Suggs and Mike Barson of Madness: how we made One Step Beyond

‘Some music professor noticed the sax was out of tune and said: The BBC can’t play that’

Suggs, singer and songwriter
I got sacked from Madness just before we recorded One Step Beyond, still our bestselling album. We used to rehearse on Saturdays, and the band started to get annoyed that I was away every other weekend. I was watching Chelsea! So one day, I was looking through Melody Maker and saw an advert saying: “Semi-professional north London band seeks professionally minded singer.” When I recognised the phone number, I knew I’d been sacked.

They got a different singer and I went along to see them play. Then it dawned on me how stupid I’d been. But when he left, I was the only one who knew the songs, so they had me back. After that, I became much more focused, but it was really hard for us. We were playing a mixture of blue beat, ska and pop – right in the middle of the punk and disco era. It was too slow for the punks, not groovy enough for the disco chaps. At one gig, our drummer got knocked out by a Party Seven – that’s seven pints of beer in a giant tin. It must have weighed about a stone.

When we met with record labels, they thought what we were doing was really odd. They had more potted plants than A&R men. Things started to change when we saw the Specials play live. They were like us, but turbocharged. We were still diesel at that point. After the gig, Jerry Dammers, their frontman, was talking about his new label, 2 Tone, which he said was going to be the new Motown. Then he told us he didn’t have anywhere to stay, so he kipped at my mum’s flat. We made The Prince for 2 Tone, not thinking for a minute we’d ever do another song after it. Then it got to No 16 and suddenly record companies were excited about Madness.

Dave Robinson of Stiff Records was trying to see us play live, but was getting married and couldn’t make the dates work, so in the end he just booked us to play his wedding. I can still picture the shock on people’s faces when we started our set. His wife kept asking us: “Don’t you know any Hot Chocolate numbers?” When we noticed Elvis Costello was there, we jumped off the stage, grabbed him and got a big conga line going.

We signed to Stiff and recorded One Step Beyond in 10 days. The Specials had just finished an album in the same studio and there were bits of tape lying around. So we looped them into the reel-to-reels and crowded round the speakers to hear what their album sounded like – but all we got was the clang of a snare drum. But there was a spirit of competitiveness. Although it was friendly, we were trying to make an album that was better than theirs.

I think it was my idea to do One Step Beyond, the track. It was one of the old Prince Buster records we used to play on the pub jukebox. Chas Smash, our trumpeter, came up with the intro: “Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this. This is the heavy, heavy monster sound …” It was inspired by the shouty, slightly preposterous “I am the magnificent” intros you got on Jamaican records.

Because there were so many of us, it was hard to get us in the photograph for the album cover. We had to get really close together. Ian Dury’s old band Kilburn and the High Roads did the duck walk on the back of their album. So we did the same for a laugh – and it became iconic.

Mike Barson, songwriter and keyboards
We were called the North London Invaders at first, but had to change the name because there was already another band called that. It didn’t do them much good, either. One day at a rehearsal, our guitarist Chris Foreman said: “What about Madness? Nah. That’s shit.” But everybody thought it was good. If he hadn’t spoken up, we could have ended up being a serious band.

We started off rehearsing in my mum’s house, playing other people’s music, but then John Hasler, our first drummer, wrote some lyrics and we all thought: “Well, if John can write a song, we all can.” Bed and Breakfast Man is about him: he used to sleep on Chris’s sofa. Chris started the song and I finished it.

Lee Thompson, on sax, had the concept of The Nutty Boys. He came in one day with “That nutty sound” sprayed on his jacket and talked about our music being a mixture of pop and circus. Because he didn’t know how to tune a saxophone, Lee was actually out of tune on One Step Beyond. Some music professor noticed and said: “The BBC can’t play that.” Luckily, people wanted to hear it, so they had to.

For the song Swan Lake, I shared a songwriting credit with Tchaikovsky. I imagined conducting some seance and him telling me: “Cut out the middle bit, Mike, it’s boring.” My Girl, meanwhile, was my attempt to write a reggae song. It was inspired by a bloke I’d worked with who said “Me and my girl” a lot. But the lyrics were also about my girlfriend of the time. We were having difficulties, talking on the phone for hours and all that. It’s a young man talking about his emotions, but I don’t know how that got in the song. Maybe I was stuck for a rhyme and it just came out. At first, I felt uncomfortable recording it. I never imagined it would connect with millions of people.

• Interviews by Dave Simpson. One Step Beyond: The 35th Anniversary Edition, including new footage, is out now on CD and DVD.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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