It's been a mad old time of late for sax player Lee Thompson and, as Barbara Hodgson hears, life is taking on a whole new rhythm as he adds a bit of reggae to the mix
AFTER playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, a gig on Tyneside must seem pretty down-to-earth stuff for Madness co-founder Lee Thompson, but this weekend actually sees the sax player scale new heights, of a musical variety.
El Thommo, as he’s known to the legions of fans of the baggy trouser, hats and spats band, is doing a bit of moonlighting with his Ska Orchestra which wanders into distinctly Jamaican territory.
At Hoults Yard in Newcastle on Saturday night, he’s promising a ska and reggae knees-up which ties in with a debut album – The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius – resulting from two years of similar occasional gigs.
The album sees Thompson, who also co-wrote such Madness hits as House of Fun and Embarrassment as well as Circus Freaks from last year’s Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da, team up with the band’s fellow co-founder, bassist Mark “Bedders” Bedford to add a touch of Jamaican sunshine to favourite ska covers.
“It’s got that spring feel about it; that ‘up’ thing,” he says. “I’m not trying to make it all polished.”
The Ska Orchestra began life with the pair’s idea of playing the kind of music that inspired them in their youth, as a kind of tribute to the likes of Desmond Dekker and Byron Lee.
As the idea took shape, the project gained momentum. They pulled together a band and Bitty McLane, producer of UB40, joined them as guest vocalist, singing on the track Fu Man Chu which will be released as a single on Monday, ahead of the rest of their debut album, which is named after the woman who set up an Alpha School for Boys in Kingston, Jamaica, providing education and opportunities to several of the earliest Jamaican ska musicians.
And their sound promises a taste of summer, no matter how cold and wet it actually turns out to be.
Thompson is thoroughly enjoying a bit of musical mix and match, having been with Madness nigh on 35 years. After their fast and furious introduction to fans to ska music in the 80s, Suggs and co are back to being huge now of course, with their performance of Our House on the roof of the Palace as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert hard to top. Even if it was followed up during our golden summer with a stint at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
“I absolutely thoroughly enjoy Madness,” says Thompson. “But I’m behind a hat and glasses. It’s Suggs that’s really spinning those plates.
“I’ve got me sax, I’m climbing all over the place; I’m working that audience and the ship is nice and level.
“And with the Ska Orchestra, it’s just smooth. I haven’t got to worry, I know I can do anything: click my fingers, take a solo.
“They all know there’s no set plan. It’s good in a different way.”
So good in fact that he’s already hoping for Ska Orchestra album number two. “We’re getting on really well, so hopefully I’ll put my hand in my pocket and do it again.”
In the meantime, we can get an early seat at the party. Saturday’s gig at Hoults Yard, Newcastle, is one of just four that Thompson has lined up. It starts at 7.30pm with tickets available from www.seetickets. com. The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius by The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra is being released under Thompson’s own label Axe Attack on June 3. Fu Man Chu will be out on Monday.