Madness: on The Liberty Of Norton Folgate
UNCUT cover feature May 2009, by John Lewis
Suggs is due to meet UNCUT in an Italian café in Camden Town. He puts on his crombie and silk scarf and starts a sprightly walk from his North London home, en route passing dozens of key flashpoints in the history of Madness, the band he’s fronted for more than 30 years.
He passes a municipal park where his bandmates Lee Thompson and Chris Foreman once worked as gardeners, walks past several old Irish pubs where he and his bandmates have experienced dozens of lock-ins over the years, past a Greek Cypriot café where they signed a one-off deal with Jerry Dammers’ Two-Tone label, and turns down Camden High Street. He walks past Escapade, the joke shop where they filmed the video for “House Of Fun”; past the premises of Alfred Kemp & Son Ltd, the second-hand clothes shop where the band bought their vintage mod suits; and past what was Berman And Nathan’s, the theatrical costumiers who kitted them out in colonial pith helmets, fezzes, gorilla costumes and policeman outfits for various videos. He walks past the former home of Rock On records, where a teenage Mike Barson stole a Fats Domino album before an early Madness rehearsal.
By this time Suggs has been recognised by several dozen people. Some stare, some point, some shout out “wahey! Suuuuuggssy!” from moving cars. He reaches Parkway and passes the Dublin Castle, the Irish pub where Madness famously blagged their first proper gig in 1979, before alighting on the Good Fare, the 50-year-old Italian café where the band used to meet.
“Just walking here today has brought back loads of memories,” he says. “Camden Town has changed a lot since we were kids.”
As an example, he points across the street to Arlington House, the 100-year-old hostel for the homeless that was immortalised in the Madness single “One Better Day”, an “Underneath The Arches” for the Thatcher years.
“The street theatre in Camden in those days wasn’t Mediterranean Goths juggling and fire eating on Camden Lock. It was the fellas out of Arlington House. There were 1500 men in there, and they’d all have to leave the building between nine in the morning and four in the evening. Among the more prosaic sights – like the huge gangs of geezers drinking cans outside the supermarket in Inverness Street – I remember very poignant images. You’d see fellas, in their jackets, washing their only shirt in the launderette; you’d see this old guy we called The Shroud wearing full Edwardian undertakers gear, or another fella from Arlington House sitting on a bench dressed as a naval captain. Or you’d see the woman I wrote about in ‘One Better Day’, who would go up and down Parkway with literally about 200 carrier bags full of, well, fuck knows what.”
Long before the term “psychogeography” had become hip, Madness were exploring what wine snobs might call the “terroir” of north London. Punk bands sang about being bored with the USA while being dressed like all-American hoodlums; Madness dressed like authentic London football hooligans, largely because most of them were. Their early ’80s peers sang in mid-Atlantic accents, while Madness sang in the blankest north London vowels, singing songs that could have come straight out of a music hall routine. Others bands sang about Rio and New York and Lake Geneva, Madness sang about Muswell Hill and Chalk Farm, with tightly plotted lyrics that could have come straight from a Mike Leigh film.
In some ways, it should come as no surprise that Madness’s new album, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, is a concept album about London.
“When we first discussed the concept,” says Suggs, “our guitarist Chris [Foreman] said, yes, but what the fuck do you think all our songs are about? And, in a way, he’s right. We’ve always written about London. I think the idea here was to really delve into history.”
“We tend to think of cities as being an agglomeration of people,” Suggs continues, “but it’s more complex than that. Peter Ackroyd talks about how the buildings and the pavements of London seem to resonate with their own personality. I love that idea that the very dust that blows around your feet when you stand in an East End street is the same dust that blew around Dickens’s feet.”
The Liberty Of Norton Folgate consciously attempts to locate Madness in a historical London lineage. Not just a pop continuum that projects forward to Lily Allen and Mike Skinner, and backwards to Ian Dury and The Kinks, but much further back than that – back to music hall, to Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe and William Blake and Hawksmoor churches and Hogarth cartoons, a London of Elizabethan shanty towns and Irish navvies, of Jewish anarchists and Bengali tailors.
The title track refers to Norton Folgate, the old name for the Spitalfields district, just north of the City of London. “It became a shanty town for people who’d been chucked out of the City,” says Suggs, “immigrants, outsiders, writers, musicians, libertines and nutters. It took on the status of a ‘liberty’, with its own rules and laws, becoming a very peculiar community of freethinking people, which I thought was a rather marvellous thing to contemplate.” Other songs celebrate music hall, Brick Lane, Soho and the docks: “Clerkenwell Polka” looks at the radical émigrés who printed revolutionary pamphlets in that corner of town; “Mk 2” is a bittersweet celebration of an mohair-suited East End gangster; “Idiot Child” follows a young ruffian from NW5, while “We Are London” takes us on a psychogeographic ramble from Muswell Hill to Old Compton Street.
Madness, of course, are as much a part of London’s rich tapestry as the Blakes, Hogarths and Durys that they celebrate. The band’s roots can be traced back to the early 1970s, when old schoolfriends Mike “Monsieur Barso” Barson, Lee “Kix” Thompson and Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman would sit in a Kentish Town launderette plotting mild acts of delinquency and anti-social behaviour. Later they would converge around a local youth club, in glammed-up skinhead costumes, calling themselves the Aldenham Glamour Boys.
Inspired by seeing Ian Dury’s thuggish circus act Kilburn And The High Roads on the north London pub rock circuit, they decided to form a band. Barson was a nifty R&B pianist, Foreman an AC/DC-obsessed guitarist and Thompson a saxophonist who modelled himself on Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, and the three started jamming around a piano in Barson’s bedroom. After several line-up changes they enlisted three younger associates – funk-loving drummer Daniel “Woody” Woodgate, soul-boy bassist Mark “Bedders” Bedford and a local skinhead called Graham “Suggsy” McPherson as vocalist. When their erstwhile bass player Cathal “Chas Smash” Smyth jumped onto the stage at an early gig to do a robotic “nutty dance” routine, the band was complete.
The orthodox Madness biography tends to play up the rapscallion street gang element, as told in their rather bleak, social realist 1981 biopic Take It Or Leave It. The truth, however, is rather more complicated. It’s certainly true that Lee Thompson spent time in a young offenders institution, and the rest of the band were working as labourers, gardeners and van drivers when they first started rehearsing, but it’s also true that most of the band came from distinguished musical families. Carl (born Cathal) Smyth’s family were steeped in Irish folk music; his grandfather setting up an Irish dance school in 1945 that was frequented by Ewan MacColl. Chris Foreman’s father John Foreman is a respected English folk singer who still performs under the name “The Broadsheet King”; Daniel Woodgate’s two grandfathers were both renowned conductors (one of them, Leslie Woodgate, was a BBC Chorus Master, the other wrote arrangements for the likes of Shirley Bassey); while Suggs’s mother Edie McPherson – a Soho legend who will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed a late drink in the West End – was an itinerant jazz singer.
The band’s de facto leader, however, was the best musician of them all. Mike Barson was never formally trained, but the Muswell Hill flat in which he was raised had a battered upright piano which he and his two brothers learned to play. Brother Danny was, alongside Adam Ant and Arabella Weir, in a band called Bazooka Joe (who famously headlined at the first show the Sex Pistols played), while brother Ben played keyboards with numerous outfits (including Kate Bush’s touring band) and was also a member of a Camden Town band called The Boxes, led by Clive Langer. Langer, a graduate of Liverpool Art College and a member of two seminal Liverpool bands, Deaf School and Big In Japan, grew up in north London and was a regular in the Barson house, which is where he came into contact with the embryonic Madness.
“My first memory of Mike was of this little kid was good at art and also pretty good on the piano,” says Langer. “He used to hang around in a gang, who looked really good – kind of glam mods, spray-painted DM boots, 501s, that kind of thing. When I’d come to London with Deaf School and play the Roundhouse I’d see be Mike and his mates watching us. They’d meet up backstage and tell me that they were starting a band called the North London Invaders, and asked if I wanted to check them out.”
Langer remembers watching a rehearsal. “You could tell that this was potentially brilliant. A lot of the elements were already there – Woody was obviously a good drummer and Mike a great rock piano player, in the Thunderclap Newman mould, really hitting his piano hard. The rest of the band was a bit rough around the edges, but were all nearly there. Mike was singing ‘My Girl’ at that first rehearsal, which didn’t sound right. Eventually we persuaded Mike to let Suggs sing it, and it all started falling into place. It sounded like a hit.”
Langer agreed to produce them and enlisted an engineer friend called Alan Winstanley to help. “Lee Thompson’s sax was the one wildcard,” laughs Winstanley. “He didn’t realise that the sax was a transposing instrument, so when the rest of the band were playing in C he had to play in B-flat. So he ended up trying to compensate by pulling his mouthpiece out, loosening the reed and overblowing wildly.”
With Suggs’s baleful, London-accented vocals on the top, the distinctive elements of the Madness sound started falling into place. Langer and Winstanley started tidy up some of the loose ends. They removed the distortion from Foreman’s guitar (“it took up too much space in the mix and made everything sound cluttered”, says Winstanley). They used a piece of studio kit called an Eventide Harmonizer on Thompson’s saxophone to cover up his tuning deficiencies, which gave it a thick, rasping quality that recalled Fela Kuti. They used the same Harmonizer on Barson’s piano to give it that slightly-out-of-tune honky tonk sound (“occasionally we even put thumb tacks on the piano hammers to make it even brighter,” says Langer, “but don’t tell anyone from the studios that!”). And Winstanley would spend hours miking up Woody’s drum kit. “The snare was horrible to play,” says Woody, “all papery and dry. But it sounded brilliant on record, really crisp and punchy.”
Langer and Winstanley presided over nearly every Madness recording for the next 30 years, including an unprecedented run of 20 Top Twenty singles. While Barson was the primary songwriter and arranger (writing “My Girl”, “Grey Day”, “Driving In My Car” and much of the first two albums), it became clear that all the band had songs to contribute. Lee Thompson penned their debut single “The Prince” and co-wrote “House Of Fun” and “Embarrassment” (the latter an early example of the band’s issue-based songs, telling of the family scandal caused by Thompson’s sister’s mixed-race child). Suggs and Chris Foreman co-wrote “Baggy Trousers”, “Shut Up” and “Yesterday’s Men”; while even Chas Smash – often dismissed as the Bez of the band – co-wrote “Cardiac Arrest”, “Wings Of A Dove”, “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day”, “Michael Caine” and their only Top Ten US hit “Our House”, which won them a prestigious Ivor Novello Award (“it was the only thing we ever won!” laughs the song’s co-writer Chris Foreman. “23 Top Twenty hits and we never even got a fucking Brit!”).
The 1981 biopic Take It Or Leave It paints Barson as a disciplinarian bandleader, frustrated at failures in musicianship. “That was a bit of an exaggeration,” he laughs, “but not much. I like it when people know what they’re doing. For that reason, I never really liked punk that much. I loved the spirit of rebellion, the kicking over of statues, but I missed the musicianship. It reminded me of when I was doing my foundation course at Hornsey Art School – the way in which technical skill was frowned upon. The lecturers would sometimes be really withering about the students who were good at drawing or painting, which I thought was fucking stupid. I suppose punk was a bit like that.”
Barson’s influences harked back to pre-punk styles, drawing from many various sources. He cites Steely Dan, Abba, Carole King, Kilburn And The High Roads, Tamla Motown, The Beatles, 10cc, Supertramp, Fats Domino and the first three Tighten Up reggae compilations as key influences. One thing Barson shares with his influences is that he wrote exclusively on the piano, as did most members of Madness. Their new wave contemporaries were all one-fingered synth stabbers or guitar thrashers, whose songs were based around riffs, grooves or basslines. Madness songs, conversely, were well-structured pieces based around complicated, often heavily chromatic, chord changes.
“Mike would often bring old sheet music of showtunes and standards into rehearsal sessions,” says Clive Langer. “He’d never read the music, but he’d often play the chord sequences on the piano. ‘The Return Of The Los Palmas Seven’, for instance, was basically the chords to some old Kathy Kirby song, played backward! He definitely had an affinity with that Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition.”
“I think we all find the piano quite a logical thing to write on,” says Barson. “Everything is laid out visually. You can see the relationship between the chord changes and the tune. Most of us worked like that. Carl and Suggs and Woody are all good enough piano players to bang out a series of chord changes and sing along. I think we’re all aware of the drawbacks in writing over computer loops. Your mind gets sucked into that groove and you can’t go anywhere else.”
It’s this pianistic quality that links Madness to Tin Pan Alley and ultimately vaudeville. “You can easily imagine Mike’s songs like ‘My Girl’ or ‘Shut Up’ being sung on the stage of a music hall,” says Suggs. “Imagine some old comedian croaking out the vocals, accompanied only by a pianist, and it would work perfectly.”
Suggs now says that he’s “slightly obsessed” with music hall, and has referenced it on the new album, but it was never a conscious influence at the time. “Music hall, for us, was The Good Old Days,” says Suggs. “A fella in a stripy blazer pushing a woman on a swing covered in flowers. It had no relation to me at all. But somehow, through osmosis – maybe via Ian Dury and the Kinks – it came through to us. I’ve been doing a lot of research on music hall recently – it turns out that Chrissy’s dad [the folk singer John Foreman] is a real authority on it and used to perform lots of old music hall songs, and he’s shared som hilarious old songs with us. There’s also some freaky resonances with contemporary pop: I found this quote from some highbrow Victorian critic who complains about ‘these people in their dreadfully outrageous costumes and their long hair, singing these ridiculous songs with these very obvious choruses…’ – I mean, that could apply to any pop band of the last 40 years! Again, it’s a bit like Ayckroyd’s theory about London sending out peculiar resonances. It’s as if these things come up through the pavement and rub off on you whether you like it or not.”
The worlds of music hall and variety also seemed most obvious in Madness’s famous promotional videos. “We all loved variety,” says Suggs. “Max Wall, Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Morecambe And Wise, Wilson Keppel And Betty doing their sand-dancing routine. And we were lucky to have so many extroverts in the band. Carl came from a family of Irish dancers, so he was a very good mover. Lee was very visual – we’d always give him the most foolish roles! And Mike, ironically because he’s such an introverted character, was absolutely brilliant at encapsulating funny shapes. None of us worried about taking the piss out of ourselves. If you’re self conscious about looking a bit stupid, it shows. But if you’re 110 per cent absorbed in the idea where you don’t give a fuck, you get something else. You get something transcendent, like Tommy Cooper.”
“We never had creative directors working with us,” says Woody. “They were all directed very basically by Dave Robinson – the head of Stiff Records – who’d put us in a room and get us to come up with a list of ‘funnies’. So every video was made up of gags that we invariably nicked from TV comedies and films we loved. The video for ‘Our House’, for instance, the knocking on the door was pure Fred Flinstone, the running around the garden was pure Benny Hill, us dressing as washerwomen was pure Monty Python. The video for ‘Shut Up’ is just us trying to be the Keystone Cops. The legs being tied up in knots , that was from Marty Feldman, the vibraphone solo being played on the skeleton in ‘Cardiac Arrest’ was nicked from The Goodies. And so on.”
Despite the obvious slapstick side, Madness songs always betrayed a sense of longing and nostalgia. This was a band who were writing songs about the good old days when they were barely out of their teens.
“We were nostalgic about five minutes ago!” laughs Suggs. “It’s weird, isn’t it? We were always old before our time. We were writing about family and friendship and about the passing of time while every other band was living that New Romantic lifestyle, making music that was decadent and hedonistic. I don’t know why that is, really. I don’t feel nostalgic. I’m eternally optimistic about London, I think the city gets better and better. But there’s an eternal difficulty people have: that, in their lifetime, the place that they love and grew up in has changed before their eyes, and I can understand that that’s difficult for anyone to comprehend. And I think maybe that’s what we talk about in our songs. It’s just a natural feeling.”
“But we’d always include some counterpoint to pure, teary-eyed nostalgia. The wistfulness of ‘Our House’, for instance, was balanced by the line ‘something tells you that you’ve got to get away’. Or, in ‘Baggy Trousers’, you’d get the line ‘Oh the fun we had/but at the time it seemed so bad’. I remember the first time I heard the word ‘pathos’. Neil Tennant explained it to me once. And it was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The idea of things being happy and sad at the same time. And I think that perfectly sums up the band have been trying to do.”
By the time of their third album, 1981’s Seven, the band were trying to move away from their comedy reputation, with the mordant social commentary of “Grey Day” and “Tomorrow’s Dream”. The next album, 1982’s Madness Presents The Rise And Fall, was certainly their most accomplished yet. The band decided to write songs about their childhood: Suggs came up with the bleak title track about his early childhood in Liverpool; Woodgate penned the fiendishly complicated “Sunday Morning”, about the post-party come-down in his parent’s bohemian household; Foreman wrote about alienated voyeurism on “Primrose Hill”; and Smyth, as well as the self-explanatory “Our House”, wrote a paean to prison in “Tomorrow’s Just Another Day”. To help with the orchestrations, Langer enlisted classically-trained arranger David Bedford, who had worked with Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield as well as making his own avant garde compositions. There was even talk of it being a concept album, and a vague attempt to turn it into a musical.
“It’s a very ambitious album,” says Suggs. “Clive and Alan always wanted to push themselves as producers and we wanted to push ourselves as songwriters. The thing was the arrangements were getting so complicated that we couldn’t fucking play them any more!” Although many regard it as their finest album, Madness’s core teenage audience might have been a bit baffled by Rise And Fall (“half of them probably tried to take it back to Our Price to exchange it for a Nick Heyward album” laughs Suggs). Slowly, the balance between the tragic and the comic started to shift. Suggs’s exaggerated cockneyisms – initially lifted from Ian Dury – were replaced by a blank voiced, well-enunciated Estuary English which he consciously borrowed from Robert Wyatt. The life-affirming elements of the Madness sound – the vestigial Caribbean beats and the jaunty music hall echoes – were slowly excised, leaving in its place only a bleak, self-loathing Englishness.
“Eventually we got sick of going around the world with red noses on and cheering up the planet,” says Suggs. “Every TV show we went on wanted us to wacky, they wanted what we’ve done before, and we didn’t always want to do that. By the time we got to the later albums, songs like ‘Yesterday’s Men’ and ‘One Better Day’ – much as I love them both – were purposely about not doing anything that had too much fun in it. We became quite perversely joyless.”
The darkness that descended on the band wasn’t helped by Barson’s semi-detached status. Barson didn’t tour with the band after the Rise And Fall album (his place on one international tour being taken by James Mackie), and announced that he was leaving in October 1983. He stayed on board for 1984’s Keep Moving, officially leaving the band in June 1984.
“Mike was going through a lot of emotional turmoil,” says Suggs. “That thing about being famous was becoming inescapable. We were being followed down the street and Mike was becoming increasingly reclusive, covering up his face in photographs and stuff. And he didn’t want it any more. And I think, in fairness, he was also working the hardest, and giving himself a hard time about the quality of songs that he was writing.”
Barson went to live with his Dutch girlfriend on a houseboat in Amsterdam, and started to immerse himself in Tibetan Buddhism (he and Carl Smyth are still frequent visitors to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France).
“I’m not blaming anyone,” says Suggs, “Dave Robinson was doing what he had to do. But if someone had said, go and have a year out, it would have been a very different end to the band. A lot of dust would have settled, and things may have turned out very differently.” The band regrouped as a six-piece for 1985’s Mad Not Mad album, drafting in Elvis Costello’s pianist Steve Nieve as a session player.
“There was a feeling that the band had run its course, and something needed to change,” says Barson. “Did I regret leaving the band? I would have had regrets if Mad Not Mad had got to Number One, ha ha! Actually, I thought it was a great album. I seem to think it was better than they did. I know that they weren’t very happy with it. Suggs described it as a ‘polished turd’. But by that stage I think they’d all learned to write in, ahem, the Mike Barson style, and they went off and proved that they could do it on their own. The swines!”
While the bleak, politicised weirdness of Mad Not Mad got excellent reviews from the weekly music press – and even now sometimes finds itself in those “100 Great Albums” lists – it was their least successful release to date, their first LP to not reach the Top 10 or spawn a Top 20 hit single. Without Barson, that initial impetus expired and the band officially split in 1986. As the biggest-selling British singles band of the 1980s, they were all able to live off royalties for a few years, but most were itching to return to the studio.
In 1988 Suggs, Thompson, Foreman and Smyth half-heartedly regrouped as The Madness, a rather indistinguished attempt to recreate the Nutty Sound, and in 1990 Thompson and Foreman formed a ska band called The Nutty Boys. Woody had more success than all of them with the Californian pop outfit Voice Of The Beehive, while Bedders, who also briefly played with Voice Of The Beehive, switched to upright bass and joined Terry Edwards to form the jazz outfit Butterfield 8. The bandmembers also started developing second careers. Bedford resumed a two-year typography course at the London College Of Printing – a course he’d quit in 1979 to join the band – and started to run his own graphic design studio in Camden. Woodgate went into teaching music in various south London schools. Lee Thompson opened a mountain bike shop, a decorating firm and a landscape gardening company, which all went bust. He even worked as a dustman for six weeks. Carl Smyth, after spending three years as a stay-at-home dad, considered going back into the petro-chemicals firm he’d left in 1979 (“I was taking £5.25 an hour when I left, which was a good living at the time”) but was persuaded to re-enter the music business after a meeting with Dave Balfe from Food records. He ended up working as an A&R man for Go!Discs, signing the likes of Paul Weller and Portishead, and befriending Morrissey (he turned down the opportunity to manage him because he “didn’t fancy ironing his socks”).
In 1992, Smyth saw some of the market research that Virgin had done for the Madness greatest hits album, Divine Madness, which topped the LP chart in March 1992 and stayed on the UK list for two years.
“It was obvious that it was a good opportunity for the band to have another crack,” says Smyth. When Mean Fiddler honcho Vince Power approached the band with the idea of playing a massive reunion concert, all seven members agreed. “We did the deal over a St Patrick’s Day dinner at an Irish club,” says Smyth. “Vince suggested that we play somewhere in North London rather than Earls Court or Wembley or something, which fitted in with that whole Ian Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd thing. Finsbury Park was perfect. And it was a really beautiful day.”
“It helped that the money was good,” adds Barson, drily.
Taking place on the 8th and 9th of August 1992, the event was christened Madstock. Support came from Madness’s biggest influence, Ian Dury, and from Madness’s most high-profile fan, Morrissey. The latter grabbed the headlines by waving a Union Flag and being bottled by skinheads, which rather obscured the astonishing achievement of Madness selling out two stadium-sized gigs in Finsbury Park in front of 33,000 people each day.
Did Carl have any doubts about Madstock being a success? “You know, I didn’t. I know you’re not supposed to say that. The minute the band got back together in rehearsals, you felt the energy of the original songs and the intent. It was really strong.”
“I still get emotional about that gig,” says Woodgate. “We were the biggest selling singles band of the 80s, we spent more weeks on the chart than any other band, and yet we’re still treated as a joke. No awards, nothing. That gig was like a big ‘fuck you’ to the music industry, and I’m incredibly proud of it.”
Since then Madstock has become a biannual celebration, moving between Finsbury Park and Victoria Park in Hackney. The band sporadically regroup to record albums – 1999’s Wonderful even spawning their first new Top Ten hit in 16 years – as well as pursuing a side project, The Dangermen, to play ska and soul covers.
In 2002, a coterie of West End theatre producers, inspired by the success of Abba’s Mamma Mia and Queen’s We Will Rock You, approached Madness with the idea of making a musical around their songs. The result, <Our House>, knitted together the band’s greatest hits – and a couple of Barson originals – into a tragic-comic narrative based on early life of the bandmembers (something that Broadway producers would later do with The Four Seasons to make Jersey Boys).
“Tim Firth, the writer, spent a lot of time with us,” says Suggs. “We went for long boozy nights out, and we all told him about our teenage years. Rather than it being purely biographical, he very cleverly amalgamated a lot of our individual stories into the story of one person.” The show told the story of Joe Casey, a loveable rascal from Camden Town, choosing between crime and romance, with a Sliding Doors-style split narrative explaining the different paths his life could take.
The show opened to very good reviews, won an Olivier Award for best new musical, and lasted ten months at London’s Cambridge Theatre. While it performed far better than most other “jukebox musical” in the West End like Tonight’s The Night (Rod Stewart) or Never Forget (Take That), Daddy Cool (Boney M) and Desperately Seeking Susan (Blondie) – and better than Broadway counterparts such as Ring Of Fire (Johnny Cash), Movin’ Out (Billy Joel) and Hot Feet (Earth Wind And Fire) – Our House was still considered a flop by the ruthless standards of the West End. However, the band are proud of the work and are in talks about making “an even darker” film adaptation.
The experiences of making the musical certainly fed into the making of the Norton Folgate album, invigorating them to write about their hometown. When Clive Langer started overseeing the project two years ago, the idea was to clear out all the material that individual band members had been writing privately in recent years. They ended up recording 23 tracks. “I was thinking Exile On Main Street,” Langer muses, “or maybe Exile On Camden High Street.”
Langer instituted a back-to-basics approach. “I wanted to do the whole thing on eight tracks, like the old days,” he says. The band started recording at Toerag in Hackney – Liam Watson’s lo-fi studio, famously used by The White Stripes and Billy Childish – coincidentally using the same piano they used on their first Two-Tone single “The Prince”.
“One challenge we’ve always had with Madness has been to fit all seven members of the band on the record,” says Langer. “As a producer, your first inclination would be to take things out. Some tracks, for instance, might sound fine with just piano and bass, or lots of tracks don’t really need a saxophone or a guitar. But it became clear, very early on, that every song had to have all the members of the band on it, otherwise it wouldn’t be a Madness song. Everybody song is stamped with each member’s unique personality.”
All the bandmembers agree that they’re getting along better than ever. Even Chris Foreman, who initially wasn’t involved in the Norton Folgate project, was tempted back into the fold after hearing some of the early songs. “I always believed in the energy and power of the band,” says Smyth. “I don’t want to over-egg it, but there’s a lovely quality to Madness, a very human quality.”
“Of course, if you’re writing about Madness, you are bound by law to use the phrase ‘quintessentially English’, whatever that means” laughs Suggs. “I get stopped a lot by people in the street, wahey Suggsy, that kind of thing, but yesterday I got accosted by this huge, thuggish fella. I thought he was going to hit me. But he came and kissed me and said ‘you are a national GIFT and I fucking love your band’. It’s really nice when people say that to you. Nicer than spitting in your face.”
The Liberty Of Norton Folgate is out now. Madstock is on at Victoria Park Hackney on July 17 2009.