12 Mar NME interview 1979
MADNESS: NICE BAND, SHAME ABOUT THE FANS
By Deanne Pearson, New Musical Express, 24 November 1979
Deanne Pearson puts the cat among the pigeons and scotches some nasty rumours.
“We don’t care if people are in the NF, as long as they’re having a good time” — Chas Smash
“Shut up, Chas!” — Madness
HOTFOOTING IT around dank, dreary Derby at 7.15 on a Thursday evening, desperately searching for a pub with a television so Madness can watch themselves on Top Of The Pops, rifling frantically through pubs, launderettes and Chinese take-aways… TOTP tonight has to be rather special. And it is, with all three of the 2-Tone bands. Madness, Specials and The Selecter, on together.
Madness in fact are now signed to Stiff, but tonight, and for the duration of the tour, they are still a 2-Tone band.
Chas Smash, compere and onstage entertainer, asserts his authority by sheer volume of voice, directing everyone into various establishments to telly-hunt, and when we eventually find one, takes it upon himself to introduce the band to the bar staff and customers, and beg that he be allowed to switch channels. “We’re in a band and we’re on Top Of The Pops tonight,” he announces proudly, “and we’re playing a gig in the King’s Hall tonight.”
The barman firmly shakes his head and the few customers present — only one watching the telly — look on impassively, gazing as if uncomprehending when Chas offers to buy them all a drink — doubles — if they’ll let him turn over for just five minutes.
Chas looks as if he’s going to explode. “Come on,” he finally shouts in exasperation to his wilting entourage, “let’s find somewhere else. Thanks a lot mate,” he mutters to the sea of vacant, miserable faces gathered around cold linoleum-covered tables topped with pints of bitter. “Thanks a lot, nice people in Derby.”
Really nice. The next pub has two TVs in it, both on the same channel. Both remain on the same channel. They are surrounded by the same empty faces, none really aware of what is on the screen, much less caring. This time Chas doesn’t bother with the customers, he offers the barmen a fiver each — “Straight up” — if they let him turn over one of the televisions for a mere five minutes. “We’re on Top Of The Pops tonight,” he repeats. “Please mate, we’re a band called Madness.”
The name means nothing to those on either side of the bar, and neither does Chas’s rather pitiful cajoling.
Out we all troop, ready to give up, but Chas refuses to be beaten. He is on television, and even if it isn’t for the first time (the band having been on TOTP twice before), he doesn’t want to miss a second of his glory. Someone on the street mentions another pub with a TV, and time being of the essence, we are shepherded into a tiny prefabricated taxi HQ… and there, blinking demurely in the corner of the room, is another television.
By the time I’ve climbed the steps and squeezed into the cramped room, Chas has already done the introductions and requests, and has the television on the right channel. TOTP isalready into the third act. “It’s alright, it’s alright,” Chas pants feverishly, “we was on fourth, we’re on next.”
And they are. Eagle Taxis have saved the evening, and Chas is quick to show his appreciation, issuing free autographed copies of the single, free invitations to the gig, lavish tips to our taxi driver, and, once the band are onstage, free publicity for Eagle Taxis: “‘Ere, I’d just like to say that if any of you lot out there want taxis home, get Eagle cars, ‘cos they’re the best…” or something like that.
He recognises the power and influence he holds as a pop star — and so do the audience. There is no crowing and jeering when the band stumble into their first number and come to a ragged halt after the first few bars, there is no abuse when they are forced into an embarrassed, flustered soundcheck onstage, and there are no riots when the band say sorry, but their organ and bass are not working properly and they cannot continue. There is only a general air of disappointment.
But the other bands rally round, shifting and hoisting equipment about, and soon Madness are back onstage, doing a much-shortened set of only five numbers, for which the audience are generous in their appreciation, and oblivious to the still poor quality sound.
“And if you mention tonight I’ll kill you,” Woodsey (drummer Dan Woodgate) tells me afterwards, half-joking, half-serious. (I choose to mention it anyway, for reasons that will become apparent later on.) There is an excuse for this evening’s performance anyway: the band coach had been broken into the night before, vast quantities of clothing and two portable televisions had been stolen, and the bands had been delayed by the police all morning.
Consequently they’d arrived in Derby with a mere half an hour to spare, which meant only The Specials had time for a soundcheck.
THE AUDIENCE, and their passive reaction to Madness’s hackneyed set, triggers off a heated exchange of views the next day, on the coach to Newcastle.
We begin by talking about audiences; audiences intent on enjoying themselves instead of looking around provocatively for anyone acting or looking a bit different. And the fact that everyone is different, a mixture of mods, punks, skinheads, and just individuals, and yet there is no trouble, proves beyond doubt that all these people are there for one reason only, to enjoy themselves. Even when a band makes as big a hash as Madness did that night in Derby, the audience wait optimistically and do not take their impatience out on one another.
There have been other mishaps on the tour — put it down to the general nuttiness and the chaos of three big-family bands trying to organise themselves — and still there has been no trouble, bar the Hatfield Polytechnic incident (reported in Thrills) when a gang of razor-wielding idiots forced their way into the gig and hospitalised a number of people. The gang was alleged to have been either British Movement or Anti-Nazi League, although it was never determined which (the band insist ANL).
The trouble therefore centred around one small unsavoury element of whom, apparently, not much has been seen throughout the tour. But National Front and British Movement supporters are often seen at Madness gigs, particularly in London, and I ask the band why.
They are wary, immediately on the defensive, first denying that they had noticed any large numbers of NF/BM members at their gigs, and then stating that they do not wish to discuss politics in conjunction with the band. Chas is first to break rank.
“It’s got nothing to do with us,” he snaps impatiently, “we don’t care if people are in the NF or the BM or whatever, so long as they’re behaving themselves, having a good time, and not fighting. What does it matter, who cares what their political views are? We don’t ask them, like we don’t ask them if they’re Conservative or Labour when they come through the door. There’s no difference, they’re all kids.”
I express surprise that Chas finds no difference between Conservative and Labour, and hard-line right-wingers such as the NF, but before I can say too much on the subject, and before Chas can get another word in, Woodsey politely but firmly butts in:
“Look, all we want to say on the matter is that we are not a political band, we aren’t like The Clash or Sham 69, we see our music purely as entertainment, and our only concern is that everyone enjoys themselves.”
But can everybody enjoy themselves, I wonder? Had it not occurred to them that people maybe kept away from Madness’s gigs by the NF contingent — not just coloured people, but whites who are either frightened of the NF and the attendant violence or are just so strongly against all they stand for that they stay away as a matter of principle? Or, worse still, some kids may believe that Madness themselves are NF sympathisers. Does that not matter either?
“But we never mention the NF,” Woodsey insists. “We neither encourage them or discourage them.”
So do you sympathise with them or don’t you?
“No we don’t. I think I can speak for all of us, but we don’t want to interfere with their politics. We don’t want to become involved.”
Do you not think you owe it to your audience to become involved though, take a stand and tell the kids concerned that you do not agree with them, do not like what they represent, make your own views known? Because for some kids their music and the bands they follow are all they’ve got; they look up to you, even idolise you, and they respect what you say. You’re already involved.
“But do you think they’ll really listen to us?” Mike Barson (keyboards) asks uncertainly, unsure of himself possibly because it is something they have never discussed properly before. “I mean, look what happened to Sham 69 when Jimmy Pursey took a stand and shouted about his political ideas: it just made matters worse, encouraged more violence at gigs and destroyed the band.”
Chas, whom the rest of the band have been endeavouring to suppress throughout the conversation due to his tendencies to go completely over the top it seems, bursts forth yet again:
“If we carried on like Pursey, saying yeah we hate all NF supporters, we don’t want them at our gigs an’ all that stuff, then we’d just get even more coming, and other kids who were just looking for a fight. It’s best to just ignore them — most of them don’t know what they’re talking about anyway, they’re not the real older NF supporters, who follow Tyndall and Webster an’ all that lot. They just say, ‘Ah yeah, we’re in the NF’, stick an armband on — and they don’t know what it means, it’s just like supporting a football team, wearing their scarf and going round in a big gang saying, ‘Yeah we support Chelsea’. They’re just kids, they don’t know any better.”
So if they don’t know any better, isn’t that even more reason to talk to them and try and help them, before those older hardliners get to them first? Pursey may not have succeeded but at least he tried — and what about bands like The Clash and The Specials? Maybe they have succeeded, at least got some kids to think about what they are doing… It’s a difficult thing to judge; far easier to measure failure than success in these cases.
Chas’s porkpie hat, which he never takes off during the two days I am with the band, bobs impatiently. “But we do talk to them — but offstage. We don’t want to glorify it onstage.”
“He talks to them,” Woodsey interrupts. “He’s speaking for himself now.”
“Yeah, I am speaking for myself, ‘cos some of those kids are my mates, and they’re good kids. I don’t talk to them because they’re in the NF, they’re just really good kids, a good larf, know what I mean? They know I don’t agree with their views, and so what if they wear Union Jacks and Nazi swastikas, I don’t care about that.”
Vocalist Suggs agrees that it is far better to talk to the kids offstage than on. “It’s easy for bands to spout off about being antiracist an’ all that, and then stand on the other side of the wall while they hurl bottles and abuse at them, but it’s much more difficult to go down into the audience and actually talk to them.”
I mention The Specials’ attempts at communicating with their audience through their lyrics. He grins genially and gracefully backs out of the conversation with: “Oh yeah, well I’m all for these sociological lyrics, I just can’t be bothered to write ’em.”
LATER ON he makes his point of view a little clearer. He is in a band for his own enjoyment as much as his audiences; he sings because he failed in his attempts at learning to play an instrument. He is a self-proclaimed “yobbo — we all are”, and as such feels he has no right to preach to anyone. Perhaps he is a bit of a purist too. Music equals entertainment, fun, it’s getting away from the dole queue, the office money, politics … it’s having a good time down the pub or the club, with all the other ‘kids’ — Trouble is, I suggest, not enough people think like that any more, bands or audience…
And so back to politics. Chas is once again in control, leaning across the table shouting down all my ifs and buts and ignoring the rest of the band, who are becoming extremely agitated — angry at Chas for letting himself get so carried away, and angry at themselves for not being able to control him.
“Can I just say that the rest of us do not have friends in the NF and do not like having NF supporters at our gigs,” Woodsey proffers, as Chas pauses for breath.
But these friends of yours, I direct at Chas again, they may be a good laugh but you’re still aware of their twisted vicious views against other groups of people, aren’t you? In a way you’re encouraging them even by ignoring their political views, just by being friendly.
“You just don’t understand, do you? They’re just a group of kids who, like any kid, have to take out their anger and frustration on something. Some it’s football, some it’s music. NF don’t really mean much to them. Why should I stop them coming to our gigs? That’s all they’ve got.
“It’s people like you who live in a cosy flat in London” — I tell him I live in a bedsit in the middle of a seedy red-light area, but my words are drowned in a stream of wrath, a torrent of adrenalised verbiage — “people like you who don’t understand anything, you just come along and see a few NF armbands in a crowd and say ‘Ah yes, these rumours were right’, and go away and sensationalise it all in the press, when you don’t really know what’s going on at all.
“Well I’ll tell you something, you print a word of this and I’ll deal with you personally.”
“Chas, shut up!” everyone seems to scream at once.
“Don’t take any notice of him,” Woodsey begs. “He’s just the compere, he’s not really in the band, these are just his views.”
He, Mike and Suggs urgently try to convince me of their own disassociation with Chas’s views, all now acutely aware of the need to clarify their position.
As I said before, I tell Chas, I don’t intend to heed his threats, so he can deal with me there and then if he likes.
Suddenly the coach breaks down — conveniently outside a pub, to which we all thankfully adjourn. All talk of avoiding political discussion is gone, everyone is far too heated and things have already gone too far for anyone to back out now. When I return from the bar there is much urgent whispering going on, and finger shaking at Chas, who seems a little more subdued afterwards.
LEE THOMPSON, the saxophone player, the only Madness member who has not participated in the discussions on the coach, intercepts me before I rejoin the band, and speaks to me sternly. “I just want you to know that I don’t want to be associated with anything they’ve been saying. I want you to put down that I had nothing to do with the conversation. Also you’re not going to quote them on everything they’ve said, are you? I mean if they say, ‘Don’t quote me’, you won’t?”
I say I won’t, but no one asks not to be quoted. They have no reason to. I am sure that everything they’ve said is totally sincere and any doubts I may have had about their political leaning have been completely wiped away. Woodsey clarifies things once and for all when he says he wishes to state categorically that in no way does he sympathise with, or want anything to do with, the NF. The others each do the same, unasked, except Lee, who, when prompted, will only emit such inane phrases as “eggs and bacon and sausages, with tomato sauce please”, and “how do you like your eggs?”
Chas too is sincere, if a little confused, but then he cleverly illustrates the confusion and pointlessness of this whole NF/BM movement.
“I’ve got friends in the NF who love The Selecter, and get up and dance with them onstage at gigs, and I’ve even got some black mates who are in the NF — because they hate Greeks and Italians.”
The conversation continues after this, a little uncertainly, but we seem eventually to be going round in circles, and finally agree to let the subject drop.
But everyone is still concerned and worried, probably for the first time, about what exactly they are involved in. Suggs takes me to one side, much later on, and we discuss certain points again, and again it is impossible for either of us not to get heated all over again, but Suggs also asks one very important question: “What should I do? I do what I think is best, and ignore our audience’s politics, but if that’s so wrong then you tell me what I should do, because I don’t know. I’m confused.”
A long pause. I don’t know what you should do, Suggs. But just thinking about it is a start, isn’t it?
ON TO Newcastle, which goes without a hitch and showcases all three bands at their best, all three sets competing and yet running smoothly into one another to produce a continuous set of crystal clear reggae, rock and ska with no divisions. The grand finale sees all three bands crowded together on the tiny stage, with a body sweating, flailing limbs struggling to join them.
“It was just like The Beatles, wasn’t it?” Woodsey pants as he fights his way backstage, flushed with excitement and exertion. “Did you see them all crushed at the front of the stage — mostly girls screaming and climbing up the sides, grabbing anything they could get hold of as souvenirs?”
The others dash in mouthing the same thoughts: “It’s just like The Beatles isn’t it?”, with the same childlike excitement, wide-eyed and almost disbelieving their own popularity.
There really was no support band and headliner that evening; all three bands were on a par, giving their best and getting the best from their audience.
The advantage of their musical differences, Suggs feels, speaking for Madness now, is that if and when all the fuss surrounding this current ska revival dies down, the band’s individuality will stand them in good stead, and allow them to branch out on their own. Thus also their break from 2-Tone after their first single: “It wasn’t that we were ungrateful or anything — we probably owe most of our success to The Specials — it was just that we couldn’t stay under their wing forever. We had to break out on our own, develop our own style.”
Likewise the reason for them leaving the 2-Tone tour before the end and playing some gigs on their own — before they go to America at the end of the year.
Suggs: “I believe that every band has their ten minutes of glory, but I like to think we’ve left enough options open to give us 20 minutes.”
The others are equally optimistic about their future as a band, but I remember Woodsey’s comment as Chas became a little too out-of-hand during our coach conversation — “He’s only the compere.” That Chas holds a fairly unique job in the band, being classed as neither instrumentalist nor vocalist, is undeniable, as is his present popularity and notoriety with the audience. But how long can this last? Can Chas hope for much more than just his ten minutes?
Rest assured, Chas has thought about all this. He and his younger brother (“Brought in to keep him out of trouble”) run the band’s promotion marketing — printed T-shirts, ties, nutty badges and posters, porkpie hats just like Chas’s coming soon — and are starting a Madness fan club shortly.
But despite his business-minded attitude like the rest of Madness he subscribes to the slogan now splattered brazenly across Stiff’s latest T-shirt creation: “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance.”
A WEEK later and Madness are playing Camden’s Electric Ballroom, sans the rest of the 2-Toners. The place is packed with skinheads, fronted by an even larger than usual NF representation — i.e. the Tufty Club brigade.
They selfishly refuse to allow support band Red Beans And Rice, whose frontman is black, to play, and Suggs is forced onstage to plead, reason and yell at the audience. I feel sorry for him, as he spreads his hands in despair, and admits that he doesn’t know what to say. He’s not only saddened, he’s ashamed — this is a Madness audience? Finally he storms offstage, kicking the microphone over as he goes — shades of Pursey.
Chas has a go, and even his brother Brendan, and finally the audience majority, seeing not only their entertainment but their money being wasted, back up Chas’s “fun not politics” line, and welcome Red Beans And Rice onstage, who benignly take everything in their stride.
After Madness’ set the Tuftys’ meaningless Seig Heil bleating is quickly quelled by Suggs’ patronising sneer of “Alright, I can see what you are, I’ve got eyes haven’t I?” — then he, like the rest of the audience who are old enough to enjoy music, simply ignore them.