A Retrospective on Suede (Part 1)

By on Friday, 22nd March 2013 at 11:00 am

On the 11th of May this year, anyone born on the day Suede released their debut single will be celebrating their 21st birthday. Widely credited as being one of the earliest and most influential practitioners of Britpop, in truth the Suede story is more complex and enigmatic than that, and the eve of adulthood of their debut release seems as good a time as any to revisit the Suede story. In this retrospective we reassess Suede’s catalogue, critically assessing how their music stands up to the cold light of hindsight, and how latest release ‘Bloodsports’ fits with the rest of their oeuvre.

In chronological debut single order: Blur (27/10/1990), Suede (23/05/1992), Pulp (27/11/1993), Oasis (23/04/1994). That quadruplet, give or take an Echobelly here or a Menswear there, made up the bands who brought to life the monster that was Britpop. Shaking the audience out of their shoegaze stupor, Britpop proved that guitars and songwriting could be sexy in a way that neither the loping stonerism of baggy, the chiming watercolour of shoegaze, nor the neanderthal bludgeoning of grunge could. Before long, it grew into a zeitgeist-defining cultural movement with its own fashions, haircuts, and even art, all soundtracked by a certain type of band.

Of course it wasn’t long before Britpop was disappearing into its own navel; the proliferation of Union Flag guitars and headline news rivalries turned what was once the saviour of British music into a tabloid-fuelled parody of itself. But there have rarely been finer places for a music fan to be than a small British record shop on a Saturday morning in summer 1994: an embarrassment of riches practically jumping off the shelves at you, each from a fresh, exciting British band.

Which Suede undoubtedly were. Although their first couple of efforts at the cusp of the decade were mediocre affairs – ‘Wonderful Sometimes’ is baggy nonsense, ‘Be My God’ a bit better, showing glimpses of Bernard Butler’s future guitarscapes – by 1992 the chrysalis had split open and Suede as we know them emerged with ‘The Drowners’. Which neatly summarised the band’s virtues, but, cleverly, was in no hurry to reveal them. It takes four bars before the floor toms finally give way to several layered, fizzy guitars; the band love the intro so much they repeat it again, finally unleashing Brett Anderson’s teasingly camp vocal well over half a minute in. The chorus is simultaneously dreamy and aggressive, and it all crescendos with a mountain of guitars and a singalong handclap as catchy as any pantomime finale. As debut singles go, there’s few finer examples.

Four months later, the more assertive ‘Metal Mickey’ was thrust upon an unsuspecting public, proving that the first single wasn’t just a fluke. Again, there’s loads of fuzzy guitars, all tonally different but with a unifying underlying backbone – my guess is that of a Gibson ES-335. The tempo is quicker, Anderson revealing for the first time lyrical themes he would return to again and again – that of night-lurkers out for mischief and sin, femme fatales more than eager to lead one astray, and curious, telling references to a shadowy father figure. The first chorus winds up around the minute mark, and more handclaps signal the whole sordid affair is over in three. This is perfect pop arrangement.

By the time ‘Animal Nitrate’ hit the shelves, it was becoming apparent that Suede were a superb singles band. And not just because they were good at picking the best songs from their albums. The B-sides were famously as good as anything they released on an album, and in some cases the equal of the A-sides. In any case, single purchasers were treated to great value throughout, and not just because of the two extra songs. The first four singles hang together as a collection of art objects, with thematically consistent artwork and typography, proudly proclaiming their allegiance to the sadly defunct Nude records. The four artifacts demonstrate an admirable sense of direction, of a band who aspired to express themselves in something more than just their music; that their physical output looks and feels intuitively “Suede” is testament to their attention to detail and ability to define their sense of self, attributes which would never leave them.

Whichever way one looks at it, ‘Suede’ by Suede is an astonishing album. Commercially, it debuted at the top of the UK charts as the fastest-selling debut album in history, won the Mercury music prize, and remains the band’s biggest selling album in America. Artistically, it’s the sound of two room-size egos finding succour, trusting the other to deliver the bombast they themselves aspire to, safe in the knowledge that neither could overstep – there are no boundaries. Both Anderson and Butler deliver their most concise work, Anderson particularly excelling in the depth of his lyrics, delivering a consistency which was to elude him at times in the future. Single lines such as “In the car he couldn’t afford they found his made up name on her ankle chain” from ‘She’s Not Dead’ perfectly express the mood he was attempting to capture – details of lives lived perpetually on the periphery; of fleeting pleasures snatched between grey skies and the dole queue. Whether or not Anderson truly lived the life he strived so hard to reproduce in song is debatable – 1980s Haywards Heath appears the very epitome of middle class suburban banality – although his subsequent move to London qualifies him at the very least as a first-hand observer. There’s proper poetry here too, in the skewed feminism of ‘Breakdown’:

Where still life bleeds the concrete white
Where the tame star limps an endless mile
Where the canine in the A-line stole your time
You can only go so far
For womankind

Although such eloquence is somewhat brought back down to Earth by the punchline “does he only come in a Volvo?”. Final single ‘So Young’ serves as a perfect summary of the previous three singles with its ambiguous drug references and tireless electric guitars; tantalisingly, its more considered arrangement featuring acoustic guitar, piano and organ hints at the wider sound which was to come.

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