CHRIS FOREMAN / MADNESS INTERVIEW
“We came, we saw, we left.” A simple press office statement, a haunting farewell single and Madness, one of the truly great pop recording acts of a decade, were gone.
Two years have passed since Madness caught that Ghost Train out of our lives – but now they have returned, altered but not deterred. Where once they were seven, now they are four, and these days they call themselves THE Madness. An album, also entitled ‘The Madness’, is to be released in the wake of ‘I Pronounce You’, their first single with the new slim-line group.
This has been the band’s second drastic line-up change. By the time of their split they had already long since parted company with their all-important keyboard player, Mike Barson. He had quit the group shortly after completing the ‘Keep Moving’ album in 1983 (he traded the rigours of the pop world for a peaceful life in Holland with his Dutch wife). Barson, often the dynamo of the band, had been responsible for some of the best-loved Madness tunes. His dominating keyboard prowess, together with Lee’s distinctive saxophone blasts, giving the band their unique sound. Without him the group weren’t sure how they would cope but two years later they released ‘Mad Not Mad’. Arguably their finest long-player, it broke new ground but success in the singles charts eluded them and for a band whose reputation had been built on the strength of the three minute pop song, a string of singles failing to make the Top Ten just wasn’t good enough. Now, after a two-year silence, Suggs, Carl, Lee and Chris are back together again.
I arrive at Madness’s own Liquidator Studios to have the door opened by a face I’ve seen many time before. Whether it was under a pith helmet or above a Crombie, the face is still the same – Chrissy Boy as was, Chris Foreman as is! He jokingly points out that I’m ten minutes late as he leads me through to a hall where we find saxophonist Lee Thompson. Moving swiftly through the studio we leave Lee to his papers and allow Chris, the ‘quiet one’, to tell us all about the Madness story. There’s a lot to talk about in a career that has crammed 23 hit singles (including 15 Top Ten hits) into a seven-year recording history. But how did it all start?
In guitar terms Chris was a late-developer. His father – “sort of a folk singer” – had tried to teach him to play as a child, but the young Chrissy Boy couldn’t maintain much of an interest. His career restarted at the age of 17 when his friends Mike Barson (no slouch on the piano) and Lee Thompson (caught in possession of a saxophone) persuaded him to spend his tax rebate on a guitar that Lee had spotted in a second-hand shop in Camden.
“It was £20 and it was a real cheapo, semi-acoustic Woolworth’s type guitar,” recalls Chris with a smile. “I bought it and I started playing with Mike and Lee; I just used to play these notes – just one string at a time, I wasn’t even very interested in it. And then I started playing chords and that was what started me off. That was probably about late 1977.
“At that time there wasn’t anyone I really emulated but I did like Wilko Johnson and as he used to play a Fender Telecaster, I eventually got one of those and it cost me about £130. I’ve still got it and although I don’t use it much now, I used to use it all the time – on the first album I used just that.
“We used to go round to Mike’s house,” explains Chris. “Mike was a really good on the piano. He always seemed to be able to play, from when I first knew him. His brother, Ben, is really good too and has played with lots of people. And Ben had a lot of equipment – like a piano and an amplifier.
“First of all it was just something to do on a Saturday and we used to learn songs that we liked. The sort of stuff we liked was Motown, reggae, R’n’B, and rock’n’roll. It took a lot of time until we actually became Madness and we had loads of different people before we got the Madness line-up. And then we started writing our own songs, which was important and we stopped doing all the rock’n’roll songs. We still kept doing the reggae ones because nobody did them. And then the Two Tone thing came along and we were well away.”
Two Tone was a midlands based multi-racial set-up – The Specials were from Coventry and had prominent black members, Madness were an all white bunch of North London lads. Somehow, in different parts of the country, both bands were evolving a similar attitude and sound. The Specials had struck up a deal for their own Two Tone label and Madness became the second band to release a single on Two Tone. ‘The Prince’ cruised into the Top 20 on the back of a new fashion movement that was exciting the country.
“It was really strange that The Specials were doing a similar thing to us but they were more punk – they were more influenced by that. I used to really like it but it didn’t really influence us. The thing about the Specials was that none of them had really been skinheads, whereas we had. But I think Neville and Lynval, they were Jamaican and Jerry had always liked reggae music. That’s how they got into it. It was just a real coincidence. People always used to say that The Specials were the first ska band or some crap like that, but it wasn’t true, it just happened like that.”
As the Two Tone craze stormed the country, Madness jumped off the black and white checked bandwagon and signed to Stiff. This was more a practical consideration than a career move, as the Two Tone deal only covered singles and Madness were looking to record an album. Chris Foreman views the move to Stiff as the best thing they could have done at the time and it proved a decisive career change as far as further success would be concerned.
“It was the best of a bad bunch. All these labels were after us purely because it was the in thing. You know how it happens. Say you get a group like Tears For Fears and everybody’s after groups like them. That’s what it was. They were offering us lots of money but they didn’t have a clue of what we were about. The main guy at Stiff, Dave Robinson, he talked a lot of sense. He didn’t think we were just one-hit wonders.”
Under the personal direction of Dave Robinson, Madness flourished as a singles band, warming the hearts of the nation with their whimsical pop observations, such as ‘My Girl’, ‘Baggy Trousers’ and ‘Embarrassment’. Over the years their sound was refined and the band eventually progressed to become one of the country’s most creative pop acts, an achievement that would not have been possible with any less than the seven members: in various combinations, all members of the band contributed to the songwriting process.
“That's one of the reason for our longevity, the fact that it wasn’t just two people like in Squeeze. At the beginning Mike used to write a lot of stuff, and Mike often used to write with Lee. There were really good combinations, Mike and Lee were really good because Lee would write lyrics – he writes a lot of lyrics – and he would just give them to Mike, who’s the sort of person who could look at them and think of a tune. I'm not very good at that, I just used to do a tune at home and play it to everybody and then maybe one of them would take it home and come up with some lyrics. But there wasn't any of that thing: ‘Right, I'm going to write a song with you’. If I had a tune and one of them liked it, then we had a song out of it.”
Guitar had always been an important and understated element in the Madness sound, arriving with little flourishes, adding to the whole without ever intruding. “It's funny, when we were much younger, Mike and myself used to go and see a lot of groups and they’d always have a keyboard player, but you’d never be able to hear him,” explains Chris. "We decided we'd make sure you could always hear Mike because he's really good, and then no-one used to hear me. The first album was all playing the guitar on the offbeat – rhythm things. There are a couple of songs where I did different things. On ‘Bed And Breakfast Man’ I used one of these amps called a Roland Chorus Echo and that had a really nice ringing sound, but most of the time it was just rhythm.
“If you do listen to them I was doing a lot of things. I had loads of feedback on ‘Shut Up’, but because we had so much on our records, things would get lost.”
Was it a surprise that Madness took off as such a consistent singles band so soon? “Without wishing to seem big-headed, we always knew we were different to any other group,” he says. "I mean, our line-up of instruments was quite unusual to most groups at the time, and we had a lot of songs and we’d know if they were good or not. I mean we'd get together and write and we'd usually sort out the ones that weren’t any good – usually mine [laughs]. I had all the b-sides. And our producer Chris Langer was really good, he was like another member of the band, because he’s a musician and he’d say: ‘Look, try this on the guitar’.”
Early on in their career they suddenly hit upon a medium that they were to pioneer. Madness became the first real video stars. “The first one that we did that everybody noticed was ‘Baggy Trousers’,” remembers Chris. “That was the one when Lee flew! We got this crane with some wires and he flew though the air. And when we looked at the film, you couldn’t see the wires and it looked really good. Everyone was saying, ‘Have you seen the new Madness video’. And that made us become established for being well known for the videos. People would always want to see the new Madness video! Just lately it’s become a real industry with these ‘wonderful’ directors, but I just don’t think they’re any good. When we did a video we directed it ourselves. We used to work with Dave Robinson and we’d have a lot of ideas and he’d just help us get it a bit organised. I mean, he was the director and he did come up with a lot of things but really it was us, it was always us.
“There were certain little techniques that we developed. One of them is that we’d all dress the same in the video. We’d decide on something that we were all going to wear, which I think is quite good because you stop being so anonymous. In a way you ARE becoming anonymous because you all look the same but it gives you a sort of group identity. In the video we’ve just done, we were trying to be a bit different but that was one thing that we kept – we were all wearing these little Prince of Wales check suits and white jumpers.
"Another thing we’d do sometimes was Suggs would be a kind of narrator. He’d be telling the story. So in ‘Our House’ for example, we’re all dressed in cloth caps but he’d be dressed different and that kind of separated him from us.”
Now that The Madness are without a regularly bass player, drummer and keyboard player, the new album sees them calling in a few guest musicians to fill the gaps. And who better to call upon but the class of ’79! “We were doing a couple of reggae ones so we rang up the bass player from UB40 – Earl – and he came down for a couple of days,” says Chris. “And we rung up Jerry Dammers and that was fun, because he gets very involved in doing a lot of other things. I think it was good for him.”
Chris modestly describes the new album as “brilliant”. The band are obviously very pleased with it and understandably so: it’s taken a long time to complete and for the first time in their career they worked without the Langer/Winstanley production team, choosing instead to produce themselves. “Some of it is very recognizably us and some of it isn’t,” admits Chris. “Carl [Chas Smash] has doing a lot of singing. He’s been doing a lot of writing as well, he’s written well over half the album as well, which is good because he’s always got loads of ideas for songs and it’s good to get them out of him.”
Chas Smash was the guy who came along for the ride, the one with no real contribution to make to the band beyond the ability to dance and yell ‘One Step Beyond’. Just as the band lost Mike Barson, their best songwriter, Chas Smash wrote his first single for the band – ‘Michael Caine’. By the last album he had progressed into a fine tunesmith, even penning Fergal Sharkey’s first solo hit, ‘You Should Have Listened To Your Father’. In retrospect it does come seem a little strange that Chas Smash has grown up into Carl Smyth and has now become the bands most prolific songwriter.
“It’s a great paradox of our time. I was thinking that the other day. Because he was just a mate… I remember this gig at the Aylesbury Friars – he wasn’t there and he came up on the train late. And he came through the audience like: ‘ONE STEP BEYOND’! And then we couldn’t afford not to have him, because he was so good. I sound like the old father figure but I’m really pleased at the way that he and Suggs have developed. I mean when we started Suggs couldn’t play anything and now he can play the piano. When we were doing the album, Suggs and myself programmed all the drum machines. But it’s sort of done me out of a job really, because I used to write the tunes and they’d write the lyrics, but now they’re writing their own tunes and their own lyrics, so I’m redundant.”
Since their reappearance, The Madness have been trying to stress that they aren’t the Nutty Boys we knew and loved. Times change, people grow older and musicians grow ‘serious’. But for all the newly found straight-faced pop, can Madness ever be totally serious?
“Unfortunately, when you have your initial success, people conceive this idea of what you are – which IS what you are. And that stays with you forever. We are what we are really. On the one video we’ve just done we tried to be serious, but Lee’s got a Mohican haircut and in a bit of it we dyed his face red and things like that, so it hard to be… we don’t want to be a serious, cheeks sucked-in arty farty band, but the subject matter of a lot of our songs has always been serious. I mean ‘Embarrassment’ was about having a halfcast kid and what the relatives thought, but I don’t know if anyone even noticed what it was about.”
With ‘Keep Moving’ in 1983, Madness finally became a fully recognised albums band. Sure, they were still capable of superb slices of seven-inch pop like ‘Michael Caine’, but at last they were making critically faultless albums, capable of winning a wider audience for the band. But when did the change take place? Early Madness albums were raw and earthy, showing up their strengths as much as their weaknesses. Listen now to the ‘One Step Beyond’ album and you wouldn’t be able to find a group that would later come up with caustic ballads like ‘Yesterdays Men’. It wasn’t until the release of their third album, ‘Seven’, that the spark of pure pop genius would become apparent.
“I listened to our second album ‘Absolutely’ a while ago, because I’d always imagined it to be really good but it was bloody awful. Everything’s really fast and off-beat. ‘Seven’, that was where we really changed!”
After ‘Seven’ came ‘Rise And Fall’. Despite the presence of two of their best singles (‘Our House’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Just Another Day’/‘Madness Is All In The Mind’) ‘Rise And Fall’ was a deep and inaccessible album, which if it did little else helped bridge the gap to the new Madness of ‘Keep Moving’.
“I like ‘Rise And Fall’,” concedes Chris. “It was the closest we’ve ever come to a concept album, even though the songs were all written by different people. I mean, we were going to have this little story about it, we were going to have talking between the tracks but we thought: ‘No, people will get bored of it’. We thought that a lot of the songs could be about the same person, the same character.”
The first single from the new album, ‘I Pronounce You’, sees Chris yet again toying with the sitar, an instrument he’s used on previous Madness albums. “When we were doing our second album, Clive Longer said: ‘Oh, you should put a sitar on this’, and I was thinking, ‘How am I going to play one of those?' But it is in fact like a conventional guitar, although the pickups are different. It's like a really wacky shape because I think it was made in the Sixties. All those old Motown records have a sitar, like ‘Band Of Gold’. I've used it on a lot of our records. In fact I used it on ‘Shut Up’ – that was the thing that was feeding back. It's very dead: if you pick a note it doesn't resonate for as long as a guitar. Clive Larger actually bought one because we were always hiring them.”
Even with the second coming of The Madness, it's unlikely that these nutty boys will be out on the road again. On the last Madness tours, their live set-ups were becoming increasingly more complex, with backing singers and percussionists padding out the sound of the Los Palmas Six to almost orchestral proportions. A far cry from the early days and a direction that Chris himself was not too keen on.
“I didn't like that,” he explains. “I always used to like it when there was just the seven of us. People come to see you live, do they want to go: 'Oooh, that was just like the record', or do they want to go: ‘That was really rocking’. If it’s just like the record, they might as well sit at home and play the bloody record. It's like they're going: ‘We've got to have two keyboard players' and that's stupid. I used to overdub the guitars on the albums but I didn't say ‘We better take another guitarist so I do all the fiddly-bits'.”
If the four remaining nutty boys have their way, The Madness story has only just started really and Chris seems very optimistic about their future work. But just for one last moment, let's look backwards. What period of his career does he look upon with the most affection?
The Madness story has only just started really. After all, this is a new beginning and Chris seems very optimistic about the future. But just for one last moment let’s look backwards. What period of his career does he look back upon with the most affection?
“I suppose the quite early days,” recalls Chris with a smile. “When it was just a few of us in a mini van whizzing up and down the country without a care in the world. You know they made that film about us, I was watching it the other day – and I haven’t seen it for about two years – and it’s really good to remember what it was like. I don’t think even if we become really successful again, it will ever be like that. It’s the naievety of it all.”
With the interview finished I head for the door, but I pass a face that looks vaguely familiar. An old friend perhaps? No, it was Chas Smash, but it’s easy to mistake. Madness are old friends – after all, we all grew up with them!
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007