Photo by: Nadia Gottfried
"It doesn’t matter how many times they grind us down. It doesn’t matter how many times they stamp us into the ground, because we always come back.
Because we’re the lovers on the street, and we’re the litter on the breeze"
- Brett Anderson
Written by: Andy Price
This defiant pledge, from Suede’s frontman Brett Anderson, recited to multitudes of euphoric fans around the world, underlines a tenacity that has come to be recognised as one of Suede’s hallmarks. Theirs is a story that has endured disastrous calamity, astonishing success, bitter self-destruction and ultimately, an unexpected creative redemption. Along the way, Suede have enchanted a swathe of passionate devotees, and kickstarted a revolution in British pop. The journey of Suede is complicated and nuanced, but it’s a mythology that’s every bit as inspiring as the band’s music.
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Born and raised in Lindfield, Sussex, a short distance from the town of Haywards Heath, Brett’s teenage years were spent in thrall to a diverse record collection. Before long he started dabbling in various bands, accompanied by his good friend, and fellow music obsessive, Mat Osman. The pair established a tight-bond and would eventually head to UCL together. While there, Brett met Justine Frischmann, herself driven by similar creative passions, and the two soon fell in love. In need of a new musical outlet, Brett, Mat and Justine decided to form a band. Lacking a lead guitarist, the three put out an advertisement in NME, answered promptly by the prodigiously talented Bernard Butler.
Following a string of under-attended gigs and performances, the fledgling Suede underwent a metamorphosis. As Brett and Justine’s relationship came to an abrupt and emotionally tumultuous end, so too did her time in Suede, though Frischmann would later find fame as the ferocious frontwoman of Elastica. During this period, Suede realised that their increasingly unreliable drum machine lacked the humanity that the band sought, and they auditioned for a drummer – a call astonishingly answered by The Smiths’ Mike Joyce. Exciting though this was, it was decided that ultimately it’d be a mistake to fall into the trap of being regarded as simply a vehicle for Mike Joyce.
Suede’s final line-up was completed with the addition of Simon Gilbert. Then working for the University of London’s student union, alongside Suede’s then-manager – and future comedy superstar – Ricky Gervais. Knowing of his drumming prowess, Gervais played Gilbert the band’s demo tape, which immediately hooked him. With the four members now in place, the band surged forward, writing a plethora of songs that would shape their destiny.
YOU’RE TAKING ME OVER
Honed by a relentless determination in the face of disinterest, economic scarcity as well as the weight of grief and heartbreak, Suede’s sound and aesthetic was purposefully, jarringly out of step with the cultural ennui, but for Nude Records label boss Saul Galpern, they were a band that was worth taking a chance on, feeling that within that embryonic shell lay the seeds of something special. Using the skilled production nouse of Ed Buller, the band unleashed a salvo of remarkable singles that seized the attention of the music press.
The jubilant pop stomp of 'The Drowners', tarnished glam sleaze of 'Metal Mickey' and suggestive depravity of 'Animal Nitrate' served as a multi-edged mission statement, whilst their respective videos foregrounded Anderson’s impenitent androgyny. Suede stood in combative contrast to the then-dominant machoism of American rock, and studied lethargy of Britain’s shoegaze-era. At last, here was a homegrown band that fizzed with that same special chemistry that had so defined British pop’s key groundbreakers, filling a vacuum that had been largely void since the dissolution of The Smiths some five years earlier. Plaudits from numerous vocal advocates followed. Not least the ever-restrained Melody Maker, who unequivocally defined them as ‘The Best New Band in Britain’ on their cover.
Melody Maker, 25 April 1992
By the time Suede’s self-titled debut album materialised, it, astonishingly, justified such hyperbole. Its finest moments captured the exceptional synergy between Bernard Butler’s intricate arrangements and emotive guitar work alongside the soaring vocals and astute, original lyrics of Brett Anderson. Ranging from the fragile beauty of 'Sleeping Pills', the frenetic mania of 'Moving' and the album’s pulsating heart – 'Pantomime Horse', the debut was a dynamic and diverse magnifying glass on the murk beneath the surface of British life. With themes of isolation, the blurred spectrum of sexuality, class constriction and heady ambition swimming throughout its 11 tracks. Suede’s fourth single – and the album’s opener – 'So Young' was another triumph, extraordinarily evoking both the joy de vivre of youthful abandon with a sense of warm, yearning nostalgia.
The record was the fastest-selling debut album for a decade, and would go on to be a worthy recipient of the Mercury Music Prize in 1993. Though the band themselves despised the labelling, Suede’s debut would retrospectively mark the opening chapter of the ‘Britpop’-era. Though Suede shared little in common with many of the later groups that better embodied (and celebrated) the term, Suede were the very first of these 90s bands to consciously recall those great British pop artists – David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Smiths – in their work, invoking the spirit of a time when the nations’ premiere chart-botherers sought to bring depth to their pop songs.
The group’s work came to captivating life on stage, as Butler hammered his Gibson ES-355 without compromise, Anderson alternatively writhed, yelped, lassoed the microphone whilst also unleashing his powerful vocal prowess when required. Propelled by the lifeblood of Gilbert’s relentless drumming, and Osman’s melodic bass, Suede proved a formidable live band. The concert film Love & Poison, shot at Brixton Academy in 1993, showcases this outstanding live power.
Suede, 'Love & Poison'
INTO THE NIGHT
Suede’s early success would soon run into an abrupt buffer as, during the making of their follow-up, Bernard Butler left the group. Though the wounds have long-since healed, at the time it was a near-fatal blow for four men that had seen their star go supernova overnight. At the heart of the decision, lay the fact that Butler’s ambitious approach to songwriting had deepened following the first record’s success, increasingly taking arrangements in less conventional directions (as evidenced by the bombast of the, utterly mesmerising, non-album single 'Stay Together'). His conviction to push Suede into new frontiers jarred with his fellow band members.
The divergence widened throughout the recording of the second album. Eventually, a final ultimatum was made by Butler; he would leave, if the rest of the group didn’t side with his desire to recruit a new producer. At an impasse, the band chose to not fold to such an ultimatum. And so Bernard, sadly, departed the group. He would quickly establish a successful songwriting partnership with David McAlmont, before embarking on a fruitful career as songwriter, record producer and renowned guitar-smith for a diverse range of artists.
Back in 1994 however, Suede faced the wretched position of launching a new record as the once enthralled music press circled hungrily overhead. A surprise to all then, that despite the dire studio tensions, Dog Man Star, decimated critical expectations and marked the creative pinnacle of the Anderson/Butler partnership. Arguably, it still stands as Suede’s finest record. The very differences and strains that had resulted in such an unfortunate regime change gave birth to an abundance of Suede’s outright masterpieces. From the deranged vision of a world on the cusp of totalitarian meltdown of 'We Are The Pigs’, the heart-string tugging elegance of the romantic 'The Wild Ones' and the contorted tale of jealousy housed within Suede’s most outlandish track to date, 'The Asphalt World'. Despite the record’s undeniable brilliance, its dramatic scope contrasted with the then rising tide of sneering, boorish Britpop, and it commercially stalled.
The unenviable task of replacing Bernard Butler seemed inconceivable to all. All aside from the band themselves, who defiantly advertised for a new guitarist. Among the many respondents was the 17-year-old Richard Oakes. Despite his youth, Richard was already a versatile and characterful guitarist, and had been a big fan of Suede’s first album. The band were astounded by what they heard, and decided to put their stock in his ability, a decision that would prove wise. Oakes joined the band to tour Dog Man Star and was soon winning adoration the world over for both his remarkably mature musical ability, and his youthful charm.
Photo by: Renaud Monfourny. Submitted by: Amanda Blazier
HERE THEY COME
With this vacant spot now filled, Suede forged on and began work on their third long-player. During the initial recording sessions, the studio was visited by Simon’s cousin, Neil Codling, who dropped by to borrow a suit. Casually revealing his advanced musical prowess while in the studio, it was soon obvious to all that Neil’s appearance represented the musical equivalent of manna from heaven. Codling was soon absorbed into Suede’s number, bolstering the band’s sound with keys, synths and additional guitar.
By 1996, Suede were literally a new band – underlined by their shared leather-jacket clad appearance. This new gang’s approach to songwriting too had a much different focus. Richard Oakes, having proved his merit as a live guitarist, was now tasked with writing some ‘hits’. But could his unproven songwriting ability pass muster?
Yes, it could. 1996’s Coming Up was an ebullient statement and a stellar success. Its title reflected the clear purpose of the record. In lieu of the atmospheric, autumnal twilight of its predecessor, Coming Up was rich with triumphant hooks, enduring melodies and an aggressively positive zeal. Of the album’s five top ten singles, two would become definitive signatures: 'Trash' and 'Beautiful Ones' both served as anthemic rallying calls for Suede’s loyal tribe, and were immaculately written pop singles to boot. The former smashed its way to number 3 in the singles chart. No mean feat. While the parent album easily seized the top spot in the UK and was an international smash. Suede had proved their cynics and naysayers embarrassingly wrong. Once again, Suede were a premiere league outfit.
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OCEANS BETWEEN US
Following up such a successful statement proved to be problematic. With the intention of crafting a record that updated the spirit of classic rock/dance crossover albums a decade previously, the band enlisted Happy Mondays’ former producer Steve Osborne to produce their fourth LP; the electronically-tinged Head Music.
Though the core idea – and the bulk of the early compositions – were strong, Head Music’s production fell in to disarray. Drug addiction mired Brett’s focus and quality control. The rest of the band, too each experienced individual difficulties when making the album, not least Neil Codling. Despite taking a more prominent place at the songwriting table, an unfortunate bout of a debilitating illness rendered him fatigued as the album’s production came to an end.
These issues are sadly evidenced throughout Head Music, Suede’s least coherent record to date, though the record’s best moments really shone; the frenzied delirium of 'Can’t Get Enough', the glacial beauty of 'Down' and the cool serenity of 'Everything Will Flow' are on a par with the band’s finest work. But elsewhere, the record was littered with the scars of Brett’s addled mind state, and a lack of attention. This aside, Head Music still managed to reach the summit of the album charts, as its predecessor had done three years previously.
As the century turned, so too did Suede’s fortunes, despite kicking his addiction, Brett’s creative momentum had stalled, as evidenced by the repeated delays to Suede’s fifth record, eventually released in 2002 – into a largely changed musical landscape. A New Morning had many things riding against it. Neil had left the band due to the increasing health difficulties, and was replaced with Strangelove’s Alex Lee, the group were unable to settle on a producer, and popular interest in Suede had waned following the divisive Head Music. Concurrently, a widespread cultural divorce from those bands tarred with the Britpop brush was taking place. Though the most terminal aspect of the record’s fortunes was the undeniable fact that the end result simply wasn’t up to the band’s usual standard. Though single 'Obsessions' and, the perplexingly hidden, album closer 'Oceans' still reminded listeners of the band’s sparkle. But, after its muted reception by the British music press, and a general sense of disappointment from fans, it was clear some distance was required. Following a career-spanning Singles compilation and a farewell string of live dates, culminating at a heart-breaking sign-off show at the Astoria, Suede split.
THE LOVE IS LIFTING
It would be seven long years until we’d hear from the band again, though Brett surprised all by collaborating with Bernard Butler in a new guise as The Tears – a successful project that resulted in a well-received album, and a top ten single in 'Refugees'. Uncertain at the time, The Tears debut would sadly prove to be a one-off affair. Brett devoted the remainder of the 2000s to an eclectic solo career, making four under-appreciated records that many would retrospectively view as vital creative stepping stones, filled with sublime examples of his songwriting ability and vocal prowess. But – these weren’t Suede records, and as each year passed, fans resigned themselves to the fact that Suede’s book had been firmly closed.
A shock to all then, when in 2010, Suede – in their Coming Up-era line-up – announced that they were reforming. Ostensibly asked to just get together to play for a one-off, Teenage Cancer Trust benefit show at the Royal Albert Hall, the rapturous reception that greeted the band’s career-best performance, led the five to continue playing live dates throughout 2011. Their momentum was back, and once again Suede had defied all expectations. To stress the point that this was no simple money-spinning reunion tour, Suede excitingly resolved to make a brand new record.
Royal Albert Hall, 24 March 2010, Photo by: Edwin De La Cruz
Impassioned, impactful and blazing with a fire many had long since though extinguished, 2013’s Bloodsports was an assured return. At its best, it fused the gnarled depths of Dog Man Star with the instant hooks of Coming Up, though was quite clearly the product of more mature, experienced heads. Suede’s sixth record hit the top ten, and crystallised the band as a resuscitated creative entity. During the intense live tour for the record, the band’s effortless cool and fierce live performances re-captured the attention of older fans, and hooked newcomers around the world.
It would have been easy, then, for Suede to have accepted this new, more fitting close to their story, but encouraged by fan support, and with the clear road of creative freedom now stretched before them, the band began work on their seventh album, the twisted, sumptuous Night Thoughts. Released in 2016, in tandem with a Roger Sargent-directed film, dramatising a narrative influenced by the album’s 12 tracks, Night Thoughts was met with a shower of praise and became an immediate fan-favourite album. Its conceptual sequencing, repeated musical refrains and creative sound design moved Suede further down a progressive path than ever before, though fundamentally, the record was a vibrant showcase of the solid Anderson/Oakes and Codling songwriting team, with tracks such as 'I Don’t Know How To Reach You', 'The Fur and the Feathers' and 'Tightrope' indicating another creative high point for a band that had already ascended so many. It even boasted one of Suede’s new bona-fide modern classics. Lead single 'Outsiders', updated the unifying spirit of 'Trash' for the 2010s and quickly jostled itself into the band’s live setlist as a new staple.
YOU’RE NEVER ALONE
Now in his fifties, and a married father of two, Brett Anderson reflected on his extraordinary life with an honest account of his childhood, presented in his bestselling memoir Coal Black Mornings, released in 2018 which was soon joined by second volume the following year; Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn. This follow-up documented Suede’s stunning triumphs and cataclysms with wit, humanity and surprising candour.
Suede had endured much through their nearly thirty-year lifespan. Despite the numerous blows that would have incapacitated other outfits, Suede’s relentless perseverance pushed them on. Eighth album The Blue Hour, concluded Suede’s reinvigorated decade masterfully. A bucolic, folk-horror tinged concept record that flowed on well from its predecessor, The Blue Hour was spectacular, thematically rich and provided listeners with a captivating musical journey. It found Suede transcending their already abundant song canon with the pulse-pounding 'Tides', the punk ferocity of 'Cold Hands', and the triumphant power of final number 'Flytipping'. Though the album’s most impeccable moment, discarded the album’s overarching narrative concerns and reflected the simple, pure love of a father for his son. The classic song structure of 'Life is Golden' was instantly accessible, and its rousing lyric also seemed to encapsulate the lifelong bond of the fan community. With lyrics that gave solace, and definition to thousands of listeners. Inconceivably, after thirty years, Suede had crafted a new set-closing signature song.
And so, as a new, unknowable decade dawns, Suede’s story remains pleasingly unfinished. With a much anticipated ninth record in the works, and live dates planned for next year, it’d be foolish to try and predict where the next ten years will take Suede. Though one thing we can say with certainty, is that it will be filled with sparkling, life-affirming music.