The Best New Band In Britain
- Front cover of NME magazine
It is mercifully easy to forget how dismal the British music scene was in the early 1990s. The Smiths' disintegration in 1987 left the fey end of the rock spectrum devoid of one of the truly great bands of all time, and not much had wandered forth to fill the void. Proto-lads the Happy Mondays brought the swaggering, laddish 'baggy' sound, later championed and refined by the Stone Roses, who promised much but ultimately delivered little beyond a heartstopping debut album. Shoe gazing followed briefly, and marked the last hoorah of the traditional 'indie' sound. By 1992, the nation was listening to grunge, a style championed by Nirvana.
However, in Heyward's Heath, one of many anonymous satellite towns orbiting London, something thin and leather-clad was stirring. Apparently fathered by Ray Davies and with Morrissey for a Mum, skinny minx Brett Anderson and his band Suede were massing for an assault upon the unwitting record-buying public. Suede consisted of Anderson, bass player and old school buddy Matt Osman, emaciated guitar god Bernard Butler and drummer Simon Gilbert. At a time when the major record labels wanted an identikit Mondays/Roses lad product, Suede offered androgynous leather rent boy chic, steeped in '70s guitar sounds and stamped with a peculiar Englishness that predated the Britpop sound of Blur and Oasis by years. Such was the massive appeal of the band on the London circuit that they became the first act to appear on Top of the Pops without a recording contract. The performance was a tour de force. Anderson's stick figure posturing, the guitar-hero cool of Butler and the precocious, ambiguous lyrical content of their material provided the nation at large with a dizzying glimpse into Suede's sleazy otherworld of cheap narcotics, bedsit land despair and public lavatory shenanigans. The famous NME headline of 'The Best New Band In Britain' atop a picture of Suede in typical pouting stance confirmed what was already common knowledge: history was in the making and a recording contract was negotiated with Nude records. With a now massively anticipated debut album in the offing, the world held its breath.
In your council home
He jumped on your bones
Now you're taking it time after time
- 'Animal Nitrate'
It was unsurprising that Suede's eponymous debut offering drew immediate comparisons with The Smiths. The band were all total Smiths-heads, for a start. Astonishingly, ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce was briefly a member of Suede, but the collaboration failed to blossom because Anderson and co were overawed to the point of paralysis by the presence of a hero in their midst. The subject of directionless sexuality was a particularly common theme for both bands. However, Morrisey's lyrics saw sex as a vague and usually unattainable ideal, occasionally indulged in with tragi-comic results. For Suede, sex was easy, cheap and frequently degrading. It was with these squalid low rent caperings that the debut album was underpinned. From the pistol shot opening bars of 'So Young' to the ethereal closing piano chimes of 'The Next Life', there wasn't a dull moment. Every track oozed enough innuendo to satisfy all sexual and gender persuasions, and stark portrayals of unfulfilling semi-consensual liaisons abounded with every stanza. Disquieting images of juveniles, drugs and bestiality mingle effortlessly with observations on the subject of Volvos, Sussex coastal towns and carbon monoxide suicide. Even the names of the tracks were provocative. 'Metal Mickey' - seemingly an innocuous reference to a children's TV character - was actually a lesbian sex toy. 'Animal Nitrate' is a play on amyl nitrate, a substance used as a muscle relaxant prior to anal sex. The album cover was typically Suede - a head and shoulders shot of two disabled lesbians in a passionate clinch. The album sold by the lorry load, becoming the fastest selling debut in history.
In the wake of the album's tremendous critical and commercial success, Brett Anderson managed to attract accusations of using an assumed sexuality as a publicity gimmick for his statement that he was 'a bisexual man who's never had a homosexual experience'. Drummer Simon Gilbert (who was the only member of the band who actually was gay) diffused the situation by stating that he was 'a bisexual man who's never a heterosexual experience', and the matter was smoothed over.
Dog Man Star
And that's how it feels when the sex turns cruel
- 'The Asphalt World'
By the release of Dog Man Star, internal tensions were beginning to rise between Bernard Butler and the rest of the band. Butler, deeply traumatised by the recent death of his father, was becoming insular and difficult to work with. His latest suggestions of 20-minute Pink Floyd-esque extravaganzas were not well received by the rest of the band. He would leave soon after the album's release.
Dog Man Star was less flamboyant than its predecessor. Shying away from flawed, flouncy sexuality, the songs concentrated more on the general seediness of anonymous urban life, with spiralling debts and passionate, doomed love affairs. The painful awareness of one's own hopeless situation - another favourite Smiths theme - was best captured in 'Still Life', which also experimented with string sections and brass, a result of Butler's dabblings. In an unlikely twist, it was subsequently used in Disney's The Metal Giant. 'Introducing the Band' nodded towards Bowie's Low album, with its haunting orchestration and contorted nightmare-babble lyrics, while 'Heroine' and 'New Generation' provided clever, jaunty pop. Softened with the delicate 'Wild Ones' and 'The 2 Of Us', Dog Man Star was an enigmatic package, muso-fest and student bar thrash by turns, guiding the band through the 'difficult second album' stage of their career.
The album was released in 1994, amid much speculation over drug addiction and the impending departure of Butler. This remains shrouded in legend: one popular story states that the camel's back was broken after Brett walked out of the bedroom of a borderline age fan whom he had just divested of her virginity and shouted 'Now bring me a 12-year-old!' While this may or not be true, and is at best quoted entirely out of context, it seems likely that the sensitive Butler, who had always preferred working in the studio to life on the road, was uncomfortable with the band's new rock star status. Although he continued to associate with the band, by the time the album was toured, perhaps the luckiest man in music after Ringo Starr had taken his place - Richard Oakes. Oakes was a Suede-obsessed 16-year-old, who, as if living in a photo story from a pop annual, gamely wrote to the band, enclosing a demo tape, and demanded that he replace Bernard Butler. Hearing him blast through a cover of 'Heroine', Suede agreed. With the regulation skeletal physique and face covered by Bobby Gillespie-style curtains of hair, he turned out to be the perfect replacement.
However, Brett's stray bullets were again flying in all directions during the Dog Man Star period. 'I don't give a f**k if people think I've got my head down a toilet with a needle up my arse, as long as I make good records' he told NME. It was perhaps not the happiest of times.
We're the litter on the breeze, the lovers on the street
There was a further personnel change in January 1996: the arrival of Simon Gilbert's cousin, Neil Codling on keyboards. Pale faced and sickly (with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), androgynous and gaunt, he was, to quote bassist Matt Osman 'a Suede person'. The musical landscape through which the band were travelling had also changed. Between Dog Man Star and Coming Up, the set-piece tabloid squabbling that was the Britpop 'war' had taken place. The happy result of this for Suede, who, it could be argued, had invented the genre, was that there was a growing acceptance of guitar-based music among mainstream radio stations. Whereas their early singles struggled to find any airplay, the likes of Oasis and Blur had made the format newly respectable and commercially appealing. The first single from the new album, 'Trash', became an instant daytime radio standard, racking up massive sales and a substantially wider audience in the process.
Where Suede had been a glorious, seedy leather romp and Dog Man Star had been a jagged rented room snog, Coming Up was a glossy affair between consenting adults. Familiar Suede territory was faithfully revisited, although with a shift of lyrical perspective away from the participant and towards the observer. 'Into The Sea' marked something of a coming of age for the band. The stanza 'Sold the car and quit the job/shook some hands and wiped the make-up right off/Said our goodbyes to the bank/Left Seven Sisters for a room in a sea side shack' was particularly significant. Hitherto Suede material had been concerned with the wanting, or at least the not having: 'Into The Sea' dealt with the shedding. The romping stomping 'Beautiful Ones'; the bored, spiteful 'Lazy'; and standard sad 'Saturday Night' all battered the top 40 into submission, and the album itself topped the charts, attaining platinum status in a nanosecond.
With the style of a widow/and a room of your own
- 'He's Gone'
1999's Head Music is a heavyweight, big sound slugger of an album. Its mission was to deal with the great paradox of the successful band: How To Be An Accomplished Rock Act And Remain On The Ball. Rather than pretend to be still having grotty sex in an underground car park, Suede instead concentrated on an album's worth of clever, thoroughbred material. 'She's In Fashion' - a tilt at boozy media chick Zoe Ball, enjoyed considerable chart success, as did the opening track 'Electricity'. 'Crack In The Union Jack' was the band's most head-on social comment to date, with Anderson again borrowing extensively from his Bowie back catalogue to bemoan the shredding social fabric of modern Britain. 'Savoir Faire' spikily portrayed a boring trendy crack head 'opening your mind for the millionth time'. When taken alongside 'She's In Fashion', it was an interesting new angle on an old obsession of Suede's: celebrity and glamour. Here, the subjects are painted as really rather facile and tedious, especially compared with the 'Film Star' of Coming Up. The usual searing ballads are provided by 'Everything Will Flow' and the intense 'He's Gone'.
And so there we have it. The most understated and unique British band of the 1990s, and four cracking albums, representing constant change but also constant... Suedeness.