted in Suggs suggesting we bought the CD and listened to it properly, before starting it again from the beginning. It’s hard to sit still when the music hits you and you’ve not a chance when House of Fun, Baggy Trousers and One Step Beyond are part of the menu. Don’t get me wrong, these are the ones more familiar to me and favourites of a time and still are, but the new CD has even more to love and time to make more memories on the back of these tracks. After four decades together, some have been friends since they were 12, they have lost nothing of the character that has made them so much fun to see and endeared them to their fans.
DECEMBER 13: Spa Theatre, Bridlington
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): Singing and dancing is pretty good exercise. We’re on stage for nigh-on two hours, so it’s pretty good exercise, along with all the other stuff that goes with it. I do worry about my knees, but given the abuse my body gets before and after a gig, the aerobic exercise I get onstage is the best thing that happens to me.
DECEMBER 15: SSE Hydro, Glasgow
During tonight’s show, Lee plays a trick with a sausage left over from an earlier meet-and-greet with a fan.
LEE: While I was playing, I reached into my pocket and found a rather squashy sausage. So I grabbed my water bottle and dripped it on the security guard’s head in front, down in the barrier pit. When he looked around and up, the sausage was hanging out of my flies and I was waving it at him.
DECEMBER 16: Manchester Arena, Manchester
There was a time in the mid-1980s when Madness really did seem like – as their song puts it – Yesterday’s Men. After emerging in the ska/2 Tone boom of the late 1970s, the hits had dried up. They looked like disillusioned, uninterested figures on their dwindling kids’ TV appearances and finally split up. What a difference three decades makes. Since re-forming in 1992, they’ve performed on the roof of Buckingham Palace and at the Olympics in recent years, and have become one of the most popular live draws on the circuit. Many among their massed crowd arrive sporting ‘Mad merch’ items such as the Madness fez and inflatable saxophone. The band’s turnaround has perhaps been a combination of people realising that their run of 21 Top 20 hits between 1979 and 1986 has few parallels in British pop, and also because – unlike many bands of this vintage – this feels like a still ongoing story. Although copper-bottomed classics still appear as regularly as London buses – and the lesser-played Cardiac Arrest makes a welcome reappearance here – their setlists are still laden with new material. They may never again quite reach the dizzier heights of their initial surge, but newer songs NW5 and Mr Apples – about Camden and a Keith Vaz/Paul Flowers-type naughty public figure respectively – certainly hold their own among My Girl, Embarrassment, Baggy Trousers and the rest.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): When we go on stage, I do feel a great deal of pride in the fact that we’re a pretty fucking good band. We’re one of the three best live bands in the world. And I don’t know who the other two are.
DECEMBER 17: Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham
For the last night of the tour, Lee hobbles onstage in a wheel chair due to a calf injury, while The Lightning Seeds and Terry Edwards guest star on the song Madness, as Clive Langer had done at the 02.
It’s quite common for artists to take new approaches and directions in their musical careers to keep the material fresh. Madness, however, have stuck by their guns, so that the new blends in seamlessly with the old. If you’re thinking of buying the substantial new album this Christmas, there aren’t any nasty surprises – if you’re a fan of the Madness of the 1980s, then you’ll enjoy what they have to offer now. The imagery on the screening behind the stage was perfect in many ways; ambulances and doves in tandem, and a terrific choice of Gene Kelly famously dancing for the performance of The Sun And The Rain. While the bulk of the set was very good, Madness kept the very best till last. The special ending included five of the band’s most popular offerings; first came One Step Beyond, after a couple of false starts on the crowd’s part. Then they leaped into House of Fun, Baggy Trousers, Our House (with a curtain of the most iconic pictures of Broad Street, Brindley Place, Selfridges and beyond) and finally It Must Be Love. New release Mr Apples and party anthem Night Boat To Cairo made up part of the encore, to cap off an excellent evening and a fitting finale to the band’s final night of the tour.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): Every year, Madness opens out in a different way than I thought it would. It’s getting bigger every time and it’s starting to get scary because none of us knows what we’re unleashing. I don’t want to end up a gigantic popular rock star, but its heading in that direction for some peculiar season.
DECEMBER 18: The Michael Ball Show, Radio 2
Suggs and Mike again appear as a duo, this time performing Can’t Touch Us Now and Happy Christmas (War Is Over), backed by children from Foulds School.
SUGGS (speaking in 2016): How did we keep our enthusiasm going for this long? I go back to the fact that we’ve been friends since school. The whole point of the band was that it was a product of our friendship, having a laugh and having a good time. This has resonated with all the work that we have done and we still really thoroughly enjoy it, hence our new album.