What will the neighbours think? Petty theft, graffiti, gang fights and narcotic hazes; Madness’ docuseries Before We Was We – screening on demand from May 1 on BT TV and AMC – reads more like a juvenile charge sheet than the origin story of one of ‘80s pop’s biggest bands.
Based on their 2019 rags-to-near-riches oral history in which the natty princes behind ‘House Of Fun’, ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘Our House’ and ‘It Must Be Love’ told firsthand the more candid tales of their nutty-march from poverty stricken North London broken homes to the verge of flying-sax stardom (it stops at 1980’s third single ‘My Girl’), the three hour-long shows are a riveting watch, as much a portrait of the struggles and excitements of 1970s London street life as of a seven-headed mod whirlwind on a mission to bring ska to the pop masses.
That directors Bill Jones and Ben Timlett were fans of the band from their teenage years and worked with them on several projects in the late-‘00s only helped the Los Palmas 7, interviewed in a variety of pandemic-shuttered theatres, open up on camera about their tea-leaf pasts, in-band bickerings and the terrors and triumphs of building a name in the back rooms of Camden Town in the age of punk. “You’re always looking at what’s coming next and occasionally you wallow,” says singer Suggs, down the phone, of the joy in reminiscing about the early days. “If I’m downstairs watching old Madness videos it’s worse than being caught watching porn as far as my family are concerned. So it’s nice to wallow in it a bit, and actually be paid to wallow in it, it was great. There were so many different perspectives and a lot of stuff came out that even I didn’t think about… We thought it’d be better if it was like that thing where everybody’s been to a party and everybody’s got a completely different story the following day of exactly what happened.”
Muddied memories well and truly jogged, here’s seven secrets to be found in, and around, the series.
They were proper scoundrels
The smashed windows, school fights and housebreakings of hits like ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Baggy Trousers’ weren’t Beano fictions but semi-comic confessionals, it turns out. Jones’ biggest revelation in making the series was “how much of a thief, some of them were. ‘I have 300 records and I haven’t bought a record in my life…’ And jumping trains and then stealing stuff out of the trains.”
“Believe me, we only scratched the surface,” says Suggs. “When we started out it was almost like the ‘60s, you were a pop band, you had to behave in a certain way and do certain things, which we very much fought against, being banned from Top Of The Pops and all that. We struggled through what was expected of us and in the background was this slightly darker undercurrent. Then you get to the ‘80s and you’ve got bands actually wanting to have their picture taken with a pile of drugs on the table, because it was actually better for your image! We’d been struggling away hiding and scuttling about in the dark! So it was nice to tell a bit more of that side of the story.”
They were the Beastie Boys of the early ‘70s
When the formative Madness weren’t shoplifting, burgling or breaking into Eurovision singer Lynsey de Paul’s house to eat her cereal, they were the tagging trains, bridges and underpasses in their role as the graffiti culture pioneers of NW1. “They were some of the first to bring that American style of graffiti to London,” says Jones. “Lee [Thompson, saxophonist] said that the greatest moment for him was when George Melly wrote an article in one of the papers, ‘If I ever find out who wrote “Kicks” on my garage door I’m going to slap his bum.’ He was like ‘I’ve made it! I’m in the paper!’”
“It was almost like social media,” says Suggs. “I’d be in a pub and I’d overhear people saying ‘there’s Mr B’, or’ there’s Kicks’. You knew them by their tags. So I set about it with great gusto, picked a name for myself out of a book my mum had, Suggs, and I put my heart and soul into it. Mike [Barson, keyboards] was really amazing, he’d do trains coming out of walls and extraordinary three-dimensional art. That New York thing hadn’t really got to London at that point so it was trailblazing.
“We certainly had the same attitude as the Beastie Boys. We played in Athens with them and I remember how impressive they were in terms of their energy and fun. There was a riot at this place, it was murder. There was geezers with machetes, they set fire to the stage, and we just about escaped, me and one of the Beastie Boys and a couple of others. It was the most near-death experience I’ve ever had.”
No-one knows the origin of the ‘Nutty Train’
“We cut out the story about the Nutty Train,” says Timlett of Madness’ famous human centipede-style dance manoeuvre, explaining that none of the band could agree on its origins. “Chris [Foreman, guitar] said it was a Dave Allen sketch,” says Jones, “where all these people are coming out of their doors going to work and they all walk in line, right next to each other, and then it cuts and they go into a sardine packing factory.”
Suggs was nearly the drummer
Early in the band’s career, they reveal, Suggs was sacked as singer for going to a football match instead of rehearsal. “That was a cathartic thing to talk about because we’ve all got different stories about it,” he says. “There were two stories – one was someone saw me on Match Of The Day that night, because I was making all sorts of spurious excuses, and the other one, I saw an advert in Melody Maker with Mike Barson’s phone number on ‘keyboard player seeking professionally minded singer’. I rang up and put on a funny voice, and I went ‘I’m just enquiring about the job of singer in your band, what’s happened to the old one?’ He said ‘we had to let him go, he was a bit unprofessional’. I said ‘Mike, it’s me, you fucker’. He said: ‘Oh Suggs, sorry mate I meant to call you. I tell you what though, you could come back in the band because you play drums. We’re auditioning for new singers.’ So I actually drummed at an audition.”
They literally fought their way to the top
Violence squirms beneath the surface of the Madness story, dotted with fights they had with various local gangs at gigs. Suggs remembers 1970s London as being “like that film The Warriors in New York. You had a pub full of rockabillies, a pub full of Hell’s Angels, every pub had its own scene – goths, mods, skinheads, punks, soul boys… There was this place called The Sundown, which was a discotheque where football hooligans used to beat the fuck out of each other to the strains of Minnie Ripperton, and when they got bored of that they’d come and have a go at us… You’ve got the jubilee in 1977 and there was this huge swelling of national pride, so if you looked a bit odd you were immediately seen as a communist devil and chased up the road. The way we looked everyone thought we were intimidating, but you had to be.”
Early Madness audiences were also blighted by a National Front skinhead element. “You see footage of Nuremberg or whatever and think: ‘This can’t really be happening, can it?’” he says of one crowd zieg heil-ing a Black R&B support act called Red Beans And Rice at an early Electric Ballroom show. “So me and Carl took it upon ourselves to jump into the audience, and that was a big mistake. He got a kick up the bollocks and I got a black eye.” Is it worrying to see such mentalities on the rise again? “It’s in times of fear,” Suggs says, “you get ignorance.”
They always have childish in-jokes
Behind the cameras, Jones and Timlett remember the band always having an in-joke worthy of the wittier five-year-olds doing the rounds. “When we first did films with them they all kept saying the joke: ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrrrr’,” says Timlett. “We did this tour video of them going around in America,” adds Jones, “and the running joke then was when we heard a police siren go past they’d go ‘He’s never gonna sell any ice cream at that speed’.”
A second series might expose the underbelly of pop stardom
Suggs is pleased that the series redresses the image of Madness as a knockabout novelty act and colours in their grittier edges. And he’s not averse to the idea of a second series exploring their evolution towards sophisticated pop like ‘One Better Day’ and ‘Yesterday’s Men’, and the darker side of their fame years. “It’s gone so well that I could see there might be an optimism to go into the success of the band and the development of where we went musically,” he says. “We’ve done those interviews so many times about the hits that we wanted to get something else out of our system. But we could continue in the same way, in that you could expose some of the darker elements of what it is to be in a very successful pop band. At the time you’re busy promoting a happy-go-lucky aspirational outfit and maybe we could apply a bit of the darker side of what happens when you’re on the road in America for six weeks.”
Did he learn anything about himself or the band from Before We Was We? “What a firmament of British culture we have become,” he says, “unbeknownst to us. When you compile it all – where we were from, the things we were up to, 2 tone very specifically – in some strange way we became an important part of our culture and I’m very proud of that.”
‘Madness: Before We Was We’ premieres on May 1 at 9pm, exclusively on BT TV and AMC (the first episode will be available for free on BT’s YouTube channel)