Interview; Exile from the house of fun; Suggs
Madness were, and I think most would agree with me here, a great band with a great sound. They were reggae and ska and fairground with lots of berserk instrumentation and big sax noises thrown in. They were Suggs jumping about and singing, in a very British, deadpan way, about his house, his baggy trousers or his girl being mad at him. Madness were original and honest and looked as if they never took things too seriously, which they didn't. The band were very good, says Suggs, at keeping each others' egos in check. "People would kick your legs out from under you all the time. Talking to David Bowie? You wanker! How much did you spend on those taps? pounds 20 each? At Liberty? You gone mad, wanker?"
Anyway, Suggs is now 36. Or 37. He can't quite remember which. He is still handsome, although not in that larky, joyous, boyish way. He is chunkier, with a very square jaw, big shoulders and big hands, like prize hams. Today, he is wearing a blond Jasper Conran suit (Jasper Conran? You gone mad?) teamed with a neon blue shirt. He doesn't know where the shirt is from. Channel 5 got it for him. "That's the great thing about doing telly," he beams. "They get your clothes for you."
Suggs now hosts Channel 5's Night Fever, a sort of karaoke quiz show on Saturday evenings. The show's not great, frankly, unless you are into B-list celebrities (Sonia, Sam Fox, and those are the ones you've heard of) pretending they are The Carpenters. No, Suggs doesn't think it naff. He's long fancied doing telly. "I would look at Chris Evans and think: `I can do that.' " He has also just recorded "Blue Day", a single for Chelsea FC, which is released today. No, this isn't naff either. He has long supported Chelsea. It was an honour. Yes, he does have to work. No, Madness never made him lastingly rich. It could have, but "I frivvle money away on eating, drinking and making merry," he says.
The thing about being a pop star is that, unless you are Paul McCartney, you will probably have one day to face not being a pop star any more. Suggs has had to face this and is facing it still. Recently, he tried to get his two teenage daughters backstage at a Blur concert. "I queued up with all the other losers going, `excuse me, excuse me,' until my shame dragged me away," he says.
To his credit, Suggs says this cheerfully rather than despondently but, still, it's been hard for him. The toughest period, he says, came just after Madness disbanded in 1988. Then, Suggs had what you or I might refer to as a breakdown but which he refers to as "a time when I just felt very fucked-up".
Whatever, it was enough to make him do something he swore he would never do. He consulted a psychiatrist. And? Well, the psychiatrist told him that if he was to come to terms with not being Suggs of Madness any more, then he would have to come to terms with a lot of other things, too. In particular, he might want to go back and look at what went on when he was plain Graham McPherson (his real name) and a kid and no one bothered to stick around for him. To accept himself now, he was advised, he would have to accept himself as he was then, too.
Suggs's childhood, if you can call it that, was not a happy business. His mother, Eddie, was a failed singer who became a barmaid and thereafter drifted wherever pub work took her. He never knew his father, who left when Suggs was three. He has since discovered only three things about him: his name is William; he liked jazz; he was a heroin addict, and probably still is, if he's still alive. Yes, Suggs has been tempted to track him down. And once, as a teenager, he got quite close, but in the end decided not to go the distance. "It should be up to him to find me, shouldn't it?" he says. And if he did, would you see him? "Yeah. I expect so. Although you never know. It happened to John Lennon, didn't it, and he told his father to piss off."
His early years were spent with his mother, living in bedsits or rooms in other people's houses in London. His earliest memory is of cigarette packets hanging off a piece of string (people thought such things decorative in those days, apparently) and going to the toilet in some kind of pan. His schools chopped and changed constantly. It was hard to make friends, and even when he did it wasn't as if he could invite them back for spaghetti hoops on toast. It would have been too embarrassing for all concerned. Often, they had no bathroom.
Yes, he was very lonely as a kid, and perhaps no more so than when he was eight and his mother dispatched him to his Auntie Diana, her sister, in Haverfordwest, south Wales. He thought he was going on a holiday. Trouble was, no one came to pick him up for three years. What was his mother doing during this period? He hasn't a clue. It was, he says, "a mystery, that".
Yes, he was very bitter. And full of guilt. (If he'd been more lovable, would he have been dumped like this?) And he was angry, too, with an anger that, he says, refused to go away for a very long time.
His Auntie Diana was kind to him. And, at first, he liked being in the country. It made a change from being squashed up with his mother. He liked the fields and the freedom and going about eating apples and shooting rats. But Auntie Diana had three children of her own, whom he got along with well enough but, still, he never felt he belonged or was truly loved. When, later, I ask him if he can remember receiving any affection whatsoever during his childhood he laughs then says: "Well, whenever I ran away the people who brought me straight back always seemed very nice."
At 11, just after he had started at a Welsh grammar school, he was sent back to his mother in London, his aunt and uncle having decided to split up. He joined his mum in a bedsit over a carpet shop on Tottenham Court Road and was sent to a tough boys' comprehensive off the Finchley Road. On his first day, he wore his Welsh grammar school uniform. Come lunchtime, he got his dinner on his head and ice-cream in his face. The first song he ever wrote, "Baggy Trousers", was about the school. "Naughty boys in nasty schools/ Headmasters breaking all the rules/ Having fun and playing fools/ Breaking up the woodwork tools...' Needless to say, he didn't learn very much there, which he thinks a shame, because he had liked learning.
From 13, he stopped going to school, nicked a lot of records and changed his name. He chose Suggs from a jazz dictionary. Apparently, there is a jazz flautist called Pete Suggs. It was tiring going about saying, "I'm not Graham any more, I'm Suggs," but he was determined, unlike his best mate. "He changed his name to Keg. But he gave up after a couple of weeks. He got fed up of it."
Madness were formed in 1977. They were six teenagers who'd been brought together by a north London youth club and a love of Jamaican and jazz music. They practised in everyone's front room apart from Suggs's, because he didn't have a front room. They were brilliantly innocent. When they went on their first ever tour, one of the band members said he couldn't go to Wales because he didn't have a passport. Later, they got to stay in Gstaad with David Bowie who has a house there, but they never became wholly starstruck. "Unfortunately, Bowie was going through one of his straight periods. He wasn't drinking or anything. `Night boys,' he'd say at 9pm. It was rather disappointing."
All in all, Madness put 21 singles into the Top 20 before getting bored ("once the initial veneer wore off, it became just a job") and coming apart. At which point, Suggs came apart too.
Madness, he says, became the family he never had. It sounds cliched, he knows, but that doesn't make it any the less true. He loved the other boys in the band. They loved him. He belonged. ("The biggest high was the sense of belonging.") He was wanted. He adored performing for audiences who, in turn, seemed to adore him. Then it all went. And he couldn't cope. He went to the psychiatrist. He thought he had nothing to lose.
"I was feeling very frightened, very scared, very insecure. The psychiatrist was brilliant. He could have given me a lot of fancy theories and told me to come back daily for the next 65 years - what I told him set his pencil on fire - but instead he told me I might be better off just accepting myself for who I am. Having never known anysecurity, I would always feel insecure, and the thing to do was accept that and just get on with life. I have since become much more philosophical. Yes, I do miss the fame. I still miss Madness. When we re-formed for two gigs in 1992 and 1994, it was fantastic. To get everyone jumping up and down again was just such a high.
"But, basically, I'm the sort of bloke who likes going down the pub, singing, and taking his kids to the seaside. That's who I am, and I'm happy with that." Truly? Yes, he insists, "truly".
Suggs has a wife and two daughters without whom, he says, he would probably have stopped functioning a long time ago. He married Anne, formerly the lead singer with Deaf School, in 1982. Thankfully, he says, she comes from a very stable background so has been able to instruct him in the ways of family life. He is mad, he says, about his kids. They are teenagers now, but still he can't wait for "the two noisy hooligans" to get back from school so he can give them big bear hugs. Yes, of course he'd have liked his parents to have felt this way about him. But they had too many of their own problems. It was never to do with him. It was to do with them. He can see that now. He isn't angry any more, he says.
So, Suggs is a bloke who has had to come to terms with a lot of things. Perhaps he's succeeded. Perhaps he hasn't. Whatever, he used to make good music and, hopefully, will do so again. He has a solo album coming out in the summer. Meanwhile, you can always play the old hits, which are as good today as they ever were. "My girl's mad at me ..." Dance? I'd love to.
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