Graham McPherson hadn’t been a quiet boy as his family moved around the UK, and even at 13 was a handful for his jazz singer mother who was bringing him up alone, his father having done a bunk when he was three.
However, as the “Scottish” kid with a slight Welsh accent at a north London school dominated by Jamaican and Irish kids, he was “an ethnic minority” lacking authority.
The boy who renamed himself Suggs though, he was something different. Graham refused to answer to anything else, from friends, teachers or family, until they, not he, gave in.
By the time he was 14, “[Suggs] was who I was”, and he had taken the chance to be someone different. The confident kid would join a local band, The Invaders (soon to be Madness), at 16, and become an unlikely British institution, buzz-topped, big-mouthed, loved.
“I’m sure a Jungian psychologist would have a field day of some sort,” says the 56-year-old Suggs of his name-induced change of character. “Being a performer is being some sort of, not armour but you do put on a different kind of suit when you are performing.
“And I’d obviously decided that at a young age anyway, because I had a difficult upbringing, so I could create a character that was a bit larger than the one I was inhabiting at the time.”
How large can you make a character at 14 though?
“Well, mate, you should have seen me go: pretty large, pretty large,” he says jovially. “I had a very confused notion of who I was so it was easier for me to start again and I created this character. And now it is me, and I am him.”
If a 13-year-old can create the guidelines for himself this early, maybe he can make his life that way. What’s to stop him setting a path from rough streets to pop charts, hosting a TV show, acting, the roof of Buckingham Palace and now a one-man show about his life running at the same time as a tour by Madness, reformed, revitalised and writing some of the best songs of their career?
“That’s exactly it. I think there some tenet of Buddhism where you can just chop of all your roots, chop off for your conditioning in one go, and start again. I’m not for an instant suggesting that I am anywhere near what one might call enlightenment but I certainly realised that you can make your life what you will,” says Suggs.
“And I don’t mean that in some pseudo-American lifestyle guru business, but you can cut off some of the more painful bits of your life and stop the cycle.”
The tales of that new cycle, Suggs: My Life Story, are not surprisingly a companion piece to the Madness shows: funny and dark; insightful while pretending to be just a “regular geezer”; full of characters who are never shrinking violets but also wholly London.
Those characters range from his drug-addicted father whose mid ‘70s death in Tooting Bec asylum Suggs only discovered in 2011, through to the “seven individuals, very strong individuals” who formed a band hooked on pop and ska and the streets around them, and earned 20 top 20 hits in the UK.
Not that he’s talking about everything.
“I wouldn’t tell stories about the band that they wouldn’t tell themselves. It’s not my job to go into all the darker areas of individuals,” he says, remembering that the first time he performed he wasn't even sure there was a place for something like this, especially talking about his father.
"I thought, do I really want to talk about this? Everyone's going on about this, this self -flagellating public psychotherapy. But I thought without telling that bit of the story, it would be a bit lightweight really."
Those hits, from the riotous skank of One Step Beyond in 1979, and Baggy Trousers, to the reissue of the tender It Must Be Love in 1992 – the song which they would play atop Buckingham Palace as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 (“the most surreal moment of our entire career”) – are the kind of legacy that confirm their central role in British life
National love, as further confirmed with their performance at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, is one thing, but Madness are proof that while strong personalities can make a band (or any relationship), it is also true that those same qualities are what can endanger, if not actually break, any band.
Madness split the first time in 1986, when bassist Mark Bedford and drummer Daniel Woodgate quit, following keyboard player Mike Barson out the door, and ended three years later when the rest of the group realised it wasn’t going to work without an all-in-or-none-in mentality.
They reformed through the 1990s for one-off events and one album, but it wasn’t until 2009 and the album The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, that the band had a renewed mission statement to tell the stories, and a renewed passion for being Madness.
As Suggs sees it, though the band is back to six original members since trumpeter Chas Smyth quit again two years ago, when they return to the studio or stage they are bound by something too deep to break, leavened by hard-earned tolerance.
“We have been through that as kids: being arrested together, hanging about together. We were all from disparate backgrounds and dysfunctional families anyway,” he says. “Then when the craziness of being a famous person developed we were sharing that. We grew together like some crazy social experiment.”
And the same goes for their role in that other crazy social experiment, their city of London, his revived interest in writing about a side effect of trawling through his life for the stage show.
“With our new record [2016’s Can’t Touch Us Now, their third album this century] I went back to writing about people I see in the street, the detail of ordinary life,” Suggs says.
“Neil Tennant [of Pet Shop Boys], who is a much more intelligent person than me, told me the word pathos, which I had never heard before. It apparently means happiness and sadness at the same time, and I think that’s something we naturally stumbled upon.
“We were often seen as kind of laughing buffoons but that never was the case actually; we were always aware of the sadder elements of life.”