If I said Suggs, what would you think? Madness? “One Step Beyond?” Nutty Trains? Ska?
I ask because he was back in this neck of the woods on Saturday night, a week after Madness had played Belfast’s Belsonic. This time he was solo; no singing – no “House of Fun” going on. He was in Bangor with Open House Festival talking with home-grown Gavin Martin, The Mirror’s music critic and Suggs’ long-time drinking partner by the looks of it. They were looking at an eclectic mix of video clips that Suggs had selected for the talk, and there was an eager, happy air in the packed room.
The 1969 black and white trailer for cult classic Bronco Bullfrog was his first choice. The Suedehead’s
Quadrophenia, Bronco Bullfrog was thick with East End accents, scooters, and teenagers struggling to escape how dead-end it all is. “What a hair do!” shouted Suggs, just seconds into the clip. The conversation afterwards looked at how the film resonated with him. “When I was a kid everyone lived in a council flat” he told us. Martin dug deeper – asking whether it was an aim to escape his circumstances when he formed Madness. “Yeah, you wanted to get out of working on a building site” he replied. “Pop music was definitely a way out. A way of not having your nose pressed against the grindstone for the rest of your existence.”
As a boy he moved around a lot, finding it hard to make friends. “It’s a cliché” he shrugged, “but the best way to be liked is to be entertaining.” He took a drink from the bottle of Coors on the table and the conversation moved on to “old farty bands with long hair” playing 15 minute instrumentals. Surely there had to be something else?
The videos moved in sequence, illustrating points made or introducing new themes. The Harder They Come was clip #2; the 1972 Jamaican crime film with a soundtrack renowned for waking the world up to reggae. With “our bizarre colonial connection with Jamaica” Suggs was keen to point out how he and his friends were hearing it already, on their own streets. The talk moved on to punk, and Suggs went on to talk about the point of punk. “Bands that were 15 or 16 years old were making a complete racket.” It didn’t matter that it was a racket, what was important was to be heard, to have a voice.
“We weren’t punks and we certainly weren’t black, but we liked the idea of rebel music.” He described Madness as a mixture of reggae, punk and music-hall, and explained interestingly about music-hall being people’s music, giving examples of songs like “Up Before The Judge” and “Two Lovely Black Eyes.” His third choice of video helped illustrate this. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band was on stage; Harvey was acting up as he performed “Framed.” Slicking his hair back with beer, sneering as he donned his leather jacket. “I didn’t realise that Harvey was alluding to old music-hall acts” Suggs explained, while Martin went on to describe Harvey’s performance as “street theatre, a proletarian act on the stage.”
The videos continued, but there were hitches and glitches and some were no shows, or at-the-wrong-time shows. The clip for A Clockwork Orange worked OK, and that’s good because the points he was making were clean and crisp to hear. He talked about growing up in London when there were so many different gangs, different tribes – punks, psychobillies, teds, mods … the list went on. “Kids today” he remarked, “I don’t blame them but they all dress from the same shops.”
“Can you imagine seven young kids today trying to start a band?” He went on about there being nowhere to rehearse, about the ‘pay to play’ culture in pubs, about how you just can’t afford to do it unless your parents have money.
This led on to what happened on 3rd May 1979. He remembers it well. Thatcher was voted in. The times were ripe and in need of bands like The Specials, and he reminisced of the Two-Tone tour he joined with The specials, The Beat, Dexy’s, and more. “It was Jerry’s [Dammers] idea” he half stated, half sighed. “You got to stop being racist.”
There was a Specials clip, and an Ian Dury clip, and an Amy Winehouse clip, and some kerfuffling, which led to the men on stage intermittently giving up on the videos, deciding just to talk round the topics instead. At one point there was a great exchange when Martin started to quiz Suggs about playing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “Did you not feel like you were being corrupted by the lizard elite?” Martin asked, eventually. It took a while because every time he said the word “jubilee” Suggs would jump up and play to the audience as if he was about to leave the stage.
The night ended in a comic shambles. On being asked a question from the room, Suggs gave us a little of Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around” and then simply walked off stage through the black curtain at the side. Martin stood on, expecting him to come back, he started peering through the curtain to see what was happening. Then, as if by magic, Gavin Martin the shopkeeper disappeared too.