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Perfect 10: Suede

“They have the enviable knack of taking the rather pathetic fumble of a quick fuck under the pier and extracting those few golden moments that many years later convince oneself that, for one brief flickering moment, one was as inspired as Romeo or, in some cases, Juliet. The poor things are bound to be an institution by the year 2000. Dame Brett, anybody?” — David Bowie on Suede, 1996

Even before the release of their debut album, there was a buzz building around Suede. Just seeing them in my older sister’s music magazines had me intrigued already. Slim, feminine and sexy, frontman Brett Anderson would often be posing like an old-fashioned Hollywood starlet getting ready for a good swoon, albeit one, by his own admission, “styled accidentally by Oxfam” out of financial necessity.

For lesser bands, the buzz that was already swirling around them could be more of a curse than a blessing. This was definitely something that crossed their minds at the time, as Anderson recalled.

”I think lots of PR is really bad PR. In the early days of Suede, it was that whole thing of not being experienced enough and we did a lot of things that we should never have done. Lots of awful interviews and lots of things we were pushed into. But we’d basically walked off the dole and it was really exciting, so we did it. We were having a good time.”

They certainly didn’t have to worry. Suede, at the time also consisting of Bernard Butler (guitar & piano), Mat Osman (bass) and Simon Gilbert (drums), had the distinction of gracing the cover of the 25 April 1992 issue of Melody Maker with the indie inkie announcing them as ”The best new band in Britain”. 

Throughout 1992 and into ’93, the quartet were busy working on a long-player that would come to be credited as helping to start the so-called Britpop movement. Although they would often try to set themselves apart from such a movement, with Brett in particular keen to stake his outsider territory: “Yes, we had initiated it with our debut album, but we wanted to distance ourselves from it as soon as possible. It was the whole Little England thing of it, and I really hated the inverted snobbery where middle-class musicians were pretending to be working-class.” 

Already drawing comparisons with Ziggy Stardust or The Smiths, Suede were working hard to deliver something entirely new and exciting. Whatever factors came together in the creation of their debut album were clearly a winning combination. Following hot on the stack heels of the scene-setting trio of 45s The Drowners, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate, when the Suede LP was finally released it opened at the top of the UK charts, becoming the fastest-selling debut album since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome nearly ten years earlier. And the record that deposed it? Oh, Black Tie White Noise by someone called David Bowie.

Metal Mickey (1992)

The first in my Perfect 10 listicle was the second Suede release, and would be included on the band’s self-titled album the following year. Metal Mickey was the breakthrough single for the band charting at No.17 in the UK singles chart. For a lot of people, this would have been their first introduction to this weird and wonderful indie rockers .

Metal Mickey feels a bit rough around the edges, not overproduced. It feels like watching a good band in a smoky club. As soon as Brett’s vocals kick in, you can’t help but stop and pay attention. His effete image and voice straddles the imaginary line between male and female. The video adds to this by featuring a smartly dressed androgynous character. The loud guitar keeps you engaged and tapping your feet whilst Brett’s voice dips up and down in waves and pulls it all together. 

Animal Nitrate (1993)

“You know it’s about violence and abuse and sex and drugs. It’s actually quite a hardcore song.” – Brett Anderson.

Straight from the title – a play on the name of the inhalant drug amyl nitrate – you know you’re in for something edgier than a lot of the other music that was around at the time. Even though the title references ‘poppers’, Brett would say that the song was more about drugs like cocaine and ecstasy.

Animal Nitrate was the song that seemed to be everywhere at the time, garnering a lot of traction in bars and clubs and on radio and TV. The darker subject matter and edgy title were almost cancelled out by the great tune and brilliant vocals. Like a lot of their work, it feels lively and upbeat whilst dealing with a difficult subject. This meant that the song reached a lot more people than most would expect a song dealing with such issues to. The band’s third single was also included on their eponymous debut album. It felt like a proper introduction to the band. They were telling us that they intend to test the boundaries and deal with dark subjects. More than that though, they were telling us that we were going to be entertained along the way.

The Wild Ones (1994)

”I saw a fella who looked like the cover of Young Americans, but ill – that’s all I know of Suede.” – Pete Burns, 1994.

This one is just a gorgeous haunting ballad. The second single from the second album Dog Man Star, The Wild Ones is slower, softer and sparser than my first choices. The lyrics are elegiac and poetic, and it feels more controlled and less rebellious whilst still clearly recognisable as a Suede song: ”I was listening to a lot of very ‘singerly’ singers, Brett revealed. “Scott Walker, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Jaques Brel, people with the emotional and musical range to transform a song into a drama. This is what I wanted for The Wild Ones, for it to be a timeless slice of melodic beauty that people got married to and shared their first kisses to.”

Moreover, the singer considers this one of his favourite Suede songs and it seemed most critics agreed. Though he wasn’t such a big fan of the promotional film that accompanied it, even though it was one of the band’s few big-budget videos: “Fucking hell! That really annoys me, because it’s the greatest song Suede ever wrote, and it’s got this awful video. It makes me shiver. That fucking video gives me night thoughts.”

Still Life (1994)

“There are people who make great David Bowie records, and I think Still Life by Suede, for instance, is a great David Bowie record. Both Elton John and I thought it should have been a single. Brett Anderson can do David Bowie better than David Bowie does!” – Neil Tennant, talking to Steve Pafford in 1996.

Still Life rounds off the album Dog Man Star perfectly. A heartfelt, emotional torture ballad par excellence, it almost made it onto the first album but the boys couldn’t work out the best way to arrange it. This is a good thing in my opinion as it fits in far better with the more experimental and cinematic second album. Brett’s living arrangements at the time, a lot of drugs and difficult relationships within the band combined to make an album with lots of songs like this that seem to split critics down the middle. 

“… At this stage, I had stopped communicating with the human race and was only interested in this opus we were producing. Success, money and drugs were playing a lot of strange games in my head, and I remember this real desire to produce something spectacular and something which would push all known musical boundaries of the time.” – Brett Anderson

Filled with pain and anticipation, Still Life grabs you straight away. Brett’s voice and the more dramatic sounding music call back to the likes of Scott walker. It feels like a fitting end to the album and in hindsight a fitting goodbye to the band as we knew them then.

The Living Dead (1994)

Marching to a different drum than most of the other songs on the list, The Living Dead is slower, softer and more reflective. Where Brett would often choose harder to grasp or more contradictory lyrics, this one is more of a straightforward story. It tells of living with a heroin addict and how what once may have seemed exciting and fun has been handed over to addiction and pain. It’s about a partner thinking over all of the prospects their partner had and all of the things they could have built up that the drug abuse and addiction has stolen from them.

The Living Dead was the B-side to the non-album single Stay Together, the last release before Bernard Butler left the band. In David Barnett’s excellent official Suede biography, Love And Poison (2003) the erstwhile guitarist is quoted criticising the track, moaning that “I’ve written this really beautiful piece of music and it’s a squalid song about junkies.” The lyrics are honest and raw, the sound simple and clear. It doesn’t feel squalid at all, it feels heartfelt, sad and truthful. You can feel exactly what that person is going through looking back on what could have been. Like a lot of the material mentioned on this list, the song and the music shouldn’t work together. It seems that that’s why they stand out so much.

Trash (1996)

“I actually wrote it about Suede. It’s a celebration of the band, but by extension, it’s a celebration of the fans as well. And it was a kind of a song written about us, as a gang, it was written about the values we stood for. And even though it sounds like a love song, it was actually about the idea of the identity of the band, and what they stood for.” – Brett Anderson

After a break and some changes behind the scenes, a lot was resting on Trash, the first single from Coming Up. Everyone has their idea of which Suede album is ‘proper’ Suede. And after the more experimental second set, the third album reminded followers of how the band were when we were first getting to know them. And in 1996 they were everywhere.

With a new lineup that included nascent axeman Richard Oakes and a fifth member, keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Neil Codling (a cousin of drummer Simon Gilbert), they had a lot to prove. Naysayers were silenced and fans were reassured. Trash is a song about not fitting in, being an outsider but embracing and celebrating it. This spoke to me a lot at the time being young and queer, obviously.

Beautiful Ones (1996)

With Coming Up reaching No.1 and delivering five Top 10 45s, the album was so brimming with great earworm singles that I could have easily gone for Saturday Night, or Lazy… or Filmstar, which is just a gorgeous, get down to the club and dance your tits off kind of tune. Beautiful Ones followed Trash, and when it was released I was an 18 year-old working and going out on the LGBTQ+ scene, travelling around Europe doing street theatre with groups of fabulous but sometimes crazy people. 

This felt like a description of half of the people I surrounded myself with at the time. Again, the lyrics could be quite grim but they were delivered with such joy and verve that it becomes as Brett described it to the NME, “a celebration of the madness of our lives.” Brash guitar riffs, a simple but catchy drumbeat and bags of energy, It’s a song that gets into your head on the first listen and stays there, relentlessly. And a big part of what made Suede one of the defining sounds of the time.

She’s In Fashion (1999)

”Classic Suede – one of their best songs since Animal Nitrate… It’s a string-swept, breezy, car-roof-down-driving-around-the-French-Riviera number.” – Music Week

Described by most as a great, summery song this is probably as summery and poppy as Suede get. She’s In Fashion was well received and received considerable airplay on the radio and various television trailers but for some reason that didn’t seem to translate into sales as well as other singles, and it peaked at No.13 in the  UK charts. 

Still, the single definitely opened them up to a new audience more than anything else on fourth album Head Music. Fans felt like people were starting to get what they had been saying all along, with the chic combination of strings, synths, a cool beat and lighter lyrics made the song more accessible to new listeners without betraying those that were already following them.

Outsiders (2015)

After a long layoff that followed the poor reception of A New Morning in 2002 and a Singles album in 2003, Suede returned, reinvigorated, with a sixth LP, 2013’s Bloodsports. The follow up, Night Thoughts, was issued in January 2016 just two weeks after Bowie’s Blackstar, and like that swan song feels like an act taking stock of their existence while pushing their music forward into new areas. The first single issued four months in advance of the album, in some ways Outsiders feels like a mixture of everything that we ever expected from Suede. Brett’s voice is deeper and more solemn at the start, raising and pulls you higher when it needs to. The lyrics can be bleak but there is a kind of reservation and acceptance that balances it out. 

Like a lot of their work, you can ignore the lyrics and get dragged along by the guitar and the sounds of Brett’s voice or you can sit at home listening to everything they have to say. It seems to be looking to a not exactly better future or looking back over the detritus left behind after a life lived in excess. But as always with Suede and obviously from the title, it’s still a call to the outsiders, the freaks, the misfits. A call to come together and make the most of it. 

Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You (2018)

Well, that’s a very Morrissey-esque title if ever I saw one. Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You was the second single from 2018’s The Blue Hour, Suede’s eighth and most recent studio album. The darker feel echoes the Dog Man Star period and kicks off proceedings with a jarring opening that sounds like different voices screaming for help. It’s instantly recognisable as a Suede song but the sonics and lyrics feel a lot more mature, though.

Whilst you can tell this is a band with a lot of experience, it still has a live in the studio feel to it. Violins are ditched and the guitar and voice pull you through an intense musical experience. Brett Anderson’s voice seems to improve with every album. His ability as a songwriter has also improved. That’s not to take anything away from what went before but you can tell that he has grown and worked hard at his art. Art with a capital S.

See you in the next life.

Callum Pearce

Wanna delve deeper? Try these bonus Bs: The thrusty UFO is the brilliant flip to 2002’s Obsessions, but Sci-Fi Lullabies is the parallel universe history of early Suede. It’s also one of the greatest B-sides albums ever made; a double album filled with virtually all of the flipsides and additional tracks associated with their singles through to 1997. It was a feat that only fellow singles romanticists Pet Shop Boys had previously dared to get away with.

In fact, The Sound Of The Streets could have been an A-side in its own right. Modern Boys is another alt.classic, and one where it’s easy to discern the Bowie influence. While Europe Is Our Playground, The Big Time and My Insatiable One are all formidable fan favourites, with the latter even covered by that old curmudgeon Morrissey in concert. (What, no Whipsnade? I grew up just half an hour from the zoo it’s named after – Ed.)

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Callum Pearce
Callum Pearce

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