As one of the most important albums of the nineties celebrates it’s thirtieth birthday, Our Sound Music writer, and author of “The Birth and Impact of Britpop: Mis-Shapes, Scenesters and Insatiable Ones”, Paul Laird, takes a look back at the album and it’s impact on him.
“Once upon a time nobody had ever heard of Suede and nobody even knew that they needed Suede. How could they? Then somebody deep inside the darkest reaches of the The Melody Maker offices decided that it would be a terrific idea to put a band nobody had heard of, and who hadn’t even released a single recorded note of music, onto the front cover. Approximately five minutes after that edition of the paper hit the shelves of W.H. Smith’s no self respecting box room rebel could imagine a life without Suede.
It was April 1992. It was the year that the world decided that Nirvana were the best thing in music - despite, you know, the lack of melodies or sex appeal. There was whining, there was greasy hair, there were clothes that hadn’t seen Daz in about six months but there was precious little glamour and even fewer songs loaded with the things that make your heartbeat a little faster - sex, outsiderdom, drugs, hope and hopelessness, perversion and petrol.
The debut single from Suede, ‘The Drowners’, arrived in May 1992 and it was a statement of intent. A calling card. A challenge to the musical establishment. A line in the sand. A rallying call to the grotesque and lonely. Four minutes and ten seconds that could change your life, especially if you didn’t actually have a life. As soon as I heard Brett Anderson sneer the opening line I knew that I needed nothing more. What more could you need? Rolling drums, glam rock guitar, a bass line that made you go all peculiar and then a demand for an illegal firearm. It was a bit like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ except for the fact that Cobain and the gang only gave you the guns bit.
The cover for ‘The Drowners’ caused a bit of a stir in my house as it was a naked lady! I wasn’t the sort of boy who had a secret stash of naughty magazines under my mattress so this was genuinely the first time that a set of lady bosoms had been delivered surreptitiously into my home. I convinced myself that because the naked woman was covered in paint that this was, in actual fact, art and not just boobs.
Not since a certain gang of Manchester miserabilists had released their debut single about a decade earlier, also housed in an erotic sleeve and also charged with a particular type of sex and sexuality, had music fans and the music industry been quite so excited. And as with that band, the hype proved to be entirely justified. Suede were, even at this early stage, the real deal.
In October 1992 I was lurking in the shadows of The Venue in Edinburgh, waiting for them to take to the stage. My girlfriend at that time had seen them in Glasgow the night before and hadn’t slept since. The atmosphere inside that tiny venue was charged with excitement, anticipation, love and desire. I can remember what I was wearing: an oversized pair of Levi’s, a Morrissey T-shirt underneath a green velour woman’s blouse (calm down ladies) and the obligatory indie kid scuffed and battered DM boots.
The gig was unforgettable and, as with all truly unforgettable moments, I remember next to nothing about what happened. It was manic. It was frantic. It was brilliant. At one point Brett Anderson found his lace blouse ripped from his body and, before I really thought about what I was doing, I was up on the stage, removing my own blouse and handing it to him. It lasted about as long as his own did.
When the debut album was released the following March I was visiting my girlfriend in the nowhere town where she lived. Two nobodies in nowhere - the Suede demographic. We headed to the only record shop in town that wasn’t a Woolworths and bought the most eagerly anticipated debut album since the last most eagerly awaited debut album. We then hurried back to her parents’ house and sat together on the sofa poring over the lyric sheet as one glam rock, indie pop, sleazy bed track, sex and drug referencing slab of glam ’n’ roll followed another. The singles were all present and correct but, to my ears then, and now, the stand out song was ‘Pantomime Horse’. It’s a heartbreaking, achingly sad and fabulously enigmatic pop song. It washes over you and leaves you with your head barely above water. Drowning. Gasping. Dying. Happy to be there.
My life, at this point, was a wreck and Suede were cutting me loose.” - (“The Birth And Impact Of Britpop - Mis-Shapes, Scenesters & Insatiable Ones”)
It is difficult now, so many years later, to explain how important Suede were to people like me. When I wrote this section of my book I was working to a deadline and with a word limit, I had 60,000 words to try and capture what the Hell Britpop was, why it mattered, and what everyone has gotten wrong about it in the years since. I could have written those 60,000 words on Suede alone…maybe even on “Suede” alone.
When indie music first arrived it offered an antidote to some of the more toxic elements of traditional rock ’n’ roll, it wasn’t cock ’n’ roll, it wasn’t shagging and fighting, it wasn’t interested in “anthems” or “bangers”, the songs were not designed to be rewritten as terrace stomps. The aesthetic was soft focus, androgynous, playful, sensual. The focus was on the literary, the witty, the acid drops of a Kenneth Williams anecdote. There was a delicate, righteous, anger at the heart of things, like “The L-Shaped Room” set to music. Ordinary boys, ordinary girls, happy doing nothing, but singing songs about it as if they were the most important songs ever sung.
Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins, Harriet Wheeler, Morrissey, Lawrence, Clare Grogan…write your own list. Fops, wits, half-wits, eccentrics, dandies, poets…not a single note, not a single word, in praise of the “white liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiines”.
But even at that point there were attempts by people who didn’t understand it, to hijack it. The Smiths had their fair share of lads in rugby shirts pushing, shoving, grabbing, shouting, and generally behaving as if they hadn’t heard a single word that Morrissey had ever said, or sung. Boys will be boys? God help us. Ugly people like to behave in ugly ways, they don’t like the idea of beauty, or at least the idea of beauty that they cannot control, or possess, or stamp on.
When baggy arrived the blissed out grooves of the groovy train, the psychedelic swoop and swirl of The Stone Roses, the manic, melodic, fury of The Inspiral Carpets, the drug fuelled W.H. Auden of capers of Ryder and co, soon revealed itself to be utterly irresistible to the same beer soaked geezers who, a decade later, would be pissing into pint pots and flinging them over the heads of mascara and leopard print Manics fans while braying “WE ONLY WANNA GET DRUNK”.
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
Suede arrived after baggy, and at the same moment as the world was beguiled by grunge. They offered something genuinely thrilling, something very much apart from the crowd. They were not part of the “scene”, they were their own “scene”. They existed only amongst themselves. Everything about them was, seemingly, precision engineered, to deflect the hordes of vulgarians who had trampled so many of the things that had inspired them. They were snooty, they were camp, they were sexual, they were draped in lace, Brett’s sneering, yelp, Ginsberg’s “Howl” of a voice did not lend itself to being repeated on the terraces. They were like an act of violence, a declaration of war.
Goodbye to the old ways, hello to the new ways.
The new kids on the block.
Stuart Maconie, writing in Q, had this to say of the album:
“Bowie and the Smiths are obvious points of reference. From each, Suede have taken an alien sexual charisma, a peculiarly claustrophobic Englishness and brazenly good tunes. Moreover, rarely has a record from the indie sector come with such a burning sense of its own significance.”
For a boy like me, brought up to believe that sex outside of marriage, masturbation, and impure thoughts were all sins to sit alongside murder, the “alien sexual charisma” was the thing that most captured me in those early moments of the Suede story. Everything about them made me feel…peculiar. Something stirred within me. “She sells heart, she sells meat”, “Oh what turns you on?”, “Your waist is my resting place”.
This was a world away from the faux “Carry On…” lyrical flourishes in The Smiths canon. No “mammary glands” or “conjugal beds” here. This was something more raw, more visceral, more demanding, and more alive. I knew about sex, I had enjoyed “encounters”, but I didn’t understand sex until Suede. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Say. No. More.
That “burning significance” that Maconie mentioned was to be made to look like the light of a firefly when the Gallagher brothers arrived, their bravado, arrogance, and “We are the greatest” schtick, all delivered with a form of two-fisted, hombre olé and warring caveman machismo. But where that “significance” revealed itself to be nothing more than the Spinal Tap trick of turning everything up to eleven, “Suede” revealed itself as being simply the best, by being…better than all the rest.
When Brett sings “She can - start to walk out, if she wants” in “So Young”, he reveals himself as the Byron of Britpop. For Byron “she” walked in beauty, but for Brett “she” is stalking the streets at night, chasing the dragon…a Hell that the gaudy day could not deny. Sister, he’s our poet. None of us who bought the album on the day of release, who ran home with it, and who dropped the needle on the record before the front door had properly closed, could manage to do so without shake, shake, shaking, and whipping our own backsides with an imagery mic lead.
Once the love and poison of “Animal Nitrate” had left me battered on the floor, “She’s Not Dead” reduced me to tears. This was the sort of grand, new, romantic gesture that we had all been waiting for, even though we didn’t know it. Suicide, fucking, death, lust, oh God it was all just so perfect for a soul like mine then. And a soul like mine now. It wasn’t the only time they made me feel so broken, “Pantomime Horse”, “Sleeping Pills”, “Breakdown" and “The Next Life” were all just as heartbreaking, and soul shaking.
I remember listening to a live recording of Suede in concert on the radio. They were playing in Newcastle. Maybe Jo Wiley was introducing it? Maybe you can find it on YouTube or summat. I dunno. But I remember “Moving”, a furious, Donner und Blitzen, sonic assault, that would soar and drop, my limbs flailing now, my heart heaving then. I loved it. Alongside “Metal Mickey”, “The Drowners” and the “Animals” it was the glam stomp fury of Suede that had first grabbed our attention.
The hip answer to “What is the best Suede album?” Is “Dog Man Star”. It may also be the “right” answer. But if I can be honest with you, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be, the album that means most to me, the album I return to most frequently, the album that, quite genuinely, changed me, is “Suede”. Just you listen to Brett wailing “Does your love only come, in a Volvo” and tell me it isn’t the most hilariously, emotionally bruising, and accurate summation of working class, unsatisfactory, sexual engagement in recorded history. I know, I’m over-egging the pudding. Why shouldn’t I?
As “Suede” reaches thirty, I make it to a half century. When I listen to it now, I am the same twenty year old, know nothing, half-baked, half-wit that I was then. Wrapped up in the arms of some almost lover or other on a sofa. We can’t go back. But if I could…I would, into the loving embrace of Brett and the boys, to be saved all over again.