Madness: A Classic Interview By Danny Baker
, January 24th, 2011 06:54
The Nutty Boys were at the height of their powers and fame at the dawn of the 1980s. Danny Baker went to meet them on the set of Tiswas for NME
The Quietus team were sorry to hear that esteemed journalist and broadcaster Danny Baker was taken ill last year. We wish him a full and speedy recovery. This is one of his many excellent articles from the Rock's Backpages archive.
THE TV PARTY
The Coco Bros ............................. Chas and Suggsy
Innocent Bystanders ..................... The rest of Madness
The Tiswas Team .......................... Sally and Chris
The Heavy ................................. The Flan Flinger
Fun for almost all the family as those nutty Madness chaps come over all suicidal in their quest to become nothing at all like Fleetwood Mac.
"THERE'S SOMETHING odd about the people on this show, have you noticed?" Chas Smash, formerly Carl Smith, stares at the desperate cast of Tiswas from behind the black two-bob frames of his glasses. "They're all vacant, hopeless. See that magician? A definite magic mushrooms case." His lips twitch at the twisted imagery. "Take my word, he's oiled by mushrooms, that one. Come on, I'll show you some workings."
Carl takes me through the tiny studio, behind cameras and over cables to a back room area where the show's played-out villain, a phantom flan flinger, is taking five and poring over his script. The actor inside the black suit looks startled as two intruders, one imposing and crazed, stalk toward him.
"Aha!" booms the Smash, "not so evil in the flesh are ya? I can push you around." And he gently shoves the small character a few times who laughs in a most unassured way. Chas tugs the green script from the PFF's glove.
"Let's see yer script," he begins, in a gravel monotone that falls somewhere between Dury and Lennon. "I wanna find out when I'm supposed to look shocked and surprised, know what I mean, my friend? Anyway, is this a fair job? Get your fortnight's holiday, I hope." The actor scuttles off as politely as he can.
Chas's face registers pity and amusement as the villain of many a kid's Saturday morning retires not a little confused.
"That's the pie flinger feller, right? Look at all these cream pies over here waiting to be lobbed." A studio technician lopes, headmasterly, around the curtain hoping to psyche Smash into retreat with his 'what are you up to?' stare.
"Don't worry, John, I'm not gonna touch the pies. I know you people go mad if somebody touches the pies before time. Union rules, am I right? Don't worry, pal, you're doing a grand job – nobody fucks with your pies. We're just leaving."
As we pass the studio fella's scornful gaze, Chas leans across and whispers: "That phantom flan flinger – a proper junkie, no doubt."
CARL SMITH has come a thousand miles since he changed his name and went overboard in trying to quell the jealousy he felt when Graham McPherson – who as Suggs is the other half of The Coco Brothers – grabbed the attention that he thought should rightfully be his. He's an original. A genius amongst the half-realised, half-baked, half-witted 9 to 5 Mr Tepids that parade as bona fide rock performers. The first star of 2-Tone, a chap who raised stage invasion to a fine art and then made the pitch his own. No guitars, no voice but a genuine Top of The Pops hero, a true British street parallel to that Travolta Johnny from Saturday Night Fever.
And no fool, t'boot. He fooled me right up to the time I met him, but you'll find no thick-head leader qualities here. Just a bizarre and dry wit, tired of explaining his method of madness. I never got close to him at all really, but close enough to decipher part of the joke.
Madness are spread around the ATV Studios in Brum, waiting to give a plug to their new album, Absolutely. Only they and The Beat managed to crawl along the skirting board to get out of the room when 2-Tone finally painted itself into a corner – Selecter tailing off and The Specials content to perform sardonic party pieces for the dope set.
Madness' nutty angles on mundanities, love and dancebeat are condemned as irrelevance by those who see nothing but unflinching 'truth' and bleakness as interpreted by long-faced, longer-winded poetic buffoons from bedsitland. A pox on these Dory Previn and Dartmoor realists. So long as a band like Madness can thrive, there's hope for every screwed-up, frustrated warehouse-working school-leaver. Let's face it, nobody wants to escape from work to The Fall, do they?
Last night they'd had a re-union with old friends The Specials at the latter's gig in Coventry. The party afterwards nearly caused the Coco Brothers to miss their TV date.
"You shoulda come to that party," says Smash to me as he rummages through a tea-chest of jackets trying to create an ocular treat for TV. "I mean, we're s'posed to be nutty but The Specials – they frighten me sometimes. I ain't slept ... I ain't even had a chance to get me boots off. Look at them." We both peer at his footwear. "It's all just cooking in there."
Resigned to playing a minor part in the band's proceedings, bass player Mark Bedford watches Lenny Henry fool around for the grown-ups on a monitor outside the studio. He looks about fifteen years old. I wondered how America has responded to the sound.
"Zilch response and non-shifting of units is how record companies put it. We did loads and loads of small clubs but when you play somewhere like Portland, Oregon, it's all pointless. During our set everyone was playing pool and songs get lost against the sound of sinking eight-balls. We just jumped off stage in the end. Then again, big places take us well – like we own half of Boston. They said Mick Jagger saw us in New York, but it must have been for five minutes to prove he's the hippest dude in town."
With Mike Reid on Tiswas, thanks to Madness Central
Back in the dressing room Suggs and Smash are having serious talks on how to avoid getting wet and wretched on the show. Smash is 'doing his vanity bit' with cold water and a portable hair-dryer.
"I tell ya, Suggs, Sally James weaves the safest path – stick with old Sal." He stops the grooming and leans close to the mirror, eyeing his complexion. "Bollocks. You think you're OK and when you look again you're all spots and eruptions."
Guitarist Chris Foreman is wondering aloud whether it might have been an idea to have brought his four-year-old son up for the day. Suggs then encourages Chas to seek out some proper stage clothes in a real search. In Wardrobe they rummage through various tatty jackets and hats like they had nothing else to wear. Suggs settles quickly for a mac and straw hat – in the Coco Brothers partnership he's the outwardly saner one. Chas is about to be further transformed. The cropped hair and dark glasses on that carthorse frame already lend him menace but once he's decided on a silver stars-and-stripes top hat, crows-feet jacket and clown's red nose, his appearance becomes frankly disturbing. Only the Navy trousers tucked into high-leg Martens stop the garb from being totally ludicrous.
Smash is getting out of control, so great is his satisfaction at finding the right sartorial outfit for his mood. "I THINK A WALKING STICK!" He twists and turns for Anton's camera and the mirror. "Oh what, am I cracking away or what here? Absolutely fearless, my friends, absolutely fearless." He discovers a baseball bat and an even fuller mirror. The banshee screams "WHOOOHOOO! FEARLESS! CAPTAIN ACID STRIKES BACK!! STROLL ON!!"
Suggsy pulls his arm and reminds him that they're due on camera. Chas strides down the corridor endeavouring to extract the full weirdometer out of anyone that walks past.
Sally James, the unctuous, bubbling, jolly hockey-stick herself, is waiting with a clip-board behind the Tiswas set. She barely tolerates the Coco Brothers' childish nerve.
"And you're going to wear that arrangement, are you?" she grins. Smash and Suggs stare her full in the face as she bumbles through what format the 'interview' will take. "Any special subjects you'd like me to touch on?" she asks. Chas bends to her face level. "Temperamental artistes. Decadence and the Perils of Not Taking Acid." Suggs chips in, "Also our 12 shows at Christmas for the kids." James tries to cope with the crazy requests by trooping on with fingers crossed. In a minute they'll burst out laughing and say "We had you worried there, didn't we, Sally?!" Of course they don't – the acid gag is too ripe to be discarded just yet. Sal gets herself a white wine and prepares to soldier on.
The spot itself was the usual shambles with much incoherent laughing and 'wise-cracks' from the resident team off camera. Sal nearly walked into it when, referring to the band's new video, she asked "whether the boys were really into flying."
Chas couldn't hold back.
"We most certainly do love flying, Sal, especially since brushing with the psyched – ah, well, it don't matter." He checked himself in time, remembering that his game was with the schoolyard pranets of Tiswas Senior, and not with being hip for kids' viewing time.
Madness prefer to perform to under-sixteens. Suggs said why they do these kids-only concerts. "I s'pose it's as much for our benefit as the kids' – y'know, we can get really stupid. But kids are entitled to it. You always see them crushed at the very front or more often stuck outside unable to get in. When it's all kids they go completely loony. They've got no preconceptions or ideas about being super cool. They're just great gigs."
THE RUSH of appearing on live TV began to ebb from the Madness skulls and they individually started to drift away from the studios. (Madness don't socialise a great deal as a unit.) Even the Coco Brothers began to slide down from the last speedy 24 hours. But they couldn't resist walking through the shopping centre still in full costume. Even the obligatory cluster of skinheads made no comment on these two nutters idling toward the station – it was impossible to gauge their measure.
On the platform, they signed some of their ridiculously long and never repeated autographs for two young boys who'd "joost seen yoos on the teleeh". The train arrived and the sighs were abundant in the first class compartment – Stiff were paying.
It must be a strain to be one of the Coco Brothers.
Suggs: "Yeah, yeah it is. Specially in foreign countries where they expect you to be nutty and stuff at eight in the morning."
Chas: "Yeah, all these French idiots saying 'now please put on your ska suits and be nutty'. To be quite honest there are times when they demand the doo-dah and want you to act like a plum when you get to feel it's all too oppressive. Oppressive. It's not something that you can just turn on so it turns out that there are only two sorts of Madness show – either brilliant or just shit. The only kinds."
Suggs: "I remember that photo session the other day, right, Carl? When we were just drained of nutty ideas for things to do. Then you get a lot of people saying it's all just a joke. Reviews of our album that half-way apologise for liking it. We don't actually have any point, except we can really entertain."
Chas: "Mainly ourselves ..."
Suggs: "Like they say though, it's better than gardening, which we have done."
It must seem like a whirlwind, the last couple of years.
Chas: "Unbelievable. So quick, done so much, I just can't fuckin' believe it."
Suggs: "I remember last Christmas like it was yesterday."
Chas: "Yeah, me too. (Pause) Hold up – no I don't."
How do you like rock music?
Suggs: "It's good to be in. But I think it's stupid to start talking about other groups because, well, someone like Fleetwood Mac ... it's obvious they don't understand any better."
Chas: "Fuckin' Pink Floyd as well. I was working down Brit Row clearing out a load of their old films and most of 'em were like hour-long films of an apple decomposing. A group like that are just spark-out throwing their fucking parties."
Suggs: "So when we started we never made a big thing about 'doin' it for the people', y'know, it was basically for ourselves."
Chas: "When we first started I'd call meself Chas and wear the shades and the hat because I was after the attention Suggs was getting. But now I get all the attention and I don't particularly want it. The nuttiness is done for meself as much as anything. Money matters to me now. I never could understand all these people saying they were never in it for the money. What's that all about? We're working right?"
You seem to work at it harder than most, in fact.
Chas: "I'd like to see us get more theatrical – more comedy."
Suggs: "Yeah, but see, it's so hard to get an idea that is great visually without being poncified with lights and smoke and that."
Chas: "See and another thing is – I don't want to waste my time, ever, so I'm learning to play bass, trumpet and sax – Christ knows we get enough time out on the road to learn. You've got to be constructive."
Suggs: "Could you imagine us at 30 leaping around the stage?"
'Embarrassment' on the LP is the best thing you've done. More Motown, less ska.
Suggs: "Well, look, if you read any of our old interviews you'll see that we were mostly into Motown stuff. I mean we loved ska but I thought it was just reggae and I had to go and read all these Trojan liner notes so I could come back and say 'Oh yeah, Prince Buster, this and that'."
Did you plan all the nutty thing?
Chas: "That was just a natural progression really. It just happened."
Does it often not happen?
Suggs: "I still get nerves a lot 'fore we go on."
Chas: "The worst is when the crowd is a bunch of plugs. I'll look up to him half way through and go..."
Suggs: "Fuckin' hell..."
Chas: "...we're half-way, Suggs, we're half-way through."
Suggs: "Once 'The Prince' comes along you're alright, you're nearly there. But some nights you're up there in yer silly suit and going nutty and the crowd just stare and you think 'fuucckk mee'..."
Do you ever feel like quitting?
Chas: "Course ya do – it's bound to happen, but you have to shake it off. I mean, where would I be now if it weren't fer all this?"
Suggs: "Certainly not coming from Birmingham first class, wearing a stupid hat and nose."
Chas: "In the end, the point is remembering that geezer at school who told you 'learn now, my lad, it isn't going to be a bunch of cherries when you get out, you know'. I think of all that and just do not know what I would have been doing right now... if I weren't being nutty in Madness."
THE COCO Brothers exchanged small talk about where would be the next point of crack attack tonight. Suggs said he thought that it was best to go easy after last night's marathon with The Specials, but Chas was back in party mood.
"Come on, Uncle Suggs, the only way to do it is to do it all over again tonight." And you bet they did.
But I wonder how often it is that Carl Smith surfaces, revealing the bloke I glimpsed just before we pulled into Euston. With Suggsy resting his eyes for a minute, Chas took the top hat from his head, removed the claustrophobic clown's hooter and wiped the greasepaint from his chin. He looked over at me and ruffled some fresh air into his sweaty crop.
"Sometimes," he said. "I get so sick of all this shit." And the mask fell to the floor...
© Danny Baker, 1980