Madness madness

From Camden Town to the Palladium, via Max Wall and Tommy Cooper, Suggs explains how the latest extravaganza from Madness came about

Friday, 14th May 2021

The Get Up Madness

Madness outside the Palladium

My family rip me to shreds if they come downstairs and catch me watching old Madness videos. But there comes a time when looking back is fun, and helps you step forward, too.

Being in Madness since I was but a nipper means myself and six others are mates who have worked alongside each other for a long, long time. Next week, we are putting on a show – and getting the band back together again has got me thinking about some of the things that made Madness Madness.

We’ve had this gig at the London Palladium planned for a while, ripe for picking but yet to be harvested – the pandemic, obviously, had something to say about it.

Madness at the Palladium

Called The Get Up, we wrote it with my next door neighbour, who fortunately happens to be Charlie Higson, not Roger from Accounts. We’ve put together live music with new material as well as the classics, a solid serving of Madness, and a ghostly story set in front of the empty echoing rows at this time-trodden theatre – including a turn by Barso as the Queen, one not to be missed. We’ve asked some guests to join us, too.

Having had the year off, getting back to work, rehearsing a new show, brings together a raft of our shared experiences. And when you have the telescope of time to look back at things in retrospect together, you get a better understanding of what you are doing today, and why.

A show at the London Palladium – well, that makes me think of the type of humour we loved when we were kids. Max Wall – he could dance like a mad man, and we found him so visually intriguing. An original Nutty Boy. Then there is Tommy Cooper – we could watch him over and over and still laugh like the first time we’d seen his show.

Charlie Higson and Suggs at the Palladium

Doing the Palladium gig felt a bit like putting together a quirky Ealing comedy, with a dollop of British comic malevolence thrown in.

I remember, like we all do, my first gig. I’d bunked over a low wall at Charlton Athletic’s The Valley ground to see The Who. I was 14. It was great, but by then a lot of British music was like this – stadium stuff. We all felt it – there was this sense music had stagnated by the mid-1970s, and that was the basis for the arrival of punk.

Now, the punk movement proved to have both its advantages and disadvantages. I also recall when I first saw a punk band, a proper one – I walked into the Roxy Club in New Oxford Street and there on stage were a bunch of 14-year-olds writhing about on the floor, could hardly play a note, shouting all sorts – and they were terrific. This wasn’t The Who and their laser show. It showed us that you could have a DIY music culture. It made us feel we didn’t need to be virtuosos to get started.

There were a lot of dinosaurs about – and punk was like a high explosive placed under the music establishment’s bottom. It gave us a sense that anyone could make music, so that meant we could, too. But as the band got more serious, punk lost its allure: we didn’t want to get into that scene – all the ripped shirts and gobbing, and what not.

Lee was the first to get into ska and reggae – he loved it. We wanted to listen to something else – something that added groove to the energy, find that music lots of people were not that into. For us, that music was ska.

Hearing Prince Buster for the first time was a revelation for me, but it also had a essence that not everyone at the time got, which just made it more special: I once went into a punk shop on the King’s Road and played them some Prince Buster they had no idea how to react; they said it sounded something like the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Nutty Boys about town – Camden Town

But we knew. The music had harmony and humour, and a bit of an edge. And how much richer have our lives been for it. It is a genre of music created in a different part of the world but translated easily, and made a bunch of working-class boys from north London fall in love with it, jump about to it, and then take it on and make something new…

The influence of Jamaican music around the world is so big to be almost unquantifiable, and for us, 40 years ago, that sound – the trumpet, sax, the off beat, the rhythm section with the pronounced almost shuffling bass – well, it blew us away.

When we were starting out, we went to see Arlo Conlan at the Dublin Castle. Someone had told us they put bands on – Irish music, that sort of thing.

Arlo asked us what we played, and someone said Country and Western, and then also a voice piped up from the back and said “and a bit of jazz”.

The following Wednesday you had seven skinny teenagers in suits jumping about and playing Jamaican ska. Some of the older punters had no idea what we were doing.

Soon enough, we realised that people were coming to see us, it was really taking off, and the place was getting sweatier and sweatier. It appeared people liked a bit of ska-infused, Ealing-style comedy done in a north London accent. We did, and we still do.

• Madness and Charlie Higson appear in The Get Up! on May 14 at the London Palladium. The event is live streamed – for tickets, see:

• The story of the band is now available as a three-part series. Called Before We Was We: Madness by Madness, it tracks the rise of Madness – and is packed with Camden references. Episodes of the show, which was adapted from the critically acclaimed biography of the same name, will be available on AMC and on demand on BT TV.

Related Articles