Once upon a time nobody had ever heard of Suede and nobody even knew that they needed Suede. How could they? Then somebody deep inside the darkest reaches of the Melody Maker offices decided that it would be a terrific idea to put a band nobody had heard of, and who hadn’t even released a single recorded note of music, onto the front cover. Approximately five minutes after that edition of the paper hit the shelves of WH Smith’s (John Menzies if you were in Scotland like me) and no self respecting boxroom rebel could imagine a life without Suede.
It was April 1992. It was the year that the world decided that Nirvana were the bestest thing in music…despite, you know, the lack of music. There was whining, there was greasy hair, there were clothes that hadn’t seen Daz in about 6 months but there was precious little glamour and even fewer songs loaded with the things that make your heart beat a little faster; sex, outsiderdom, drugs, hope and hopelessness, perversion and petrol.
Never mind “Nevermind” here’s the Suede boys (?).
Debut single “The Drowners” was a statement of intent. A calling card. A challenge to the musical establishment. A line in the sand. A rallying call to the grotesque and lonely. Four minutes and ten seconds that could change your life, especially if you didn’t actually have a life. My life was changed as soon as I heard Brett Anderson sneer the opening line; “Won’t someone give me a gun?” What more did you need? Rolling drums, glam rock guitar, a bass line that made you go all peculiar and then a demand for an illegal firearm. A bit like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” except Cobain and the gang only gave you the guns bit.
The front cover for “The Drowners” caused a bit of a stir in my house…a naked lady! I wasn’t the sort of boy who had a secret stash of naughty magazines under my mattress so this was genuinely the first time that a set of lady bosoms had been delivered surreptitiously into my home. I convinced myself that because the naked woman was covered in paint that this was, in actual fact, art and not just boobs.
Not since a certain gang of Mancunian miserablists released their debut single about a decade earlier, also housed in an erotic sleeve and also charged with a particular type of sex and sexuality, had music fans and the music industry been quite so excited. Just like that band the hype was entirely justified. Suede were, even at this point, the real deal.
A few weeks later and I was lurking in the shadows of The Venue in Edinburgh waiting for them to take to the stage. My girlfriend at that time had seen them in Glasgow the night before and hadn’t slept since. The atmosphere inside that tiny venue was charged; excitement, anticipation, love and desire. I can actually remember what I was wearing; an oversized pair of Levi’s, a Morrissey t-shirt underneath a green velour woman’s blouse (calm down ladies) and the obligatory indie kid scuffed and battered DM boots.
The support band finished.
Nobody had pain any attention to them (I’m pretty sure Luke Haines has never recovered from that slight).
The lights went out.
Then they were there.
What followed was unforgettable and, as with all unforgettable moments, I remember next to nothing about what happened. It was manic. It was frantic. It was brilliant. At one point Brett Anderson found his lace women’s blouse ripped from his body and, before I really thought about what I was doing, I was up on the stage, removing my own blouse and handing it to him. It lasted about as long as his own did.
When the debut album was released I was visiting my girlfriend in the nowhere town she lived in. Two nobodies in nowhere; the Suede demographic. We headed to the only record shop in town that wasn’t a Woolworths and bought the most eagerly anticipated debut since…the last most eagerly awaited debut album. We hurried back to her parents house and sat together on the sofa poring over the lyric sheet as one glam rock, indie pop, sleazy bed track, sex and drug referencing slab of brilliance followed another. The singles were all present and correct but, to my ears then and now, the stand out song was “Pantomime Horse”. It’s a heartbreaking, achingly sad and fabulously enigmatic pop song. It washes over you and leaves you barely above water. Drowning. Gasping. Dying. Happy to be there. “I was cut from the wreckage one day.” and the band doing the cutting were Suede.
What followed was, without any doubt, the greatest album of the 1990’s. People will talk to you about “Parklife” by Blur and “Definately Maybe” by the ruffians of Oasis and, sure, those are great records but neither one of them is a work of genius. And that’s what Suede delivered to a world that was very much still listening.
“Dog Man Star” is one of those rare moments when popular culture can be elevated to the giddy heights of art. In popular music that is even rarer (I reckon that only “Horses” by Patti Smith and “The Velvet Underground and Nico” can lay claim to being works of art) and yet with only their second album Suede did exactly that.
Let’s start with the lyrical content.
“Dog man star took a suck on a pill, pierced cerebellum with a curious quill.”
“Let the nuclear wind blow away my sins.”
“We’ll shine like the morning and sin in the sun.”
“Pornographic and tragic in black and white.”
“Whiplash caught the silver son, killed the sad American, crashed the car and left us here.”
“You might live in a screen kiss it’s a glamorous dream.”
“Like all the boys in all the cities, I take the poison, take the pity.”
“She rocker sacked the factory line for the chance of a dance in a surreal world.”
“Lying in my bed, watching my mistakes.”
“He left the coast and overdosed on that London sound.”
“It’s in the blood stream, it’s in the liver.”
“This still life is all I ever do, there by the window, quietly killed for you.”
It’s all a far cry from “He lives in a house, a very big house…in the country.” or “You’ve got to roll with it.” These are lyrics as poetry. Metaphor and simile. Provocative. Evocative. Words as images. Stories and fables. Tales of this life and the next life. Past and present. Grand. Gothic. Guignol? Cut the music, read and read only…just as much impact.
The cover art was a photograph by Joanne Leonard; “Sad Dreams on Cold Mornings”. Brett Anderson claimed that he just liked the image…”I just liked the image really…” but he must have been aware of how the title of the work chimed with the mood and themes of the album.
An image that is sad, sexual, erotic, enticing, enigmatic…it is, for me, the only time that Suede managed to successfully blend the mood and quality of the music and lyrics with the artwork on an album. Like The Smiths cover art this one suggested a band identity and it followed on beautifully from the homo-eroticism of the first albums cover.
I can’t bleat on hard enough or long enough about how perfect “Dog Man Star” is. It has gathered a bit of a cult following in the years since its release which is some consolation for the fact that, despite positive reviews in the press, it failed to have the same sort of commercial impact as the debut album.
It’s worth noting too that “Dog Man Star” contains, arguably, the highlight of the singles released by Suede; “The Wild Ones”. A song so perfect that it might actually be the son, or daughter, of whichever God you happen to believe in. I don’t believe in any God and I still think it’s perfect. I played it to a girl I liked once and she described it as; “Alright.” That ended that relationship.
Ah and now we have to turn to the elephant in the blog…we can’t ignore it forever.
“Dog Man Star” was the high point of this bands short but, so far, brilliant career…it was also the last thing they would do together in their original form because guitar genius Bernard Butler was gone. Off. Out. Never to return. Creative differences? I think the truth of the matter is that, like all creative duos, the things that tied them together; ambition, talent, desire and drive, were ultimately the things that drove them apart. And maybe drugs. Maybe. Maybe? Maybe not. For the indier than thou of the British music world this was the equivalent of Robbie leaving Take That except Bernard wasn’t an arrogant, irritating, talentless twonk and Suede were a band you could never forget.
Butler himself has said that leaving was a “mistake” telling Scottish tabloid The Daily Record; “…when I left Suede I didn’t do it because I fell out with people. I did it because I didn’t want the producer we had to mix an album. It was a case of call my bluff. It was him or me. It was a stupid mistake. I was stupid enough to go for it. It shouldn’t have gone that far.”
That “mistake” could, very easily, have been the end of Suede. What nobody could have envisaged was the arrival of a barely pubescent guitar player and songwriter called Richard Oakes. A musician that Brett Anderson said was “…going to blow our heads off.” The public, and the press, were less than convinced. In footballing terms this was like selling a Maradonna and replacing him with a Francis Jeffers. This had disaster written all over it. For people who already hated the bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience (oh Brett) this was manna from heaven and the sniggering was loud and lengthy.
What we didn’t know, what we couldn’t have known, was that Brett was right and that little Richard was, indeed, about to blow us all away with his contributions to one of the best pop albums of the Britpop era.
“Trash” was the lead single and the first fruits of the Anderson/Oakes songwriting partnership to be presented to the public. It brought the sniggering to a shuddering halt as it not only raced to number 3 in the charts (matched only by the post-DMS single “Stay Together” fact fans) and became their biggest selling single too. Rather than kill Suede the departure of Butler had seen them born again, hallelujah, praise be etc.
“Coming Up” is a remarkable album. It spawned 5 top ten singles and had sold over 1.5 million copies by the end of 1998. Those are astonishing numbers for a band with glam rock, punk and indie sensibilities and an androgynous frontman. Even more remarkable when you consider that one of its architects was only 17. It’s a cruel thing to do but just try to remember what you were doing when you were 17 and compare it with “little” Richard. While I was pining after Anna Wallace and singing along to Suede records in front of my mirror he was writing Suede records and selling them to an adoring fan base. It could’ve been me…if only I’d had any sort of talent.
One of the highlights of “Coming Up” wasn’t any of the singles but the penultimate track “The Chemistry Between Us”. It’s a hymn to wasteland youth, adolescent yearning and teenage daydreams…with some drug references thrown in for good measure.
“And maybe we’re just kids who’ve grown and maybe not
And maybe when we’re on our own we don’t have much
But oh we are young and not tired of it
Oh we are young and easily led
Oh with all the kids getting out of their heads.
Oh Class A, Class B is that the only chemistry?
Oh Class A, Class B is that the only chemistry between us?
And maybe we’re just Streatham trash and maybe not
And maybe we’re just capital flash in a stupid love,
But oh, we are young and not tired of it,
Oh we are young and easily led,
Oh, by all the kids getting out of our heads.
Oh, Class A, Class B, is that the only chemistry?
Oh, Class A, Class B, is that the only chemistry between us?”
Who hasn’t been young and easily led? Who was ever tired of being young? Nobody. Well, not me anyway. I loved being young. I was too boring for anyone ever to have wanted to lead me anywhere…but I’d have gone if I’d been asked. Gladly. Happily. Easily.
Suede were now back…bigger, better and bolder than ever. The world was their oyster. World tours. Stadium gigs. Awards. It was all just around the corner. Farewell indie disco and hello to the big time.
To fill the gap between albums proper and inevitable world domination the band released “Sci-Fi Lullabies” a double album of their b-sides. It was probably the best album released that year which, clearly, is testament to the quality of the work that Suede were producing at that point.
Then this happened.
I know some Suede fans (people with much more knowledge about the band and, quite probably, with a greater love for them than me) are going to get quite cross about this and so I apologise to them in advance and remind them that this is only my opinion.
Right, now that’s out of the way we can begin.
“Head Music” isn’t very good.
With Brett working his way through an alleged issue with crack cocaine and with the best looking boy in Britpop, Neil Codling, suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome the recording process wasn’t exactly plain sailing. The result was an album that has moments of brilliance (“She’s in Fashion”, “Electricity”, “Everything Will Flow” and “He’s Dead” would sit happily on any fans personal “Best of…” playlist) and one moment of glorious, knockabout fun (“Can’t Get Enough”) but it also contains some moments that can only be described as…awful.
The prosecution presents the lyrics for “Savoir Faire”;
“She live in a house she stupid as a mouse
And she going where the lights are on
She shaking obscene like a fucking machine
And she’s gone gone gone
She cooking crack giving us heart attack
And she living in a kooky show
She open your mind for the millionth time
And then go go go
And she got everything she needs
And she got pretty pretty feet
And she got flowers in her hair yeah yeah
She got savoir faire, yeah, yeah
She got savoir faire, yeah, yeah”
It’s nearly as bad as that calypso song former Radio 1 DJ Mike Reed put together for a gathering of UKIP supporters. I know that’s cruel but it really is a terrible, terrible song.
There was also a rather naff marketing move which involved releasing the title of the album one letter at a time on a weekly basis to the music press. H. E…oh it’s gonna be called HEROIN because, you know, Suede!
All of this contributed to a record that while greeted with enthusiasm by the British music press and selling well just wasn’t ever able to match the giddy brilliance of what had come before. Everything seemed a little…frayed in the world of Suede. The American press were much less enamoured by the record and their reaction more closely reflects my own thoughts on it at the time. “Entertainment Weekly” called it “sad…strangely lackluster…” and I think they were right.
Then came the silence.
Not just a career break.
A long, awful, deafening, silence.
Days stretched into weeks, weeks turned into months, months became years…1999, 2000, 2001 and on into 2002. Was it all over? Was their still life?
The answer to those questions was no and sort of.
A new album arrived in September of 2002 so Suede were still a band.
The problem was that that album was “A New Morning” and if people like me thought that “Head Music” was a bit “meh” we hadn’t heard nothing yet. “A New Morning” was the sound of a band who had gone past terminal decline and hit rock bottom.
It holds the record for the lowest chart placing for any Suede studio album, the single “Positivity” was greeted with “…an apathetic shrug” according to the NME and sales were poor. It really did feel like an ugly end to a beautiful thing. For a band who had released three flawless albums, any number of fabulous singles and who had had the world at their feet only 6 years earlier this was a tragedy.
That could have been the end of it all.
For a long time it seemed like it would be.
The world kept turning.
Then after a couple of live shows for charity word reached the ears of the faithful that it might not be over after all…a new album was on its way. Grown men and women wept at the news. Sales of chiffon blouses sky-rocketed. The last strands of hair on the heads of forty something men were teased into something that resembled a foppish fringe. We had forgotten all about “A New Morning”. We were ready to forgive, forget and move on.
“Bloodsports” arrived in the spring of 2013.
The sun was beginning to break the grey winter skies.
Birds were singing.
Flowers were starting to bloom.
The promise of summer was just around the corner.
All was right in the world.
Some bands “come back” simply to make money from the nostalgia circuit…and that isn’t something to be critical of, folks making money out of something they love and that other people love too isn’t a thing you should be critical of.
Some bands “come back” and it all just feels a bit flat. They soon disappear back to their Hampstead lives.
Suede came back with a slightly different approach. They decided to return with an album that helped erase the memory of “A New Morning” and that relegated “Head Music” to a mere blip in an otherwise brilliant career. It was a proper album filled with proper songs. Importantly it sounded like Suede but Suede in 2013 and not Suede at any other point in time. It had a freshness, an energy, an urgency and a drive that made you wonder how we had ever survived without them. Maybe we hadn’t.
This was a record that dealt with the only things that really matter when you get right down to it…love and lust. Brett Anderson said; “…it’s about lust, it’s about the chase, it’s about the endless carnal game of love. It was possibly the hardest we’ve ever made but certainly the most satisfying“. Be honest…what more do you want from a record than that?
Then in 2016 they did something that few bands in a similar position ever manage…they recorded and released their best album. Now, given how much I cooed over “Dog Man Star”; hailing it as a piece of Art and the best album of the 90’s it’s really going out on a limb to hail “Night Thoughts” as something better.
But it is.
Just like “Dog Man Star” the cover presents us with a lone, lonely, desperate individual. We don’t know who they are or why they are alone. In this instance its a girl, falling, sinking, drowning in a sea of darkness. The blue dress suggesting a calm acceptance of her fate. It’s a striking and provocative cover and takes the album one step closer to Art as a result.
The album was accompanied by a film made by Roger Sargent which accompanied the live shows on the supporting tour. When I saw the show in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow I had to leave the venue to gather myself before returning for the greatest hits encore. The band had played the album in its entirety from behind a giant, near IMAX sized, screen onto which the films were projected. Occasionally the screen would be lit in such a ways as to reveal the band behind it. It was the best live show I had ever seen.
It’s a record that deals with a lot of important themes; family, fatherhood, life, love, death, despair and anguish are all present and correct. This was the record where Suede took all of the things that had made them Suede over the previous six albums and brought them together to realise a perfect vision of who they were. No matter what they do from now on they can comfort themselves with having produced a perfect encapsulation of who they are.
Not many bands release a great album. Fewer still manage to release two. Three is unheard of. Four is the stuff of myth and legend. Suede have done it; a firecracker of a debut, a work of art for their sophomore release, a glorious pop record for their third and a career high with their seventh. That makes Suede a unique band and a band worthy of your love and attention.
I was there at the beginning…standing open mouthed and doe eyed at their first Scottish live shows. I was there at the height of the Britpop mania. I stood by, faithful, during “A New Morning” and I was rewarded for my loyalty with songs that soundtracked the highs and lows of my half life. I don’t know how to reach you…but thank you.