The secret of my Suggscess
Dan Carrier talks to director Julien Temple about his biopic of Madness frontman Suggs
11 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Suggs in action in My Life Story
THE 1979 Madness song The Prince is in honour of ska legend Prince Buster – and its lyrics include the line “an earthquake is erupting”, in reference to the effect Jamaican-origin music had on young people in north London at the time.
Fast forward to 1992. Madness haven’t played together for nearly a decade, but Mean Fiddler promoter Vince Power has put together a bill that includes Aswad, Ian Drury and the Blockheads and Dawn Penn – and Madness to headline.
Strange events occurred over the two days of the gig. The British Geological Survey reported a ground tremor measuring five on the Richter scale was recorded on the Friday night, leading to tower blocks in Holloway and Seven Sisters to be evacuated. A quake expert suggested it was due to people jumping up and down in the park – an idea the police said was nonsense, until the following night, as Madness took to the stage, the same tremors were felt.
The band had literally caused an earthquake in north London – a sign of the effect the seven-piece from Camden Town had on their fans.
Now the Madness phenomenon, as seen as through the eyes of their front man Graham “Suggs” McPherson, is the subject of a new film, My Life Story, by Kentish Town director Julien Temple.
It takes us through a personal history of Suggs’ life, ground covered in his 2014 autobiography That Close – but brought off the page with the dash and verve you would expect from such a well-versed performer under the guidance of the original rock and roll director Temple.
And the fortunes of both Julien and Suggs are intertwined from way back when.
“I have known Suggs for a long time”, says the director, whose back catalogue includes Sex Pistols exposé The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, a documentary on Glastonbury, and perhaps the best film ever made on our city – London: The Modern Babylon.
“Clive Langer, who produced them, was at William Ellis School with me and I knew [keyboardist] Mike Barson’s older brothers, so I was aware of the band early on.
“I later tried to cast him in Absolute Beginners. He said he had a broken toe and couldn’t do the dance audition, which was his way of getting out of it.”
They make perfect foils for one another: Temple’s work has long focused on music and social history. London: The Modern Babylon dovetailed the music our city has produced with incredible archive footage to tell our home town’s story since the dawn of photography.
With Suggs, he has a bona fide London legend as a starting point – and is very much aware of how Suggs is a torchbearer for a culture that can be traced back to the music halls, and beyond that to London folk music and Cockney shanties of earlier times.
“I have always loved the music hall and its legacy,” says Julien. “It is very important in shaping the mindset of the city. I think some of the best English pop and rock music goes further back from Elvis Presley, right back into the music hall of the early 20th and late 19th century. You can see this clearly with The Kinks, and also in Madness. Suggs is kind of a music hall character – and music is important in most of the things I do. I like using music as a window into the place, into the time and into the people who made it. The music here is part of the psycho-geography of north London.”
It struck Julien, working with Suggs, how the music is a combination of a number of cultural ingredients – and this in turn was highlighted by Suggs’ own interests.
“He is proud of London and excited about London culture and history,” adds Julien. “He was well up for opening it out, for using the music to get to the roots of a place.”
The film reveals how a young Suggs met a group of glam rockers hanging out at a youth club in Highgate Road and while at first there was antipathy between them – Suggs hated the flares and hair, the capes and the sequins – they realised he had a voice on him and it would eventually lead to him joining a band called The Invaders, which would morph into Madness.
“That glam rock/skinhead collision that produced Madness was an interesting area that has not been looked at that much in terms of film history and pop culture in England,” adds Julien.
“And there has always been a slightly condescending attitude towards Madness.
“High-brow snobby cultural commentators miss the wit and the meaning of some of the songs. And the music is very accurate about the world they have come from.”
Julien not only had Suggs, now 55, to use as a narrator and to share anecdotes, he was fortunate to be able to draw on plenty of footage of the band in their earlier days.
“Madness made a film soon after their first hits about how they got together,” he adds.
“That gave me a wealth of material, and then you have this great juxtaposition of this 55-year-old man singing the same songs as his 18-year-old self.”
He also trawled archives at the BBC – and found some fascinating shots associated with Suggs’ youth. His mother, for example, worked at the infamous Colony Rooms in Soho – providing Julien with some excellent material.
As well as grabbing a slice of London in the latter half of 20th century – the 70s was a “Decade of Discontent, not a winter”, Suggs says in terms of the music – Julien has a perfect soundtrack to consider.
“Madness are an interesting record of the emotional history of the late 70s and 80s. I think they have been dismissed as yobs.
“But people should understand there is a lot of politics in their songs, lots of layers, lots of information on the world they came from and told in a very contagious way. They were pioneers of celebrating the London we live in and embracing it.”