Suede: I Wanna Be Adored
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
SUEDE: I WANNA BE ADORED
Their awkward start involved Justine Frischmann, a demo with the drummer from The Smiths and a rude awakening from a cocky Damon Albarm. But Suede prevailed to be the first great British rick band of the ‘90s.
By: Martin Aston
Back in June 1990 MC Hammer, New Kids On The Block and Roxette dominate the UK Top 5 singles chart. New Order's England football anthem, World In Motion, is at Number 1, but it's no Blue Monday. Indie shoegazers such as Slowdive and Chapterhouse will never be the harbingers of a musical revolution. Who will save us from a death by this chart blandness?
"I was told to expect a popped-up version of The Stone Roses played by glamour-pusses. Instead, I encounter four would-be presenters for Blue Peter." As first reviews go, it wasn't auspicious. On 6 June 1990, UK journalist Mick Mercer traipsed along to The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town, north London, after hearing Suede's demo tape. He wasn't expecting much; Suede were playing third on the bill to the ex-Altered Images singer Clare Grogan. "It was Suede's 'drum-machine line-up'," Mercer recalls now "Brett Anderson was in a Katharine Hamnett top and baggy jeans. Justine Frischmann was wearing striped tracksuit bottoms with the top tied around her waist. Their demo was very poppy, so it was weird seeing them try to be indie-dance, with a bit of wah-wah guitar and Brett shaking maracas. Granted, they had a sense of urgency. But I implied they were little rich kids pretending to have attitude."
So how did Suede become 'The Best New Band In Britain' in the music press before they'd even released a record? How did they create what journalist Tony Parsons called "the most eagerly anticipated debut album since the Sex Pistols"? How did four would-be Blue Peter presenters become the vivacious renegades that created the mould for Britpop?
"Our first review reckoned we were a bunch of nambie-pambies with toy guitars," Suede singer Brett Anderson told me in 1992. "We spent a long time being violently disliked because we didn't punch the right keys and, being the sort of upfront band that we were, put in the room in the wrong frame can work quite dreadfully."
In 2009, Anderson sits in his manager's office near Marble Arch, dressed head to toe in charcoal black. His frock coat and silk scarf stay on all afternoon. Brett, apparently, is wary of re-opening old wounds: the partying, the drugs, the widely publicised feuds. Initially he didn't want to talk about Suede, but then agrees with the proviso that he doesn't have to talk about some subjects — and he'll let me know when we reach them.
Three miles away, Suede's ex-guitarist, Bernard Butler, sits in Edwyn Collins' West Hampstead studio where he rents space. Butler's Phil Spector-style productions for Duffy's Rockferry album were created here. With co-writing credits on the Welsh singer's five million seller and a recent Best Producer Brit Award, Butler is flying. As such, the band he co-founded and then abandoned could be construed as a distant memory. But since Brett and Bernard's reunion, as The Tears in 2004, their bitter détente (they didn't talk for 10 years) is over. "We're all grown-ups now so there's no shame in admitting your shortcomings," says Butler.
The duo first met in Brett's west London bedsit. Bassist Mat Osman and guitarist Justine Frischmann were also present. The décor was very Suede: Bowie and soft porn posters, Smiths records, cheap art deco lamps. Anderson and Osman had escaped from Haywards Heath near Brighton, one of those "suburban graves" that Brett would later sing about. Butler was still looking to escape London's East End suburb of Leyton. Brett had been in three bands, but all had failed, and so he and Osman went to London to study at University College. Brett's girlfriend was fellow student Justine Frischmann. "She paid for Suede to be born," Anderson confirms. "She named us too."
In October 1989 an ad appeared: "Young guitar player needed by London-based band. Smiths, Commotions, Bowie, PSB. No musos please. Some things are more important than ability." Bernard Butler was one of two applicants.
"I was working at Ryman's [stationers] in Tottenham Court Road. I'd failed other auditions, probably because I'd arrogantly say the band was shit. Everyone was amateurs and I wanted to have hit records."
Butler played Anderson some Smiths riffs, "and they played a couple of Brett's songs, which were quite soppy. Brett was a Lilac Time fan then. They quizzed me, which was embarrassing, because they were precocious middle-class kids, and I wasn't. I didn't have a favourite book or film, so I felt a bit left out. But I'd never met anyone that liked what I liked. And Brett could sing. And I had something they needed. Justine would tell Brett, ‘That song you wrote is shit, let Bernard give you some music.'" As Butler saw it, Justine "hung around in the background. She thought, rightly, that we were shit, but she got more involved as things got better."
Anderson had been exhilarated by punk, but by the time he could write songs, bed-sitter introspection was in vogue: early acoustic David Bowie, The Smiths, "that breezy, jangly stuff coming out of '80s indie. At 20 years old, you're too inexperienced to follow your own personal vision."
The first time I interviewed Suede, Anderson and Osman had used The Smiths as a yardstick of ambition. "A new set of values and musical references, and seeing the world in another way," Mat enthused. Morrissey, Brett added, "looking as confused and awkward as yourself, gave us an idea what we could be." However, the ‘indie-dance' version of Suede came first. "It was just too soon since The Smiths to sound like them," says Butler now "Brett was devastated by the review but I thought, Better than nothing."
"We were unfocused," adds Anderson. "But that was the beauty of it. Justine leaving was a defining moment, because we stopped playing live and re-thought everything." Including the drum machine. Among those answering their ad for a drummer was former Smith Mike Joyce. He played on the proposed, but quickly withdrawn, debut single Be My God. By then, everyone had agreed that the veteran Joyce playing in a band comprised of young Smiths devotees wasn't a good idea. Through their contacts at university, Suede auditioned University of London Union ticket officer and drummer Simon Gilbert. "Simon was a sweet guy," says Bernard, "and another outsider from the East End."
Justine left, reputedly, because she felt redundant next to the increasingly proficient Butler. "The more competent I got on stage, the more confident I was to try out things. On record, The Smiths were intricate and layered but live they became a rock monster, and I wanted that on record. So I bought a Les Paul and things just got louder. The antidote to lightness of touch is to cut through the middle with big blocks of colour."
Butler was also discovering David Bowie through a tape given to him for his birthday by Anderson. "The cassette had his Bowie faves on one side, like Quicksand, and they became my favourites too. I thought, If this is what Brett wants...' I desperately wanted to impress him, because I wanted him to become my Morrissey. Brett was writing these twee lyrics and he needed to become more powerful for me to get what I wanted."
Anderson was also changing, but his metamorphosis was more painful. "Justine leaving Brett, and going out with Damon [Albarn] was huge," Bernard vouches. "The day everything turned around was when Brett sacked her from Suede. Well, that's what he told me."
"Justine leaving was hugely influential," Anderson agrees. "But I won't talk about it. John Harris's book [The Last Party] did a huge thing on it, so read it there. Most is quite accurate."
Butler: "We played with Blur at Brighton's Zap Club [in October 1990], which really excited us as we all liked [Blur's single] She's So High. And they were a bunch of cunts to us. They wouldn't talk to us or give us a soundcheck. It felt like, `I'm the captain of the football team... I'm going to have your girlfriend, too, so fuck you,' and we took it badly. At the same time, Brett and Justine had become small-time druggies and darker at home. But then Brett moved out of her flat, and Damon moved in.
"Brett turned from a happy character to being depressed. I felt for him but I took advantage of it, by us forging a stronger friendship. That's when we started writing those early Suede songs like Pantomime Horse and The Drowners."
Anderson agrees that sexual angst is far more conducive to creativity than domestic harmony: "I wanted to write about sex and failure, to celebrate the culture of the beautiful loser," he explains. "When our songs started having lives of their own, I started developing a songwriting persona, to develop a voice that people could understand. Suede formed when shoegazing and Madchester were around, and I saw bands writing about Jimi Hendrix's life, using 'Baby, I love you' clichés that had no relevance to their own lives."
Bowie's influence was also paramount. "Others made sexual gestures but he took it much further," Brett says, "feeding off the energy flowing between the audience and himself. I wanted to flaunt that tension, to hypnotise the audience so that they wouldn't walk off and get a drink."
The moment of impact was 1992. Suede's live shows had turned into amped-up affairs and by April that year the band had acquired a manager, a press officer and a two-single deal with Nude, a brand new indie label distributed by Sony. Their debut 45 was The Drowners in May 1992, a song about "sexual obsession; being drugged up with dependency, and the depths you sink to in a gruesome relationship". It was also sung from a gay perspective: "Well, he writes a line / Goes right down my spine / Says, `Oh, do you believe in love there?'"
Suede could never have predicted what happened. Melody Maker interviewed the band, but when EMF were bounced off the cover because the images weren't deemed good enough Suede took their place as 'The Best New Band In Britain'. The band was thrilled. But, secretly, Butler was worried. "I didn't want to be a band that was set up that way. I wanted the music to be discovered."
Anderson: "A lot of people didn't like Suede before they'd even heard us, and we spent the next six months proving we were good. But you couldn't complain as people were now listening to us. The whole point of Suede was to provoke a reaction. And this was the life I'd always wanted, with lots of highs and lows." The highs came freely. After catching Suede at the Camden Falcon in February 1992, Morrissey added their B-side, My Insatiable One, to his live set. Buoyed by the press furore (19 front covers before their debut album's release), Suede's second single, Metal Mickey, crashed the Top 20 in September. While grunge and shoegazing bands wallowed in groggy self-absorption, Suede provided the antidote: intriguing rather than laddish, sexual rather than neutral. "We slotted in after a huge body of expressionless music," says Anderson. "We ploughed a furrow between commerciality and credibility. I don't think anyone else did that then."
In February 1993, the BRIT Awards committee, which had ignored Suede for the Best Newcomers category, bowed to market forces and asked them to open the show. Looking determined and unsmiling, they launched into a wound-up version of their next single, Animal Nitrate, a glam-punk rocker with an even clearer gay perspective and references to the age of consent and amyl nitrate.
Anderson: "I had the vision to see myself not just as a bloke who wrote pop songs, but as a writer, just as a novelist projects himself. Only boring songwriters write about exactly what's happened to them. I had gay friends, straight friends... It was just part of my fascination with life."
Nevertheless, interviewers habitually addressed his sexuality. In one response, he likened himself to "a bisexual who's never had a homosexual experience. That's how I approach my songwriting."
A wave of lampooning — Spitting Image even had a Brett Anderson puppet — triggered a backlash. Anderson: "That quote was taken out of context. I was just describing how I was using my imagination to put myself into different people's minds. The problem was, I wrote in the third person but sung in the first person. It confused people."
Animal Nitrate reached Number 7 in March, followed in April by Suede, the biggest selling UK debut album since Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome To The Pleasuredome in 1984. The three earlier singles were lined up alongside some stunning, drawn-out ballads, but the best of all was So Young. Its working title of Chase The Dragon was slang for smoking heroin. "Let's chase the dragon/ From our hearts". But drugs are another off-limit subject for Anderson today.
Bernard Butler, though, could sense a shift. "The more people wrote about Brett, the more he wanted to shape his life around that image. He had this flat, took loads of drugs and shagged everyone. I had my cosy life with my girlfriend on my side of London. Brett became nocturnal the more drugs he took, so we didn't see each other as much."
"I was a monster for a while," is as forthcoming as Anderson will get today. "It's the kind of life you can only lead when you're 22. You just live in the moment. And it's beautiful. The epitome of youth."
Luckily, Brett and Bernard could bond over a common enemy. Namely, Britpop. With it came a single defining image: Anderson on the cover of Select magazine in April 1993, the month Suede was released, with a Union Jack backdrop and the headline "Yanks Go Home: Suede, St. Etienne, Denim, Pulp, The Auteurs and the Battle for Britain."
Like Morrissey, and a re-emerging Jarvis Cocker, Anderson drew on a particularly British sensibility. As Butler notes, there had been British bands since The Smiths, "but none were trying to write pop songs like we were". Hence 'Britpop'; accurate in theory but limiting in execution. Suede was horrified. Butler: "To me, anything to do with England is twee and quaint, without heart and charm. What disturbed me the most was a manifesto being placed around us. If I'd been a punter, I'd have thought, Bunch of cunts. But that's the music business in action."
Anderson: "We were doing something against the grain, but Suede started a movement that dictated the cultural direction of a whole decade. I'm not proud of what followed, but I am proud to have tapped into a zeitgeist. I wasn't following anyone else's rules. I was writing about my life as a UK resident, about poverty and isolation, and that became the Britpop blueprint, which then was distorted into a beery cartoon. Being put in front of a flag was an incredibly loaded political statement that completely misread us."
In all honesty, Britpop accelerated Suede's next change. "As soon as someone said we were something, I wanted to be the other thing," adds Anderson.
The second Suede album, Dog Man Star, “would be a lot stranger than the first. More out there," Anderson recalls. "I was conscious of not wanting to write a Britpop record, so rather than write about life on the dole, which was pretty much the first album, it had a broader, international context. Introducing The Band [the first track] was a mantra I wrote after visiting a Buddhist temple in Japan. I wanted to take a bite of the globe and spit it out.
Butler's revised agenda dovetailed with Anderson's. "I was listening to Joy Division's Closer, The Smiths's The Queen Is Dead, Marc And The Mambas' Torment &Toreros, The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lavin' Feeling. I had certain colours in my head — dark greens, blacks and whites — whereas the first record was more like brown.”
A stop-gap single arrived in February 1994. As Butler conceived it, Stay Together would bridge poppy Suede and out-there Suede, with a three-minute radio edit and an eight-minute version that added a manic rapped section and soaring guitar solos. "It was a chance to spread my wings," he says. "I thought I'd done something great in a Bacharach And David way"
Perversely, Stay Together would initiate an irreversible falling out. "In the studio, it became a big coke fest, and it took ages," recalls Butler. "Brett was trying to sound dark and cold and un-heartfelt, which was what he'd started to be like."
Anderson: "I've never been fond of Stay Together. And I still don't really know what it's about." Perhaps it was a subconscious plea to Bernard. Adding to the tension, Butler's father was dying of cancer as they recorded the song. "I was experiencing an A to Z of emotions," admits Bernard.
Any gang unity was destroyed in September during a co-headlining US tour with The Cranberries, whose winsome pop was far better suited to mainstream America. "We were seen as doomed failures," says Butler. The guitarist's father had now died and the guitarist began travelling with the crew while the rest of the band flew between shows. Butler would write furiously in his hotel room while Anderson did interviews.
"When you lose someone," Butler explains, "you want to return to the womb, for comfort. But everyone around was acting like scumbags. They have a right to: they're in their mid-twenties in a rock'n'roll band, having a laugh. But I couldn't respect that at the time."
There was still the songwriting to bind them together though. "We weren't not getting along," explains Butler "I just didn't see him."
Only two miles down the road, Bernard sent demos to Brett, who'd work on the melodies and lyrics, sealed from the outside world in a garret he'd rented for that very purpose. Inside, he wrote Black And Blue about racial intolerance, Daddy's Speeding about a dream involving taking drugs with James Dean, and Heroine (Anderson: "A song about pornography"). Meanwhile, the brilliant Asphalt World was 10 minutes long and became Suede's ultimate out-there epic.
In the studio, though, Bernard began clashing with producer Ed Buller. "I'd always thought our studio sound was too tinny, I wanted more bottom end," he recalls. "I liked Ed, and we had a real relationship the more Brett went into fantasy-land. But Ed didn't want to hear. If you're having hit records, who gives a fuck what anyone else says?"
It didn't help that Butler decided to give a rare interview. "I'm desperate to do things outside of Suede," he admitted. "Brett's so fucking slow, it's driving me insane." He admits he was permanently stoned during those days. "Being an arrogant shit, and obsessive about the record, it came down to me or Ed," says Butler "In my naivety, I thought I could say, Ed's out of order, let's get someone else to mix the new album.' But Brett wouldn't even discuss it. After that, I wasn't allowed in the control room, and my guitars were brought out into the hallway. But no one tried to stop me."
All Anderson will say now is, "I find it very difficult to talk about why Bernard left Suede. It's a huge, labyrinthian subject that I don't want to delve into."
"It was a monumental fuck-up but a great story," says Butler "The drama suited the record." Indeed, Dog Man Starwas an extraordinary drama, starting with a title that epitomised Anderson's aspirations for transcending the everyday from "suburban graves" to London highlife. Musically, it put paid to all the distrust and hype. As MOJO's review said: "Now more than ever, just listen."
"It's a fantastic record, but it was career suicide," believes Butler "Every other Britpop band made their second album stocking-fillers — I count Parklife as Blur's first album in that sense. Morning Glory has some great songs but Oasis always say they're trying to get back to Definitely Maybe. We were the only ones who took the wrong direction commercially and the right direction creatively"
Dog Man Star reached Number 1 but it was symbolically topped by Definitely Maybe. Now Anderson had to fight for his band's life, a Morrissey without his Mart.
Just like their heroes The Smiths, Suede lost a vital member just before the album was released. Unlike The Smiths, Suede lived on. In July 1996, their comeback single, Trash, went to Number 3. It was recorded with Butler's replacement Richard Oakes, just 17 years old when he joined, which fitted Suede's aesthetic of transcending your grotty reality, in Oakes's case, sixth-form college. Publicly, Anderson radiated positivity. Privately, "most of 1995 was a terrible low point. I was completely aware that we'd been swept away for a while."
Once again, Suede had to prove themselves just as Blur, Oasis and Pulp dominated the news. "All we wanted was to go home and start writing an album that expressed the new line-up," says Anders. “But the only way to convince people we still existed was to tour. Going on stage and playing songs made by a key person that's left fucks with your head.”
Rumours circulated that Brett’s drug consumption rocketed during these months, and Damon Albarn's very public accusation that Brett was taking heroin only amplified the tension. But at least Suede’s new boy fitted the bill. "Rich brought unity to the band, beyond musicianship," says Anderson. "And he had the ability to make the kind of album we wanted. No waffle, very economic. A pop record, because we didn't want to write sad, epic stuff anymore."
Neil Codling, a cousin of Simon Gilbert's, joined Suede on keyboards, bringing extra song-writing talent and on-stage panache. Codling's expansive, dreamy The Chemistry Between Us — one of four sad, epic Suede songs on the album, for old time's sake — allowed Anderson to pen another drug/love metaphor. But in the main, Suede's third album Coming Up was precisely the brash, pop-driven statement Brett desired. It also outstripped its predecessors by charting at Number 1.
"I was hugely jealous," Butler freely admits. "But I was also glad I wasn't involved. It felt to me like they were joining the Britpop party, whereas before we were different."
Brett rejects the suggestion. "I wasn't thinking about Britpop," he says. "And I've always felt that Suede was very much removed from everything. I still don't think of myself as part of the industry or scene."
Either way, Coming Up was Suede's commercial peak. Three years on, their electronic fourth album Head Music marked a huge advance, but after another three years, a fifth album, A New Morning, found Brett drug-free but also light on inspiration.
"We should have split up after Head Music but we didn't know we'd run out of ideas," he admits. "The legacy of drugs had knocked me off balance."
In November 2002, Anderson phoned Butler, who'd made encouraging noises in the music press about being open to such an advance. The two decided to work together again, under the name The Tears. "It was certainly a re-awakening for me, artistically," says Anderson.
But it was Butler who felt compromised again. "I wish we'd met up, had a pint, and said, 'Let's not bother.' There was too much pressure to do old Suede songs, from Brett's manager, from the press. But it would have been patronising to [Simon and Mat] to say that this was Suede."
The Tears' sole album, Here Come The Tears, was actually really great in parts. Strangely, its pop-centric nature most closely mirrored Coming Up. Listening to it now, you wonder what would have happened if Bernard Butler hadn't left Suede.
"What did Bernard say?" asks Anderson. "The third album wouldn't have sounded like Coming Up. But had Bernard stayed and we'd got on, it would have been spectacular. We write well together, even though The Tears album wasn't our best record commercially or critically."
And with that Anderson is off. How was talking about Suede, I ask, given his initial resistance? His reply is unnervingly frank. "I can still lie in bed at night, going over stuff. There's stuff I have to deal with — being in a band, being successful and coming out the other end of all that machinery — that still tortures me. But I'm genuinely happier than I've ever been... which I have to remind myself of sometimes."
Butler has to quickly wind up his interview too. "Herself [he means pop chanteuse Duffy] will be here soon," he says.
One last question. Bernard: "A Suede reunion? You know what? No one's asked. But if they did, it's absolutely not on. I've always said to Johnny [Marr], Don't re-form The Smiths. Morrissey would have Rick and Bruce, as he calls them, in cages at the back, and he wouldn't speak to them."
Butler adds that his 11-year-old son keeps waking up to Suede's Animal Nitrate on YouTube. "He's just mastered it on guitar. The first time I heard him, I thought it was a bad dream!" As one of Anderson's Dog Man Star lyrics puts it, "Let the new generation rise".
Pop Scene, Alright?
In 1992, Stuart Maconie called Suede ‘Britpop'. Here he recalls how he gave a movement its title.
Nowadays when, from grime to Girls Aloud, from dubstep to nu-prog, British pop is so fecund and plural, it's hard to dredge up the memory just how grim the early to mid-'90s were. I had just quit NME in protest at the appointment of a new editor from Melody Maker and, if truth be known, out of boredom with putting out a weekly paper that had nailed its colours to the grunge mast. I hated Grunge the terrible clothes and haircuts, the whining lyrics, the lumpen rifling. The last straw came for me when we put a band called Superchunk on the cover. They looked like people doing community service who'd come to clear up a canal towpath - except less sexy.
I was also lured away by the promise of authoring a cover-story-cum-theme issue for Select magazine on something that I was continually banging on about - namely the first stirrings of a new swagger in British pop, the first green shoots of recovery as it were. I wanted to write not just about young British bands like Suede, Blur and Pulp, who I felt had a glamour and allure that Alice In Chains would never have, but about a very British sensibility that we needed to resurrect in our pop culture - wit, irony, style, economy, good haircuts. I corralled a host of disparate icons from the Likely Lads and PG Wodehouse to Philip Larkin, and the result became a huge talking point not least for its provocative cover of Suede draped across a Union Jack.
Brett Anderson, always a hard man to please, didn't like being press-ganged into my theorising or made poster boy for a new movement we were making up as we went along. But most of the other bands were scenesters at heart and loved It all. Someone called it the Scene That Celebrates Itself - a bit of a mouthful. I called it Britpop. It wasn't desperately smart or original. Someone surely must have once applied it to The Mollies and Manfred Mann. But it stuck. And soon, it was singles battles on the Six O’clock News and Champagne at Downing Street.