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Ska trek

In their collective autobiography, Camden Town’s very own Nutty Boys tell how this patch of north London informed their music, writes Dan Carrier

12 December, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

CAMDEN in the 1970s: a world of public baths and new housing estates, of bomb sites and squats – and a youth culture that would change the world.

And charging through this pre-Thatcher landscape was a group of teenage friends whose shared hobby and collective talent would soon make them a global name: the Kentish Town-based two-tone band, Madness.

Now, 40 years after their first single The Prince, the seminal ska band have combined once more to produce Before We Was We – the story of their childhoods, how they got together, and through to the early days of success.

For a band whose lyricism marked and celebrated life in north London, whose words were social history put to music, the book feels a little like an extended Madness LP. You can find the root of many of their hits in the words they use to describe their upbringing.

Suggs has already visited this idea in his autobiography That Close – and to hear the other members air their thoughts creates a window into the forces that formed one of the biggest bands in the world.

The starting point is 1970. Life in Kentish Town and its surrounds is described, providing a window on a very different world, but one still in living memory.

Lee Thompson, who plays sax, recalls growing up in Denyer House in Highgate Road, before moving to Holly Lodge.

“I’d walk the distance back to Denyer House because that was where our playground was – Tammo Land.

“It was a big, bombed-out place the Jerrys done in the war. An old electrical plant, and they obviously had these pinpointed. There were unexploded bombs found in the ground there in the mid-70s. Back then it had corrugated iron up around it to stop us urchins playing there.”

Being part of Madness provided each member with the support of a family – and Lee recalls how there was a sense of belonging.

“It was like still being in a gang, but with the added privilege of doing something we enjoyed, which was playing music,” he recalls. “The biggest thing I learned, though, is if you sit down and if you get rid of all the distractions and crap out of the way… lock yourself down somewhere… bolt your self down and put your mind to it, you can do almost anything. And that was certainly the case when I first met Chris and Mike, but no way did I ever think it would last as long as it has done.”

Guitarist Chris “Chrissy Boy” Foreman grew up in Mortimer Terrace, while keyboard player Mike Barson grew up in Chetwynd Road. Music was never far away – as were dangerous high jinks: they recall how freight trains would come along the Overground line that runs across Highgate Road, and how a signal just before the bridge that held freight trains up for passenger trains to go ahead. When the trains would stop, the boys would clamber on – and, if they could get inside, they’d pilfer whatever they could from inside the wagons.

“I really liked going on the railways. It was like another world,” recalls Mike.

“In the normal world, there were certain rules and regulations. Then you go up on the railway and you’re in no man’s land. A completely different world. It felt like a sort of secret, because nobody apart from us would ever go up to the railway line. It had a bit of mystery about it, so we used to hang out there and then jump on the trains.

“It was horribly dangerous, but we were young and we thought we could handle it.”

And it wasn’t always trips to Willesden Junction – they once bunked a freight train to France and got all the way to Toulouse.

The band’s nicknames were not just boys giving each other monikers. They were their tags – Graham McPherson became Suggs, as it was the name he scrawled on walls.

Saxophonist Lee Thompson’s tag was Kix, and he remembers climbing on to the roof at Acland Burghley School and tagging their names – “it’s the same wood up there, you can probably see it” – and the time he defaced George Melly’s garage door.

“He wrote a piece in one of the newspapers about it, saying ‘If I ever catch the bastard who writes Kix, I’m going to slap his bum’.”

Other forms of criminality were common place – shoplifting, known as a “five finger discount” included pilfering Harrington jackets from the Ben Nevis clothing shop in Royal College Street, stealing scooters, and pinching records from the Camden Town Co-Op, where staff left the vinyl in the sleeves – a temptation the boys could not resist.

“We must have done it a lot,” recalls Mike, “because I had 300 records and I’d never bought a record in my life.”

The book outlines how they discovered their talent – and then how the world did, too. We follow them as they become musically proficient, get gigs at places like the Hope and Anchor in Upper Street – and are then given a residency by Arlo Conlan, the owner of the Dublin Castle – a key moment in the band’s development, as it gave them exposure and experience.

As this collective autobiography shows, their longevity comes from their innate talents, but also from a life of shared experiences forged on the streets of Camden Town.

Before We Was We: Madness by Madness, Virgin Books, £20.

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