The Big Interview - Madness' Lee Thompson tell us the personal history of a Nutty Boy
There's a new documentary out telling the story of legendary outfit Madness, presented in quirky, compelling fashion by founder-member Lee Thompson. MALCOLM WYATT tracked him down to ask if he'd found the receipt for his first saxophone yet
Lee Thompson, born in St Pancras, NW1 in 1957, was at home in Barnet when I called, ‘sort of just inside 12 o’clock on the M25,’ where he’s been based around 30 years.
That’s EN5 rather than the postcode of 2008’s ‘NW5’, Lee explaining, “I was originally Kentish Town, moved to Islington for a while, then High Barnet when the kids were born, somewhere a bit greener.”
My excuse for speaking to the esteemed saxophonist/songwriter, nicknamed ‘Kix’, was new feature-length ‘rocku-docu-mockumentary’, One Man’s Madness. And early sales figures suggest there’s still a mighty appetite for the Nutty Boys.
“Looks like it, yeah. When Jeff (Baynes, director/producer) came to me with the idea, I thought, ‘Ooh … quirky … different. But … why me? Why not pick on one of the others? But Jeff thought I might have a bit more of an interesting story to tell. I said, ‘Yeah’, once he explained it, ‘Let’s have a go’.”
Now out on DVD, it’s seen screenings at numerous UK cinemas, and is also available as a double-CD soundtrack, including 27 Madness hits and others from the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra.
It’s certainly quirky. But Lee’s always been rather an unlikely character. Early career choices had him spend a year in borstal, but thankfully he’d already met Mike Barson and ‘Chrissy Boy’ Foreman, who shared his interests of graffiti, train-hopping and music, ultimately helping ensure his salvation.
In One Man’s Madness, he tells his story through fellow bandmates, family, friends and musicologists’ words, dressing up as versions of them, including his wife, his sister, and Stiff Records’ Dave Robinson.
From meeting bandmates to becoming part of a truly iconic, highly successful group, we follow him through his lyrics and songs,
including ‘The Prince’, ‘Embarrassment’, ‘House of Fun’, ‘Lovestruck’ and ‘NW5’, with plenty of humour from the man chiefly recalled for his flying exploits during their videos.
“The whole experience of making this has been a sheer joy. Miming along to the characters was slightly tongue-twisting, but with the director’s patience and perseverance we got there eventually.”
What came first for Lee – learning the sax, the flute, the trumpet, flugelhorn? Apparently, the clarinet.
“I played along with ‘Stranger on the Shore’ but there’s only so many times you can play that without getting bored. I used the schools’ music section of different instruments.
“I went on to oboe, but didn’t last long on that. I ended up swapping that at Dingwalls for an old clapped-out thing, but one that got past the first audition with Mike (Barson) and Chris (Foreman). Not long after, some friends heard I was starting this little group, around ‘76, approaching me with a very hot Selmer Mk.6, fresh out of the shop window.”
Is this the one you’re still struggling to find the receipt for?
“That’s the one. They tried to scratch the number off, but didn’t know it was embossed into the metal. You can’t melt the thing down.
“You know, karma? I done The X-Factor a while ago with a sax Mike Barson bought on my behalf in Holland, but that was taken somehow. All that security – it took half an hour to get in, like Fort Knox. Yet our saxophone went missing. So I keep my very first love under lock and key these days.”
How did this London white boy end up getting into Prince Buster?
“I’d always been into all that, since Desmond Dekker and The Upsetters. I had a paper round in around 1967/68, and Tony Blackburn had just come on the radio. He really liked a lot of Motown and Soul. I never had a record player. We never even had a radio at home. The only TV music you’d get would be Top of the Pops. But when ‘Israelites’, ‘Return of Django’ and ‘Love of the Common People’ and all that started coming through the airwaves, I was really drawn to it.
“I never really heard of Prince Buster until about ’71. You’d have to travel to get your reggae records. But once Desmond Dekker and the like started charting …
“I found an Aladdin’s Cave of singles, a treasure trove down in Upper Street. I picked a bunch up, and what stuck out that I noticed was this comical fella that sang comical lyrics to a ska beat, like ‘Ten Commandments of Man’ by Prince Buster, and of course ‘Madness’.
“I was very much drawn to him, along with ‘50s inspired stuff that was all the go in the mid-‘70s, like American Graffiti, The Lords of Flatbush, and a real big resurgence of doo-wop like The Coasters. There was all that and of course the pub-rock scene – Dr Feelgood and Kilburn & the High Roads. We were so lucky where we were. We were at the epicentre of it all.
“Pub rock and punk rock opened doors endlessly for us. You never had a chance before that. Without the Kilburns I would never have dreamed I could go and get a saxophone and play in a pop-rock band.
“And it was a case of Chris, Mike and myself having the same interest in fashion, music, jumping freight trains, doing graffiti. Mike was saying, ‘look, if Ian Dury can do it …’”
I saw ‘Uncle Sam’ on a Top of the Pops rerun last week. I love that mid-‘80s Mad Not Mad era, but for you the high-point was 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate, wasn’t it?
“Oh yeah, that really moved the goalposts. I thought, ‘I can retire now’. I’ve now done the Queen’s roof. I’ve done the Olympics, done the No.1 spot, now we can retire … but the
public won’t let us!”