The Independent Catalogue - Suede
The Independent Catalogue
Submitted by: Rhys Anderson
By: Martin Aston
■"I watch the skyline for him to come / and when he comes along / we'll be gone... we'll go into the city, into the lights / we'll make the headlines..."
(‘The Big Time')
Brett Anderson is probably singing from a mundane suburban perspective, where a trip into town is the stuff of dream fulfilment and escapist adventure. At the same time, you get the feeling he might already be reflecting on the grip of fame.
Suede have made more headlines in 1992 than possibly any one band in any one year. They've even had a colour drop-in photo on the cover of The Times newspaper after two singles. A quick recall: there was ...’Flared Up’ (Sky)...’Give Us Our Daily Brett’ (Melody Maker)... ‘The Brettish Movement’ (NME)... ‘Some Dandy Talking’ (NME)...’Leather ‘Tis Nobler’ (Siren — the most cringingly good-bad) and ‘The Per-Suede-R’ (Vox)... (the most cringingly bad, period). The quality press were less pun-dependent —'Stroking Suede’s Ego’ (The Times)... ‘Ultra Suede — Life After Shoegazing’ (Vogue)... ‘Morrissey Minors — Suede Chase Smiths Mantle’ (Northampton Chronicle & Echo) at least went straight to the point.
But more pertinently, there was Melody Maker's ‘The Best New Band In Britain’ — the front cover that fuelled the whole shebang. Indeed. It's the band's utter belief in, and promise of fulfilling, the pop phenomenon that has made it all possible, even if it’s a dream that seems part and parcel of a bygone, less cynical age. It's little surprise that Suede have imbibed David Bowie’s semi-fictional fantasy trip and The Smiths’ tremulous realism; you have to reflect both facets of fame to hold any cultural resonance for the 90s.
The dream wasn't always so real. Haywards Heath (a nowhere-fast satellite town of Brighton) college friends Brett Anderson (vocals) and Mat Osman (bass) were pop obsessives who met guitarist Bernard Butler in 1989 through a Melody Maker ad (“no musos!” it warned). The newly christened Suede's serrated glam taint and quaint drum machine was proficient enough to win Gary Crowley's GLR Radio ‘Demo Clash’ five weeks running but the Manchester wave obliterated their progress. The fledgling Suede, Anderson remember, “were a lot lighter sounding, more twee, with an acoustic guitar on stage.” Then came their first music press review... “We were portrayed as a bunch of nambie-pambie, middle class 13 year olds with toy guitars. It was grim. We spent a long time being violently disliked because we didn't punch the right keys, and being the kind of band that we are, being upfront and with little humility, when that’s put in a room in the wrong frame, it can work out quite dreadfully.” But, as he found out, “the way we were excluded from the world of music was incredibly useful and important to us, because without that exclusion, we wouldn't be the band that we are. We would have had no time to develop.”
Having found a real drummer, Simon Gilbert, and a new manager in John Eydmann (an A&R man at Fire Records and manager of Spitfire), the group were included in NME's ‘On’ festival of new bands at South-East London's Venue club. The positive reviews started increasing, but no-one expected a front cover from Melody Maker — the ‘Best New Band In Britain’ proclamation — a week before the release of their debut, double A-sided single ‘The Drowners’/’To The Birds’, which is where the accusations of hype came in. How did this happen?
That assistant editor Steve Sutherland was totally enraptured, and that both songs possessed extraordinary grace, charm and killer instinct (only matched in 1992 by it's B-side ‘My Insatiable One’) wasn't enough. That the group had a flamboyant, floppy-fringed singer and no track record to speak of, rather than, say, a background in Animal Rights protest with paid-your-dues ‘authenticity’, only inflamed suspicion. Was their major label finance involved? Favours being pulled? A royal scam?
The truth, is, there was no conspiracy, only the blessed combination of talent, luck and timing. Saul Galpern, who'd signed Simply Red to Elektra (only to be made redundant the week ‘Holding Back The Years’ topped the US charts), The Triffids to Island and no-one in particular to RCA before facing redundancy again, had formed his own label, Nude, with finance from his partner, Peter Felstead of CEC Management. He'd been sent a Suede demo, thought it “weirdly interesting but I didn't feel I had to follow it up,” but then saw them at the Venue show: “I walked in, thought fucking hell, this is unbelievable, completely against the grain’. I was mesmerised. From that moment, I wanted to sign them. I said I'd do all these things for them, as you do, but I really believed in it.”
A two-single deal was inked with the band; “I had worked for majors and was under no illusion that I could easily form a label and sign a band for five albums,” Galpern states. “Anyway, that would be particularly unfair to Suede, and they were already skeptical of one record company they'd had a bad run in with.”
In the Nude office, he sticks on Suede's new, third single, ‘Animal Nitrate’, closes his eyes, mouthing the words. “It wasn't so much The Smiths thing but more the Bowie, Roxy thing, because I was a huge fan of both, and T.Rex too. All my life, I wanted to be involved with something that created the same feeling I had when I was 14, and I couldn't believe I saw it.'
The fuss about Suede, Anderson feels, is a lot to do with music's cyclical patterns, “how we've slotted in after a huge body of soulless, expressionless music. People also want a sense of ‘the song’, and we manage to plough a furrow between commerciality and credibility which I don't think anyone else does.”
The fuss about Suede, Galpern reckons, is the polar opposite of ‘hype’. “They have the ingredients that make a great group that people haven't seen for a long time. They can play, they write great songs, they have a singer with charisma, a guitarist who never ceases to amaze me, they're intelligent, they can speak, and their sound is very distinctive. I'm not saying it's completely new or different but they're taking influences and making it sound very 90s."
The fuss about Suede, according to their press officer, John Best, was enough for him to take the band at no cost. “I couldn't see them live but they said they'd do a rehearsal for us. We just though they were brilliant. They were very louche in performance — Brett wasn't smacking his arse or anything, just singing with a cup of tea in one hand and lolloping around, but the songs were great. They didn't have any money, but that was cool, it gives you a sense of achievement when it takes off.”
Best admits that the press side was manipulated, “every step of the way, and particularly early on, but it's what I'd do for any band. It's partly to do with keeping it exclusive. Steve Sutherland at Melody Maker likes it if you make him feel special, and we had one tape of demos, so he got it, and went for it. It's better to pinpoint one person who you think will understand what the band is all about, which is much more effective than blanket-bombing people so that they end up feeling they're part of a morass. It's not earth shattering but it's good psychology. And it's not that difficult.”
Again, luck played its part. “Suede had a show at London's Africa Centre, and they were worried no-one would go, so Brett asked if the piece could be brought forward a week,” Best's partner, Phil Savage, recalls. “EMF were meant to be on the cover that week, but apparently the pictures were rubbish, and Steve Sutherland decided to take a big risk and put them on the cover. It could have been very different. But people have naturally been drawn to them because they're different, You might get bored with reading about them but you can't get bored with writing about them.”
With the history of music press rivalry, NME didn't snub what could have been a ‘Maker’ band. On both occasions the Maker spoiled NME's Suede cover, once before the Reading festival, again before the Christmas issue, the NME went ahead with theirs. “The first we didn't know about, the second we did,” says Best, “but we took a calculated risk. No-one's going to sulk and refuse at this stage because people will put them on the cover given the opportunity.”
That first Maker cover, Galpern says, was a shock. “It was unbelievably brilliant, but on the other hand, did we really want this? I was concerned over how the band would be able to deal with it.”
Anderson says they quickly learnt how to present themselves and give good quote, but that, on the downside, “a lot of people hated us for that first cover. We spent the next six months trying to prove to people that we were good. Eventually, we wrestled ourselves into a position where people do believe we're good. If we hadn't have had any good material, or just three good songs, or spent the last six months trying to come up to scratch, then... but we already had a catalogue of songs waiting in the wings.”
Galpern found he was equally up against it. The army of record companies surged forward, “desperate for signatures, whatever way they could get it.” The band were naturally flattered, to the point of accepting Geffen's offer to fly them out to LA. To Galpern's delight, the band were dismissive of the whole event. “It wasn't us at all,” Anderson shrugs. "It was LA, and LA is the least Suede-like place in the world. Not that we want to minimise ourselves to any one particular country but the state of mind there is so laid back. Everyone's in leather jackets. The chemistry wasn't there.”
With Galpern negotiating a worldwide licensing deal with Sony outside of the UK, who'd already approached him before he'd met Suede (“I wanted to steer clear of major labels but licensing deals with separate territories seemed to be an administrative nightmare”) the band decided to remain with Nude. Says Galpern, "they trusted me because I'm so dedicated to them, and that I'd deliver what I promised and they wanted.”
Anderson: “We could have signed with anyone, as we had a vast array of options. We weren't bullied into anything. We signed with Nude because we've got a lot of faith in and time for the independent music world in this country, and didn't want to lose that, because it's the only sector of the industry which is geared toward creativity. On the other hand, we want to sell records, so we wanted the backing of a huge organisation. Sony are probably a bunch of fascists, who knows, but it serves our purpose. Saul is also Suede's biggest fan.”
‘The Drowners’ reached 49 in the national charts, but the follow-up ‘Metal Mickey’ went straight in at 17, leading to the band's debut Top Of The Pops performance. The single dropped to 27 the next week, lacking the necessary crossover appeal, but neither Nude or the label's sales/marketing company, RTM, feel it necessary to play the format game that could hoist Suede several notable notches further up the chart.
According to Nude's label manager at RTM, Ewan Mathison, formatting helps chart placings, “but it's natural and better this way. Anyway, I told them not to bother. You can only format if you have something to play with, and Suede are still a new band, and output is limited. Remember, they're still only on their third single.”
Galpern: “I'm not saying I'd never format singles, but not with Suede. Why? We don't have to. There's a big enough fan base, so people are buying it. It can work for certain acts but it's a question of whether it's right. We wanted to achieve things by building it naturally. The advance orders on ‘Animal Nitrate’ are heading to well over 25,000, and you only need to sell 15,000 to get into the top five.”
RTM's initial job was to convince shops outside London that Suede were going to be as big as the media were predicting. “People trusted our sales team, because we don't stitch people up,” Mathison confirms. “The reaction to ‘Metal Mickey’ from shops and head offices was so positive, it was untrue. Before that, the pre-sales on ‘The Drowners’ was 3500, which for a debut single by a band who'd played so few dates outside London, was amazing. Quite simply, it's a great record, and the fact it's still selling between 1000 and 1500 copies a week is proof. It's gone back in the top 100 after eight months.
“With Suede, it's a case of selling and not selling. There was already a massive awareness of the band, but Woolworths had to be convinced that Suede were much bigger than they were aware of. They bought in 14,000 copies of ‘Metal Mickey’. It's not our job to hype things. We wouldn't even know how to organise buying teams.”
In place of obvious freebies, there will be a special Chain With No Name campaign, with a free Suede Carrier bag, inspired by Galpern's fond memory of a Buzzcocks carrier for their first album. As for career positioning, “that's something that major labels do, isn't it?” Galpern grins. “The band must develop at their own pace. I know they're not housewives’ choice but you can't water it down.”
Just one obstacle remains: radio. Like The Smiths in their day, Suede are too awkward for Radio l's homogenous strategies. The third single was scheduled to be the, to-die-for, ballad ‘Sleeping Pills’ but the decision was reversed in favour of ‘Animal Nitrate’. Galpern admits he was nervous about the former's controversial topic (the song mentions “pumped up with Valium”) and wanted something more radio-friendly, but Anderson agreed that it was their choice too. Anyway, ‘Animal Nitrate’ is equally drug-related, and more sexually explicit to boot.
Galpern: “I wanted a trilogy of great rock singles. Despite the hit, I don't think Suede are established enough, despite all the press, as a great live band or great guitar band, and it seemed it might be taken away by going with ‘Sleeping Pills’ too early. Radio must be overcome, and I believe ‘Sleeping Pills’ is a huge record, even a number one. So if we had a third single, then drop the album, get all the attention, and then drop ‘Sleeping Pills’, it might work. The lyrical contents are important, and with Radio 1 being so stupid, I think they wouldn't play it now. ‘Animal Nitrate’ is a bit iffy lyrically too, but not as iffy.”
Anderson acknowledges that compromises are unavoidable if you want to take things as far as they'll go. “We're actually quite sensible about things, although if we really want to do something, we do. We can tell Sony that this is the record we want, with a cover picture of two lesbians kissing on top of a wheelchair, which we wanted, because it says a lot to me about Suede, the beauty of being under the wheel, and the highlife being within you, which is very much something I think about and hope comes across in the music. Sony said they'd go with it if we wanted, but the huge K-Mart chain wouldn't stock it in America, and the only records we'd sell in this country would be Chain With No Name shops, which isn't in our interests. But we don't want success at any cost. We want success so that we can broadcast what we think, so shooting yourself in the foot is pointless.”
He denies that Suede themselves are conscious about career positioning: “that way, you just tread on the stepping stones you know you're going to, and lose the spark. The way to control things is simply to have as few as possible chinks in your armour. If you release bad records, that's when people are justified in criticising you.”
But he confesses the group are, “incredibly concerned about the way we're presented.” But even if writers liberally use the terms ‘fey’ and ‘foppish’ — “a misinterpretation of ‘fragility’,” he murmurs — or stick Anderson dressed as Sid Vicious on the cover of the NME against their wishes, or, worse, lump Suede in with the ‘cartoon glam’ movement currently fixating the media, they have been treated like rock royalty. Even the mainstream-related Q magazine shoved them out front, the first time an ‘unknown’ had ever graced the cover.
“The Q cover was the biggest coup for ages,” Galpern grins. “It's taken the band to a different pinnacle to a whole new audience. Now people can see that Suede are established. It's almost like a dream come true. Everything has been frontloaded. Record companies say, ‘how are we going to achieve this?’ but the thing about success is, it just happens. I don't think you can sit down and cleverly plot it. All I can do is stay one step ahead of everyone else.”
Suede were one placing ahead of everyone else in the end-of-year polls; Best New Band everywhere, and whatever ‘Single Of The Year’ The Drowners didn't win, ‘Metal Mickey’ did instead. Meanwhile, the rollercoaster won't stop. After the furor surrounding K.W.S. and Undercover's nomination for ‘Best New Group’ at the BRITS, Suede have been asked to play live on the night, without a nomination, but with the tide of opinion sweeping behind them. Five days before ‘Animal Nitrate’ is released, 15 million people will be watching the broadcast.
It's enough to make you believe in the teenage dream.