IN CONVERSATION – Lee Thompson from Madness

IN CONVERSATION – Lee Thompson from Madness

So you’re one of those fuckers who won’t let us retire!” jokes founder Madness member and sax-player extraordinaire Lee Thompson, after I inform him that I was rather an obsessive fan in my youth, having not only collected all the band’s vinyl records, but stacked them in a forward facing display in my bedroom cabinet, with notes made underneath each one on the shelves in permanent marker, detailing which position they reached and how long they spent in the charts. It may sound rather tragic, but I’ve met at least a handful of other Madness fans who used to do a similar thing.

God Is In The TV: I wonder why this band, in particular, inspires such excessively fanatical behaviour in otherwise reasonable, well rounded human beings?

Lee Thompson: Quite honestly, I don’t know. It’s the tattoos that do my chummy in though – why would you do that? I mean, what if you go off the band? What are you gonna do then!  Anyway, I think it’s probably that we… not exactly ‘reinvent’ ourselves, but we’re always different, and we’ve always had the knack of knocking out a decent melody, especially Barson and Foreman, who are our main music writers, especially Barson. I used to write the lyrics first and have an idea of how I thought I wanted it to sound, but then I’d give it to Mike and it’d come back sounding something like an old Motown song instead! That definitely happened with ‘Embarrassment‘.

I was going to ask you about that one, actually. How did your niece react when she heard that song for the first time? (NB – the song was written after Lee was horrified by many of his family’s reaction to his sister having a mixed race baby).

Lee: Well obviously it was written about her when she was born so it took a few years before she heard it, but she’s so proud. And of course, at the time the subject was very taboo. We meet up every couple of months and she’s great – she loves her uncle. I was told “that was pretty brave of you, writing those words“, but even though I’m not really that opinionated, I wasn’t going to brush anything under the carpet in that situation. The songs before, we had ‘My Girl‘ for the girls, ‘Baggy Trousers‘ for the boys, and ‘One Step Beyond‘, where we taught everyone how to dance without their handbag! But yeah, I think it was a step up in terms of our songwriting, and I was really flattered that Paul Weller put it in his top five songs of all time.

It’s a great song, and I think it typifies you as a band, as you’ve always been staunchly anti-racism…

Lee: Yeah, though we had some trouble early on. We had a bunch of hooligans who started to come to our gigs and there were some hairy moments. Some ex-coppers came down and pretended to be part of the hooligans. I remember at De Montfort Hall, you had the black and white 2 Tone boys on one side of the hall, and the white… Look, I don’t want to pinpoint anyone, but we developed a fine art of what to do when a fight breaks out like it did then. We’d end up putting the spotlights on the perpetrators – they’d be ejected and we would continue. There were many boisterous moments. I was always hidden behind a hat and dark glasses, so I never really noticed it much, but Suggs and Chris could see it coming and became really good at dealing with it before it kicked off.

I saw you at De Montfort Hall in 1985. It’s still one of my favourite gigs I ever attended, even though it wasn’t the happiest time for the band, by all accounts.

Lee: We never seem to have much luck in Leicester! Last time we played there I had a bad accident. Normally I check that everything’s battened down properly at the soundcheck – I always do – but I didn’t on that occasion because we got waylaid somewhere or other…

The Shakespeare’s Head pub, if I recall correctly…

Lee: (laughs a guilty sounding laugh) Well anyway, come the gig I held on to this lighting rig, which was four or five feet on top of the security bar and (short version) I ended up getting headbutted by my own saxophone. I looked like I had one of those Indian marks – a bindi. And I had two bruised ribs as a result of that accident as well. So in comes Agent 00 Steve Turner, saying “I’ll do it!” – I could literally see the pound signs in his eyes!

You weren’t getting on all that well at the Mad Not Mad time, were you?

Lee: Oh, I wouldn’t say we weren’t getting on, it was just that Barson left the band because he wanted to see more of his kids and practice his Buddhism more – he had his ‘Jeff Beck moment’! I think Suggs described that album when he talked about it as a “polished turd“. I mean, there were some good songs on it, but we’d left Stiff by then and Virgin had picked up on us, and we ended up with people like Gary Barnacle playing brass on the record, who is a truly fantastic fellow but he’s a real “musician”, and he had this device that made the sax sound like a complete brass section, and it wasn’t really “us”. We did that tour of Australia – a kind of “cash and grab” thing in a little light aircraft. I remember we were playing this venue and I looked up at a poster on the wall advertising who else was playing there and it said “The Swinging Blue Jeans, Mud and Gerry & The Pacemakers” and I think we knew that was when it was time to knock it on the head. We didn’t know if it was going to be just a break and then we’d come back, but that would be up to fate. But being in a band is like a marriage, in that it has its ups and downs and you learn to live with everyone else’s little idiosyncrasies over the years. It’s quite funny now when Mike or one of the others goes into a sweet shop thinking they’re going to their hotel.

You’ve had a remarkable career which most hold a lot of happy memories. Does anything, in particular, stand out?

Lee: Oh, there’s so many. I’d say probably Archway roundabout, going up North, when I was waiting to have the prints put in my hand after our first single had been pressed. It was just such an exciting thing for us. Then I’d say our second bite at the cherry with Madstock. I remember Chrissy Boy promised to buy everyone in the audience a drink, which I’m sure he still hasn’t done. Playing on the roof Buckingham Palace was an experience we’ll never forget, but one of the things I remember most was looking down at the roof and realising that they’d used zinc instead of lead and thinking “fucking cheapskates!” – I had my hammer and saws with me and I was tempted to take some of it home, but I didn’t. It’s an amazing view from up there. Where it’s positioned, Buck Palace, you can see all of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Nelson’s Column really clearly. It was a real moment for us. It was funny though because, at the palace, you’re only allowed a maximum of two people in a lift at any one time, so I decided to climb the spiral stairs instead, and at the top of each floor, there seemed to be the same fella – same haircut, same clothes, and I was told “Not a good sight, walking into the palace with a bottle of Budweiser!

And of course, we mustn’t forget the Olympics. I had to come back from playing in France at the Reggae Sun Ska festival, where I’d been playing with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, to try out the harness (NB – Lee replicated his airborne ‘Baggy Trousers‘ role for the event). I said “Can’t we just get Agent 00 Thommo to test it?” but the authorities insisted. And as much as I love doing my own thing with the Ska Orchestra, Madness has, and always will, come first. So this bloke in a limo comes to pick me up, looking like the same bloke I saw at the palace – same hair, same clothes, I remember thinking “is this a joke?” and he takes us all the way back from Bordeaux, off to King’s Cross, then Stratford, wearing a couple of dustbin liners as it was chucking down with rain. He drops me off and says “Thank you Sir” – what a palaver that was! So I go to the rehearsal and put on a kilt, which had the St. George Cross on it, along with my Union Jack underpants, and then I get word from HQ that I can’t wear the George Cross. So the solution was to put a Union Jack over the top one and another Union Jack to cover the bottom one. I didn’t think the George Cross would offend anyone, but there you go – apparently wearing the Union Jack instead was ok.

I guess we ought to talk a little about the DVD and soundtrack, seeing as that was what the interview was meant to be for…

Lee: We were concerned at first that the soundtrack was just going to be yet another compilation of our hits, so we put on a few from the Ska Orchestra on there, a few from Crunch! (Thompson and Chris Foreman’s side project) and a demo version of ‘Drip Fed Fred‘ – which I’m really glad we got on it – amongst others. Originally the artwork looked awful, like it had been done by a little kid, so we had that changed and now it looks like a cross between something from Monty Python and Yellow Submarine. For the film, Jeff Baines approached us and said: “We’re going to film loads of people – professionals, record company producers – that you’ve worked with over the years, and interview them… and then we’re going to get you all to dress up as them and pretend to be them.” I think the lads were extremely suspicious about it at first and only really saw it had legs after Jeff sat down and had a chat with Chris about it. I asked him why I’d been chosen as the main focus of the film and he said it was because I was a bit of a show-off – a Phil Mitchell meets Bob Hoskins type! But it’s come out really well – it was difficult to do Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (infamous Madness production duo) but we got there and we’re really pleased with it.

Finally, my eight-year-old son would never forgive me if I didn’t tell you that he loves “House Of Fun, Wings Of A Dove, Mr Apples… In fact, just about every Madness song, and he wants to know what’s yours?

Lee: This’ll surprise you – it’s an album track, and it has a real Pink Floyd type vibe to it – the title track of The Liberty Of Norton Folgate. Such great lyrics, and it’s all over the place, going on for about 10 minutes. Suggs and Chris were really at the top of their game when they wrote that one. But again there are so many great memories from all the records, especially making videos for things like ‘Night Boat To Cairo‘, when we were all a bit worse for wear and still a bit pissed…

I suspect you may have been a bit pissed in quite a few of the videos you made…

Lee: I think you might be right!

One Man’s Madness is being screened throughout May, and the soundtrack to the film will be released on June 1st through Cadiz Music.

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