FORMED: 1989, England
As far as you and I are concerned, Suede changed the rules of pop music and everyone else just followed. When they formed around 1991, "independent" music was something to be sidelined not celebrated - bands released EPs and gazed at their feet and being successful didn't come into it. Now , three million album sales later (including 5 Top Ten hits off the last album), Suede have redefined the "left-field" and called it mainstream. Without them I doubt that bands like Oasis or Blur would exist in quite the same way that they do today. Indeed while they may have spawned/spurned "Britpop" (horrible term) their cultural impact is of a far greater significance: they represent nothing more or less than the voice of disaffected youth.
Suede are Brett Anderson (voice), Richard Oakes (guitar), Mat Osman (bass), Simon Gilbert (drums) and Neil Codling (keyboards) but it hasn't always been like this. Before that there was this: Anderson and Osman were brought up in Haywards Heath, some 40 miles away from London, remained friends for years and formed a band as long ago as 1989. They finally met up with their guitarist (until 1994) Bernard Butler after he answered an advert in Melody Maker and initially existed as a trio using a drum machine. Some time later they met Gilbert - selling tickets at London's ULU box office - and asked him to be their drummer. Later too, future Elastica singer Justine Frischmann joined as second guitarist and the line up was complete. The Suede story had begun.
In the early days, Suede were a far cry from the band we know them to be. They were hated, to be frank, and venues, agents and record companies alike dismissed their "low-rent" glamour and sense of style as a thing of ennui. Their gigs were disastrous too, not on a performance level (every Suede show was a performance) but in the audience reaction they garnered. When they recorded a single called be my god/art (with Mike Joyce on drums and now a priceless artefact) it all sounded very peculiar and only occasionally offered glimpses of the greatness to come.
At the start of 1992, however, something changed and the world caught up (Justine had left the band by this point). Suede's live shows suddenly started to set pulses racing and this began to be translated into music press live coverage. In January, they appeared third on the bill to the terrible Fabulous at the NME "ON" night at the New Cross Venue and came to the attention of Nude Records. Three months later, after the capital had witnessed the most exhilarating scenes since the height of punk rock, and one month before the band's debut release THE DROWNERS (on Nude), Suede were on the front cover of Melody Maker under the banner headline "The Best New Band In Britain".
Suede were everywhere by this point and journalists began writing things like "the most audacious, mysterious, perverse, sexy, ironic, hilarious, cocky, melodramatic and downright mesmerizing band you're ever likely to fall in love with" without so much as a tongue or a cheek in sight. Around this point, too some of the most heartily hetero-centric (male editors you could ever hope to meet were getting all shook up over Brett's behind and when Brett himself spanked this delicate derriere with a microphone on Top Of The Pops, television history was made - not least (since the Nude deal had not been finalised) because no other band had ever appeared on top Of The Pops without a record contract.
Concurrently Suede singles METAL MICKEY and ANIMAL NITRATE went to 17 and 7 in the charts respectively and a lengthy stint of Suedemania ensued; by the time Suede got to play their home town again (London, to you) Brett had his shirt ripped off by over-enthusiastic fans. It was a far cry again indeed.... and this time there were tears.
In March 1993 Suede released their eponymously-titled SUEDE and the floodgates opened. Already hailed as "the most eagerly awaited debut since Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols", the record did not disappoint, gathering ecstatic reviews in it's wake. It contained at least one song ("Breakdown" if you like) that would rank high in the list of the best songs ever recorded. Others like SO YOUNG and the next life would become anthems of heroic alienation. The LP itself went straight to Number One outselling its nearest rival (Depeche Mode) by four copies to one and became the fastest selling debut album since Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Welcome To The Pleasuredome" in 1984, turning gold on its second day of release. Later in the same year, and perhaps most poignantly, it also won the 1993 Mercury Music Prize.
Suede spent the rest of 1993 touring Europe, America and Japan, headlining Glastonbury Festival as well as playing a series of sell-out dates throughout the UK. On February 14th 1994 they released STAY TOGETHER, a fully formed, four act, eight minutes, fantastically ostentatious classic that easily brought Singles Of The Week accolades in the NME and Melody Maker. The NME commented that "luxuriating in the ambitious, dramatic, exhausting spell of this makes everything else sound like so much ephemera. Like most great things, it leaves you utterly silent." The record became Suede's biggest hit to date, peaking at No.3.
Two months after this burst of activity, Suede began recording their second LP with Ed Buller at Master Rock. The result - DOG MAN STAR - is still considered by some to be the best album this decade and , indeed, the Guardian picked only this and three other records by '90s artists in their Top 100 records of all time.
This hour-long (a double LP on vinyl) masterpiece brought extraordinary reviews (a 5/5 two page review in Q for a start) and it was easy to see why: introducing the band was nothing less than Sgt Pepper recorded in the Year 2000; the sublime THE WILD ONES made The Smiths "There Is A Light" pale into insignificance; daddy's speeding had a kind of doomed decadence (inspired by the death of James Dean?) about it and echoes of Pepper again; NEW GENERATION excelled itself enough to have two different choruses, one featuring the fabulously drug-addled "We take the pills to find each other"; the fragile and sexually tense, ten minute the aspahlt world which, on occasion, became so brittle you felt it might not exist; and finally still life which featured a 40-piece string orchestra and is so perfect and epic in equal measure that no other band should ever attempt it. That was DOG MAN STAR - a frighteningly great record that comprehensively broke the mould and broke everyone's heart in the process.
Just prior to the release of DOG MAN STAR Suede very publicly parted company with Butler and recruited a new 17 year old guitarist called Richard Oakes from Poole in Dorset. Like Butler, Oakes answered an ad in the music press. Suede set about touring the album extensively around Europe, America and Japan with Richard having to learn Butler's guitar parts as he went along. You could tell he was itching to get going, mind you, and it wasn't long before he made his presence felt on the co-written b-sides to NEW GENERATION entitled together and bentswood boys. Later in 1995 Suede headlined the Hammersmith Palais (for two nights), the Royal Albert Hall and the Phoenix Festival in July. At the latter event Suede premiered two new songs - young men (as future b-side) and by the sea - which were perhaps an indication of what they might get up to next.
Well, quite what Suede got up to next became the ten tracks that comprised COMING UP. Quite definitely an uplifting POP record COMING UP has become Suede's most successful LP to date, selling 1.4 million records worldwide. It is a record with an agenda which it fulfills quite brilliantly. It opened with TRASH, the first single, a four minute trashy pop masterpiece that showcased Suede at their most Suede and that picked out "the lovers on the streets" and to be heroically distanced from the real world (like the "litter on the breeze") - and all the better for it. TRASH went to No.3 and was usurped (on the LP) by FILMSTAR which was a song about the nature of fame, about changing your name and asking what you're left with.
It appeared to be Children Of The Revolution only better until you looked more closely and realised it was more Michael Caine than Marc Bolan, more Terence Stamp than T Rex. Sure, it was a flash kick off but the rest of COMING UP certainly lived up to the hype: she featured Suede at the cinematic best, some weird Egyptian, grinding, metallic guitar complementing some fabulous coupletting - "She, sh-shaking up the karma/She, injecting mar-id-juana"; the loved-up, Doved up BEAUTIFUL ONES which Brett said was about his friends, a procession of freaks who are "Fucking beautiful"; the paranoid and violent starcrazy co-written with Neil Codling who joined the band "by osmosis" during the COMING UP sessions; and another Codling co-write, the chemistry between us which is The Clash's "Stay Free" for the E generation and certainly the LP's centrepiece if not its coda.
You don't have to be in love and on drugs (though maybe you do have to be "young and easily led") to appreciate the alliterative and swotty genius of the "Class A, Class B" refrain and by this time anyhow, you really had been left in no doubt that somewhere along the line, rather effortlessly, Anderson had become the best lyricist of his generation and Suede had become ... untouchable.
COMING UP was released in September 1996, begat five Top Ten singles and heralded a 14-month world tour, Suede's biggest tour to date by far. In October the following year they released SCI-FI LULLABIES, a 27-track double album collection of b-sides which is widely regarded as the best of its kind (even "Hatful Of Hollow" ripped off "the kids" if you checked your Peel tapes) and which included no cover versions, no instrumentals and no remixes. (Incidentally, Morrissey, who never sings covers used to play the Suede b-side my insatiable one in his live set before it was even released.)
There were countless gems included herein - to the birds which used to close the early Suede set, the savagely violent killing of a flashboy which no-one could believe wasn't a single in the first place, the starstruck/starfucked the big time and the apocalyptic europe is our playground which seemed to inhabit some strange lost-future world as glimpsed from the mid-1970s. When Suede closed 1997 with their fanclub-only show at London's Forum, Melody Maker were forced to admit that "no other band in the world could get away with playing an entire set of b-sides."
In mid-1998, Suede set about recording their fourth album and the thirteen songs which you are going to know and love as HEAD MUSIC. They changed producers from Ed Buller to Perfecto's Steve Osborne who was responsible for the early Happy Mondays' seminal work ("Loose Fit", "Kinky Afro" et al) and changed direction too. Brett said after the last LP that he wanted to make a less emotional record (by which, I guess, he means more honest since emotions get in the way sometimes) but if you think that's gonna make it difficult to engage then you've got another think coming: because HEADMUSIC will be fucking wired to your head. It's a colder record, sure, but it's hungrier and angrier too and surely how a rock record should sound in 1999 - a blazing, twenty-first century rock 'n' roll of a type that couldn't be made anywhere else in the world.
It opens with ELECTRICITY, the first single, which is a huge, life affirming, classic Suede pop song that's as hard-edged and spiky as any Suede single so far. On it, there are elements of Pistols and Hendrix and a chorus that you could probably eat if you could grab hold of it quick enough - "Oh, it's bigger than the universe/it's bigger than the two of us/oh, it's bigger than you and me/we got a love between us and it's like electricity." There's darkness here too, however, (which is probably what Brett was referring to) as the lovers from TRASH seem to have been replaced by ones who have a love "Like a violent mind" and who get their love from "white, white lines". For the record, Brett has said that this is just meant to be a simple love song. Cheers.
The dark sensibility prevalent on ELECTRICITY is continued on savoir faire which, at the risk of being accused of being oxymoronic, is probably the most modern song ever recorded. Brett has said this is his favourite ever Suede track and the key track on HEAD MUSIC and you can see why; it's funky, Prince-like in parts and as cold as you can get - a remote, alien woman might make love and "swallow a Dove in her room" (rather than kissing to a popular tune) here but earlier she is cooking up crack to give us a heart attack. Firm but fair you'd have to say. can't get enough follows and starts like she's lost control, all mechanised synth drums and weird fx before turning into an ever-so psycho punk rock song about needing another fix.
It's a really exciting song (Gilbert's favourite) and you can just imagine the frenzy this is going to create live. After this we get everything will flow, which is possibly the warmest track on the LP and a big string-laden ballad that's sure to make it as a single further down the line and down (sorry) which is , quite simply, breathtaking: written as a backdrop to the aftermath/comedown of a narcotics episode, this song's closest neighbour would be europe is our playground though this time you are shamed into silence: "And the ambulances sigh/that you're down/ And the pissheads in the bars/say you're down" says it all really if you've ever been here.
If you had an opinion about HEAD MUSIC before you hear it then you should probably listen to she's in fashion which comes up next. Tipped as the second single, and featuring "oriental" keyboards (thanks NME), this is probably Suede's brightest, lightest moment ever. Deliberately ironic, it is sure to be a huge hit (not just on the catwalk) not least because Brett manages to make the line "And she's as similar as you can get/To the shape of a cig-ar-ette" sound so gloriously decadent. To follow, asbestos is probably the spookiest Suede song around these parts but it's also probably their sexiest. This is a very groovy song that features the kind of casually magnificent guitar that's become a Suede hallmark, the big time trumpets and "suburban girls making eyes at suburban boys." A very, very slinky number for Suede to pull off at this stage.
HEAD MUSIC, the title track (not the LP) slides through the open door marked Track 7 next and is about as rude as it gets. "Give me head/Give me head/Give me head" Brett entones before slipping in "Music instead" as the kiss off. This'll remind you of a fucked-up and slowed-down "Breakdown" by the Buzzcocks (with more chic thug appeal), is all too brief and is the first time Suede have deigned to offer us a title track. And I think that means something. Hot on its heels, comes elephant man which is written by Neil Codling, has elements of the Fall at their best and appears to conform to the Suede edict of "apartness": Suede are the Elephant Men and "people wish that they weren't around/when we rock and roll into town."
The last four tracks on HEAD MUSIC are stunning: hi-fi is another groovy, sexy, other-worldly number that Kraftwerk might have come up with if they'd had the foresight and circumstance to record with Steve Osborne in the "white city " of London in 1999; indian strings is a beautiful-yet-forlorn, orchestral, Eastern-influence ballad (almost a continuation of my dark star) that's about as sad as you can get - particularly as it features the line "and you'll see my heart is broken too/cos I've seen the re-al you"; he's gone is more upsetting still and presumably concerns the fall-out from a relationship as Anderson places himself asexually in the centre of the drama - I defy anyone to come up with a better stanza than this - "Like the leaves on the trees/Like the Carpenters song/ Like the planes and the trains and the lives that were young/He is gone and it feels like the words to a song" - heartbreaking;
And finally, crack in the union jack which Brett has said is "the closest we've ever come to an overt political statement" and I guess might remind people of the Costello/Stone Roses acoustic codas of the '80s if only because, duh it's acoustic, political and it signs off the record. It's more subtle than this, mind you, and maybe a lot more apocalyptic in vision: "Saw it on the news today/Heard the lonely people say/There's a great big crack/In the union jack." You should make up your own mind.
Mat Osman has said that the current Suede line-up only really became a band after they finished recording COMING UP and if that is the case then HEAD MUSIC certainly has the feel of an extraordinary debut. It might be the least "themed" of any Suede record to date - and the most difficult to pigeonhole - but it is also the most modern record you'll ever get to lay your hands on. And again, in Suede's case, this is not an oxymoron.
"It's like modern art. When you see a piece of really good modern art, you see a really good painter who has managed to describe forms with minimal strokes of the brush. That's what I want to do. Keep it to a minimum." Brett Anderson. 1999.
Don't be scared. It's only the sound of the greatest rock and roll band in the world spreading their wings.