Suggs, lead vocalist with Madness, chats with Kevin Cooper about 40 years of being in Madness, his autobiography Suggs: That Close, His House Of Fun Weekenders at Butlins and his one man show Suggs What A King Cnut.

Graham McPherson is best known by his stage name Suggs.  He is an English singer songwriter, musician, writer, radio personality and actor, but he is best known for being the front man of ska band Madness.

In a music career spanning more than forty years, Suggs came to prominence in the late 70s with the band Madness, who released fifteen singles that entered the top ten charts in the United Kingdom from the 70s to the 90s.  Their hits included My Girl, Baggy Trousers, Embarrassment, It Must Be Love, House Of Fun, Driving In My Car, Our House, Wings Of A Dove and Lovestruck.

In 2012 the band performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace.  They performed Our House and It Must Be Love from the roof of the Palace.  Later the same year the band was the first to perform at the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

Suggs began his solo career in 1995, while still a member of Madness.  Since then, he has released two studio albums, and two compilation albums.  His solo hits include I’m Only Sleeping, Camden Town, Cecilia and Blue Day.

Suggs has previously performed a one man show entitled LiveSuggs which was about his childhood experiences and his rise to fame.  He is about to embark upon his second show entitled Suggs What A King Knut in which he will recall stories about his life since finding fame with Madness.

Whilst busy rehearsing for his one man show, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Suggs good morning.

Good morning Kevin how are you mate?

I’m very well thanks, how are you today?

I’m good at the minute thanks.  Even better now I have got myself a coffee (laughter).

(Laughter) all good things start with a coffee I think.

That’s so true.

Anyway before we get started let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

That’s alright mate, it’s good.

And let me ask you just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life at the minute is very good, in fact I would have to say that life is excellent.  It’s been a wild few weeks with the new show that I have been doing; it felt as though it was still wet on the page whilst I was up there on the stage performing it live in front of a thousand people.  For me it has been a huge learning curve (laughter).

On the subject of the tour I have been looking at the promotional poster for the tour and it would appear that you and I have something in common.

(Laughter) what’s that then me old mate?

Loakes penny loafers.  You can’t beat them.

Well there you go.  No you can’t you are absolutely right mate.  I find Loakes to be top of the range.  We men don’t treat ourselves to many things but Loakes shoes are the one thing that I have always cherished.

I treated myself to a few pairs last week including a brown suede pair so I am all set now (laughter).

You’ve got to mate.  I tell you what I have found, they have recently started to make navy blue loafers.  Don’t get me wrong I’m not mad on blue shoes but these are so dark that they are actually very pleasant to look at.  In fact, looking down, I have got them on right now (laughter).  There you go, let’s forget about the tour, grab a coffee and let’s talk about the delights of Loakes shoes.  However, I must warn you that I could talk about them all day (laughter).  Whenever I buy myself a new pair I feel like a proud father cherishing his babies (laughter).

I’m so pleased that you have said that because I personally find that women do not understand the attraction that we men have with shoes (laughter).

That is so right, that is perfectly correct (laughter).

Anyway we must, I suppose, talk about music and the current tour hadn’t we?

(Laughter) yes we should, but only if you insist.

Well you have made me feel old today.

Have I well that’s just the way that it goes (laughter).

It is now thirty seven years since I first saw Madness.

Really, well that would have been up there in Nottingham at Rock City I bet?

Yes it was. 

It’s totally bizarre, because next year will be the fortieth anniversary since Madness first started.  When we first started forty years was in the middle of the Second World War and here we are now, some forty years later (laughter).

And will you be doing anything special to commemorate the occasion?

At the moment we are in talks with various people to celebrate British Pop Culture in general and let’s face it, we have been around longer than most.  We have seen a lot of different things come and go.  So in answer to your question, yes we are trying to organise a big celebration of pop music here in Great Britain hopefully.

That’s great and please don’t forget us here in Nottingham if you will be doing a tour of the UK.

There you go.  We love playing Nottingham; we always have such a good time whenever we are up there.  All that I can say at this moment in time is watch this space (laughter).

Coming right up to date, let’s talk about the current tour, Suggs What A King Cnut.  I will let you explain to me the play on words (laughter).

(Laughter) let’s just say that it is an Anglo-Saxon English word and leave it at that (laughter).  No, it is the original English spelling of old King Cnut who as you will remember was the king who tried to stop the tide coming in (laughter).  This is the second one man show that I have done; the first told the story about how I came from where I came from to become the pop star.  Now this show is all about the ridiculous things that have happened to me once I became famous.  As it turns out, the real Cnut was in fact just trying to prove that he was the same as everybody else and by letting the tide wash over him he was just proving that he was the same as everybody else (laughter).

So, to me, it just seemed like a good analogy for the fact that whilst fame has done a lot of great things for me, it has also been a very dangerous substance.  You only have to look at George Michael and Amy Winehouse, god rest their souls.  You can get your fingers burnt.  I have been very lucky because I have had people looking out for me.  So this tour is based upon stories about me being famous really; Buckingham Palace, the Olympics and all that.  Some of the strange and mad things that I could never have imagined forty years ago.  So during the show I will sing a few songs, tell a few stories and generally have a chat.

I’m going to quote you if I may, you wrote ‘I am usually mellow, introverted and quite shy’.  So the question is just what the hell made you stand on stage alone and bare your soul to the world?

(Laughter) yes, I know, why indeed (laughter).  I think that all entertainers will tell you that you have your private side where I am just a normal family person, and then whenever you perform you slightly turn into someone else; you have to really.  But no, it was a really strange series of coincidences which led me to do the one man show.  When I reached fifty, which is now some time ago already, my cat had died, the kids had left home, plus a lot of other things happened, and I thought that maybe it was time to think about my own life because I had been busy bringing up my own kids up to that point.  Then I started thinking about the situation with my dad and that was very sad.

However, I got myself out there and that show proved to be very popular.  Then when they asked me to do the second show I found that I had to dig a bit deeper (laughter).  So I think that it is possible to actually do these things without glorifying them or cheapening them.  At the end of the day, the stories that I talk about are all about human existence.  I think that most people have some similarities in the ups and downs of life, certainly when dealing with family life.

After many years of performing on stage with Madness where you were surrounded by colleagues and friends, the first time that you did the one man show, were you nervous or apprehensive at all?

(Laughter) I wasn’t nervous, I was terrified (laughter).  It was a pretty daunting and different experience and one that I wasn’t prepared for at all.  I had heard about people whose mouths had gone dry whilst they were performing, and they couldn’t speak but luckily that had never happened to me before, but that actually did happen to me.  I was performing the show in a small theatre just for my friends and family in North London and I couldn’t speak which is not very helpful when you are trying to do a two hour monologue (laughter).  I was drinking pints of water but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t get any fluid into my larynx.  But eventually, bit by bit, I started to get the hang of it.

I am lucky in that I have got a very nice director because originally I thought that I would just go out onto the stage and tell a few funny stories but you have to write it, and you have to learn it, which all involves self-discipline.  However, it is very helpful because it means that now I have got the confidence where I can ad lib and mess around a bit, but you also know that you have got a structure to fall back on.  Also I think that it is more rewarding to have a narrative story that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

So now that you have learnt the ropes so to speak, are you actually enjoying being out there on stage alone?

Yes I am, I truly am.  All in all it has been great.  It has been challenging which I feel that at certain points in your life you have to challenge yourself.  This has been a huge challenge but deep down I sort of knew that I could perform.  I have done a bit of TV, and I have done a bit of radio, so I had a vague idea that I would be able to do this but as I have said earlier, it has been a big learning curve for me.

You have said previously that you are still searching for ‘normal’, have you found it yet?

(Laughter) I suppose that in a way, there is a story that I tell in the show where I talk about when it was the band that lifted me up and managed to get me out of whatever I was in but when the hot air balloon of fame gets too high, it is my friends and family that pop that balloon and bring me back down to earth.  So I suppose that the ‘normal’ bit is when I go home to my family who have no interest whatsoever to sit and listen to me talking about myself.  Whenever I complain about the work my wife says, “How can you sit there and complain about getting paid to talk about yourself, you have got to be joking” (laughter).  There is no sympathy there, that’s for sure (laughter).

Taking you back to 2013 you published your autobiography Suggs: That Close.  Was that something that you felt that you needed to do?

In a way yes.  At that point there were unresolved issues in my life, for example I never knew my dad.  Whilst doing my research for the book I did find out things about him that I didn’t know.  He had lived a lot longer than I thought he had; he had got remarried but he had unfortunately died just shortly before I became famous.  That really was a shame because maybe we would have had a chance to meet.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not mad on the American thing about closure, I don’t really close things, but I did find writing the autobiography to be very cathartic.  It enabled me to work out a few things that I previously didn’t know about.  It was like so many things; you realise when you do it, that everyone has stories to tell you, about your parents together with the children that you never realised that you were related to.

I think that, especially for the generation that my parents came from, there was a shame attached to these things and that is why they never spoke about them.  And then when you do you very soon find out that it is a universal thing and there really is nothing to be embarrassed about.  So from that point of view it was good yes.  My band have always been some dysfunctional parallel family anyway simply because we have all known each other since we were at school. Most of us came from dysfunctional backgrounds so we always shared something together in that regard.  So yes, there was something cathartic in doing that.

Do you have any thoughts on new solo material?

The honest answer is I don’t know.  I do think about it every now and again.  I did a little bit of that earlier on but they weren’t the greatest records even if I say so myself.  Sometimes I feel that I want to do something on my own that is more personal to me than the band as a whole, maybe.  But at the moment I don’t have any plans to do that.  Every step on my current path has come out of the blue.  This whole one man thing was totally not on the radar a few years ago (laughter).  So I don’t know.  The band themselves are still rocking along; we are doing a massive tour at Christmas, we are playing a few gigs during the summer and next year maybe we will be releasing a new record in order to celebrate our fortieth anniversary.  So maybe something solo at some point but currently there are no plans.

On the subject of Madness has there ever been a point where you have thought ‘that’s it, I’ve had enough’?

(Laughter) yes there has, on a daily basis.  We spend more time arguing about fucking loafers and trousers than we ever do about the music.  Having said that I love them all and the greatest thing that we have for each other is respecting others level of tolerance.  This is a funny business that we are in where you are surrounded by people telling you just how great you are all of the time, and you can go fucking nuts.  Ego, money and creativity are very volatile.  Funnily enough it takes Madness a very long time to get things done, that’s because some people don’t want to do things, and it can take us months to decide that we are going to do something.  Then when we do, everyone is really into it.  Then we have all got that energy which is what I think is what makes what we do have any resonance because we have all really thrown ourselves into it.

I have to say that I have been to a couple of the House Of Fun Weekenders at Butlins in Minehead and they are crazy beyond belief.

You have, good man.  Again you see, that came out of the blue again.  They used to say back in the old days ‘careful or you will end up playing at Butlins’ which was a massive criticism but in actual fact they really are the most fantastic thing.  Again Butlins is part of all of our firmament and everyone who I talk to, if I ask them if they want to come down and play at our weekender everyone says the same thing “oh yes, Butlins, that would be brilliant” (laughter).  Butlins is great; it gives us the chance to spend some time with our fans in a very relaxed atmosphere which is unusual for us to be in a position to get that experience.  And it just keeps getting better and better.  On the Friday night we also play something unusual which is for us a bit of a challenge, maybe an old album or some new songs and then on the Saturday we play all the hits so everyone is happy.

Do you ever think about life after Madness?

It’s like those old Greek philosophers The Eagles once said, ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’ (laughter).  We are all stuck together like fucking Steptoe and Son.  We are all stuck in that house moaning at each other.  We will most probably all be there until we die (laughter).

I loved the TV series Disappearing London.  Did you enjoy making it?

Yes I did, I really did.  I have always had an interest in history, but as a kid I always messed around at school and in later life I have always regretted doing that.  So you could say that I have been catching up.  Obviously, London is where I was bought up and I have to say that it is an endlessly fascinating place.  I’m in Salford at the moment and I was talking to a guy last night and he was telling me how his dad used to work on the docks.  You look around now and realise just how times have changed.  But yes, I am fascinated by it all.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was Imagine by John Lennon.  That was the first one that I bought and not the first one that I stole (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That was The Who at Charlton football ground.  I was fourteen at the time and I remember that Charlton’s ground had very low walls so me and my mates climbed over the wall and got into the gig without paying.  About a year ago now Roger Daltrey came to see my show and I knew that he was in the audience so I looked at him and said “I still owe you two quid Roger for getting into that gig free” (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh god, there are certain records that always make me cry.  A daft one is Dolly Parton singing A Coat Of Many Colours.  She talks about the coat which her mum stitched for her out of old rags.  That always gets me.  I know that will sound stupid, but it does.

On that note Suggs let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great and I will see you here in Nottingham at the Theatre Royal on 8th March 2018.

You are very welcome Kevin, thank you mate and I really do hope that you like the show.  Bye for now and I will see you in Nottingham.