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Sixty Seconds with Suggs

The Madness frontman, 56, on the early days, getting into trouble at TOTP and sculpting a pagan lady

You’ve the House Of Common festival coming up. What can people expect?

It’s an event that’s developed over the past few years. Madness’s roots were in reggae and it’s a celebration of what we loved while growing up. This year we’ve got Jimmy Cliff and Ziggy Marley. It’s on a bank holiday Monday so hopefully it’ll be a bit of sunshine, a bit of ska, a bit of reggae and a bit of how’s your father.

What was the appeal of ska when you were younger?

We had the West Indian community around us so their music was always in our firmament and songs like The Israelites by Desmond Dekker or Uptown Top Ranking by Althea And Donna were on the radio. Reggae was in the charts and it was an influence on so many acts including The Police and Ian Dury. Bob Marley on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing Concrete Jungle was a ‘What the hell was that?’ moment for me. It was unbelievable. When we got together we thought we had something unique to us but then The Specials came along and we realised it wasn’t unique to us after all. Then Two Tone records came along and ska exploded. We went from playing in pubs to 35 people to touring with The Selecter, The Specials and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. The tour manager had to stop at service stations and book bigger venues as thousands of kids suddenly got into ska.

Inspiration: Bob Marley

Is it strange to see bands you knew as teenagers still doing the same thing?

I like that music but sometimes I feel a bit sorry for the younger chaps because the old f****** won’t get off the stage.

Why are you letting public sector workers in for free?

If public sector workers want to apply for a free ticket they’d be very welcome. We appreciate those people and we can afford to give a few tickets away. I’d like to say it’s because we’re public-spirited people but maybe it’s just a gimmick.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the release of your debut album One Step Beyond… What have been the highs and lows?

The main thing is we were friends. Most bands are put together by someone else or via adverts. We had a great base to launch from and that’s been our saving grace. There have been periods where we haven’t worked or people haven’t wanted to do it anymore but we’ve always communicated. We’ve split up a few times but then ended up headlining Glastonbury and playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace.

Your first appearance on Top Of The Pops was a landmark…

It was. I’m not saying whether or not amphetamines were involved. We were banned from Top Of The Pops four times. They once made the mistake of making us get there really early. We chatted up the commissionaire who let us into the BBC bar where beer was incredibly cheap. We spent all day in there, which created more chaos. We did it once and The Specials were on one stage and Morrissey was doing Heaven Knows I’m Miserable now and I was on there dancing about in khaki shorts and a pith helmet. Everyone else was being very cool and we looked like fools. The last time we were banned was when we got stuck in a lift with Hot Gossip. The lift plummeted to the basement and we were in there for two hours and missed our allotted time slot on the show.

Top Of The Pops: Morrissey

What was your involvement with the Victoria And Albert museum’s ‘human cheese’ project?

They took some DNA from my ear and turned it into cheese and then fashioned it into the shape of my head. It was part of their drive to explain what food is to kids. I didn’t see the exhibition myself.

Have you been sculpted out of anything else?

No, but I’ve got into sculpture. You just have to go with it. It’s meditative and I like it. I’ve sculpted a couple of cats and now I’m working on an eight-foot pagan woman with bosoms who will hopefully bring in the harvest for the following year. I’m chipping away at it — quite literally.

How did you get into it?

I did a TV show and went to the place they quarried the stone that Michelangelo’s David is made from and when I went to see the statue it got me going. I’ve done pretty much everything I’ve wanted. I can draw, paint, I’ve acted, I’ve done one-man shows, I’ve written books. This was just an area I thought I’d try.

You’ve been in showbiz a long time. What lessons have you learned?

I’m always very grateful to be doing what I do. Music is very curative and when I look out from the stage at everyone jumping about I feel I have a very privileged life.

House of Common is on Clapham Common, London, on August 26.