MADNESS frontman Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson stands in a laneway in central London, grinning self-consciously. A paparazzi photographer has just popped out of nowhere and, true to his status as British National Treasure, Suggs is doing the decent thing and giving his best pop-star pose.
“They’re all over Soho nowadays,” he says, resuming his stroll through the fashionable district off Oxford Street. “What bothers me is that the pictures never get fucking used. I am snapped all the time. And they never bloody appear anywhere.”
It’s quite a boast but 2012 has turned out to be the strangest year yet in the life of Suggs and Madness, best known for zany, ska-fuelled 80s hits such as ‘Our House’ and ‘House of Fun’. Over the space of a few months they have performed for the Queen, sang at the Olympics and made one of the finest records of their career, the elaborately-titled Oui, Oui, Si, Si, Ja, Ja, Da Da. Reflecting, Suggs still seems rather frazzled by everything that has happened.
“One minute we’re backstage at the Olympics, sat next to One Direction and the Pet Shop Boys, ” says Suggs. “Then we’re on the roof of the Queen’s house, and there are snipers positioned everywhere. I stuck my head out the window for a smoke beforehand. You could see these red tracer dots from their rifles all over the place.”
This is all a bit serendipitous. The original plan had been to release Oui Oui… in 2011 and to take this year off. But with seven full-time members and multiple songwriters, projects seldom go according to plan, says Suggs.
“Madness is a very slow-moving organism,” he explains. “However, we eventually did bring it out. And, as is the way with Madness, the next thing you know you get a call from the Queen. And then the Olympics happened. It has all helped to make the record really hot. The whole thing was a question of lucky timing.”
He’s torn as to which was more surreal: performing at Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebration or belting out ‘Our House’ from atop a moving bus during the Olympics ceremony. In the bizarre experience stakes it is something of a photo-finish.
“With the Buckingham Palace thing we did have this sense of ‘what the hell are a shower of idiots doing up here’. Our keyboard player was having a minor meltdown. He was like ‘What the fuck! We’re on the roof of Buckingham Palace’. I went over to him and said, ‘Look mate, you have to go with it. Don’t be overwhelmed. Just put your head down and play the show.’ There was definitely an element of the Matrix — are you gonna take the red pill or the blue pill?”
If anything the Olympics was weirder yet. “On one side, The Pet Shop Boys were on a bike wearing cones on their heads. On the other One Direction were sat on a lorry next to us. We were in a backstage area being slowly asphyxiated by all the carbon monoxide. And then you are unleashed into the stadium… it’s so disorientating. I’ve sang ‘Our House’ for 35 years. And I forgot the first line. I was kind of weirded out by the whole thing. The fact you’re on a bus at the time makes it even stranger.”
The new album is a worthy follow-up to 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate, widely agreed to be the best long player of the group’s career. Together the two records represent a second chapter in the history of Madness who reformed in 1992 after four years apart. The albums are less poppy than their 80s output, with an emphasis on songs that reflect their experiences as middle-aged men.
“We were getting sucked into that 80s nostalgia thing, which isn’t what we wanted to do,” says Suggs. “It was like something from Star Trek, getting pulled into the black hole. Norton Folgate took about eight years to complete. And it achieved what we hoped it might, which was to reboot everything critically and creatively. It gave us a new beginning. This current record is a continuation of that. You don’t want to be singing about stuff from the perspective of someone who is 24. You want to sing from the perspective of where you are in life.”
Looking back, he says, it was inevitable Madness would break up. Still in their 20s, all seven members had been on a rollercoaster. With nearly a dozen top ten hits, they had, more or less overnight, become a cultural institution. But at a price. Success had hollowed them out.
They toured too long, spent too long in the studio. Burnout was inevitable.
“In hindsight, what we really should probably have done was take a couple of years off,” says Suggs. “We were working in the fashion of bands from the 60s — recording, touring, recording. After five years of that we were starting to lose our minds. We all had young families — it was too much. The years when we weren’t working at Madness were very important. I was able to get back in touch with who I was, where I came from. Those were the things that informed who we were. Without them, we couldn’t write anything. Time away made us appreciate what we love about the job.”
The sleeve of the new record is by artist Peter Blake, best known for the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It consists of a series of crossed-out album titles considered and rejected by Madness before they settled on the present mouthful.
“Peter told us he didn’t like doing covers. All the same, he would do it, so long as we gave him the title well in advance. At that stage it was called Circus Freaks. Then it became something else. Then something else again. So he said ‘fuck it, I’m going to write down all album names until you decide what the actual title is’. So the result was all these crossed-out titles. It gives you a sense, I think, of what life is like in this band.”
* Oui, Oui, Si, Si, Ja, Ja, Da Da is out now.