CHRIS: If just one or two people were writing all the songs in Madness, the pressure would have been too much. So one of the reasons for our longevity was the fact that we weren’t like Squeeze – the real strength we had, and still have, is that everyone writes.
SUGGS: Most outfits only have one or two songwriters. But with us, we can write two songs each and suddenly we’ve got an album – even though we’re so lazy that even that can sometimes seem like hard work.
WOODY: If you can think of a writing combination between seven people, we’ve done it. So someone might have some music and just happen to be hanging out with Suggs, who gets excited by it and writes some lyrics. Equally, Lee might write some lyrics, or Barso might do a song all on his own.
LEE: With the lyrics, it was mainly myself, Suggs and Carl and, to a point, Mike. But it was mainly Mike and Chris who wrote the tunes.
CHRIS: In the beginning, Mike used to write a lot of stuff, often with Lee. There were really good combinations, but Mike and Lee were really good because Lee would write lyrics and just give them to Mike, who’s the sort of person who could look at them and think of a tune. I’m not very good at that, so I just used to do a tune at home and play it to everybody and then maybe one of them would take it home and come up with some lyrics. But there wasn’t any of that thing, ‘Right, I’m going to write a song with you.’ If I had a tune and one of them liked it and could come up with some words, then we had a song out of it.
BEDDERS: Quite often we’d throw any old lyrics over a melody and suddenly there we were, writing a new song.
SUGGS: It’s a very unusual set-up – I think they used to call it democracy.
CARL: We really are lucky that everyone got involved almost from the very start.
MIKE: Saying that, some people like to write hundreds of songs and others not so many. But we do all contribute in our own way.
SUGGS: We’re also fortunate as everyone in the band is in tune musically and stylistically, so other people write about the sort of things that I’m interested in. That’s why we wrote about our house, our first girlfriend, about going to school. I think it’s a very British thing to write about the small things in life, like the movies or the cracks in the pavement. I don’t know why – it’s just the way we are.
WOODY: We’ve always just written about what’s around us; everyone goes to school, everyone lives in a house.
BEDDERS: It’s that classic thing of writing what you know and what you’ve experienced. And obviously, everyone’s upbringing had been in the same area.
LEE: The subject matter was always close to our hearts because we knew that if we tried to write about something we didn’t know it would end up a bit contrived.
SUGGS: It’s popular music in its truest sense…
CARL: …a sort of urban folk; a celebration of one’s reality.
SUGGS: Writing about ordinary things always interested me. The so-called glamour of showbiz is a bit of fun every now and then, but to live in that world 24/7 would be pretty dreary. The really exciting thing for me is the fella walking up the road in an undertaker’s outfit… the old guy in the launderette dressed as a sailor… all full of stories. In order to write songs about that, you have to be able to sit at a pavement café and watch the world go by, and where better to do it than where you’ve lived all your life? If you’re on a bus just travelling around the world, you don’t get that inspiration.
CHRIS: Quite a few of our songs were social comment, but others were just stupid pop songs. We had a good mix going on.
SUGGS: I’ve realised so many of our songs are about passage of rite and we never quite make it; we’re always in the hallway, or the landing and you can never find the light switch. With music I think that’s the sort of curse of it – like Peter Pan, you’re given that opportunity to never have to grow up and actually at some point you think, ‘I wouldn’t mind growing up.’
CARL: From quite early onwards, we cottoned on to the idea that our songs could be funny but still be about serious things; it’s a bit like the clown who can tell the truth in the court of a king and not get killed. We didn’t ever want to be po-faced about it, but with ‘up’ melodies, we were able to drop in a more serious content and open people’s ears with the humour, so we could say quite serious things. Embarrassment was a great example.
BEDDERS: The only trouble was, sometimes the videos got in the way of the songs themselves, so some weren’t given the credit they deserved or perceived to be what they were really about. Like anything, people want to label you or have a stereotypical idea of what you are. But we never used to think about it too much. We used to use it to our advantage, because we learnt early on that a jaunty song against a dark lyric worked really well.
CARL: We found that using humour didn’t push people away, it actually drew them in without them even knowing it. Some of our songs that sound happy aren’t actually about happy things, but we hoped that after people had stopped smiling it would go ‘Click!’ and have a lot more power.
CLIVE LANGER (producer): In the 1980s, the band evolved with the times and the songwriting became more introspective because they were growing up. They began writing about their life, having missed out while spending so much time on the road, and the result was these truly amazing songs that kept popping up and saving the albums. Even though I think many of the album tracks were really good, you’d have to be a fan to get into them, but then we’d get a big single and we’d be off again, flying along.
SUGGS: I think we were always old before our time. We were writing about family and friendships and about the passing of time while every other band was living that New Romantic lifestyle, making music that was decadent and hedonistic. Yet here we are, 40 years later, and it’s still about personal observation and the things we see around us. It’s obvious that the majority of our stuff is, and has always been, London-centric, but, who knows, maybe one day we’ll do something different? I did write a song about my time down in west Wales, running through the fields and that, but I’ve never found a home for it on one of our records…yet.
MIKE: The way we work is still quite democratic. So we go to the rehearsal and he’s got a song, he’s also got a song, and he’s got a song, he’s got a song. And you go around like that: one, one, one, one. And some people try to push into some songs so you get a bit of tension. But generally we proceed like that.
SUGGS: First you come up with a couple of lines – well I do – and you think maybe they’re not bad. Then you need to fill it out and you find a piece of paper with another amazing line on it and you think, ‘Maybe that’ll fit, maybe there’s a story in there.’ And what you’re really thinking is, ‘Is this going anywhere? Is it any good?’ It’s only when you’re in a rehearsal room that you start thinking, ‘It’s going well… we might have to play it live one day… I wonder how will it go down?’
BEDDERS: We rehearse in a very traditional way. So we go into the rehearsal room, Chris might have an idea with a bit of music that he’s recorded at home, then Lee gets out hundreds of small bits of paper with things written on and somehow a lyric appears. Suggs is very orderly and has a folder with whole sheets of lyrics written out, so for example Norton Folgate was pretty much written out from start to finish. So from an initial idea, we sit in the rehearsal room and try to work it through and arrange it, and that’s where me and Woody come in and have quite a bit of input on how the songs are shaped. So from all the little ideas, we try and put them together, together with Mike. The three of us spend a lot of time trying to make the songs run together and sound how they might be recorded. I’ve always enjoyed doing that a lot more than writing, so that’s been my main focus.
MIKE: I think we all find the piano quite a logical thing to write on. Everything is laid out visually. You can see the relationships between the chord changes and the tune. Most of us worked like that. Carl, Suggs and Woody were all good enough piano players to bang out a series of chord changes and sing along. I think we’re all aware of the drawbacks in writing over computer loops. Your mind gets sucked into that groove and you can’t go anywhere else.
BEDDERS: We always spend a lot of time rehearsing songs and putting them together, so when we go in the studio we don’t mess around; we pretty much lay them down as you hear them on the finished record. Clive Langer has a very big input as an outside pair of ears too.
CHRIS: In the old days, we’d get together to write and usually sort out the songs that weren’t any good – usually mine, which is why I had all the B-sides.
LEE: Generally I don’t write a song with lyrics – I usually come up with a basic melody line and sing it to the band. For instance, Blue Skinned Beast was just that. I took it to a rehearsal and the boys, along with our producers, came up with the arrangement you hear. Mike in particular has an incredible knack for mould breaking arrangements. For him, it’s a dynamic and artistic journey whereas for the people trying to put the ‘tadpoles’ onto the song books, it’s most likely a nightmare.
BEDDERS: Mike certainly has a totally unique style of arranging and playing. He spends a long time working things out in his own way, and at his own pace.
SUGGS: The main thing is, we try to spend less time in the studio and more time playing together; that’s what we’ve always tried to do. As technology gets more and more complicated it gets harder to do that. We try to rein it in but we don’t always succeed.
MIKE: And also, it’s interesting when the rest of the band adds something to your song. In the past, Woody never used to write songs, he’s the drummer. But sometimes, out of a kind-of charity, we’d say, ‘Why don’t you write a song?’ We told him to write a few chords on a bit of paper and then we made a song out of it. Nothing was impossible because, together, we were able to make it sound interesting.
SUGGS: The main propellant with us is tolerance. It’s so easy with us to start arguing about things, because we know each other so well. So even if we don’t like someone else’s song at first we always say, ‘We’ll try it.’ So we rehearse and learn the song without too many preconceptions. And sometimes you can play someone’s song that you didn’t like the sound of, and Bedders comes up with a great little bassline, and suddenly it transcends into something that you do like.
WOODY: Musically, we play music that we enjoy and like to listen to, and lyrically it’s got to be intelligent and have depth and meaning. So you put the two together and you have a Madness song.
SUGGS: Often we’d see the absurdity and black comedy in things, rather than the hand-wringing do-gooding, so that’s what we’d write about.
WOODY: I think it also stems from our interest in old English films. The Ealing comedies weren’t necessarily ha-ha laugh out loud funny; they were quite dark. And those were the influences we grew up with.
SUGGS: Lola, to me, is an example of a song that’s perfectly formed and that would be impossible to deconstruct musically or lyrically – it’s absolutely perfect. I mean what struck me most about it is that I grew up in and around Soho, my Mum was working in bars, singing, and was very much a character of Soho and I was in those clubs, y’know, the ‘electric candlelight’. And there would be girls in feather boas and Lord Farquharson and The Krays and all that, really just like in this song, so for me it was like an autobiographical part of my life. That’s why I love Ray Davies so much – he’s one of the few songwriters I know who can write a narrative and still make it have some mystery and charm. Writing narrative songs, especially if they rhyme, can easily sound like novelty records, yet that doesn’t sound novelty at all. And that’s the kind of thing I’ve tried to emulate in my own songwriting down the years. I think the most lucrative song I ever wrote was Baggy Trousers, but as a band Our House was probably our most successful. I remember Ray saying that he makes more money now from adverts than he did making records – and I’m still waiting for that day to come.
CHRIS: I’ve written so many songs and bits of songs that it’ll take bloody years to get round to recording them all, by which time, no doubt, there’ll be hundreds more.
SUGGS: Having been around for 40 years, I’ve seen a lot of my songs bite the dust. But you just have to think, ‘I’ll write a better one next time.’ You can’t be too precious.
There are six combinations yet to happen – but a couple could be difficult…
KEY TO STATS: Original songs only – no covers or unreleased tracks. Starts with albums, then singles, then all writing combinations and individual band members. Totals include full or part credits, as listed at time of release. Kindly compiled by Mark ‘Chigs’ Charlesworth.