They were a singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer; just a band, right? Almost twenty years to the day since the release of their debut album and ahead of their Alexandra Palace show in support of new release Bloodsports, Kevin Robinson investigates why Suede were, for a time at least, The Best New Band In Britain.
We were barely born in time for glam rock. We weren’t the ‘you’ that Bowie had picked on during Starman, pointing an impeccably manicured finger down a Top Of The Pops camera and allowing his arm to fall across Mick Ronson’s shoulder, sending the nation into a right old dither. Two decades later on The Brit Awards though, an unashamedly effeminate frontman was yelping his way through a new song referencing chemical highs, violent sex and a then unequal age of consent. This aggressive outpouring was Animal Nitrate, laced with sordid undertones but coated with a giddy pop rush. It felt like a defiant Fuck You to the dumbstruck dignitaries and their ludicrously corporate world, as well as a stimulating riposte to the abundance of clichéd bands in flannel plaid shirts, signed in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s meteoric ascent to stardom.
The Drowners had heralded Suede’s loudly trumpeted arrival just nine months previously. It came housed in an ambiguous sleeve, all white apart from the band logo and an androgynous figure (named Veruschka, it turned out) with a painted-on purple suit and stubble, who held a cigar in one hand and a gun in the other. From the intro’s drum rolls to the singer’s submissive, weirdly enunciated falsetto, there was something primal about it, something sexual. The songs consigned to its B-side were even better. One contained risqué lyrics about retards in leotards shitting paracetamol on escalators, the other seemed to be about taking albinos to Heaven on broken bicycles. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, this was not.
Its release saw Suede mince onto an ITV Chart Show devoid of pop icons and full of cheap sounding rave versions of cartoon themes, the singer’s showiness delivering the kind of hands on hips posturing that was bewilderingly absent from Pearl Jam’s videos. Their drive and ambition seemed greater than those of the introspective non personalities they were awkwardly sandwiched between in the Indie Top 10. It was all enough to entice me to drive to a gig that summer to experience their arse-whipping, fringe-flicking spectacle at full throttle.
“You’ll pierce your right ear, pierce your heart here, this skinny boy is one of the girls,” spat Brett Anderson into the front rows, his ripped, frame hugging lace blouse secured precariously at the belly button by a single safety pin. To his left was Bernard Butler, possibly wearing a red shirt, his feet stamping and hair flailing. There was an enticing unruliness to these gigs, and a hunger for change. Their music seemed important, at least to the sea of malnourished, foppish inadequates in Leicester’s Princess Charlotte. The infatuation had begun. I had been swayed by Suede.
Their eponymous album articulated perfectly the feeling of disenchantment of those desperate to flee from their suburban graves. These were the nowhere places and Asda towns where the skies were as terminally grey as John Major’s Cabinet, and where you’d learnt the hard way to conceal any evidence of flamboyancy or anything that remotely deviated from the so-called norm. Suedeworld was the culturally barren wasteland strewn with bungalows and cul-de-sacs, flyovers and retail parks along a tarmacked commuter belt. Their songs thrived on the drama of the everyday, and their suburban heroes strived for The Big Time, something beyond a Happy Shopper existence, something to alleviate the monotony of a humdrum 9 to 5. Suede people were the loners from out in the sticks who lived for the 48 hours of pills, thrills and bellyaches, doing lines off the same Screamadelica LP sleeve, necking narcotics and making out against the grim backdrop of neon-lit multiplexes and hypermarkets.
This was a band with an alluring gang dynamic and a striking wasted-glamour-in-tower-block aesthetic, which distanced them from the bowl cuts and grungy short-sleeve-band-t-shirt-worn-over-long-sleeve-band-t-shirt-getup that engulfed indie discos. Here was a group you could physically pledge allegiance to. Your life could be defined by the style that emanated from their records or from the posters on your wall. Possibly only the Manic Street Preachers had fans to rival Suede’s in their eagerness to affiliate, all leopard print, feather boas, panda thick eyeliner and spray painted t shirts.
Charity shops were scoured and womenswear rails raided to seek out the requisite hand me downs for that decadent Suede look – the retro leather jacket, the nylon blouses, the flared cords, the guyliner, the black hair dye, all as much a part of being smitten with Suede as buying the records. Cheekbones were accentuated through continual pulling on a B&H and a lopsided haircut was adopted which ran across the face and came to rest somewhere near the jawline, thus rendering the right eye incapacitated for much of the mid 90’s. Suddenly, in London at least, some previously uncatered for people became visible, roaming the cities, walking the arse felt world like armies of (to borrow some Suedespeak) Doved up, sickeningly pretty flashboys.
Wherever you followed Suede you’d see the same hardcore fanbase faces in the audience, and many friendships were formed. Their sets were rarely less than spellbinding; from the wriggly snake hipped dance during He’s Dead to the near decapitating mic swinging climax of So Young. We were down the front at Glastonbury, where they looked magnificently out of place on the bill and where Brett and Bernard debuted Still Life, more than a year prior to it was loaded with cinematic orchestration and evolved into Dog Man Star’s Scott Walkerish showstopper. We were at Clapham for the Derek Jarman collaboration with surprise guests Siouxsie and Chrissie Hynde. We were in Brixton for the recording of the Love And Poison show, and at Ealing Studios (“Bring a towel and a change of clothes” instructed the fan club, intriguingly) to mosh around them, waist-deep in foam, for the filming of a video of The Drowners for America.
However, with fresh meat procured in the form of Richard Oakes, seeing them live following the release of the grandiose Dog Man Star was to witness a very different beast. Rolling up their sleeves, mounting monitors and stage diving, Suede were now a fifty knuckle shuffle heavy metal machine, Sex Pistols intro tape and all. By the time they got to Phoenix (Festival, 1995) they were belting out their repertoire with a ferocious intensity as if singing to be saved, which they kind of were. The faithful had endured both Bob Dylan and the pouring rain at Long Marston airfield to watch them, our pink Gayanimalsex t shirts clinging to our drenched torsos.
Perhaps ironically, Suede would have their biggest hits following the unavoidable football’s coming home summer of 1996, during which Britpop had mutated into something that Weller worshipping, trackie topped everybloke jovially hollered from pubs throughout the land. Coming Up was a lightweight, trebly, diluted version of its predecessors, albeit a massively successful one. But whereas Suede had been an attractive proposition as underdogs, they were now almost trying too hard to fit in. In the years following there would be lapses into self parody, much going through the motions, way too many class A’s and a few too many aerosol picnics with desperate housewives in hired cars under the nuclear skylines of satellite towns. Ultimately, they delivered their manifesto in just two albums and then found they had nowhere left to go.
The charged hysteria of those gigs in 1992 and 1993 is often overlooked when Britpop’s legacy is debated, but for a couple of years at least, when we were so young and easily led, stoned in our lonely towns, they were the band that fulfilled our adolescent need for identity and acceptance. They offered solidarity, vilification even. As our hands grew sweaty from clinging to the crash barrier, adrenaline rushing as we felt the crowd surge and the lights dimmed, screams punctuating the air as the strings version of Sleeping Pills being played over the PA faded and our fab four strutted on stage to sing of escaping to some coastal town to flog ice creams, it genuinely felt like we could fly away for good.
All words by Kevin Robinson. More work by Kevin Robinson on Louder Than War can be found here.