29 October 1994
Submitted by: Inge Klinkers
Dartmoor, Devon, and the mist-shrouded figure wrapped in a Victorian great-coat playing the role of Flashman can only be BRETT ANDERSON. But how is Housewife Grammar's new boy RICHARD OAKES coping with the role of Tom Brown? And what's this about SUEDE rockin' out, or even, gasp, going funky? PAUL MOODY writes his lines. Erm, double maths: STEVE DOUBLE
“So, how's he coping?" Over and over again, this is the question people want prised open like Pandora's Box. Whenever the fate of Suede Mark Two comes up in conversation, it’s the first thing anyone wants to know amidst their cluster-bomb of enquiries and speculation.
How is he going to win over the doubters? How will he react in a situation where he needs to step up at least five gears to survive? How is he coping with the fact that his world has had the rug pulled so violently from under it the floorboards have came up too?
And every time the answer's the same. He's fine. Brett s fine. It's Richard Oakes I'm worried about.
EARLY MORNING in deepest Devon. The Lord Haldon Hotel. hidden down long and twisting lanes and overshadowed by tangled, overgrown hedgerows, is a white-walled stately home which towers above the surrounding moorland Impressive as it is (Buckingham Palace was modelled on it, apparently) its isolated location has meant that only seclusion-loving American tourists and hard-bitten reps ever appear to stay here. Tonight, however, it plays host to Suede.
They're here to record the video for new single 'The Wild Ones' (at the cost of a cool £150,000), and whilst they're at it, acquaint the world via the NME with the man who will replace Bernard, Richard Oakes. Brett has already left for the shoot in the hills of Dartmoor, and before any formal introductions can take place a minor commotion erupts. Mat, it seems, has lost his door key, and the manager, unused to such absent-mindedness amongst his well-drilled patrons, is attempting to cause a scene.
"It'll go nicely with my American collection." drawls Mat, drifting off into the foyer. Simon, engaging as ever, gleefully films the whole scene with a Camcorder. He's been recruited by MTV to capture the entire video shoot for future broadcast and is eager to record Mat's minor irritation for posterity. Richard, however (who is introduced in elder-brotherly fashion by both Mat and Simon), stands away from the others and drifts off to take a look at the ornamental pillars around the hotel's entrance. You can almost hear him think, "Two months ago I was headed for the Upper Sixth. and now… this…”
First impressions are remarkable. Unlike the photos we've so far been privy to and the carefully tailored Top Of The Pops performance for 'We Are The Pigs’ - where Richard appeared to have almost overnight been skin-grafted with a Suede make-over - he looks incredibly out-of-place and ill-equipped for the task at hand. For a start he's dwarfed by Mat and Simon, and wears the lank-haired bob and Top Man jean jacket and jumper of the standard, star-struck fan. And secondly, he looks erm, so young and angel-faced in such company it’s actually unnerving. A star in the firing line. As we shake hands he lust about manages to took me in the eye, and an alarm bell goes off softly in my head. Is this really the boy who would be Bernard? The one Brett claims can "play like the devil”?
ON THE way to the site. the band’s new behavioural patterns begin to emerge. Obviously shaken by the ill-tempered departure of Bernard, and needing to brace themselves for months of touring, they've slipped into upgraded and clearly defined roles. Mat - always Brett’s lieutenant, but now upgraded to official right-hand man, affects a foppish nonchalance which almost, but never quite. matches Alex Blur.
Simon fills the gaps between anecdotes with a resigned, self-deprecating chatter, at one point he exclaims, "Why did I agree to carry a camera around with me for two days? What a stupid bastard."
Richard, shy and still in rope-learning mode, has been christened ‘Mad Dog’. Whenever he threatens to say anything mundane or unnecessary.
Mat and manager Charlie - who he moved in with two weeks ago - gently chide him towards an alter ego. So when Richard is asked whether he wants tea or coffee, whilst he's deciding, Mat exclaims, "Come on Mad Dog! You re the Spawn of a jackal, remember?"
Mat and Simon troop off to have their faces painted a pale orange in order to avoid glare from the cameras, giving us the first real chance to see how the new boy is coping with it all. Doesn’t it feel a bit weird, with his friends all back at school beginning the Upper Sixth, to be here in Dartmoor, shooting a big budget video as the guitarist in Suede?
Richard answers, surprisingly, as if he's fielded such enquiries a thousand times already.
"Well, a month ago I was living at home and getting ready to start back at school, and I had to leave all that behind when I chose to do this. It's been a great big change, and it's taken me a while to adapt to it, but I think I have now."
And what was it that attracted you to Suede in the first place?
"Well, believe it or not, the first gig I ever saw was Suede. It was at Poole Arts Centre, where all the bands play. But it wasn't so much Brett that interested me. It was Bernard. He wrote the tunes that I liked so much."
How quickly we forget. In the rush to tramp down the dirt on Bernard's contribution - remember he's credited, tersely, on the LP sleeve for 'guitars and things' - several glaring factors seem to have been deliberately overlooked. Because, let's face it, Suede have always had their weak points.
Brett's strangled vocals, marvellous when added to a chorus like ‘Animal Nitrate' or 'Metal Mickey', verge on the preposterous when he attempts a late-night croon - try and listen to the opening bars of ‘The Wild Ones' or 'Still Life' without smiling. The lyrics are still daft - just check out the "From southern snow to Heathrow" rhyme on 'Black Or Blue' - and occasionally Numan-esque in their obsession with some mythical electronic age... not to mention the nuclear war fixation.
What always saved them, when Mat was sporting an endless stream of bad haircuts and Brett was floundering, was Bernard. Their landmark TOTP appearance for 'Metal Mickey' (pivotal in that it finally killed off the carping cynics crying 'hype' and hurtled them into the Top 20 for the first time) turned on his glorious rag-doll thrashing. 'Stay Together', for all its pompous grand piano'n'kitchen sink absurdism, was rescued by that effortlessly rhythmic guitar.
The most memorable time I ever saw Suede Mark One live, in front of an absurdly hostile French crowd who doused Brett in beer the moment they caught a glimpse of his bullfighter's wiggle, was sealed by the sight of Bernard playing his guitar parts one-handed whilst giving the crowd the finger with the other. His rage, the stroppy soul-purging displays which were his trademark, gave Suede something all great bands need. A flash of genuine malevolence. A dark star. And one that shines right at the heart of the largely marvellous new album. Now he's not around, where's it going to come from?
HMMMM... THE first time we see Brett is right up in the moors, a further half-hour's drive away, where sheep walk lazily across the roads and the sky, as if coming out in sympathy with the prevailing mood, blackens over and casts an enormous shadow over the hillside. He's striding away from the camera into the far-distance, collar turned up on his Victorian great-coat, arms wrapped around himself more for effect than for warmth. His role in the video, it transpires, is a solitary figure who drifts across the screen whilst everyone else (the band and a handful of models) stand frozen in waxwork running or standing poses. It's the computer effects, to be added later, which are costing all the money.
Brett comes over and flashes the wickedest of smiles. His sister Blondine lives down the road, and her presence at the shoot seems to have eased him, temporarily, into a role other than the usual man-who-fell-to-earth solemnity (this will re-emerge in spectacular fashion later). The pair of them talk in a huddle, bound up in a spell, about the mysteries of the moors and how there's a lake across the way with the power to make anyone who stares into it die within a year. He still can't resist a sly, "How are things up at the NME?" quip midway through the story, though, like a man who barely bothers to countenance such things.
So how's he feeling about the new boy?
"I'm completely happy. I like the idea of changing. I think the whole thing about being in a group is about re-interpretation."
He moves quickly back on to the defensive.
“I feel incredibly comfortable with our situation at the moment. Suede aren't in a Jim'II Fix It period. Richard's in the band on his own merits and I can't wait to start playing gigs again…”
The band take up their positions for the video shoot. Mat and Simon adopt deliberately ludicrous poses and flirt mildly with the models, Richard follows suit and stays as close to Mat as possible. Brett, free from such trials, lies facing the other way and stares off into the distance.
As a frozen image it almost clarifies Suede's plight. With their principal tunesmith missing in action, the band have been forced to re-group and relaunch themselves so quickly they've barely had time for thought. Regardless of the rumour-mill surrounding Richard's appointment and the supposed plus points of their situation (what with 'Dog Man Star' fresh out, the new band doesn't have any pressure on it to write songs blah blah), they nevertheless have had to recruit a new member, rehearse frantically and prepare themselves for a lengthy stint on the road in order to extract as many sales from it as possible. Realistically, a session man filling in would have been the logical answer to their problems. Not a 17-year-old novice.
Mat, now relieved of video duties, sighs.
“It didn't even enter into our minds to worry about how young Richard was. Experience is nothing, we don't give a shit about that. One of the first things we said to ourselves when we started the auditions was, the best person gets it. Even if it's some 45-year-old bloke.
"It's all very well for people to be able to play the songs, but being able to play them as a member of Suede is something entirely different. As soon as Richard started playing we just knew that he was the right person. We knew as soon as we'd had the first audition. Charlie made us have a second one, just to make sure, but that was even better.”
Mat and Simon try to figure out the best way of explaining it. Simon has an idea.
"I'll tell you an example. When we played 'He's Dead' the first time with Richard I completely forgot that it was an audition, swear to God. It was absolutely brilliant, I got so into it."
Mat starts enthusing.
“Yeah, and when we did 'Animal Nitrate'. We haven't been able to get into that for ages, but with Richard, I dunno... it just rocked. We were dancing around the studio, and that hasn't happened for ages...”
There wasn't a question of making it fit?
“No! If we hadn't found anyone good enough then we wouldn't have taken anyone, it's as simple as that. If it had taken a year to find someone then we would have taken a year. This is the only band me and Brett have ever been in. It's all we care about. We couldn't have just got someone to fit in for the sake of it "
LET'S EXAMINE the history books. Richard Oakes' position in Suede is unprecedented. On the surface there are comparisons: Mick Taylor was a 19-year-old boasting a macrobiotic diet when he became sorcerer's apprentice to The Rolling Stones in 1969; when Craig Gannon was recruited as the fifth Smith circa 'Strangeways Here We Come' he seemed to spring from the ether. Yet on closer inspection, both had a track record of sorts. Mick Taylor had been lauded as a quality guitarist in John Mayall's band, Gannon was a regular hired hand around Manchester.
Richard Oakes, on the other hand, comes fresh-faced from the lower sixth studying A levels in Classics, French and History and a spot as guitarist in school band the Poole Grammar Stompers. Aside from that, he's played in a dixieland jazz band and another (unnamed) group, who, he declares, straight-faced, specialised in "Eagles covers". Eek!
The only rock'n'roll element in his immediate family appears to be his 21-year-old sister who was quite into the band anyway and "realises what it all means". Much like David Essex as starry-eyed would be pop star Jim MacLaine in That'll Be The Day, he's tossed his exercise books into the river and quit suburbia for the lure of the bright lights. All very Suede.
So isn't the prospect of joining a group whose singer regularly discusses his heavy drug use a little unnerving?
"Well, they're just interviews. Nobody actually believes them."
Isn't it intimidating though?
“Not really. I've had a sheltered enough upbringing for drugs never to have been part of it, ever. They probably have been for everyone else my age, but I'm not into that other part of life, y'know. Like the rock star thing, I'm not into that. I'm much more into the idea of just playing the guitar, which is all I want to do. But then that might change..."
He decides to put it another way.
“Brett's drug-taking is all part of his strong media image, and there's a lot of mystery surrounding him because of it." He blushes slightly.
"...All that stuff about how ambiguous his sexuality is. And maybe because of that I personally admired Suede as a band rather than Brett. But when I met him I was surprised. I knew Mat and Simon would be your average rhythm section, but when I met him (Brett) I was shocked he was such a (pause) regular person."
Does he not feel a little all-at-sea?
"Well, everybody keeps coming up to me and telling me to ask them if I need any help, but hopefully I'll be able to carry my ideals and values through with me. I think you've got to make the most of your life and not waste it."
Is using drugs all part of wasting it?
“Absolutely. They wouldn't help my creativity. I'd prefer to be clear-headed and objective about things."
Richard's self-assurance on this point (and any others you care to mention) is quite breathtaking. Whereas any normal 17-year-old would be quaking at a long-term encounter with Brett and the trappings of stardom, Richard, in his own soft-spoken way, appears to relish it on his own terms. When he's asked about old girlfriends, and how they might see him in a new light these days, he replies, "I've had past ghosts contacting me. It doesn't mean anything to me, really," like a man who's either had his heart-strings re-wired or runs on an icy cold indifference to fame. To Richard, his role in Suede is as replacement guitarist. Simple as that. And his family? How do they feel about this sudden turnaround?
“My mum and dad love it. They were a bit worried about me giving up my education, but they saw Top Of The Pops when we were on and they said it was very good, they really enjoyed it. It's funny because my mum never used to like him (Brett). She knew who he was. Whenever he'd come on the TV she'd say, 'Oh no, not him again'.”
Whilst Richard's saying all these things, Brett, Mat and Simon are alternatively cringing or spurring him on to greater confessions. They quite clearly see his current state - the semi-helpless business ingenue - as a stage that will pass within six months and lead to a period where Suede's creativity will be greater than ever. The post-Bernard years.
"I genuinely feel happier with the band now than I can ever remember," confesses Mat, casting the old days aside.
“Before with Bernard, we used to do things in a really old-fashioned, songwriterly way. We'd sit down with a tape and fit parts to it. And I was bored of that, because the atmosphere was so unproductive. With parts of the album, like 'Asphalt World' and 'Hollywood Life', it was obvious we were going to have to change because we were headed for parody.
"I promise you that in six months’ time this will be a completely different band. Musically, in terms of feeling, the way we play, everything. We haven't even started yet."
"I want to get a lot more rhythm into what we do," Brett continues "We've never really done it before. I'd love to get a bit of funk into it. Why not? A bit of sex. Take a song like 'Emotional Rescue'. That's an amazingly sexy song."
Is he conscious that Suede have sounded almost 'too white' in the past?
"Definitely. I'd like to eradicate as much whiteness from our music as I possibly can. I'm listening to Marvin Gaye a lot at the moment, but I'm not like David Bowie. If I tried to do a soul album it would come out slightly wrong, and maybe that would make it a bit more Interesting than if I could do it properly. If I tried to do a 'Young Americans' it would just sound like a load of old twat.”
Strange as it may seem, the optimism that Brett and the band keep expressing, particularly now, late in the evening, when they're tired and sick of being diplomatic, is genuinely inspiring. If they can just wet-nurse Richard enough to avoid the trap-doors opening in front of him, they firmly believe that the world's still out there waiting to be conquered. Not with the "old-fashioned, songwriterly" efforts of before, but with a looser, more free-flowing musicianship. Brett can't think of a band to touch them in any department, except "maybe REM". In short, having Richard on board seems to have strengthened their resolve rather than weakened it.
For Brett, is it a re-birth of faith like the line "I'm 18, I need my heroine" on 'Dog Man Star'?
"I never feel stagnant." he says, eyes blazing. “It’s not like I need to be re-inspired by anything," He pauses. "...But yeah, I do feel something like that from Richard."
Isn't the fact that he's been plucked from one of the 'suburban graves' that haunt Suede's songs somehow symbolic? Wouldn't you have liked that to have happened to you?
"No, there was no way I was ready at 17 for all this. I was a thrashing, frustrated poet-twat at that age."
"How times change," mutters Mat.
TWO LAST things about the day. Early on, when we're still making our way between the various video sites and when there's still some standing around impersonating a waxwork to do, Mat starts moaning. Richard casually tells him to stop bleating and consider the alternatives. He could be at school. Mat, genuinely lost for words, shuts up.
Secondly, when Brett's away from the others and in full-on Star Man mode (on being teased about what kind of world he exists in, he declares, “I don't exist. Tap my head and it sounds like metal, I walk across the sun and I don't cast a shadow") it's put to him that some people might perceive the introduction of Richard as some form of macabre experiment. That with the balance already distorted by Bernard's exit, the shape of the group may be warped forever by the recruitment of someone so ill-equipped to challenge Brett's leadership. In short, isn't he the one to watch, not the stunningly down-to-earth new boy?
An all-knowing Flashman to Richard's Tom Brown?
He looks genuinely shocked then flashes the wickedest of grins.
"I really don’t know that story."
TWO WEEKS later and four floors underground, we begin to find out. At a hushed-up fan club-only show (which, needless to say, has been hi-jacked by the assembled music business), the band are due to play their first gig. The atmosphere is bizarre. The fan club members, starstruck by the glittering decor and the prospect of seeing the new line-up first hand, gather expectantly around the stage and settle in for a long wait. The music biz types flood the bar and start gloating prematurely over the band's demise.
It takes a flash of genius to silence them. A giant booming rumble of 'Introducing The Band' crackles from the side of stage speakers. Within seconds, the band are bursting into 'This Hollywood Life'. Kick-started by Richard's thrashing guitar, it suddenly starts making sense when Brett gets hold of the first verse and lets a howling falsetto rip straight across it. It's pretty obvious what's happening. Stung by the endless whispering about Suede's future, the band have decided to gather the entire industry in one room and kill all the rumour-mongering in one fell swoop.
Mat may still be shadow-dancing through the same utterly arhythmic moves, Simon's drumming may be as straight-backed (and dead-on time) as ever.
But Brett is singing out of his skin, straining for notes he's never even looked for before, and rolling into the outstretched arms in front of him whenever he feels a little extra drama is required. In short, he's mesmerising. Richard, meanwhile, in virginal white in opposition to the other's uniform black, tears through the back catalogue and only ever slips up noticeably once, when a squalling 'Animal Nitrate' threatens to head off the rails.
To be honest the hiccups aren't that important tonight (although, fittingly, they end with 'New Generation'). It's the look in Brett’s eyes that matters, the mood of dishevelled glory that seems to flood from the stage every time he whips his arms into the air, wiggles lasciviously and shoots us that sulky mistress pout.
If you're going to cast Tom Brown aside, it says, then you're going to have to send Flashman tumbling back down into obscurity with him.
And that's not going to happen without a hell of a fight.