Musician Suggs on the worst thing he's ever done
Suggs (real name Graham McPherson) is a musician and TV and radio personality, most famous as the lead singer of Madness, one of the most popular bands of the 1980s with 15 top 10 singles. Still playing live and touring with the band, his latest documentary for the Sky History channel is about the British obsession with pubs. He lives with his wife, singer Bette Bright, in London and Whitstable.
Here, he reveals his best and his worst.
Best childhood memory?
That would be paddling pools in municipal parks. It came to me the other day, there was this certain smell – probably the evaporation of chlorinated water and wee – and it took me right back. There was something really magical about splashing about in the water. Also adventure playgrounds.
I remember the first one I went to was off the Caledonian Road in north London, and as I walked in they gave me a hammer and nails. I was like, “What?” It doesn’t get better than that when you’re nine. You look back now and it was a death trap… but falling over and getting a few bruises toughens you up, doesn’t it?
Best experience with a pet?
I found a pigeon that had obviously been got at by a cat, and I took it up to the flat – we were on the sixth floor at the time – but it died. I was really upset for five minutes. Then I tied it to a coat hanger with some fishing line, so its wings were spread out and, the next thing, I was swinging it out the window knocking people’s hats off. Eventually it came off the frame in an explosion of feathers and bone.
That would be drinking. I’m a really jolly person when I’ve had a few. I’m very nice, witty and totally engaging, as anyone will tell you. No, I am joking a bit, but funnily enough with the documentary I’ve just made about the British obsession with pubs, it occurred to me that they are such a firmament of everything that has happened to me in my life.
Best influence on you?
Ian Dury. When I got the job in the band, I wasn’t really a singer. I had a lot of charisma and I could approximate words using some sort of rhyming fashion, but seeing Ian Dury and his exuberance, and also just singing about ordinary life, that was something I loved. Also Ray Davies of the Kinks.
Best day in your career?
Performing on the main stage at Glastonbury. That was a long day, and I got really confused. For some reason I was wearing a wig that Zoe Ball had given me. It was eight o’clock, and I thought, “Crap, I’ve got to be on stage in an hour.” My tour manager went, “No, it’s eight o’clock in the morning, Suggs. You’ve got 12 hours to go.” It was a very long 12 hours. And then, like a catatonic person, I burst into life and ran on to the stage, forgetting I still had this stupid wig on. But that’s still the best day.
Best ever night out?
There was one time in Sydney and we were doing a tour with Elbow and Snow Patrol and a load of other bands. We ended up in this club and for some reason it had this enormous polystyrene volcano, which went off every hour. The last thing I remember is seeing our sax player in his underpants chasing Duffy’s backing singers around the volcano while another member of our band was having a kung fu fight with the drummer from Snow Patrol. I remember sitting on the doorstep with the owner of the club going, “Well, that wasn’t bad, was it?”
Best thing a fan has ever said to you?
This qualifies as both the best and the worst thing. We decided to have an album launch for Can’t Touch Us Now in 2016, and we thought, “Where can we do it where there’s people who are actually older than us?” So we did it for this audience of Chelsea Pensioners and one of them, Ethel, said, “Suggs, you’ve retained some of your looks but the music is s--t now.” She was 93. I took it on the chin.
Worst thing about your appearance?
I’m not bothered about too much physically, but I must admit I got a bit lackadaisical during lockdown. You fall into wearing tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops and then you realise you’re going to a film premiere with Helen Mirren and catch yourself in the window looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. Normally I’m quite sharp, so I’ve had to address that in the past few months and bought myself some new clothes.
Worst thing you've ever done?
Stealing my mate’s dad’s gold Ford Granada and then crashing it into a tree on Hampstead Heath, whereupon it caught fire. He was away on holiday and we found the keys. I was about 15 or 16 and we were trying to get to the pub. I couldn’t even legally drive. The people who owned the car never spoke to me again.
Worst encounter with a celebrity?
Clive Langer, who produced Madness records, was doing a film called Absolute Beginners with David Bowie. We happened to be up in the mountains in France and he said, “I’m in Gstaad,” you know, Bowie’s skiing place, “come over”. So, of course, you’re going to drop by and see David Bowie, aren’t you?
We were pulling into the driveway and Bowie was getting us to come into this underground garage, but we forgot we had all our suitcases on the roof. They all got knocked off. It was an edifying sight, seeing the man who sold the world picking up my pants from his driveway. He was a perfect gentleman about it though, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met…
Worst day in your career?
Funnily enough, this came when we were supporting Bowie at the Anaheim Stadium in front of 250,000 people. We were late for the gig because our saxophone player had nicked a dinner jacket out of a second-hand clothes shop and we had to run, but the cab left without us and we had to get another one.
By the time we turned up the band were halfway through One Step Beyond, an instrumental, and so I ran on, slipped and fell off the front of the stage. It was an 18ft drop and I bounced off every bit of scaffolding all the way down. The crowd all got to their feet like, “Yeah! What an act! Madness! Crikey, this guy knows how to party!” I managed to crawl back up, coccyx bruised and broken. But we carried on. Of course we carried on.
Worst thing about technology?
All of it. Everything I go near either breaks or blows up [the interview has already been interrupted by a technological breakdown]. It’s a real shame because there are lots of things you can do with a computer, but I can’t. My kids used to sort that out for me but they’ve left home now so it’s over.
Worst thing you've ever bought?
A keyboard. When we’re going on holiday my wife will say, “Why are you bringing that?” And I say, “Just in case.” It’s about the size of a coffin and I’ve had it in a bag for 20 years and it never, ever comes out – but I’d be so p----d off if I thought of the new Stairway to Heaven and I hadn’t got it.
Worst thing you've heard in the past few days?
It was that the underpass between St Pancras and Kings Cross was closed due to flooding and the platform above was closed because of “the wrong sort of rain”. It wasn’t a flood. I’ve been to India and seen floods. It was a downpour.
‘Britain’s Greatest Obsessions’ is on Mondays at 9pm on Sky History