As the lead singer of legendary ska band Madness, Suggs has written songs that have inspired a generation of school children – and none more so than his unashamedly nostalgic look back at his own schooldays, Baggy Trousers.
Born in January 1961 in Hastings, Graham McPherson grew up in a single-parent family, after his parents split up when he was just a toddler. His dad, William, walked out on the family, leaving his mum, Edith, to bring up their son alone.
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However, rather than seeing it as wholly a bad thing, Suggs has said in interviews that he thought of them as “free spirits”, who could move on when they felt like it. His mum was a singer in pubs and clubs, so they moved to wherever she could earn a living.
This led the family to uproot quite a lot in the 1960s and ’70s: to Liverpool, Wales and then eventually London, where Suggs met his future band mates and formed one of the most famous and most enduring groups of the post-punk era, Madness, in 1977.
The singer, who is celebrating 40 years as lead singer with the band famous for their “nutty sound”, penned one of their biggest hits, Baggy Trousers, in 1980, based on his nostalgic memories of Quintin Kynaston comprehensive school in St John’s Wood, north London.
He described himself as an “insular and stubborn” child, who was “lazy academically”. He had already attended several different schools, due to his family moving around when he was younger, so by the time he arrived at secondary school in the early ’70s, he admitted he “didn’t bother much”.
However, he stayed on in the sixth form, after passing two O-levels and a CSE, although he reportedly said this was for “social security” reasons, because of the high unemployment situation among school leavers at the time.
He said the lyrics of Baggy Trousers reflected his own school days, describing the song as the working class alternative to the hit song by Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall, which was a criticism of the public school system.
Suggs said Pink Floyd’s famous line, “Leave the kids alone,” meant nothing to him, because there hadn’t been any rigidly enforced discipline, or bullying, at his comprehensive school, where he described the rules as being “less strictly enforced”.
The song title refers to the style of school trousers he wore, while the lyrics are immersed in a different era of teaching practices, when it was acceptable for teachers to sit around in the pub at lunchtime, having a drink, rolling a few cigarettes and “trying not to think of when the lunch-time bell will ring again”.
Mischievous behaviour abounded, as the pupils would “fight with next door’s school” and enjoyed “smashing up the woodwork tools” – but he maintains none of the pupils were actually wicked.
In the chorus, he says gleefully, “Oh, what fun we had!” and asks, “Did it really turn out bad?” as school taught him how to bend the rules, rather than becoming a total rule-breaker.
On leaving school, Suggs joined Madness in 1978 as the lead vocalist. The band was formed as a six-piece in 1976 by saxophonist Lee Thompson in Camden Town and had a permanent line-up by 1978.
The other band members included backing vocalist Chas Smash, guitarist Chris Foreman, drummer Daniel “Woody” Woodgate, keyboard player Mike Barson and bass guitarist Mark “Bedders” Bedford.
Suggs had known the other band members prior to joining them and first tried out as a vocalist in 1977, but he didn’t become a permanent member until the following year. The band’s debut single, The Prince, peaked at number 16 in the UK chart in 1979, making them overnight stars.
After their debut, everything they touched turned to gold and they have been at the top of their game for four decades. Apart from Chas Smash’s departure in 2016 to pursue solo projects, the line-up remains the same.
They are still a top live band and have a series of gigs lined up, starting with the House of Fun Weekender at Butlins, Minehead, on 30th November and continuing with their UK tour, climaxing on 22nd December with a gig at the Brighton Centre, Kings Road, Brighton.
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