Ludicrous, pompous, outspoken, groundbreaking and brilliant. No, I’m not talking about Morrissey*. These are all words that describe Suede, the band who paved the way for British music’s mid-90s apogee. They may have undergone something of a critical renaissance of late, having released remastered and deluxe editions of their five studio albums in the spring, but they remain agonisingly anonymous to a large number of music fans. So, allow me to introduce you to them.
It’s not for want of trying that they’re not as canonised as they should be. The first band to be put on the cover of the now extinct music publication Melody Maker before they released a song, they then went on to win the 1993 Mercury Music Prize with their eponymous debut (and, philanthropically, donated the £100,000 reward to charity); this also reached #1 and sold over 100,000 copies in its first week. Having performed a nihilistic rendition of then forthcoming single ‘Animal Nitrate’ at the 1993 Brit Awards, they managed to break the top 10 of the singles chart – impressive considering the song’s lyrics deal with violent gay sex and drugs. Two more of their albums reached #1, with their third, Coming Up also producing 5 top ten singles, and produced a top-10 B-sides compilation, Sci-Fi Lullabies – rare for any band**. Their second album, Dog Man Star, which reached #3 in 1994, is widely regarded amongst music critics as a classic album. Despite dire album sales for their last album, A New Morning, they still managed to sell out the O2 Arena last December following their reunion. They still have a cult following, and journalists have been quick to praise the remastered editions of their albums, as they were when the originals came out back in the 90s. That’s not even delving into their apparent absurdity in hiring a 17-year-old schoolboy to replace guitarist Bernard Butler after his fraught departure during the recording of Dog Man Star. Aforementioned schoolboy, Richard Oakes, went on to co-write all of Coming Up’s singles – not bad for a boy whose previous band was called ‘The Poole Grammar Stompers’ and whose written talents had previously been plied in Classics, History and French.
Number-crunching and fact-churning aside, they played a role whose importance cannot be stressed enough. Although Blur experienced fleeting fame off the back of Leisure’s money single ‘There’s No Other Way’ in 1991, their following efforts ‘Bang’ and ‘Popscene’ failed to trouble the top 20 as their commercial impact was wiped out by an American grunge invasion courtesy of Nirvana. Suede were the first British band since The Stone Roses to excite the music press, hence Melody Maker’s keenness to advertise them before debut single ‘The Drowners’ came out [Ed: In the week I was born, no less! Two excellent things released in one week]. Although ‘Popscene’ is usually considered the first Britpop single, ‘The Drowners’ was the first to get people talking, buoyed by fantastic B-sides ‘To The Birds’ and ‘My Insatiable One’. From here on, public interest snowballed – eventually leading to their last-minute inclusion in the Brits line-up after an NME campaign championing the cause. They also made use of the Anglocentric rhetoric that Blur embraced wholeheartedly in Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife both in interviews and, more subtly, in their songs; ‘The Next Life’, Suede’s closer, features the lines “Far away – so far away/Down to Worthing, and work there/Far away, we’ll go far away/And flog ice-creams ‘til the company’s on its knees!”. Their ascent was centred on a very personal desire to inflict schadenfreude upon nemeses Blur following a messy love triangle between Brett Anderson, former Suede member Justine Frischmann and Damon Albarn, and – in 1993 at least – they were avenged. Ironically, it was with an album in parts charting Anderson and Frischmann’s break-up.
They didn’t rest on their laurels, of a fantastic debut album and a host of jaw-dropping B-sides; they released stand-alone single ‘Stay Together’ on Valentine’s Day 1994 amid an increasingly icy atmosphere between Anderson and Butler, reaching #3. Although it’s since been disowned by the band, the radio-edited single is good, and on the single disc lurks both the beautiful paean to a junkie lover ‘The Living Dead’ and the glorious eight-and-a-half minute full version of the single – complete with two minutes of deranged guitar parts by recently-bereaved Butler, an incomprehensible drug-fuelled rant by Anderson over the top (possibly featuring the line “Take me to Stephen Fry!” at 5:48), and a triumphant horn section. The fractious recording sessions for the second album saw a stand-off between Butler and producer Ed Bueller, leading Butler to issue an ultimatum; one of them would have to leave. Anderson stuck with Bueller, and finished Butler’s guitar parts by himself. The finished product, Dog Man Star, is as far-flung from the better-selling likes of Parklife and Definitely Maybe as can be imagined, especially considering that Suede helped wedge the door open for the likes of Blur and Oasis to become successful. It’s a ridiculously melodramatic, saturnine album, with Orwellian imagery and an all-pervading sense of gloom, but it’s ambitious, intricate and intensely cinematic. Any album with the opening lines of ‘Dog man star took a suck on a pill/And stabbed the cerebellum with a curious quill’ was always going to be slightly avant-garde, but it is in the best possible way. Nine-minute penultimate track ‘The Asphalt World’ is stand-out stunning both musically and lyrically, telling Anderson’s autobiographical story of a love triangle between a boy, his girlfriend and her girlfriend. The whole album justifies the 9/10 ratings bestowed on it on its release, along with every word of praise it received.
Complimentgasm over. Having made their work of art, they ventured into brighter territory to again avenge themselves over Blur, whose fame had skyrocketed following their Brits success in 1995 as Suede’s internal problems threatened to overshadow Dog Man Star’s brilliance. Coming Up sold over a million copies in Europe and Asia (excluding UK sales of over half a million), taking Britpop international in a way that the period’s other bands never quite achieved***; despite the fact that Britpop’s dominance was firmly embedded in the charts in 1996 following the Battle of Britpop, it was still an achievement for Trash, The Beautiful Ones, Lazy, Filmstar and Saturday Night to all chart as highly as they did. Even Rihanna would have difficulty with that kind of consistency.
Unfortunately, their last two albums – Head Music and A New Morning – were poor follow-ups to their excellent predecessors. The former was plagued by Anderson’s heroin addiction and Codling’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whereas the latter just suggested that they’d all been burned out from mind-blowing excess and extravagance; it’s not unlike the circumstances behind Be Here Now and Standing on the Shoulder of Giants – the first one betraying the influence of substance abuse and the latter being ‘stripped back’ to compensate, though I’m of the opinion that Standing… is a better album than A New Morning. Having run out of ideas, they split in 2003 and embarked on alternative projects; most intriguingly, including Anderson and Butler’s reunion as The Tears in 2004. But now they’re back, and apparently still brilliant live (due to the Uni of Exeter’s inconvenient exam and lecture scheduling, I haven’t been able to see them yet – sob, weep, blubber).
If you’ve learned anything from this article, it should be the following things:
1. Suede are underrated and unquestionably important in the rise of Britpop (and, subsequently, contributed to the success and perhaps creation of various excellent albums from this period),
2. Their first three albums are fantastic, and you should listen to them if you haven’t already,
3. You should bolster the ranks of Suede fans. They may not be household names in the same way that Blur and Oasis still are, but they deserve to be, and you should protect their legacy, and…
4. I’m a mad fan girl who can’t shut up about them.
So please, give your ears generously to Suede’s first three albums, and make a Jen happy today. Thank you.
*I’d be reluctant to call anyone who compared Anders Breivik to KFC as brilliant. Even if Moz did write the lyrics to ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and said of Brett Anderson “He’ll never forgive God for not making him Angie Bowie”. He’s eminently quotable, but also a bit of a tosser. So there.
** Oasis’ The Masterplan reached #2 in 1998, but Suede never quite reached the same level of notoriety as the Gallaghers, so it’s still a remarkable achievement. Incidentally, Sci-Fi Lullabies and The Masterplan are both excellent albums.
*** Oasis and Elastica nearly broke America, but considering Oasis’s imperial phase and 4-million-plus sales of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? in England, they didn’t do nearly as well as they could have. Elastica were ravaged by drugs before they could capitalise on their modest reviews success – though Robert Christgau still awarded their second album, The Menace, a rare ‘A’ rating in 2001. But I’ll be writing an article about them soon, so I’ll write more about them there.