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Suggs: People said Van Morrison wouldn't turn up, but he did and he was charming and lovely

NI-bound Suggs talks to Ivan Little about the night the legendary Belfast musician played at a charity gig in memory of the Madness singer's sister-in-law

Published 05/08/2016

Mad men: Suggs (front) and the band
Mad men: Suggs (front) and the band
Favourite performer: Van Morrison
Happy family: Suggs, his wife Anne and their daughter Viva McPherson

He isn't even sure what Paris buns are, but Suggs, the charismatic frontman of the hugely popular hit-makers Madness, bursts into song about the Belfast delicacies at the drop of a pork-pie hat, which used to be his band's trademark.

And in a Belfast accent, the English singer-songwriter, radio personality, actor and TV presenter also belts out a line or two about "cleaning the fanlights inside-out" as he re-visits one of his favourite songs, Cleaning Windows by his hero Van Morrison.

The song about Morrison's early career with a chamois and a Sammy - Sammy Stitt, his cousin - is so much a part of Suggs' life that he even chose it as one of the eight records he would take with him as a castaway on Desert Island Discs.

"I came to Van a little bit later in life," says Suggs - real name Graham McPherson - who's heading to Belfast with Madness later this month to play at Belsonic in the Titanic Quarter.

"I thought early on that Van's songs were a bit too hippy for me, but over the years I started to appreciate his music more and more."

As well as Cleaning Windows, Van's song In The Garden is another stand-out track for Suggs, who laughs: "If you are with a bird and you put that song on, you're away.

"And another song, Professional Jealousy, hits the nail on the head about the music business. It's about lies and propaganda, but Van's message is that the only requirement you need is to be the best at delivering the product on time."

Suggs would love to find the time to do a tour in Belfast of Morrison's old haunts that he has immortalised in his songs like Cyprus Avenue, scene of his 70th birthday concert almost a year ago.

"A friend has brought me a book which makes references to the places in Van's songs. It would be great to see them in real life."

And Suggs won't hear a bad word said about the alleged curmudgeonly side of Van the Man, who usually appears in public nowadays in a pork-pie hat.

Earlier this year, Van turned up to perform at a concert in London to raise money for a drugs and alcohol rehabilitation charity that Suggs' relatives help.

Suggs says: "People were predicting that he wouldn't show, but there he was and no one was talking to him, so I went up and said hello. He was very charming and very lovely. And later, when Van played, the whole place went nuts."

Another cause which is close to Suggs' heart is cancer. Not long after his wife, Anne, recovered from breast cancer, her sister Alanah was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a couple of months.

Suggs thought about running a marathon to collect donations, but he says he didn't get past the nearest tube station. Instead, he and Madness played concerts which have raised nearly a quarter of a million pounds and he has held meetings with MPs at Westminster to seek their support in his campaign to find a cure for cancer.

Friends say the quest has consumed the 55-year-old father-of-two, who joined the musicians who would eventually form Madness nearly 40 years ago.

He picked his nickname from a book which was a Who's Who of jazz musicians who were so beloved of his club singer mother who raised her son on her own after his drug addict father was committed to an asylum and whose death Suggs only found out about via the internet.

Suggs was born in Hastings with a Scottish name and spent part of his early life in Wales with his mother's family and later completed the home nations journey by marrying his wife, who is of Irish stock.

"We're quite a Celtic mixture, where tempers are concerned," says Suggs.

"But I do have the romantic influences of my own Celtic background."

The Irish musical genes of Suggs' wife, who is also a singer and revels in the stage name of Bette Bright, have probably rubbed off on her husband, who admits that he is a sucker after a drink for late-night TV channel-hopping to watch excruciating Irish country music videos.

He says: "It makes me cry to see these people standing by a lake in Kilkenny or somewhere and the filming is the most dreadful you will ever see.

"It's not proper Irish music at all."

But another Irish band called Sean and the Sounds were one of Suggs' earliest introductions to live music at dances in Camden Town, where the opposite sexes would take their cue from the old Irish rituals of lining up on opposite sides of what became the Electric Ballroom to size each other up.

Suggs says: "On a Friday night, Sean and the Sounds played top 10 hits, but as the charts only came out earlier that day, they only had a short time to learn the songs and they didn't always make a good job of them.

"It used to be a challenge to work out what on earth they were playing. But they were the best we could get round our way and, besides, you could get a drink at the dance."

Suggs was later introduced to traditional Irish music from the likes of The Dubliners and Planxty by his Madness colleague Chas Smash, whose immigrant parents were Irish dancers.

Suggs was only 16 when he joined the six-piece group, the North London Invaders, but he was kicked out because he spent too much time watching his footballing idols Chelsea, with whom he was later to make a cup final record called Blue Day.

However, the band invited Suggs back into their ranks and they changed their name to Madness in 1979 before going on to establish themselves as one of the top-selling bands in the 1980s with no fewer than 15 major hits, like Baggy Trousers, House of Fun and It Must Be Love.

Madness ignored the obvious jibes that they were living up to their name by coming to Belfast at the height of the Troubles, when other musicians shunned the place.

Suggs says: "I remember we went across in 1980 to play in Belfast and we stayed in the Europa Hotel, which was, of course, widely known as the most-bombed hotel in the world.

"That was a place to hang out, I can tell you." Suggs says the two-tone revival - which had black and white symbols of the ska music - was popular in Belfast.

But at first Madness didn't quite know what to expect in the divided city, having been warned that their audience would consist of Protestants, who were skinheads, and Catholics who were Mods.

But the feared clashes never materialised.

"It was a fabulous experience and we loved the concert," says Suggs.

"The crowd were fantastic. And I know everyone always says it, but the audiences in Belfast have always been amazing to us.

"They always create an atmosphere of, er, vim and vigour, shall I put it that way?

"We really do love coming back. Some of the best shows we have ever done have been in Belfast."

But Madness, who grew up together, eventually grew apart and the inevitable "musical differences" caused the band to split in 1986 before Suggs went out on his own as a singer and also developed a new career in broadcasting and as an actor.

But such was the pull of the long-term friendships within Madness that the group got back together again in 1992.

And a musical based on their songs ran in the West End for nearly a year, with Suggs playing the father of the main character in the show.

Suggs says: "When we stopped enjoying playing together, we stopped playing together. But we've come back and, in recent times, it's probably been better than it has been for years."

In 2012, the band famously played on the roof of Buckingham Palace at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee concert, cementing the unique place they have in the nation's affections.

And perhaps only Suggs could have got away with singing Our House at the monarch's gaff.

Madness concerts and their regular appearances at their own festivals, like Madstock and the imminent House of Common on Clapham Common, are invariably sing-a-long parties, but the band are currently recording a new album, which Suggs says has "re-energised" them all.

"The album is going great," says Suggs. "I think it is one of the best we have ever made - but I would say that, wouldn't I?

"However, we really didn't want to get sucked into the black hole of '80s revivals. Obviously, we know that, at our gigs, people want to hear all the hits, but we also want to make something fresh.

"It makes for the best of both worlds."

Madness play Belsonic in the Titanic Quarter on Saturday, August 20. For tickets, go to

Belfast Telegraph

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