Suede’s third album, first line-up change and metaphorical second debut turns 25 this week. I look back on the lazy days, the crazes and the fads to find out if there is still chemistry between us.
Having recently shed guitarist Bernard Butler in a blaze of Morrissey/Marr style acrimony that seemed guaranteed to fell the band entirely, the ‘what happened next’ part of the story is just as infamous. Hiring a schoolboy from Dorset, dragging him into the chaotic excess of late 90s touring and expecting him not only to fill the shoes of one of the most exciting guitarists of his generation, but also to write some banging new tunes while he was at it, should have all gone terribly wrong. But amazingly, and unfeasibly, it all went terribly right instead.
Coming Up was nothing if not a wilful 180-degree swerve from its predecessor. Short, punchy and unashamedly pop, it should have felt shocking after the glorious, consumptive excess of Dog Man Star. But it didn’t, it just felt… right. This bright, bolshy (Brit)pop record coincided perfectly with the last peaks of indie chart domination: the cover was suitably garish, the videos had budget, the band looked sharp as hell and the album generated multiple hit singles. Darlings of the music press though they had long been, it was the first time they were fully embraced by the mainstream and, for once, it looked like a whole lot of fun to be in Suede.
Maybe, maybe it’s the times we’ve had.
There is an army of fans for whom this is the album, the one that they discovered the band through, or that soundtracked the high points of their life. Like them, I played it to death on release and it’s umbilically connected to some great memories. Despite this, it’s the Suede album I have struggled with most over the years. In some ways, it has aged the least gracefully, as it’s the only one that feels somewhat of its time rather than pleasingly out of step. Although it’s not overly vacuous in lyrical content, it does a good job of pretending it is, and the production mirrors this with cartoony, processed vocals and Crocodile Rock ‘la la las’. Bernard famously dismissed it as a ‘glam record’ (as though that were even an insult) and whilst the barb is somewhat wide of the mark, there is certainly a glitter-glam echo in the upbeat, seedy and terribly British glamour of SuedeWorld v2.0.
The tracklist is a lean ten tracks, crammed with singles and non-singles that sound like singles, not a slight achievement for a band with a reputation for being morose, grandiose and introspective. The album penetrated into the wider cultural landscape in a way that I don’t think anyone (except possibly Brett) ever really thought Suede would. There was something perversely thrilling about hearing Beautiful Ones in Tesco, or having your ‘normie’ friends tell you they ‘like that Saturday Night song.’ It was disconcerting, but exhilarating.
And yet, something about the back-to-back, almost relentlessly upbeat, time capsule 90sness of it has meant that I have returned to it less and less over the years. Meanwhile, others in the back catalogue, like Head Music, or the 2013 reunion album Bloodsports, have increased in my affection. The ebullience never feels forced, but the plasticity of it can become wearing when not in the right mood. In fairness, these are criticisms that can be applied to many great pop records and some of my favourite artists in general – but Coming Up is, in many ways, the cuckoo in the Suede nest and it’s hard not to compare it to its siblings rather than its peers.
I began writing this retrospective with the fear that I was going to end up trashing (pun intended) an album that I once loved dearly. But when I sat down to listen to it again, I realised that it was the first time in a long time that I actually had done so. I have heard so many of the songs, particularly the singles, so often over the years in other contexts that I had almost completely stopped returning to the original source. In the same way that we all start to forget how good a song like Dancing Queen is because we’ve been listening to Jeanette from round the corner howling it drunkenly every Friday night for the last 30 years, I had forgotten many of the reasons why I loved this record in the first place. Listening to it fresh again, and immersing myself in the absurdity of its shiny gutter glamour, turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I had feared. In fact, it was pretty damn great.
Shaking their bits to the hits.
A brief re-review through the ears of 2021.
If Introducing The Band was intended to unequivocally set out the stall for its parent album, then so does this anthem to the ‘lovers on the street’. It always struck me as a kind of mirror to Pulp’s Mis-Shapes, but where that song sought defiant retribution in the face of social awkwardness, the subjects of Trash are already winners at being losers: glamorised in their own minds – beautiful, strange, litter on the breeze.
Years of panto-style live performance moments (‘Brett: What are we?’ The audience: ‘TRAAAAA-AAAA-AAASH’) had kind of dulled this track for me, but revisiting it now, I find myself bopping along and grinning at its wonderful, arrogant, outsider bravado. It’s an excellent single, truth be told.
The band clearly love playing this live at any given opportunity and it was apparently the first song they rehearsed post-reformation. I’m not sure that amongst their stellar back catalogue it’s really that worthy, but it is a cracking little song – an elegant elegy to the elegant sirs of the silver screen. Eddie Izzard would often use it as walk-on music for his stand-up shows, so that’s a pretty strong endorsement on its own.
I’ve always had a lot of love for this song. It has a warm, woozy, mid-tempo quality and the blankly romantic lyrics serve as nice counterbalance to some of the more energetic moments in the record. Released late in the campaign, the video is surprisingly off-brand from the rest of the immaculately sharp Coming Up era, with a sleazy, Sunday morning bedsit mood and the previously-unseen sight of Brett Anderson’s 5 o’ clock shadow.
By The Sea
The ballads on this album are where Brett’s voice really shines. They all have a slightly delirious quality to them, as though they might tip over at any moment into chaos, and By The Sea is a great example of this. One of the songs on the album that ages the best.
A vaguely ‘Bond theme’ vibe, if Bond themes wore DMs and had a glue habit. What it loses for attempting to rhyme ‘killer’ with ‘pillow’, it more than makes up for in camp thuggery and sheer verve.
Beautiful Ones is a very similar track to Trash, both musically and lyrically, but perhaps controversially, I much prefer this song over its more famous counterpart. I find the melody more pleasingly hooky and the lyrics are really where Brett hits his stride. The role call of shaved heads, rave heads, druggies and drag acts absolutely nails the snappy, staccato style that much of the album employs: lyrics that were made to be Tippexed or tattooed or graffitied somewhere. The swoony, sadly rebellious bridge, “And if your baby’s going crazy, that’s how you made me,” is one of my favourite Suede moments – petulantly adolescent, perfectly expressed.
One of the only duffers on the album for me, I’m afraid. After the admittedly great opening ‘OI!’ it’s all downhill really. In a fantasy world, I’d chop this one out and stick single-worthy B-side Young Men on in its place.
Picnic By The Motorway
The lyrics are the highlight of this track, recounting a fairytale of petrol-fumed romance, backlit by a motorway car crash, so Suedelike it’s almost a caricature. Musically, it’s a waltzy half-ballad that doesn’t quite hit the spot that some of the greatest Suede downtempo tracks do, but ambles along nicely, with some enjoyable flourishes on the way.
The Chemistry Between Us
When the album came out, I wanted this to be the opulent exit piece, in the vein of Still Life, but felt it lost its nerve at the last moment. When I listen to it now, I no longer feel let down in the same way and, in fact, it’s the track that has grown most in my estimation over the years. Brett’s voice is just magnificent, like Kenneth Williams on E. He skates, slightly hysterically, over the melody like he’s already halfway into a drug-induced swoon.
Not to be confused with the Whigfield song of the same name, although that’s a cover I would pay good money to hear, Saturday Night seems to be the Suede song for people who don’t like Suede. Easily the most radio-palatable track on the album, it has a smooth sweetness that, while in no way jarring as part of the album, doesn’t challenge the listener in the way that most of their music does. It also served up an era-defining video, directed by the wonderful Pedro Romhanyi, which if I was asked to create a PowerPoint guide to Suede, would most definitely be included.
Maybe we’re just kids who’ve grown.
Brett Anderson said he wanted Suede to be the kind of band that someone would take a punch for and songs like Trash and Beautiful Ones foster that gang mentality – the feeling of being in with the outsiders. I generally shy away from being on the losing end of violence, but if I had to take a punch for a band, it would be Suede, and there are worse albums to defend to the cost of a black eye than this one. Even 25 years later. Coming Up is a sparkly guitar-pop rally cry that tempers its chart leanings with low-rent glamour and romantic nihilism. It is, as I believe one of the band once stated, a great record to do your hair to.
Interview with Jane Savidge
Jane Savidge, as co-founder and head of PR juggernaut Savage & Best, was a key figure in the inception of the Britpop movement representing, amongst others, Suede, Pulp, Elastica, Menswear, Marion, Echobelly and The Auteurs. She worked closely with Suede for many years and with great success, famously securing them eighteen front covers in the UK before their debut album was even released. Her first book, Lunch With The Wild Frontiers: A History Of Britpop And Excess in 13 and a 1/2 Chapters, was published by Jawbone in May 2019, and is a must-read for anyone who likes an entertainingly told tale of music scene madness.
I caught up with Jane to get her thoughts on Coming Up, Britpop and how it’s really always all about hair.
LTW: The Coming Up era seemed like a whole lot of fun to be part of. Was it as much of a riot from the inside as it looked from the outside?
JS: At the risk of sounding like someone who thinks the music business is not as much fun as it used to be – the music business is not as much as fun as it used to be. In the Coming Up era, at Savage & Best, every other week we used to go to Top of the Pops on a Wednesday (for the recording) and TFI Friday on, er, Fridays. Although on alternate weeks, I used to go out for lunch on a Monday and come back on a Thursday. Most nights we went to gigs, but if none our bands were playing or there was no one new we wanted to see, we’d stay in the office very late having ‘fun’, as it was better than going home..
LTW: Your press release for Dog Man Star proclaimed them to be “the best band in the entire world” and that “they are because they know they are.” This self-confidence and swagger seemed even more refined and on point during Coming Up. Was that by accident or design?
JS: Strangely enough, I felt the need to project even more confidence in the band’s wares post-Dog Man Star and pre-Coming Up. You have to remember that when Bernard Butler left towards the end of the DMS recordings, it had left a seismic hole in the band’s songwriting partnership and the recruitment of seventeen-year-old guitarist, Richard Oakes was seen by the media and public alike as something of a gimmick. The Melody Maker immediately put an old pic of Brett and Bernard on the cover next to the headline, “Is it all over for the best new band In Britain?” and when DMS was released, Select put Brett on the cover, captioning the pic “What the Butler saw,” next to a Brett quote, “It all went horribly, horribly wrong.”
So you see, the eighteen-month period leading up to Coming Up’s release was riddled with paranoia. I could tell Brett was terrified; he has since described his state of mind as being halfway between self-doubt and religious self-belief, but it was my job to project an air of unwavering confidence. So to answer your question, it was absolutely by design. Of course, the fact that the record was astonishingly good might have helped as the headlines, “Comeback of the Century” and “How Did They Do That?” and “The Return of Brett-Pop” bore out.
LTW: I’ve been following your wonderful Polaroids on Instagram. Do you have a favourite ‘behind the scenes’ image from this period?
JS: Well the Polaroids are incredible, aren’t they? There’s 375 of them from that era, and of all the faces that came through our offices in the 1990s, but there are a couple of pics I took of Suede in Hong Kong in 1997 on their Coming Up tour over there that I really like. One of Brett, Simon and Neil on the street, where they are fiddling with their hair and another one of Brett and Neil, used in my first book, Lunch With The Wild Frontiers, where Neil is rearranging his hair. I’d forgotten how much it was all to do with hair! And that Hong Kong trip was one of the funniest – you should know that despite dressing in black, Suede are very, very funny people – and most memorable trips of my life.
LTW: Photoshoots and the other assorted promo duties, are undoubtably nowhere near as glamorous or exciting as they look. Which member of the band got bored of it all most quickly? Or did they all revel in the attention?
JS: To begin with, photoshoots were a bit of a novelty for Suede, although I could tell Bernard hated them, cos he felt they had nothing to do with the music he had been writing. And then there were those that simply went wrong, like the first Face photoshoot, where a novice fashion photographer thought he had been commissioned to photograph four Ziggy Stardust lookalikes and brought a load of fur coats and platforms along for the band to try on. And then there were so many interviews and photo sessions that I think they all started to get a bit tired of it, with the result that several members used to turn up several hours late – once at midnight – and Brett turned up at one interview in a Chinese restaurant next to the NME in his dressing gown and ordered soup followed by soup followed by soup, which I think suggests that he was bored of the whole thing by then..
LTW: Coming Up feels like Suede’s one true Britpop record. Was there a conscious effort at the time to ride the zeitgeist?
JS: It’s possible that there’s a mixed message in your question, since even though Suede pretty much kicked off Britpop, they began to hate it cos of what it became – like a musical Carry On film. Dog Man Star was a conscious effort to distance themselves from Britpop as it was tortured, epic, extremely sexual and personal, and none of those apply to Britpop. Prior to the album’s release, Brett decided that the new record, i.e. Coming Up, would be ‘ten hits’ whilst producer Ed Buller said it would be like Michael Jackson’s Thriller and if that meant it sounded like a Britpop record, then that is because it became a beautiful victim of its own success. Or to put it another way, if DMS was their Diamond Dogs, then Coming Up was Suede’s Ziggy Stardust.
LTW: Britpop was, to my mind, a really positive, exciting time to be a music fan and to be living in the UK. However, in recent years I have seen it reframed more negatively as overly nationalistic, misogynistic and even classist. Do you see any truth in the claims with hindsight, or does it feel like the past is being redrawn unfairly?
JS: The clue is in the name – anything with the word Brit in is bound to be classed as nationalistic. But you have to remember that the Britpop movement was part of a wider celebration of British culture in general, which was itself a reaction to the influx of US culture exemplified by grunge music which had become ubiquitous. So what are you supposed to do? Stay in your room and soak up up American culture or write and sing about something you actually know something about – council houses, prams in hallways, the word “fortnight” – ha! Of course, latterly it became about football and going up the apples and pears, but that’s just what happens to movements, they peter out and become cartoon versions of themselves. Having said that, I guess you could class the music industry at that time as being misogynistic, but then again the world is misogynistic. And classist? Suede, Pulp, Oasis were working class. Blur were middle class.
LTW: Favourite and least favourite songs on the album?
JS: I suppose Lazy is my least favourite song, cos its like a nursery rhyme, although it’s very clever cos it’s such an earworm. Picnic By The Motorway, which sounds like Bowie has wandered into a recording studio and stumbled across an early incarnation of Pink Floyd, and The Chemistry Between Us are my fave songs. The latter’s lyrical couplet, “Oh, Class A, Class B/Is that the only chemistry/Between us,” is very, very clever and makes me swoon.
LTW: You have a book coming out (coming up) about it all soon – tell us more!
JS: I’ve written a book about Coming Up which is intended for publication late spring next year to coincide with Suede’s Coming Up European tour. It features interviews with Brett and the band, plus producer Ed Buller and all the other main protagonists in the drama. And it was very much a drama. The book also features amusing ‘behind the scenes’ stories involving the band – and, more often than not, me and the band – throughout that period. It is also a personal journey into the heart of an album that I love, if not unconditionally, then as a piece of work that has ultimately survived the ravages of time, and the brutish, nasty and not so short nature of the media scrutiny that had threatened to confine the band to the dustbin of history.
Get the 25th anniversary release of Coming Up here.
Follow Jane Savidge on Instagram.