Lee Thompson was at home when I called, ‘sort of just inside 12 o’clock on the M25,’ where he’s been based around 30 years now. Born in St Pancras, NW1 in 1957, this esteemed saxophonist/songwriter’s postcode is EN5 rather than that of Madness’ 2008 single ‘NW5’, the man nicknamed ‘Kix’ 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 calling was new feature-length ‘rocku-docu-mockumentary’, One Man’s Madness. And the early sales figures suggest there’s still a mighty appetite for the story of the Nutty Boys.
“Looks like it, yeah. When Jeff (Baynes, director/producer) came to me with the idea, I thought, ‘Ooh … quirky … different. I was more concerned about who it would appeal to. I mean, obviously the Madness camp, but … why me? Why not pick on one of the other band members? But judging by past interviews and stories and what people have told him, Jeff thought I might have a bit more of an interesting story to tell. He came up with the idea and I said, ‘Yeah’, once he explained it. I thought, ‘Let’s have a go, it’s not going to be too time-consuming.’”
Now out on DVD, it’s already 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, his past outfit Crunch, and even Ian Dury.
In One Man’s Madness, Lee tells his story with the help of fellow bandmates (Barso, Bedders, Chas, Chrissy Boy, Suggs and Woody all make appearances, in some guise or other), family, friends, fellow performers, management, and even a musicologist and psychologist, those portrayed along the way including Norman Cook, Clive Langer, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, in most cases with Kix dressed up as a version of them, including rather-fetching portrayals of his wife Debbie, his sister Tracy, opera-singing alter-ego ‘Thommosina Leigh’, parents of bandmates, and Stiff label boss Dave Robinson.
In other hands this could have become a sociologist’s dream project, examining a ‘rake’s progress’ in a portrayal of a lad from very ‘umble beginnings whose Dad was in and out of the nick. By most accounts, Lee was deemed to have ‘looked a bit dodgy’ by other kids’ parents (according to Suggs, most who became close to him ended up ‘being chased by the Old Bill’ at some stage). But with Jeff Baynes at the helm, it’s anything but. As the press release has it, ‘One Man’s Madness takes its cue from the classic Ealing comedies of the ’40s and ’50s, music hall and famous BBC arts documentaries, with a nod to those great British comics down the years such as Max Wall, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, and Spike Milligan.’ And I love the quirky approach, I tell Lee.
“Yeah, very quirky. I mouth these people’s words, I dress up as how I see them, (sometimes) a bit Carmen Miranda, an odd-looking thing with a mono-eyebrow (that’ll be ‘Thommosina’ replicating Fiona Jessica Wilson’s fine voice), and there’s my lawyer, who I take on as some sort of drunk ‘beak’. It took up a flow, particularly when I did my wife and my sister – they looked like the men out of the Flash advert. I had those ‘bugger-grips’ at the time, those Edwardian moustaches that go ’round your face. They haven’t seen it yet … I’m trying to keep it away from them as long as possible.
“Dave Robinson, I did as a mad, bully-ish Irish navvy type. He wasn’t keen on how I perceived him. But he watched it a few times then calmed down. Once he got into it, I thought, ‘This has got legs. If he likes it, anyone will.’ He’s very hard to please.”
It’s certainly an off-the-wall approach to documentary-making, but somehow really works. And you need to watch it at least a few times to see what the incorrigible Kix is up to in the background. So what came first, this film project or Mr McPherson’s fellow 2018 film with Julien Temple, My Life Story?
“Mine, easily! We started ours nearly three and a half years ago. But it keeps getting put back. I don’t know why. Jeff and myself are in control. He pointed the camera, I put the costume on. The difficult part was the tongue-twisting mouthings. Some of them were really easy, in particular those with Neil Brand, the musicologist, as was the woman who talks about split-personality (billed as Dr Noyes Maybe). That was quite enjoyable to do. But there was only us two to answer to. If something went wrong, it was down to us, and nothing went wrong at all other than putting dates off because of other duties with the Ska Orchestra and Madness.”
And you still seem to spend a lot of time playing with both of those bands.
“Well, we’ve sort of backed off with the Ska Orchestra, because our drummer (Mez Clough) left us for Van Morrison. The rent doesn’t pay itself, and it was like one gig a month with us. Although they were really enjoyable, Van offered him several months’ work on really good wages, so I said, ‘Go and do it. We’ll find a drummer.’ But I haven’t found anyone as good as Mez, and really I’m quite proud he’s been nicked off me by Van Morrison. And funnily enough he stands in on percussion and backing vocals for Madness, so it’s double-bloody-bubble!”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jeff Baynes looked to Lee for this project. His subject has always been rather an unlikely character, for want of a better expression. Poor early career choices led to him spending 14 months in borstal, but thankfully he’d already met Mike Barson and ‘Chrissy Boy’ Foreman by then, who shared his interests of graffiti, train-hopping and music, ultimately helping ensure the salvation of a lad Dave Robinson describes in the documentary as having a ‘very, very low attention span’, and of whom Norman Cook says, ‘He’s always felt more comfortable in mid-air than on the ground’.
From entertaining tales of meeting his bandmates to becoming part of a truly iconic, highly successful undeniably English group, we follow Lee’s adventures through his lyrics and songs, a mighty back-catalogue including (either as sole or co-writer) ‘The Prince’, ‘Embarrassment’, ‘House of Fun’, ‘Lovestruck’ and ‘NW5’. And there’s plenty of humour en route from the man himself, someone chiefly recalled by the wider public for his flying exploits during Madness’ memorable promo videos, from ‘Baggy Trousers’ right through to his taking to the air while playing a red, white and blue sax during the closing ceremony of 2012’s London Olympics, and the band’s … erm, crowning moment on the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.
And as he puts it, “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. Jeff makes a fantastic Cappuccino and his wife was most patient with my array of props, wigs and slap.”
Going back to those musical roots, what came first for Kix – learning the sax, the flute, the trumpet, fluegelhorn?
“I started originally on the clarinet.”
I guess there wasn’t too much call for a rock’n’roll clarinetist.
“Not really. I played along with ‘Stranger on the Shore’, but there’s only so many times you can play that without getting bored shitless. I used the schools’ music section of different instruments. There was flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones, but no saxophone, and the clarinet was much more difficult, fingering-wise. So I stopped that and went on to oboe, but I didn’t last long on that. It was literally months. The embouchure around the lips, the muscles around there, was like I was being given a dead leg. So I landed up swapping that at Dingwall’s for an old clapped-out thing, but one that got past the first audition with Mike (Barson) and Chris (Foreman). And not long after taking up saxophone some friends heard I was starting this little group, around 1976, and approached 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 is the one … with the scratched number, yeah! They tried to scratch it off, but they didn’t know it was embossed into the metal. You can’t melt the thing down.”
And if you could, it wouldn’t bode so well for the sound.
“It might get a better sound out of it than I would these days, with my teeth! But these days I keep that under lock and key. You know ‘karma’? What goes around, comes around? I done The X-Factor a while ago with a saxophone Mike Barson bought on my behalf in Holland because my credit card wouldn’t take it. Obviously, I paid him back … I think … yeah, I paid him back. But that was taken somehow. All the security at The X-Factor – it took half an hour to get in there, it was like Fort Knox – yet our saxophone went missing. So I keep my baby – my very first love – under lock and key.”
But how did this London white boy end up getting into Prince Buster? Did you take the skinhead route?
“Well, yeah, 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, which took my attention, although I was only 11 or 12. I never had a record player. We never even had a radio at home. I don’t know why. The only TV music you’d get would be Top of the Pops. I think Ready Steady Go had finished. But I got into that, and 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’d never really heard of Prince Buster until about ’71, so he’d been going long before that. You’d have to travel to get your reggae records – from Kentish Town you’d have to travel several miles to Brixton or Willesden. They never had it in the shops. It was that early. But once Desmond Dekker and the like started charting, they held up their arms to it to various distributors. But I found an Aladdin’s Cave of singles, a treasure trove down in Upper Street, when it was a proper old pre-gentrified area, finding a load of records on Firefly, Punch, Fab, Blue Beat, Blue Ska, Melodisc.
“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’, 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 there was a real resurgence of doo-wop like The Coasters. So there was all that and of course the pub-rock scene – Dr Feelgood and Kilburn & the High Roads.”
Were you seeing those bands live at the time?
“Absolutely, at the Hope and Anchor and so on. We were so lucky where we were. We were at the epicentre of it all – Dingwalls, the Tally Ho, the (Lord) Nelson. It was a stroll away to your nearest live venue, a couple of bus stops away. It was all around us. There weren’t many soul or blues or reggae artists. I never got to see Bob Marley live in the early ‘70s. I was more attracted to pub rock. I remember bunking in to see Bowie at Earl’s Court when he was doing Aladdin Sane, Roxy Music at the Rainbow …”
I’m guessing Roxy Music sax player Andy Mackay was a big inspiration.
“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was always attracted to that instrument. You go running down the front into the line of fire, as I called it, the Bermuda Triangle – a very tame, glitter-sprinkled Bermuda Triangle – and I’d always land up in front of the sax players like Andy Mackay, and of course Davey Payne, and Damian Hand, who plays with James Hunter. He’s just gone back over to America. When there was a lull in Madness, after the split in ’86, I landed up becoming his roadie. The Madness had died a death and Chris and myself were about to start up Crunch / The Nutty Boys. But between, having time off, I kept my diet of music live by roadie-ing for Howlin’ Wilf and the Veejays, driving him around, because he never had a licence. And his sax player, Damian, I’ve got to try and contact him – I want to record with him at some point. He’s a phenomenal player.”
And did George Melly ever catch you, Barso and your other mate (the pair famously sprayed their nicknames on the jazz and blues legend’s garage door, prompting him to write in a newspaper piece, ‘If I ever catch that Mr B, Kix and Columbo, I’m going to kick their arses’)?
“Ha ha! Have you ever read that book?”
That will be Roger Perry’s The Writing on the Wall (reissued in 2015 as a Plain Crisp Books paperback).
“I mentioned it on a radio show with Liz Kershaw, in a pre-recorded interview with her after our Robert Elms fiasco. I did that show live, and … fucking hell! In 40 years of working with Madness we never did interviews or promotions at weekends unless it was a live gig, because I tend to let my hair down on a Friday night. I let a few words slip which I shouldn’t have with Robert, so that was cut short. I think he’ll have us back though. He knows it was an accident.”
This seems to be the case with Lee. There we were, talking about George Melly and graffiti, and before I knew it we’ve segued on to Robert Elms and swearing live on BBC Radio London. But we’re soon back on track. I mentioned Kix’s grounding in soul, reggae and ska, plus pub rock and rock’n’roll, but how about punk? Was he inspired by the whole DIY aspect of that movement?
“Oh absolutely. If it weren’t for pub rock and certainly punk rock … that opened doors endlessly for us. You never had a chance before that. I think it was Dave Robinson and his partner (I’m guessing he means Jake Riviera) who started down that road. One of the first gigs I saw was Kilburn and the High Roads, playing that music hall sounding stuff, prior to The Blockheads. That attracted me. I would never have dreamed I could go and get a saxophone and play in a pop-rock band. It was a combination of Chris, Mike and myself having the same interest in many things – fashion, music, jumping freight trains, doing graffiti. Fucking hell, unfortunately I’ve just heard about those three kids.”
He’s referring there to the deaths of graffiti artists Alberto Carrasco, 19, Jack Gilbert and Harrison Scott-Hood, both 23, fatally struck by a train at Loughborough Junction in South London in the early hours of June 18th.
“We sort of started that, certainly in North London. There was more political graffiti going on, on the tube trains. You’ve gotta see this book, The Writing on the Wall, it’s fantastic. We sort of got the inspiration from a magazine from The Sunday Times on New York art and graffiti. It was easy to get cans out of Woolworth’s then – silver and black. I know we pissed off a lot of council boroughs … certainly Camden. My son’s taken up the mantle now. He does quite a lot of graffiti work, and knew one of those kids, from Muswell Hill.”
But it proved to be music that really made Lee’s name in the end, thanks to the determined efforts of Mike Barson.
“We had those same interests, and Mike was saying, ‘Look, if Ian Dury can do it …’ He was really into Elvis Costello, the Kilburns, Alex Harvey … and with Chris and I we all seemed to be on the same page with everything, so that helped.”
At that point I mentioned fellow London performers and writers Ian Dury and Ray Davies and the influence of music hall, bringing in my recent conversation with Dave Peacock of Chas ‘n’ Dave fame (with a link here), when Lee interrupted …
“Bloody hell – I was on the phone to him yesterday! I had a French bulldog, Farty Marty, he really did stink and they’re so hard to train. I was going to give him to someone, and Dave heard and said, ‘I’ll have him!’ He’s been with him about a year, but then phoned and said, ‘Lee, me dog’s gone missing! What do I do? ‘ So I said, ‘Well, he’s chipped and neutered.’ But a couple of days later, or even the same day, they said, ‘We’ve got your dog’. He was 20 miles away in Welwyn Garden City. He’d ran off, 20 miles up the road! Dave was saying, ‘At my age, I don’t need this!’ He’s a lovely fella is Dave. He’s old school. Very old school.”
At this point we got on to mid-’80s Madness, having seen the band perform ‘Uncle Sam’ on a Top of the Pops re-run that week. I told him how much I love that Keep Moving (1984) and Mad Not Mad (1985) era, and the Wonderful album that heralded their proper return in 1999. That said, I’m also with Lee when I’ve heard him talk about how proud he was of what he sees as the band’s masterpiece, 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate.
“Oh yeah, that really moved the goalposts. I thought, ‘I can retire now’. I’ve 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!
“I said to Robert Elms the other day, ‘I heard you got a phone call saying, ‘When you’re 60, are you thinking of retiring?’ But he says as long as people want to hear us, we’ll carry on, way past Tony Blackburn. I’m the same – until me teeth drop out and me lungs pack up, it’s very medicinal, therapeutic …”
Dave Peacock offers a good example of that tenacity and determination to keep performing and stay young.
“Yes. And it does keep you going. He retired after his wife passed on, of course. He was absolutely distraught, as you would be. But life goes on and he’s back in the running. I’ve seen him on Jools’ Holland’s show the other day and I’m waving at the telly … as if he can see me! I’m glad that I know him.”
Seeing as I mentioned Top of the Pops before, can you clear something up for me? It’s this story about Madness’ spoof drugs raid on The Clash while they were recording around the corner from you. It was the occasion where you were sporting police uniform …
“Oh, yeah, that was for ‘Shut Up!'”
That would make it Autumn 1981. But I’ve also heard it was your Stiff label-mates, The Blockheads. They had the same gear on (from the same theatrical costumier in Camden, I’m guessing) when performing on that show a year earlier, with the hit single ‘I Wanna Be Straight’ in late August 1980. But you’re saying you definitely carried out your own raid?
“That’s right … but maybe The Blockheads done it as well. I remember I had these big shoes on. It was right around the corner from Westside (Wessex, I’m guessing) Studios, where Clive (Langer) and Alan (Winstanley) had a studio. Stiff picked that location for us to run about. It was half-derelict. They definitely weren’t on the ground floor, because I had these big clown shoes on that wouldn’t allow me to go up these steps. But we were all in these police uniforms and I particularly remember Cathal (Smyth aka Chas Smash) bursting the door open. I was behind him, but can’t remember who else was there. I think Topper fell from his drum kit, and went straight into the toilet. You could hear the toilet flushing … for whatever reason. Ha ha!”
And according to Suggs in his autobiography, That Close, The Clash didn’t speak to them for another five years after that.
As for Lee, all these years on, he still seems to have the drive to get up on stage regularly, be it with the Ska Orchestra, Madness, or whoever else.
“Yeah, my last gig was on Saturday, with a band called The Silencerz who started about two years ago, doing a thing to give a bit back to local charities – a hospice and Marie Clare and the NSPCC. It was the same line-up as with the Ska Orchestra, but with my son (Daley Thompson – yes, not the decathlete gold medallist) on lead vocals, who is phenomenal, and Nick Godwin, who writes the tunes, a real doffing of the cap to the Madness sound, and he’s got those quirky lyrics. And there’s an album that’s just been released, called Better Days. Me and my son feature on that too. It’s right underground at the moment, but I thought I’d let you in on it!”
Very good of him too, judging by my first listens of a band with something of the spirit of a Next Generation Madness, their official album launch having happened at the Bull Theatre in Barnet, with the band’s Facebook page linked here and a chance to buy the album here.
Meanwhile, Lee’s still talking …
“And I won’t retire. I’m enjoying it so much with Madness. It’s all red-carpet treatment and we’ve even got carers on board now, to give us our medication when we need it! We’re wearing neck braces and leg braces, but while the other 22 and a half hours is a fucking pain, for that one and a half hours it’s sheer joy. I’m seriously enjoying it more now than ever before.”
Perhaps you just know how best to put up with each other these days. You’re no longer living in each other’s pockets.
“No. we know how to take the piss out of each other, sit back and then laugh it off.”
Finally, if a stranger came round to your house and you felt you had to explain what you’ve been doing all these years in music, of all the tracks you’ve written or co-written, which would you be most likely to proudly play for them?
“Mmmm … it would have to be ‘(The Liberty of) Norton Folgate’. The title track is just phenomenal, and it was a real enjoyable experience. It’s something I wished I’d done years ago. It’s that sort of Pink Floyd-y thing – you sit back, light up a jazz woodbine, have a glass of wine, listen to that and it just takes you into different dimensions. More of that, I think … but I don’t know, sometimes you can’t repeat history.”
For a WriteWyattUK review of Suggs’ What a King Cnut show from March 2018, head here. There’s also a Madness appreciation on these pages from January 2013, found via this link, and another on Ian Dury (and The Blockheads) from October 2014 linked here.
Further details of screenings of One Man’s Madness can be found via an official Facebook page. You can also visit Lee’s Pledge Music page. To keep up to date with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, you can head to their website. And for all the latest from Madness, including this summer’s dates, try here.