Rock: Several steps beyond

Seven years after the demise of Madness, Suggs is back. Here, the former Nutty Boy talks to Nicholas Barber
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AT FIRST sight, he doesn't look very nutty, sitting outside a cafe in, of course, Camden Town, paging through a Filofax, and discussing his schedule with a mobile phone. "I can't do it tomorrow," he says. "No, I'm away on Thursday. How about Friday?"

Suggs is preparing for the release of his first ever solo single, a cover of the Beatles' "I'm Only Sleeping". It is as nutty as a KP warehouse, and it will no doubt propel him back to the ska stardom that was his a decade ago. The pressures of touring, which helped to split up Madness, will return, and he will no longer have the freedom to pick up his daughter from school in the afternoons, as he does after our interview. Nor will he be able to enjoy a glass of white wine at a pavement table at lunch- time without fans demanding autographs. (One good reason to keep the Suggs sobriquet, instead of reverting to his real name, Graham McPherson. "My Mum and the Inland Revenue are the only people who call me Graham.") Is he really ready to be a star again? "Yeah," he says. "You know how people get more and more desperate, as they get older, to cling on to whatever vestiges of fame they have left? I can feel those primeval urges bubbling up. Maybe there aren't many more chances left to have a dance in the glitter and the glamour. So I am ready, yeah. I've got a real burning desire to get this record out. I'm ready ready ready."

It shows. Suggs is nervily hyperactive, tapping his baseball boots, rolling cigarettes, yanking his head round to observe passers-by, a movement reminiscent of the jerky dancing he did as a teenager on Top of the Pops. He is wearing jeans (not baggy), a blue-and-white striped shirt (not dirty), a wedding ring and a pair of oval Oakley sunglasses, which, he laments, are now being sported by everybody fron Shaun Ryder to D:Ream: "That's what happens when you're at the fashion end of pop." He has one or two white hairs. Otherwise, he looks gratifyingly close to the Suggs you remember, and acts like the Suggs character you'd like to imagine: nice London bloke, a bit of a Leftie, naturally funny, bristlingly enthusiastic, always interrupting himself and then flipping back to his original topic with an "Another aspect of it is ..." or an "I remember talking to someone ..." He is ready ready ready.

Suggs is only 34, but it has been years since Madness "fizzled out". Their final fizzle was in 1988, when the Los Palmas Seven had shrunk to a four-piece, rechristened The Madness. Their record was, in his words, "a spectacularly unsuccessful affair". The pork-pie hats and Doc Martens were shoved to the back of the cupboard, and Suggs had no clue what to do next. "I wasn't snapped up by Whitesnake or Iron Maiden, and I didn't really know any musicians, so I spent a long time doing whatever came along. I'm not a very motivated person. I tend to wait for the phone to ring." He spent a few weeks as a stand-up comedian - "You learn from these things. I learnt I didn't want to do that again". Then the scally baggy crew The Farm asked him to help them start their own record label. This led to his producing their first album - which went to No 1 - and co-managing them. (He has since given up the job. And The Farm appear to have given up altogether. Draw your own conclusions.)

The next phonecall came from the satellite-broadcasting company BSB, who invited him to host his own TV show. "I did that for about six months, which was really good fun, and then the station closed down. It transpired that there were only ever four people watching at any given moment. I met one of them once, actually, in a pub." At least the programme had the kind of triumphant finale that Madness had been denied. The last edition had studio guests Mark E Smith, George Best and Ian McCulloch drunkenly discussing suppositories. "And jolly good fun it was too," pronounces Suggs.

Between acting cameos, he started composing songs again, which meant travelling back and forth to Holland, where his collaborator Mike Barson, Madness's keyboard player, had relocated. Just when the writing was taking off, along came another distraction: the huge success, in 1992, of the Divine Madness compilation, and the resulting reunion concerts. (Suggs expects the group to reform again, although his solo material was never intended for them.) These reminded him of the joys of live performance: "Because there was no pressure, it made me realise what fun it was, playing songs like 'One Step Beyond' again after eight years, and the audience going crazy. It's got two or three chords, it goes round and round, someone plays a solo all over it, someone else shouts nonsense in the background, and everyone jumps up and down in time to the drum rhythm. That's all it takes! It doesn't have to be complicated."

Here speaks a convert, a born-again pop worshipper. Pausing only to intersperse his speech with the qualification, "without getting evangelical about it", he proceeds to get evangelical about it. "I look at some of my contemporaries, and they're up their own arses with 'moving on' and 'taking another step forward', while their pop careers go slowly down the plughole."

"I've got the luxury of having been out of the business for donkey's years so I can have a laugh again like it was the first day I ever did it. I just think that pop music is one of the greatest art forms. It's been the only one over the last 20 years that's actually done anything, said anything, changed anything, communicated on such a great level to so many people. It can move you to tears or laughter. How many paintings have you ever actually laughed or cried at? You may have occasionally tittered at a bit of Damien Hirst, but not actually roared with laughter. It is a great medium. It's three minutes of noise and a little plastic disc, and it holds your whole life: the first person you met, the first girlfriend you had, the first garden shed you blew up. It's all there."

He obviously adores his forthcoming album - not in the posing, preening, us-against-the-world manner of the latest indie band with the shelf-life of a pint of milk, but with the excitement of a fan who has just bought an album, not made one. The working title: The Greatest Pop Record Ever Made. "I'm getting more and more serious about writing the words. I think I'm getting slightly poetical - whatever that means. And the music, I'm finding I can sing along to any chord sequence, and it'll sound OK. I'm not saying I'm the new Mozart, but I'm not trying to be the new Mozart, because Mozart didn't write words! Ha ha! Couldn't write 'em, could he? Wanker!"

The songs are a progression from the Mad old days, but not a drastic change. They are packed with Suggs's conversational, gritted-teeth vocals, and reggae rhythms from some of the genre's best: Jah Wobble, Sly and Robbie, Aswad's keyboard player, and Rico, Jamaican trombonist extraordinaire (and former Special and Skatellite).

The lyrics of one track give a fair indication of what to expect: "There's a great crowd of tourists and they're coming down the street / Pleased as punch with brand new Dr Martens on their feet ... / In Camden Town / I'll meet you by the Underground."

Songs like "Camden Town" are evidence of another faith restored: "I realised how fabulous London was again," he explains. "All the detail of it, the subtlety, the colour. The chimney pots, the dustbins with people's names written on the lids, cats, overgrown front gardens ... and all that old nostalgic cobblers. It's a celebration of all the small things, the unrecorded history of English working life, some bollocks like that."

Suggs was born in Hastings in Surrey. As a child he moved around London - and Liverpool and Wales - before he settled as an adolescent in Camden, north London, spiritual home of Madness. He still lives in the area, as do most of the band. And, for that matter, every other band. By some strange coincidence, Suggs is returning to the pop business when Camden is at its trendiest, as are songs (thanks to Blur, Pulp and Supergrass) about chimney pots, dustbins and cats. "It's a strange zeitgeist, I know. I remember when Camden wasn't fashionable at all. It was the place you'd meet your mates before going somewhere better. But now ... I was sitting outside the pub a few weeks ago and I saw Blur going up one side of the street, Oasis coming down the other, Morrissey coming out of a drainpipe, all within 10 minutes."

He took his two daughters, aged 12 and 10, to see Blur's recent Mile End Stadium concert, only to fail to get them backstage. "I stood there with the other losers, going, 'Excuse me, excuse me,' before my shame dragged me away."

Within a few weeks, Suggs's face will again be familiar enough to function as a backstage pass. In the meantime, it is sufficiently famous for some. As we talk he notices a tourist couple taking his picture and he gives them a wave. "We are from Belgium," they explain. "Fine," he grins, "I'm always here, I'm a tourist attraction. Fifty pence an hour, they pay me."

! 'I'm Only Sleeping' (WEA) is out on 31 July. An album follows in the autumn.