WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE TEENAGE DREAM?
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE TEENAGE DREAM?
Well, it took a bit of a holiday for a while but now it's back, in the nubile shape of Suede. Glamorous, sexy, literate and, they insist, bloody brilliant. Dave Cavanagh comes not to bury, but to praise, that most worrying of phenomena, the Next Big Thing. Meanwhile, on pages 74 and 75, we point out the grisly fact that Suede are just part of a recent conspiracy to rehabilitate the Era That Time Tried Very Hard To Forget - the early ‘70s!
On the wall of Brett Anderson's dingy, claustrophobic Notting Hill first-floor flat hangs a poster of David Bowie. A pretty cool idea. Millions have had it before him. Anderson likes to contemplate the picture while he sips his tea.
But this is one of the most anomalous and challenging images from Bowie's mighty folio. Shot in grainy fag-ash monochrome, he sits side-on with head back, long hair draped over one half of his face, filter-tip in paw, and a distant, unreadable expression in his eyes. The credit says simply: "Beckenham '69".
Now, 1969 was a strange old year for Bowie. He had just been turned down by a fourth record company. His improbable, over-ambitious folk/mime trio Feathers were going nowhere. His relationship with self-styled actress Hermione Farthingale was on the skids. And his grandiose-sounding Beckenham Arts Lab — the venue where the photo was taken — was in truth just a back room of the Three Tuns boozer in Beckenham High Street. It was not a great time to be the future Thin White Duke.
But weird karma was afoot. He had written a song called Space Oddity. Neil Armstrong was four months away from sketching that crucial inaugural moonwalk. And David Bowie was five months away from making that giant step into what, in the vernacular, would be called "head-fuck stardom".
“I like to imagine," suggests Brett Anderson over yet more tea, "that he's just sitting there thinking that no one quite knows yet. He looks very cool and inscrutable. I've always thought like that. I've always had a kind of romantic self-image, sitting in drab surroundings thinking of what I could possibly do."
What Brett Anderson and Suede could do is the most exciting moot point in rock music today. Depending where you're standing, they could do any or all of the following . . .
Become Britain's biggest and sexiest rock band of the 1990s in record time . . . Re-familiarise a jaded nation with glamour, sex and songwriting class on a scale not seen since Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and the finest inter-galactic hour of Bowie himself . . . Have a Number 1 debut album in March . . . Bond hedonistic and neurotic youth alike in the most all-encompassing display of life-threatening blanket ambisexual teenage fan-worship since the insane heyday of The Smiths . . . Write some of the most beautiful songs about complete unquestioning sexual devotion since Bowie's Lady Grinning Soul . . . Induct the hitherto underrated word "paracetamol" into rock's workable vocabulary . . . And turn the Brighton commuter belt satellite town of Haywards Heath into the most famous British Rail Southern Region pitstop since Paul Weller first announced he hailed from Woking . . .
For Suede, after two brilliant singles, years of daydreaming, and horrible upbringings in working-class nowherevilles, have it in them to be just about the most extraordinary, intelligent and potentially enormous guitar band this country has seen in a decade.
“There's nothing more frustrating than knowing you've got all these great songs that no one knows about yet," says Anderson moodily, as he leans over to the tape machine to play a song from Suede's as yet untitled debut album. The song is a beautiful piano ballad called The Next Life, which Anderson wants to end the record.
As it unfolds - and it takes a while - a scene lodges in the memory. A decrepit little Notting Hill flat. An upright piano in the corner with its front removed and all its mechanics showing in a gynaecological pre-war pianola effect.
And the singer and writer of The Next Life nonchalantly sipping tea while he gazes at a 23-year-old poster of David Bowie that was taken when he himself was two.
“We always knew the kind of band we'd be," states Suede bassist Mat Osman categorically through long, thin hair, "which was an important, celebratory, huge rock band. A really old-fashioned thing. A great British rock band."
Suede have a back catalogue that totals just six songs. Two singles: The Drowners and Metal Mickey, with three songs on each CD. And that, so far, is it . . .
It isn't, to be strictly honest, a hell of an extensive discography. We may as well name all the songs, since we're here. The Drowners. To The Birds. My Insatiable One. Metal Mickey. Where The Pigs Don't Fly. He's Dead.
Somewhere in among that bizarre little lexicon, in the songs' fantastic hooklines, in Anderson's self-belief, in the guitar playing of Bernard Butler, and in the sweaty high drama of Suede's 1992 live shows, four putative stars have been fashioned.
Whatever Excalibur-like implement it takes these days to cut it as a genuinely massive British rock band of the '90s, Suede have been handed it. They're already a phenomenon and they didn't even release any records until May 1992. Several of their gigs (including one at the Camden Falcon that Morrissey went to) have become a bit legendary, and well worth lying about if you missed them.
Are they, indeed, the new Smiths that everyone's been frantically looking for since 1987?
Do they, indeed, (somewhat puzzlingly, since they're only in their mid-twenties) signal a rebirth of glam rock?
Has Brett Anderson hit upon the most potent lyrical image ever conceived about being poor, unloved, ill and paranoid in London: "On the escalator, you shit paracetamol . . ." (My Insatiable One)?
Was their Top Of The Pops appearance in September, the week Metal Mickey went in the charts at Number 17, the most brazen display of gratuitous arse-waggling in recent memory?
And does Brett Anderson possess a swaggering, utterly winning, hyper-intonated, all-vowels-blazing glam rock singing voice reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, Steve Harley and Ian Hunter (though mercifully with the speech impediments taken out) that positively strokes lyrics like: "On the high wire, dressed in a leotard/There wobbles one hell of a retard" (My Insatiable One again)?
Yes. Oh, yes. Whatever the question was, yes!
It's fitting that the target Suede have set themselves with their debut album is Hunky Dory (and particularly its epic, stricken finale The Bewlay Brothers). Its stories of high glam, sexual mischief, awe in the face of the universe, guilt, bisexuality and paranoia are right up Suede's street. It will probably be the most eagerly-awaited debut album by a British band since The Smiths in 1984.
“It’s always been a case of wanting to make pop songs that people love,” says Anderson in his slightly camp, precious twang. “There is a sense of expectancy about our record, but that's good. I think we can live up to it. It would be a dreadful thing if it was under-listened-to."
He speaks fluently, confidently, his sentences building up into paragraphs of vaguely neurotic self-reference, all delivered with a bright glint in the eye. Like Morrissey, there's a love of arcane words: "gruesome" and "drab" tend to reappear. Unlike Morrissey, there's no coy self-loathing, no "well, of course, I'm unlovable". Brett Anderson seems particularly pleased with the new vistas his talent has opened up.
It's difficult to avoid comparing Suede to The Smiths. Anderson's deliberately blurred gender references recalls Morrissey on songs like Handsome Devil and Reel Around The Fountain. (Anderson claims to be a bisexual who has yet to have a homosexual relationship). Morrissey, possibly sensing a chip off the old block here, become a fan: he has covered My Insatiable One live, and has gushed about Suede to journalists on his autumn American tour.
Anderson, who uses the same vocal tutor Tona de Brett, speaks of Morrissey with a mixture of respect and amusement.
"She told me when he first went to see her he was too shy to sing in her presence. He actually refused to sing because he was too embarrassed.”
"Maybe he's shy. I'm much more of a show-off than I think he is."
The relationship between Anderson and his co-writer, guitarist Bernard Butler, too, has strong echoes of Morrissey and Marr. The singers are eloquent and witty. The guitarists are moody and aloof.
And Bernard Butler is really aloof. He won’t actually talk at all. That's pretty aloof for someone who's only had two singles out. He's quite explicit about it. Requests to Suede's management for permission to ask him "a couple of questions” in the studio come back with a curt communiqué that reads: "Don't bug Bernard." (His reticence, to be fair, hasn't been helped by an early label boss suing him for libel, for comments made to one of the music papers).
At 22, Bernard Butler is already a serious candidate for guitar hero of the next decade; a wonderfully fluid, almost bluesy musician, he slips dextrously from metallic T. Rex thrash into sympathetic sad clown textures that drip with emotion and melody. Mat Osman, a bit of a star himself on bass as it happens, calls Butler “uncannily brilliant”.
"One of the most poignant things he’s ever said," recalls Anderson. "is he thinks of himself as a singer who can't sing. He speaks through his guitar, pretty much. He definitely co-stars with me on the songs. He astounds us with what he can play.”
And what Bernard can play suits Brett Anderson's lyrics like a bespoke lame waistcoat. The full measure of the band's power can be appreciated on, say, He’s Dead, a song about crippling depression, and the self-obsession that can lead us there. It contains Anderson’s favourite line: "What you do in your head, you do in your head." A song at once bleak and mighty, it’s virtually a classic wracked pop song.
"The feeling of desperation in the lyrics is reflected in the music." says Anderson approvingly, “and there's something really dark about it that I like. Those were always the kind of songs that I wanted to write – something that was incredibly emotional, but not necessarily in the normal way. Usually, something that’s emotional is quite inspiringly emotional. I wanted He’s Dead to be very dark. And the music is actually an insane kind of carnival thing that enters the room.”
The recording of the album seems to be giving him a kind of ulcer of the soul.
“It’s been upsetting us for quite a long time,” he says thoughtfully. “Even one duff track and it would be a failure, we don’t really have any refuge from it at all.”
Suede’s roots lie in working-class, early '80s Britain. The thing is, they don't look like it, as Mat Osman ruefully concedes.
“If we were the tea-drinking fops that we're made out to be, we'd probably all be Seattle grunge chic types by now," he reckons. “I don't think you can be interested in looking good or being glamorous without coming from the most stultifyingly boring backgrounds. And there is nowhere duller than the suburbs of London. I do think if you come from there you're the only people left who believe in the pop dream. All of us, from the age of seven, have assumed this is what we were going to do."
Anderson seems particularly keen to stress the seediness of his roots. He claims that every single member of Suede has had a job at one time or another cleaning toilets. He told one interviewer that when he was growing up, a raw onion was "a luxury”.
He and Mat Osman grew up in Haywards Heath, near Brighton. Both were working-class. Osman’s was a one-parent family. "Whenever I went round there," remembers Anderson, "the place always smelled of cat piss and they were having baked beans for tea."
His own family had little money, since his mother (now dead) was an unsuccessful artist and his father was "perpetually unemployed. And I think probably quite unemployable as well."
His father was an "insane classical music fan" who was in the habit of taking yearly pilgrimages to Franz Liszt's birthplace in Hungary, where he would kiss the ground and bring back some soil as a souvenir.
“His three heroes are Liszt, Nelson and Churchill. And on their birthdays he puts a Union Jack outside his council house on his flagpole. That used to bug me to shit when I was a kid, but now I think it's one of the greatest things ever."
Brett himself was a bit of a loner; nominally aligned to a punk gang at school, but appalled by the violence.
“There was a really violent element to the school I went to. I remember once this boy got lifted up by these two older kids with a huge iron bar, which they put under his crotch and bent it round him. He had to go to hospital to get his balls extracted."
An early love for Crass and Discharge (he compares hearing Feeding Of The 5000 to "your first orgasm") soon mutated into a love affair, via his big sister's record collection, with David Bowie. Here, he was bang in tune with Mat Osman.
At 16, Brett was wearing a tuxedo to school or, failing that, a "yellow Cliff Richard suit", in an effort to get the Bowie blow-dried Let's Dance look. He compounded the effect by dyeing his hair blonde and sporting a bow tie. He sang in a band called Suave And Elegant.
“I was a right ponce, actually," he says breezily. But there was fear about. Aside from the very obvious threat of a nuclear war (about which he used to have nightmares every night), the teenage Brett's chief concern was trying to avoid getting beaten up, while Simon Gilbert, the drummer, paid the price for being the first 12-year-old punk in Stratford-on-Avon in 1977 by having the shit kicked out of him on almost an hourly basis.
"Me and Brett would go and see The Smiths in Brighton," says Osman, "and you'd see rugby players down the front with their arms round each other — very strange — and you'd know that these people kissing each other's necks were the same people who were going to beat you up on the way back to the station."
As one pledged to looking "quite chic, quite special", Brett was an obvious target for grief.
"Everywhere you went, there was always the threat of someone beating you up," he sighs. "Everyone was always pushing themselves towards being some sort of sexual, potent, violent character all the time."
And Suede emerged from that smog of small-town violence. Anderson and Osman have been making music together since they were "about 14". Early catastrophes were survived (one prototype demo is voted a "horrible twee perfect pop piece of crap" by Brett now) and when they picked up Butler through an NME ad (which actually did say `No Musos!') they knew they were on to some-thing. Osman and Anderson both maintain they've known since age 16 that they would be in a shudderingly successful and very brilliant band.
They went in to record their first single, Be My God/Art, in 1990. The band in those days was Anderson, his girlfriend Justine on guitar, Butler and Osman. They were "unripe, musically". They needed a drummer. So they advertised for a temporary one.
"And Mike Joyce walked in," laughs Anderson incredulously. "He just randomly answered the ad. One of the most incredible things ever to happen to us. It was like Jim'll Fix It. A beautiful guy, though. He was so helpful."
The single never materialised — hence the legal wranglings with the label boss, who apparently thinks now would be a suitable time — and Suede embarked on the long and painful process of becoming famous by playing gigs.
"We were useless," says Anderson. And they were despised. Gigs throughout 1990 and into 1991 were a mixture of catcall cacophonies and silence, as audiences tried to get their collective heads round a bunch of mincing glam primadonnas in crimplene, fronted by a seriously overdoing-it limpwrist warbling untold perversions in music hall Cocker-nee.
But they were learning. Bernard Butler was brilliant anyway, and Anderson's writing was showing signs of a definite peculiar skill. All they needed was to work as a songwriting partnership. One day, they got it right. And they swear the glam rock sound is wholly accidental.
"Well," sighs Anderson, "we're a guitar band. and that's the accidental sound that we've arrived at. We've grown up playing venues where you have to be blatant about what you do. I think a lot of glam music was quite blatant, quite teenage, and that's the accident we've arrived at. There were a lot of definite points made in the '70s, and recent guitar music has tended to be very obscure. We do have a desire to not sound like that, I guess."
Osman is more forthright.
"I came from a background where any excitement or any degree of extremity came through records. If you took me when I was 13 or 14 and said, Show me something glamorous, sexually bizarre and talented, I'd have pointed you to my Bowie records. And if you listen to it every day for five years, it's imprinted in your memory cells. You can't help it. Your fingers move that way. It feels right."
Mat Osman is shooting pool in the studio kitchen. A quick appraisal of his physique, haircut and attire confirms that, sure enough, this man could walk into Mott The Hoople circa Honaloochie Boogie.
"Hmm," he considers. "I just can't understand the way they're always singing about being in Mott The Hoople, and how awful it is. Incredibly arrogant. Mind you, give us 10 years and it'll probably be the most meaningful music I've ever heard."
Bernard Butler is nowhere to be seen, ferociously avoiding those who might bug him.
Simon Gilbert is trying to persuade Brett to reconsider his power of veto on one of the songs tentatively lined up for the album. But the veto is such that if one member of Suede isn't happy with a song, it gets dropped immediately, so — out it goes.
"I like high expectations," grimaces Osman over a tricky cannon. "I think there's a curse of low expectations in British music at the moment. The curse of the mediocre — oh, it'll do. The march of the average. Well, no, it won't bloody do."
THAT SUEDE DISCOGRAPHY IN FULL!
The Drowners/To The Birds/My Insatiable One
A classic debut, complete with prophetic chorus line ("Ow, ow, you're taking me over"). Morrissey had covered My Insatiable One in his live set before most people even knew Suede's record was out.
Metal Mickey/ Where The Pigs Don't Fly/ He's Dead
Thought by many to be the band's least exciting live song, the recorded version of Metal Mickey has been voted Single Of The Year by at least one of the music organs that goes in for such frippery.
Coming Soon: Animal Nitrate/Dolly/Samba, Suede’s third single will be released through Sony in January this year. Their debut album will follow in March.