When I attended the Edinburgh International Book Festival appearance from Brett Anderson a few weeks ago he discussed the early, formative moments of Suede and how they had placed an ad in the music press looking for a guitarist…an advert that brought two applicants, one from Ken and another from Bernard Butler.
I wonder what happened to Ken.
Does he regale people with tales of how he almost became the lead guitarist in Suede?
I hope so.
I know I would.
God bless you Ken.
Describing the moment that they first heard Bernard play Brett talked of how it was a serious wake up call for the rest of the band, including him. They knew that they had stumbled upon someone who could make flesh their dreams of musical success. They knew that they had to up their game in order to keep up with him or else they could lose him at the first.
What followed was one of the finest debut albums from a British band ever, the eponymous “Suede” and then one of the finest albums from any band from anywhere ever in “Dog Man Star”. A loyal following had been assured from the first moment “The Drowners” reached the ears of all who heard it and with a run of enormously successful singles and two genuinely brilliant albums the stage was set for world domination.
Then Bernard left.
Back to the drawing board.
Well, actually it was back to the classified pages of the music press as the band tried to see if they could capture lightning in a bottle twice.
When they announced the new guitarist the world couldn’t quite believe what they had heard.
He’s how old?
Richard Oakes was a teenager.
Not like a nineteen year old one week shy of his twentieth birthday sort of teenager but a bona fide “I’ve just had me first shave” sort of teenager.
This was ridiculous.
Most of us thought that Brett had lost it.
Mental breakdown following the departure of Bernard?
A grandiose act of self-destruction?
“He can play like the devil, he’s going to blow our heads off.” said Brett.
Nobody believed him.
If anybody tells you now that they did then they are a liar.
A big fat one.
Pants on fire.
Then we heard him play.
Once we had found our heads, which had indeed been blown off, we gave one of those “Tom and Jerry” style “W-w-what?!??!!” shakes of the head and then listened again to make sure that we hadn’t imagine it.
He really was that good.
The first fruits of that Anderson/Oakes partnership were the songs that would form the bulk of “Coming Up”. Of the ten tracks on that album, six were the result of Anderson and Oakes. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “I bet that they are six duffers and that the really good stuff was written by Brett and Bernard before he jumped ship.” to which I say…you couldn’t be more wrong unless you were claiming that Elastica were not a Britpop band.
“Trash”, “Filmstar”, “She”, “Beautiful Ones”, “Picnic by the Motorway” and “Saturday Night” were little Dickie’s contributions to the album. That makes four top ten singles written for your debut album…each one a shuddering, slinky, sexy, sassy, slice of glam/pop brilliance. All before he left his teens. The boys a genius I tells ya. A genius.
Where “Dog Man Star” had been a gothic glory “Coming Up” was the sound of a band doing exactly that…having been gasping, dying, somehow still alive after the rush and the push of fame and it’s intoxicating but fatal flames over the previous four years the departure of Butler and the arrival of Oakes and, crucially, of the elegantly inelegant Neil Codling had rejuvenated the band and their sound.
“Coming Up” is a pop record.
Many of the themes and much of the imagery remains resolutely Suede-ish but it shimmers and shines in a way that their previous work had not. It was as though someone had opened the curtains at Suede towers and, arguably for the first time, sunlight had bathed them in a golden glow.
It went to number one in the UK charts and was a hit in several other countries around the world. Indeed it would eventually go platinum here in the UK and elevated the band from the biggest indie band in the country to a genuine household name…with everyone from jumble sale mum’s and Sadies to young men and graffiti women happily singing along to the likes of “Beautiful Ones” and “Trash”.
Now here we all are twenty-two years later…still listening to it, still talking about it, still singing along, still dancing, still wondering how they could have managed to produce something so perfect at a time of such tumult.