Suggs, that most English of Eighties pop stars, has become a stadium attraction in America. A friend from the early days recalls his first Madness gig and his last - a concert in California, where he found out what grunge kids in mohicans have in common with a 37-year-old 'nutty boy' from Camden Town
Click to follow
IT WAS in June 1979 that I first heard John Peel play "Gangsters" by the Special AKA. It was on the Two Tone label. I bought it from Skeleton Records, Birkenhead, the very next day. "The Selector" by The Selector was on the B-side, Two Tone 001 and Two Tone 002 all on one chunky vinyl disc.

At that time in music, the fires of punk were dying down and an invidious pretender called New Wave emerging. Dreadful college boogie-woogie bands like The Jags and The Knack camouflaged their middle-class chicanery under the New Wave banner. John Otway, a heinous, bug-eyed smelly, was classed as New Wave. Dire Straits were New Wave. The Police were. Even bloody Motorhead were. It was a heaven-sent relevation when the hot summer of 1979 gave us The Specials, UB40 and Madness (another Two-Tone signing) - bands with a sussed, urchin mentality and lots and lots of people on stage.

Madness came to Eric's nightclub in Liverpool in August that year. I was 17 at the time, working nightshifts with the ex-cons at the Cadbury's factory in Moreton. Eric's was a brilliant scene, loads of aspirant pop stars and football hooligans dancing to Cabaret Voltaire and The Only Ones. It was pretentious in a tongue-in-cheek way. But when Madness came to town the grey-raincoat mob left it to the football crowd and a delirious bunch of nouveau mods. It was fantastic. Flailing knees and elbows, lots of sweat and argy-bargy from first song to last - which wasn't that many, as I recall. I remember looking up during "The Prince" to see why Suggs had stopped singing. He and Chas Smash, the prototype dancer-toaster, were both helpless with laughter. Suggs told me, years later, that it was the moment they realised they could get away with it. They were a proper band.

Suggs, aka Graham McPherson, has fronted Madness for 20 years. I've known him for 15 of them. To me he is Mr Pop. We've caroused in New York dives, squabbled over the futility of life in Halifax ten-bob clubs and sung atonal blues duets with his gorgeous mum Edie in Soho spielers. He's a great laugh, Mr Pop. He's more up for it, always, then any of the new crop of naughty boy rock rebels. You phone up and say, "d'you fancy it?", and he's there. He has a big, generous guffaw to match his easy-going manner

On the cover of his new album, The Three Pyramids Club, Mr Pop glowers forebodingly from beneath a resplendent and perfectly ridiculous fez. The fez figures intimately in his psyche. The funny red hat serves to symbolise Mr Pop's conflicting moods, emotions that can soar and plummet like those of his hero, Tommy Cooper. Cooper, his fez and his world-weary wit have followed Suggs through every twist. They share the same gift for mordant observation, as is abundantly on display on The Three Pyramids Club. It's a fine album, sublime bittersweet pop in the familiar, cunning style of the man who wrote some of Madness's most melancholy songs. Underneath Mr Pop's fez seethes a restless, often disappointed spirit.

Not that Suggs concurs with that assessment. We spent an afternoon in Filthy McNasty's Whiskey Cafe in Pentonville, nattering about everything, returning to the themes to which he constantly seems drawn. London. Love. Loss. Ennui. He won't have any of it.

"I don't know if melancholy's quite right," he says. "I don't write sad songs. There's a certain view that's been defined by my having spent a lot of my childhood alone. I'm not saying it was bad or good or whatever. It's just what happened to me."

Suggs didn't know his father. In his early days he spent time with various relatives in Liverpool and, memorably, Haverfordwest. But it was mainly in London that he grew up, living with mum Edie in a small flat off Clerkenwell Road. Edie was a cohort of Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon, a regular and enthusiastic imbiber down the French House, Coach and Horses and The Colony Room. She was a fully paid-up member of a bohemian Soho that now barely exists. Suggs didn't see a lot of Edie in those days, but remains devoted to her.

"We was poor," he laughs. "Mum was a barmaid, a single mum doing her best. People think 'Baggy Trousers' is a sentimental ode to your schooldays and lost youth, but it's the video that's given it those meanings. The fact is I really did grow up with holes in my trousers and all that."

I first met Suggs in 1983, when I was managing a band called The Farm. I say managing, but what I'd really been doing was booking transit vans to take us to spectacularly under-attended gigs in places like New Mills and Stockton-On-Tees. Then Peter Powell invited The Farm to appear on his new telly programme, The Oxford Road Show. The other guests were Marillion, The Smiths and Madness. We took along the usual scoundrels and charmed Madness by thieving their beer and tormenting the gigantic Fish from Marillion. Morrissey, as luck would have it, was nowhere to be seen, though he, too, would become intimately linked with Madness in later years, being famously driven off stage by a hail of bottles at the first Madstock reunion concert.

Madness, by then, were a very proper band indeed. Four years into a seamless run of chart success, they were ubiquitous. Suggs himself had moved on from his Rude Boy origins into the Nutty Boy phase. Madness were my age, and they were already elder statesmen of pop, street ragamuffins with style, fame, money and suede cardigans. We badgered Suggs so much for his cardigan supplier that he caved in. Even better, he agreed to produce a Farm single ("Hearts and Minds", 1984). Then The Farm drifted apart for a few years, and I moved to London, becoming a constant companion of Mr Pop as Madness's run of hits finally began to peter out in the mid to late Eighties.

Here began what I would call Suggs's Lost Boy period. He'd been through a difficult time with the band, re-naming it The Madness and releasing an unloved album. I had formed a production company, Kinesis Films, and in the summer of 1989 Suggs starred in its first feature, The Final Frame. In truth it's not a very good film, though Suggs, playing a jaundiced rock star, is excellent. His trademark darting glances to the right work spectacularly on screen. Afterwards, he came up with a couple of ideas for TV. One was to take him, this most Cockney of Englishmen, around Scot- land in search of his Celtic ancestry. It was to be called Great Scot and Channel 4 were interested enough to prompt a research trip.

The first day in Scotland was unremarkable but on the second we found ourselves in Inverary standing at a bar with one Frank Clark, manager of the local hockey team. It became clear that he'd been standing at the same bar seven years before, when Suggs had last come to Inverary. Then, as now, he'd been waiting to get Christmas out of the way before he started looking for a job.

"Maybe see Burns night out first, eh?" said Frank.

Frank bought us copious whiskies and choked with mirth when we asked where the nearest nightclub was. But as things transpired, we were in luck. A mobile disco called Funky G's Big Night Out was coming to a local barn. It was already a sell-out, but Frank reckoned Suggs wouldn't have a problem with a name like his. By day Funky G was an apprentice butcher whose name was Graham McPherson too.

Our request for a taxi brought more hilarity but after several more Taliskers an old-style Land Rover turned up and gave us a boneshaking ride over clatterboard bridges and silted lakes until we reached the Big Night Out. It was indeed a grand hop in a big old barn, and it was here that I came to understand the phrase "Drinking Like There Is No Tomorrow". Kids from 16 to 56 stood with one hand gripping the barman's wrist while the other tipped staggering portions of hooch down their gullets. Then, a beautiful moment of recognition when Suggs walked in, before he was politely mobbed. Over the course of the evening he met five Graham McPhersons and only drank when he wasn't dancing, knees up, face aglow like a victorious clan leader. Which he was, that night. I've seldom seen the boy so happy.

Great Scot never came off, but in the early Nineties The Farm re-formed and Suggs became their mentor and producer, responsible for what I can modestly avow are two of the decade's indelible hits, "Groovy Train" and "All Together Now". Like Chas Smash, another regular at The Farm's recording sessions, Suggs was enthused. To them, Madness were always a gang, having little in common with the art-pop brigade of the early Eighties. Now they were seeing working-class bands like The Happy Mondays and The Farm blowing the cobwebs out of the music business, just as they'd done in 1979.

"I always liked that Mondays vibe," Mr Pop confirms. "Dance-hall reggae as well, dub, sound systems. All of that made me think that maybe I could do my own thing, mashing it all up."

Chas, meanwhile, was re-evaluating the worth of Madness. He was always irked by the cartoonish way the band was portrayed. He wanted to get the boys back together. Madstock beckoned. It took a year to set up, but in August 1992 the inaugural event took place in Finsbury Park. About 75,000 people attended those two shows, and now we're up to Madstock IV.

Earlier this year, a bemused Suggs blurted out that the band had been asked to go to the United States to headline an arena tour. In America, arenas range in capacity from 4,000 to 30,000. For a band that had known only one hit over there, "Our House" in 1984, the offer of a Led-Zep style US tour seemed like a joke that Tommy Cooper would be proud of. But it was true. The States, particularly the West coast, was experiencing a ska revival fuelled by bands like the Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt. Remnants of every Two Tone band of the golden era seemed to be reforming at an alarming rate.

I was completing a novel, Powder, set in the soap-opera world of rock'n'roll. Madness in California was too good to miss. I could see the Nutty Boys blowing the bobby sox off crowds of hyped-up Valley girls and college kids, and I could also reacquaint myself with the singular verbiage, eccentricity and wondrousness of the American Music Business. That's exactly how it turned out.


"You guys rock!"

"Totally the awesomest, dude!"

Seven men in their 30s blinked in dismay as a succession of spiked mohicans and chunky jocks in bovver boots filed through the dressing-room offering the most effulgent of praise. Ska in America is a curious hybrid of bluebeat, heavy metal and shouting. The seven Madness boys, the very stuff of Vaudeville in their big gaudy suits, have little in common with this grungy scene. Yet the crowds loved them. They went wild, skanking madly to the sound of the Las Palmas Seven. It was an impossibly satisfying sight, the Camden dads rocking the slackers and the surf punks. It proved the truth of pure pop: that it defies all barriers, cultural, linguistic and, on the evidence of Santa Barbara, sartorial. Afterwards, high on the euphoria, Suggs and I stood outside a bar smoking. You can't smoke indoors in California. He was talking about doing a new Madness album. It would be their first for a decade. "We're going to do it," he said. "Definitely. Well, maybe."

He never truly opens up, Suggs. Never has. What I really wanted to talk to him about was joy and pain. They are what The Three Pyramids Club is truly about. In Filthy's, I ask him whether he thinks the album a fair summation of the Suggs experience: from the age of 17, he has been a successful artist, but he has also been completely exposed, living in the fishbowl of London poplife.

"If we were to go with that lovely cliche about it all ending tomorrow, y'know, getting knocked down by a bus," Suggs reflects, "then, yes ... this is definitely where I wanted to be."

"And where's that?" I ask, a tad uncomfortable. There is a pause as Suggs executes a rightwards glance, the stylistic fiddle of an eyebrow and finally a grin.

"Fuck knows!"

And that, if you want to know, is Mr Pop. Sensitive and philosophical to the point where you think he's really saying something then, wham! Down come the shutters. On with the fez.