Madness' lead singer Suggs: Class, Prince Charles, and finding out about his dad on Wikipedia

 

Madness have stood the test of time. Was it always a conscious decision not to chase trends?

There were seven of us in the band, then maybe four or five friends, so we were living in a pretty insular world. We were quite fortunate, we had hits young, and by the time we had any idea what was really going on, we were quite a long way down the road. Some people just saw us as a novelty jolly-up. I think that hindered us a bit in terms of the critical reception of the band, but it never really bothered us. The band was always just about entertaining ourselves and that's what we did and we still do.

Are people who see Madness as a 'jolly-up' missing something deeper?

I remember Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys saying about Madness that there's a lot of pathos in it. Among the "House of Funs", we had songs like "Grey Day" and "Embarrassment", which was about the saxophone player's sister having her baby with a black guy. I thought that song tackled it very well without being political with a capital 'p'.

Your one-man show is very reflective. You've also recently published your autobiography. Is this a watershed of sorts for you?

Not really: my one-man show is a mixture of happy things and sad things, so I think it's a continuation of what Madness have always done.

Class, like Madness, is quintessentially British. Is it a theme you ever consciously set out to tackle?

I'm always happy to be categorised as a working-class band. If only because we worked for a living as young people, at pretty menial jobs, and none of us had a particularly good education. And I was brought up in a council flat and all that sort of thing. Someone talked about our music as folk music. I think it was Louis Armstrong who said, 'If it isn't for the folk, then who the fuck is it for?'.

Skyscrapers and block-wide developments are changing the face of London. Is the city you know and love getting lost in Boris's brave new capital?

For me, it makes the Georgian or the Victorian bits that are left even more special. I'm not against progress. But at the same time, it's a hard argument because, what are you defending? Some funny old brick buildings and cobbled streets. You've got to be careful not to end up in the Prince Charles world of protecting something because it's pretty. I've been to a few towns on this tour – not to mention any names – and they feel too well-preserved. It makes you want to knock a few dustbins over.

You've been on the road on and off for a year now. Does the material change?

It's mutating, slowly but surely. By the end, it will be unrecognisable to how it started out. The basic narrative thread is the same, which is me talking about my life and where I started, and how Graham Macpherson ended up being the entity that is Suggs.

Is it true you found your dad on Wikipedia?

Yeah, I thought that fucking Julian Assange had been nosing into my business and my wife said 'No, no, no, that's WikiLeaks not Wikipedia'. But yes, I found out from Wikipedia that my dad died a lot later in life. I have no idea who posted it up there. It was the final link really: I found out he'd died in Birmingham and then I got the death certificate, which said he'd been remarried. All this stuff came from that one bit of information.

Biography

Suggs, aged 53, grew up – as Graham Macpherson – with his mother in north London. At 16, he became the lead singer of Madness. The band went on to become one of the bestselling acts of the 1980s. He is currently touring the UK with his one-man show, ‘Suggs – My Life Story in Words and Music’

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