Carl Smyth Of Madness Talks to ZANIWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
“… a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.”The Comedians Trevor Griffiths
In England around the turn of the Nineteen Century, a new form of entertainment was emerging for the working class, the music hall. In addition, over the Atlantic, the US was witnessing a similar movement, the Vaudeville.
People would dress up in their best attire, with the desire to impress their peers, as they wanted make it a night to remember. They would flock in their droves to pubs, pleasure gardens and saloons to see colourful entertainers sing, dance, perform tricks, act or perform comedy, with subject matter that ranged from poverty to the latest public scandal. The music hall culture quickly bloomed as the public found an enjoyable solace.
A relationship between the audience and the entertainer was forged, as now there was recognition of familiar surroundings and situations, all seen betwixt merriment and alcohol.
Yet with the birth of modern entertainment in the guise of cinema and the radio, the music hall slowly began to die out around 1914. In recent times many artists are still influenced by the music halls not in a reactionary sense but in a way that embraces past talent, characteristically songs with a hint of humour. Bands like The Kinks, Supergrass, Blur and Ian Dury and The Blockheads spring to mind with their chirpy sounds, sing-a-long choruses and picturesque lyrics that capture a slice of British life.
In amongst all these artists there seems to be one band that has embraced the music and comedy of the music hall more then any other; Camden Town’s finest, Madness. It may be unfair to call them, the bastard son’s of the Music Hall, but the influence is paramount. They entertain us in a colourful manner with quirky and intelligent songs. Like the music halls entertainers of old they are fiercely proud of their roots, therefore London is often a reference point in their songs.
Madness are a collection of seven charismatic and self educated individuals namely: Graham "Suggs" McPherson Vocals, Mike Barson Keyboards, Lee Thompson Saxophone, Chris Foreman, Guitar, Mark Bedford Bass, Daniel Woodgate Drums and Cathal Smyth Vocals, Trumpet, and dare I say Dancer. A band that gained national recognition from their debut appearance on Top Of The Pops on July 19, 1979 performing The Prince, a homage to SKA legend Prince Buster.
The SKA influence was certainly apparent and they were quickly signed to the UK’s SKA revival label Two Tone. But it was later, having signed to Stiff records, that they truly carved a niche for themselves, becoming a major chart topping band and a household name.
With that “Nutty Sound” and their smiling faces, Madness was easily perceived as a good time band. Their debut album One Step Beyond, not only included catchy numbers such as One Step Beyond, The Prince and Swan Lake but also there were social observations included in their lyrics. From Razor Blade Alley, a misadventure in a brothel with drugs to Mummy’s boy that touched on underage sex and a dominating mother. Madness proudly sung about Britain and later on the world in their own distinctive sound with a blend of old pub style piano, chopping guitar licks and melodic sax hooks melded together with Sugg’s soulful London voice. The perfect English band maybe, but that is another article all together.
Like songs and comedy of the music hall, behind the jollity lay powerful and meaningful messages. It soon became clear that Madness were masters at the craft of song writing, on a par with Lennon &McCartney and Jagger and Richards. In addition, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Madness has indeed clearly booked their place as a great British band and a National Institute.
As well as crafty catchy songs, Madness were one of the earliest bands to embrace the video market by making brilliant and memorable promotional films that added more credibility to their music. Maybe it was a clever marketing ploy on their side, foreseeing that Music TV channels like MTV were only just around the corner. Who knows? It meant that Madness adapted to their modern audience and did not die, unlike the music halls.
True to the tradition of music halls, the videos also had a deeper meaning behind all the shenanigans. Only Madness could make fun of a heart attack in for their song Cardiac arrest.
As Madness moved from being Nutty Boys and matured as men and artists, the record sales began to dwindle, and with the departure of one of their key songwriters Mike Barson in 1983, Madness called it a day by 1986. During that period Lee Thompson, Chris Foreman, Suggs and Cathal Smyth did resurface briefly with the short lived version of the Nutty Boys as The Madness.
By 1991 due to popular demand,(very music hall) and the need for each other , Madness reformed for a collection of one off gigs and a new album, and happily they have been around ever since, which is a very good thing.
Not only are Madness talented musicians and seasoned performers, they are also snappy dressers; a sort of Sixties Mod with a British city and country Gent twist to their attire.
Just like characters from a comedy gang like The Marx Brothers, each member of Madness is symbolic to their role in the band. Suggs is the romantic, Mike the philosopher, Lee the muscle, Woody the grafter, Chris the cheeky chappy, Bedders the charmer, and Carl Smyth is the clown, otherwise known by his stage pseudo Chas Smash.
Chas Smash, the clever and mischievous clown that could strike at any time. Carl or Chas is a true icon of Pop culture, and like all great comedians and musicians there are hidden depths and intelligence behind his jovial mask. ZANI wanted to know more about this man.
We caught up with Carl Smyth in a North London Pie and Mash shop, as he was taking time out to enjoy some fine London cuisine, catch up with friends and family and talk to us about his life, journey and his outlook. As he finished his last piece of pie and mash, Carl Smyth cleared his throat and was ready to tell ZANI all.
ZANI - Your first album in ten years since Wonderful is The Liberty of Norton Folgate, which has gone down a storm. This shows that Madness are not resting on their laurels. Overall, are you happy with the album and was it an enjoyable project?
Carl Smyth - Yes, I get a lot out of writing songs and I get a lot out of performing them. For me that is what it is all, but a lot of my time is spent doing strategic stuff for Madness, things like Madstock and The Hackney Empire
I like performing the songs, but, the album is like a means to an end. It is what the machine needs and the public need.
ZANI – So effectively, you view an album as a PR job?
Carl Smyth - Yes, to draw attention to the band, live is what it is all about. It’s an enjoyable process, I enjoy writing more then I enjoy recording, I enjoy performing more then I enjoy recording.
ZANI - As a band, are you always exploring new ways to write, or it there a set formula?
Carl Smyth - It’s like a different set of little cogs. I give some music to Suggs, Lee will bring some lyrics to Mike, Chris will bring some music to me, Lee, Mike or Suggs, and Woody just send out demos of music. I tend to either give bits of music or write with Suggs, or these days I just like to write on my own.
ZANI –Why do you prefer performing to recording?
Carl Smyth - I come from long line of dancers, so it is my gene’s. What I really like is what happens between the audience and Madness. The effect the music has on them, and their reaction, that is what, I feel it is all about.
ZANI - Yeah I know you come from a family of dancers, your father and grandfather both being champion Irish dancers.
Carl Smyth - As was my mother.
ZANI – So dancing really does run through the family. Did you want to be a performer at an early age due to your inheritance?
Carl Smyth - No not totally, I wanted to do the traditional Irish thing, which was be a priest, a lawyer or an assassin
ZANI – Really (laughing) an assassin?
Carl Smyth - Ha, it was one of these three. I read a lot , I moved a lot , went to a lot of schools, so as a child I was lost in a fantasy world.
ZANI - Yes, I know you travelled a lot as a child. Because of your dad’s profession, as he was an engineer by trade and his job took him and your family all over the world. So by the age of eight you had visited Babylon, The Vatican and Baghdad.
This is quite unusual for an upper working class or lower middle class family in the sixties, as travel was exclusively for the affluent. Do you think that travel opened your mind?
Carl Smyth – Absolutely, I think travel is one of the best educators there is. You see the same scapegoats pretty much the same attitudes, in every country with new cultures.
I suppose you get a touch of compassion as well as you soon see the Capitalist dream doesn’t really sort everything out. In the western world, everyone thinks Father Christmas is popping down the chimney, and it is all beautiful and rosy.
Whilst other kids in the world, have AK47’s or are mining for diamonds. Thousands of kids are dying because of this. With travel you get to see the rawer picture.
ZANI - Nice approach to travel, and from my research I understand you are a spiritual person. Am I right in thinking that you were into Buddhism, retreats and Introspection?
Carl Smyth - Yes I have dabbled with Buddhism; I am a cradle catholic, Ex altar boy. My uncles were educated in Trinity College Dublin, so when I was young they would always be asking me philosophical questions about books they recommended books like ‘The Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man’.
I think (this is going to sound weird) that I am a spiritual warrior. I like the idea of bringing people together, but not being wussy about it.
ZANI – I love that attitude, and you don’t strike me as a wuss.
Carl Smyth - Well I was, in 1971 I lived in Northern Ireland, and I was being bullied. I went to school there for about three weeks, and told my dad the other kids were killing me, so he took out of school, so for a year I lived in Northern Ireland without going to school. And when I went back to London, the kids were telling me I’ve got an Irish accent, and I stood out. When I got older, and adapted a bit, but it worked in reverse when I went back to Ireland, with everyone telling me I had a London accent. Anyway, all good educational stuff, I suppose.
ZANI – Character building I would say.
Carl Smyth - Back in the old days, the Celts have a reputation of shape changing. Understanding that has helped me, as well as dropping some acid.
ZANI – Really, you liked a trip in your youth.
Carl Smyth - It sort of played with the neural pathways and other shit. Joking aside, I am interested in perception, and energy. That is why I like, live work, the energy that we create, and the energy that we get back, it’s tangible and amazing. If you are putting out positive energy, you definitely, get it back.
I jokingly say that Madness is The Working Man’s Pink Floyd, therapy for the masses, and a bright shining virus of joy. But I also mean it.
ZANI – That is a good description of Madness. Now I take it you don’t still take Acid to mess about with neuron perception.
Carl Smyth - I haven't taken acid in years. But basically drugs are shit, crap quality control. when I was sixteen I did my first microdot, but back then the drug scene was run by hippies, and they loved doing it. They delivered quality. Now it is run by criminals, who serve up bubblegum, it’s rubbish, and some times dangerous.
ZANI – I agree, because my experience of recreational drug use was during the days of early Acid house, and the pills back then were something else.
Carl Smyth - Look what happened in 1988, there was, essentially a massive social shift thru “E” and it worked. I suppose the gun crime, came back with the Yardies influx, which again is the criminals controlling the drugs.
That is the trouble with the world today; people have suffered. Before hand, Glasgow and Northern Ireland seemed the hardest places in the UK.
But now you have got people coming from warzones, like Chechnya, Croatia and Somalia , who are used to high levels of physical violence , yet we are reducing services. Our society is changing . In part It is the result of the Empire’s action. You just have to get used to it and accept change.
ZANI – I know what you mean about that the UK is changing and we will see the cultural differences in the next ten years. Did you become a Freemason in 2000?
Carl Smyth - No, in 1994.
ZANI – Sorry got my dates wrong, are you able to talk about it?
Carl Smyth - If you want me to.
ZANI – I would like you to, because it fascinates me.
Carl Smyth - I suppose all my life has been about discipline, be it martial arts or Buddhism. Anyway I was invited along to a freemason dinner, it was interesting.
ZANI – Life changing moment?
Carl Smyth - I tell you what changed my life. It was this geezer who worked for Green Peace. He came to the opinion that the only way to change things was to get ‘inside’. So he left Greenpeace, joined Sellafield, and worked for a change of awareness internally.
I am a realist sort of cynic, recently I met someone in Switzerland, she said that she worked for the Green Council, I said “Who are they funded by, BP?” She said “yeah”. It is so obvious, that the black companies are using green as a means to look fluffy and friendly.
ZANI – And good for that so important Corporate Profile.
Carl Smyth - Exactly, We were on a CND march down in Trafalgar square, and every one was singing “Maggie, Maggie out out” and I suddenly realised there were getting in totally wrong, and instead they should be singing “God Save The Queen”.
ZANI – Why?
Carl Smyth - Because when the march is shown on television, the message they are trying to say would have been devalued by Propaganda.
ZANI – I see what you mean, good point. Anyway back to the Masons, what made you join?
Carl Smyth - Oh yeah, I got a little side tracked, that was you gassing.
ZANI – I do like to natter.
Carl Smyth - (Laughing) I had noticed, but I suppose that is why you are good at your job.
ZANI – Cheers.
Carl Smyth - Anyway I went along to a dinner with a group of men and I was overcome by curiosity. When I was a kid I would look through the window of a jewellery shop at Masonic jewellery , I was curious about the symbols, so curiosity has always been a driving force for me. And the other things I am into, like martial arts and Buddhism are all systems of self-discipline and introspection. I need and like self-discipline as well being driven by curiosity.
ZANI – Isn’t there a conflict of interest between being Buddhism and a Free Mason?
Carl Smyth - Not really, but what is interesting with Buddhism, is that it has helped with me with everything I do. How I perceive myself and the world. I was into Nygma, a school of Tibetan Buddhism, and a teaching called Dzogchen. This uses visualisation techniques; coupled with chanting, mediatation and prostration to come to a more clear understanding of the self.
ZANI – Soul searching and seeing the light in manner of speaking?
Carl Smyth - Yes, because you are breaking down the personality and conditioning extensively, which can get really messy.
ZANI – Sounds dangerous?
Carl Smyth - It can be, because if you are lucky, all your exterior character projection that you have been using to surf thru life, collapses at your feet and you say fucking hell, this is the real me. You see all your shit, you face yourself and you realise then, that forgiveness is the key.
ZANI – So it’s like fragmenting the character?
Carl Smyth - No it is smashing down the false self that is born out of one’s conditioning, which isn’t the real you. You know what I mean, it is your childhood, your teacher’s, your parent’s, but it isn’t you.
ZANI – So it is finding the real you?
Carl Smyth - It is finding the spot within yourself, that you know is you, which you find hard to express to others.
ZANI –That is quite a mind blower.
Carl Smyth -Going back to Freemasonry, I haven’t really been involved much, since I have been separated from my wife, which was four and half years ago. I was involved in a few Masonic orders, as well working with the Prince’s Trust, half-managing Madness, running a record label, DJ-ing on a, Saturday morning, just doing loads of shit.
But when you separate after twenty-eight years of marriage, it’s a real kick in the nuts, and I really got into re-evaluating my life. I haven’t stopped my membership as yet but I am just seeing where I am in life.
ZANI – I admire honesty, and it is hard, but we will have to take stock and see where we are at.
Carl Smyth - It comes to a point when you have studied so many systems I am fifty years of age. You start to think that maybe I should express what I know about myself in my own way.
But what also interested me in Masonry was that it was about embracing being born in this country. As I have been spending my whole life, wondering whether I am Irish or I am English.
ZANI – I get that with being half-Italian.
Carl Smyth - Every one gets that shit, it has taken me years to say I am London Irish, I still feel Irish in my nature, as I am sure you do with your Italian side.
ZANI – So Masonry helped you come to terms with your National Identity?
Carl Smyth - In a way yes, Masonry is about going into the system, going into the establishment, going into a different reality. And it is also about reinventing myself the part of the self, where I could be what ever I wanted to be to these people.
When I joined, I had some who perhaps were unsure of my involvement , you know he’s a pop star, this should be a laugh” But I flew, I loved learning about rituals and I ended up lecturing in other lodges. I really got a buzz.
ZANI – Sounds like you are really into learning new things, I like that.
Carl Smyth - I like applying myself; I didn’t go to university, so in a way it was my way of getting a degree.
ZANI - You spend your time between London and Ibiza. What is it about the Island that you like, because you are quite into dance music (I use the term loosely), and I understand you are working on a new dub step project?
Carl Smyth - I just love the Island, I am still working on the dub project, a relationship album and writing a play.
ZANI – Nice one, what is the play about?
Carl Smyth - HMS Misery, (Carl starts to recites)
They say he was born on a dark winters morn
and thrown in the nest of a crow
but the truth is more queer
his mother sold him for beer
to Frank a blind beggar from Bow
Now the Blind Beggar Frank
always carried a shank
as insurance from have a go mugs
he can pluck out your eye
as quick as you like
and he's partial to mind bending drugs
Now Frank loved young Danner
and fed him on spanners
and other things to make him grow strong
and he toughened his skin with rivets of tin
and flailed him with barbed wire tongs
He fed him on scraps, rats and dead cats
and he taught him to see with his ears
and they moved without sound
deep down under the ground
in the sewers for twenty odd years
now Blind Frank he was cruel
it's true he was cruel
for cruel was all that he'd known
it was all that he felt and all that he dealt
and all that he'd ever been shown
so he toughened young Danner
he toughened him good
he toughened him harder
than any man should
he toughened his body
he toughened his bones
he toughened young Danner till he stood full grown
and then old blind Frank
with a glint in his eye
with a shank in his hand
and his pistol close by
said Danner, my Danner
I am proud of you Son
you're a right proper bastard
your schooling is done
It is sort of Cape Fear meets Oliver Twist.
ZANI – That sounds amazing, love it. It seems that Ibiza has your creative juices going?
Carl Smyth - It has, and it has been good for my family life, because after twenty-eight years of being with one person, having three great kids, and then it suddenly goes. I soon realised I could not recreate the family home. Once it has gone, it has gone. Then you realise you are to have lunch with your kids like some retired uncle. That hurt a lot.
So I went to Ibiza for the first time three and half years ago, loved it so much I decided to stay. The weather is brilliant and there are many artists out there. I wanted to start a new life and it seems my kids spend more quality time with me there, than they do in England, which is what I wanted.
After I spilt with the wife, which I didn’t want to do, I went into rehab for depression. At the time the choice seemed, either go billy- o or you go for a walk in the desert and find yourself. Which I think I have done, I went for a walk, life is mental but in a beautiful way.
ZANI – Like it, any chance ZANI can pop over to visit you in Ibiza?
Carl Smyth - Ha, don’t push your luck, you cheeky sod.
ZANI – Sorry, anyway back to HMS Misery, is it all in verse?
Carl Smyth - It can’t all be in verse, because that gets a little boring. The human ear turns off, but a lot of it is. I will let you see it, once it is finished.
ZANI – Jumping back to Madness, I love your one and only film Take It Or Leave It, a great film about how the band makes it. Is it a body of work that you are proud off ?
Carl Smyth - I love it; I too think Take It Or Leave It is a great film. It seems to me, that it is a time capsule of a time gone by.
ZANI - It shows the interaction and love between the band and it is a great study of male bonding. There is a scene in Take it or Leave it, where Mike Barson won’t give you a lift home, is that really how it was?
Carl Smyth - It was like that, exactly like that
ZANI – So Mike Barson really was a bastard.
Carl Smyth - Shhh, you do not want to upset him.
ZANI - You are right. Another scene from the film that really captures how moody a gig can be it is the famous scene where a gang of skinheads at Aklam Hall ambushes you, was it that bad?
Carl Smyth - It was more violent then in the film. It was like back in the day at youth clubs, someone would say “what are you looking at” and it would kick off. I remember as a kid walking down the street in this Christmas outfit and this geezer who was twice my age punched me in the face for no reason.
ZANI – It was very much like, older men bullying kids, I doubt if it has changed much. A deep question about Madness, even though the songs can be perceived as happy, you use comedy to paint a picture.
To quote you, “Madness I suppose, tends to write songs about normal life, we just take a segment of every day life and blow it up to cinematic proportions”. Do you see comedy as good way to get people to listen?
Carl Smyth - Comedy is a good medicine for hardship. I absolutely love Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, Bertold Brecht. All of that stuff, I don’t know how it filter’s into the band, but it does somehow.
Once you are in the band, you have a lot of time on the road. These things just spring up, and that is just the way we are. What it is, whatever that we share, that is way we think. I think it is what makes Madness interesting, and what partly keeps us together is a shared conscious of what we like, things like Tommy Cooper, the classic comedies and stuff like that.
ZANI – I am really into the Italian comedy, Commedia dell’arte, the forerunner of all modern comedy from slapstick right up to The Simpsons. Are you influenced by Commedia Dell’arte?
Carl Smyth - I know a little about it, but I would be lying if I said I was an expert.
ZANI – I’ll send you some links about it, even the name ZANI comes ZANNI, which a character from Commedia Dell’arte and that is where the word zany derives from.
Carl Smyth - (Laughing) that’s very interesting, but I thought I was being interviewed not you. But send us the links please do.
ZANI – OK fair enough, but your persona in Madness, Chas Smash, reminds me so much of one of the main characters from Commedia dell’arte, Arlecchino or more commonly know as Harlequin. Harlequin, the cunning and bright servant, who allows the establishment to underestimate his intelligence, so he can hatch his schemes, fall in love with the pretty maids and make the audience laugh about his misadventures.
Carl Smyth - I have never really looked at my role like that before, but I love Harlequin characters. Lee used to draw clowns, scary ones with jagged shapes around the ears.
ZANI -I have always thought with Chas Smash there was the influence of The Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.
Carl Smyth - I was into The Joker and The Riddler, The Riddler was fucking sick.
ZANI – Yeah I can see a bit of The Riddler in Chas Smash, perhaps more then The Joker. You would great as a villain in the next Batman movie.
Carl Smyth - Thank you (laughing) that is a nice comparison, and I am pleased you see me as a villain not a hero.
ZANI – Well you know what I mean. Staying with Chas Smash, do you think that Chas Smash influenced Flavour Flav of Public Enemy, with the comic element?
Carl Smyth - I don’t know, my brother is close to a lot of bands like the Pharycide and NWA; he is very much into the Hip Hop Scene. It turns out that Busta Rhymes is a fan of Madness.
ZANI – He has good taste then. I once said the two most dangerous men in music are Chas Smash and Flavour Flav.
Carl Smyth - Interesting point, why?
ZANI – Because behind the laughter and the colourful mask, is a genius using comedy to spread a serious message, it’s enigmatic and a danger.
Carl Smyth - I understand what you are saying; I always thought that the clown is interesting character, especially in the king’s court. Where he had a dual role to bring comedy to the King’s peers and bring the King down to earth, it was not always about comedy. To get messages across, you don’t want to patronise in the trapping of emotions, so comedy is good at overcoming this.
In music, a good melody and an upbeat sound opens the mind, it does distract you a little bit because it relaxes and cheers you up, so the words come through as secondary. But it is powerful.
ZANI – True, as Sly Stone once said “music is a feeling, not a fashion”. Is there a difference between Chas and Carl?
Carl Smyth - Yes there is. Chas Smash can express himself in a Voodoo way in the spirit of Madness, whilst Carl Smyth has other things going on.
ZANI – Do you find yourself arguing in the mirror, I am being a tad sardonic by the way.
Carl Smyth - Really I would have never of guessed. No but I look down on myself, check myself.
ZANI – Like an outer body experience.
Carl Smyth - Someone said if you live like you are being watched then you live with some level of grace. I fail miserably of course (laughing).
ZANI – I think you are fishing for compliments
Carl Smyth - No I am fucking not; I think you have got to love your monkey; you can’t beat yourself up. If you do good work, love your family and friends, then life is good.
ZANI – What do you mean by love your monkey?
Carl Smyth - It is a song that I am working on.
ZANI - Like the title, before Madness got a deal, you and the rest of band were big Motown and soul fans, and you used to do a couple of covers like Shop Around. Why did you drop them, and not record them, because of copyright?
Carl Smyth - No because we had learnt to write, Madness had become competitive and before that we had played things like Just My Imagination, I Am Walking by Fats Domino. Every band back in the day, started off with twelve bar blues because it is the easiest thing to learn. Hence swaying Madness into SKA, it’s got a bit of a dance thing and it is easy to play.
Mike Barson and Mark Bedders were probably the best technical musicians at the beginning. As the people developed, so did the songs.
A proud moment I thought was years later, there was a music magazine, a technical one for bass players and it was talking about the difficult structures of the Madness ones. Which I thought was interesting, because when you think of Madness you might think that it is very light and breezy. But there is a lot of content there, and a lot of thought goes into the structure and the arrangements of the songs.
ZANI – Apart from the obvious influences, who else has been a huge influence on Madness?
Carl Smyth - Berry Gordy has been an influence on us. I read an article once and he said “when you come out hit them with three hits, don’t say anything just go bam bam bam. Then introduce yourself. Once you’ve got them in the palm of your hand, then hit them with some more tunes, and get the audience working and sweaty.”
ZANI – That is perfect stagecraft, and you can see that in all the great bands of yesteryear and today. Staying with Motown, you did get to record ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ on your musical alter ego The Dangerman sessions, which was praised by Susaye Green of The Supremes
Carl Smyth - That was nice.
ZANI - I take it you are proud of The Dangerman Sessions, you’ve done Volume One, is there talk of Volume Two?
Carl Smyth - Yeah that is why we called it Dangerman Volume One.
ZANI – You got me there Carl.
Carl Smyth -Joking aside; yeah why not, if the mood is there. But at the moment there is a mood to more recording as Madness.
ZANI - Madness seem to be a very Democratic band, because at the start your philosophy was “There’s seven of us in this band and that’s it”, and you have seemed to have stuck to these principals
Carl Smyth - That is the way it has always been, and we go beyond being in band with families thrown in the mix. Madness is an extended family and just like an extended family, you have the same shit that goes with it.
ZANI - Is true that the first night the band played as Madness, it was the night that Margaret Thatcher got elected?
Carl Smyth - Yeah I think it was at The Music Machine.
ZANI - At least something positive came out of that night, I don’t mean Maggie.
Carl Smyth - What us? Surely not?
ZANI - I understand due to mix up with forwarding addresses, I hate to say this, but you lost your original singles, and many of Madness Gold discs, yet from what I read you seem quite philosophical about the whole affair.
Carl Smyth - I was in a Management Company between 1991 and 1994; I paid the rent for storage for about a year. Then I spilt from my business partner and moved premises, paid the storage for next six months. But my business partner didn’t forward the mail, so the next thing I knew all my stuff had been auctioned
ZANI – And you are so relaxed about it, which I can’t believe.
Carl Smyth - Well the thing is, if you spend your life saying “What does it matter if you’re ship goes down with all your goods, and you are alive on the shore.” You say things like that then have you have to live by that.
ZANI -When Madness spilt in 1986, you went to work at Go Discs, how did that come about?
Carl Smyth - Well the money ran out in 1989, so rather then become a mini cab driver, I wrote twelve letters to twelve record companies. Atlantic records wrote back to me saying they don’t want to insult me with the wages, you are too experienced, I wrote back saying you insult me, I’m potless. Ha ha.
But it was great experience going round all the record companies, and Go Discs, was one of the last record companies I had an interview with. Juliette Wills was there, she used to work with Rick Rogers, who used to own Trigger management for The Specials. So I had a history with her, and Andy McDonald, the owner used to work in the press department for Stiff. So there was a connection with both of them.
I thought they were both going to interview me and go “look how the worm has turned now, you are looking for a job, and we both worked for you at one point” Anyway they turned out to be really cool, Go Discs at the time was a left wing label, that felt really great.
I already knew Billy Bragg, and Andy MacDonald made his name by signing The Housemartins, after working with Madness, he looked for a band like Madness found The Housemartins and scored lucky.
I was bought in as a trouble-shooter to realise the release of the LA’s debut album.
ZANI – The LA’s only and one album is a timeless classic.
Carl Smyth - I might dedicate Clerkenwell Polka to Lee Mavers, because he taught me a hell of lot about strumming. It was a real privilege to work with him, but it is a real shame that his own shit won’t allow him to fulfil the potential that he has. Lee is a great songwriter in my book.
It was a great experience and I left in 1991 to reformed Madness, I even turned down ten per cent of the publishing company when I went. I thought it would be dishonourable for me to fuck off , then to do Wembley Arena, then pop back and be A ‘n’ R for bands, I mean what bands would believe that I had their interest in my heart, when I am still with Madness.
ZANI – Did you sign Paul Weller for Go! Discs? Beating off competition from the likes of Alan McGee.
Carl Smyth - Well I had a hand in it, with Paul Dowling, who assisted Paul Weller with his come back single Into Tomorrow. When Into Tomorrow came out, we talked Andy MacDonald into signing Paul Weller.
ZANI - Cool a quick question on Madness and your distinctive sound. Would you say that your producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, were the Madness equivalent to The Beatles and George Martin?
Carl Smyth - I suppose so, Alan Winstanley has a good ear for music, and Clive Langer has great sense of a three minute pop single. He has an idea and a vision for the song, plus Clive is a musician, which means he can communicate in a way with a band that a lot of Producers can’t.
ZANI - Nice one, it certainly has been a long working and successful relationship. Moving to a philosophical question I once read that you said “You don’t know the importance of moments till years later. It’s funny, it’s strange”. So what is your most treasured moment?
Carl Smyth - Treasured or important?
ZANI – Good point, depends on how you want to define the question, it is up to you. No, let’s spilt into two, treasured and important.
Carl Smyth - Got you again didn’t I? (Laughing) Sitting on my granddad’s knee whilst he was smoking his pipe smelling his tobacco and counting woodbine vouchers. Being in my Granny Mac’s presence, she was a powerful woman. I used to go around to her house on a Sunday to watch TV and talk with her. She was a bit of battleaxe, but in a nice way.
Being thrown out of a school, after being in Iraq for a year, I went back to my old school in England but they hadn’t saved me a place. That morning I went to the school on my own, but when I arrived, the school said you don’t belong here. But experiencing that at a young age, sort of gave me confidence and independence, as I faced the walk home alone.
Also levitating at seven
ZANI – Levitating?
Carl Smyth - Well it I felt like I was levitating but it was probably imagination old chap.
ZANI – Well that is as good as levitating
Carl Smyth - When I was eight, a nanny I had in Iraq, took me off to see her father, who was some mystical old dude, obviously a Holy man. It was on the outskirts of Bagdad and when we entered this like mini temple he beckoned me over to him and sat me in his lap and I felt really comfortable with him. That was a bit weird but interesting.
There have so many moments in my life, like being at the birth of my children.
ZANI – Nice, overall would you say you are a successful man?
Carl Smyth - I measure my success down to two things, my beautiful children and how much space I have got to operate in
ZANI - Good answer
Carl Smyth - Phew, not wrong then? (laughing)
ZANI – Ha, OK final question one as an Irish Londoner, what part of this city do you think is the most symbolic to you?
Carl Smyth – Camden Town
ZANI – Why is that?
Carl Smyth – well it has been a focal point for Madness and at the same time the Irish had a large part in creating it. George Bernard Shaw was on the Camden committee who approved the first public toilet in the UK which was on Parkway. all that.
ZANI – Thank you it has been a pleasure
Carl Smyth - You are welcome, please come again.
Well Carl Smyth’s is certainly a proud and successful man. As well as being reflective, analytical, optimistic, entertaining, witty, spiritual and highly intelligent.
In talking to Smyth, you are speaking to a man that wears his heart on his sleeve but with some pride. He is open about his misfortunes as he is fulfilled about his accomplishments. His zest of living and overcoming obstacles is overwhelming, and highly inspiring.
The man ZANI spoke to was Smyth the Thinker, yet we have had the pleasure of seeing the legendary alter-ego Chas Smash at work.
Carl Smyth’s contribution to music is breathtaking. A Pop Genius and a daring man, who releases the tension, liberates the will and with a desire to change the situation.
© Words -Matteo Sedazzari / ZANI Media