Asphalt, terylene, glitter and grit…
Asphalt, terylene, glitter and grit… [a]Suede[/a] were a band who knew their substances. Right from their first single in 1992, Brett Anderson and the boys had an eye and instinct for the sights, smells, feelings and tastes that made up the fabric of early Nineties society. The rush of a pill, the sting of a lovebite, the sadness of a down-at-heel seaside resort – the precision of [a]Suede[/a]’s descriptions and evocations combined to create a mental landscape that’s one of the most recognisable in pop, and from which they could not, eventually, escape.
As effete Southerners, [a]Suede[/a] automatically appealed to those put off by the machismo of Madchester. Their brash glam rock was a wake-up call after fuzzy, E’d up indie dance. Their pronounced Englishness set the Britpop pendulum swinging. But while the ultimate Britpop image proved to be Liam and Patsy in bed under a Union Jack duvet, [a]Suede[/a] were more likely to be found rutting on a grubby mattress with a person of indeterminate sexuality. [I]“I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience,”[/I] said Brett famously – not a fashionable view by the time [a]Oasis[/a] had stormed the ramparts.
This compilation of their 21 singles allows us to go back to [a]Suede[/a]ville, where sex is cruel, housewives are lonely, youths go marauding through the nuclear night and the only escapes are transitory and chemical. [a]Suede[/a]’s forte was in finding beauty in this bleak setting. Their best singles – ‘The Wild Ones’, ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Trash’, ‘Stay Together’ – celebrate the people who manage to gain self-esteem through desperate circumstances, who find love among grimness and identity through being alienated.
It was the tunes, however, that made these smalltown stories widescreen and turned squalor into art. Until their relationship self-immolated in mid-1994, Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler comprised one of [I]the[/I] great songwriting partnerships. Butler’s way with a somersaulting melody and Anderson’s sleazy yowl resulted in singles that lit up the charts like a magnesium flash. From the unspooling guitars of ‘The Drowners’ to the thudding ‘New Generation’, [a]Suede[/a] were deservedly objects of worship.
Butler’s departure threw them for a loop from which [a]Suede[/a] have never recovered, although they put up a good fight, recruiting teenage guitarist and songwriter Richard Oakes and, later, whip-thin keyboard player Neil Codling. They (necessarily?) abandoned the path they’d embarked on with the wildly ambitious ‘Dog Man Star’. The result was the deliberately tinny and throwaway third album ‘Coming Up’ previewed with a suitably anthemic comeback single, ‘Trash’. Yet a year after Britpop’s high summer [a]Suede[/a] found they were a sideshow rather than the main event. Now it was the Gallaghers who had, as [a]Suede[/a] once did, so many great songs sparking out of their fingertips that they could scatter them promiscuously on B-sides. (The split didn’t do Bernard Butler much good either. While he made two sublime singles with David McAlmont using songs [a]Suede[/a] had rejected, his solo career proved dead on arrival.)
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From now on, people would expect certain things of [a]Suede[/a] records. The lyrics would be about shopping precincts and tattooed mums and the music would be souped-up glam. 1999’s album ‘Head Music’ saw [a]Suede[/a] automatically servicing these needs, but like a tired old tart seemed dead behind the eyes – probably a consequence of the enormous quantities of drugs still being shovelled away by all concerned. ‘Electricity’ was a straight ‘Trash’ rewrite. [a]Suede[/a] were becoming self-pardodic, imprisoned in their imaginary concrete jungle.
Last year’s album ‘A New Morning’ attempted to introduce a new clean-living, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed [a]Suede[/a] but seemed both unconvincing and hopelessly out of step, given that sleaze and sexual ambiguity were back in vogue. This compilation adds a couple of new tracks including the reggae-tinged ‘Attitude’, which Brett recently performed on ‘Ri:se’ wearing a pair of distressing leather trousers. It seemed to underline the inescapable fact that [a]Suede[/a]’s heyday is long behind them – which this compilation attempts to conceal by running the tracks in non-chronological order. But that’s OK. Few bands scale the heights [a]Suede[/a] did.
For shock factor, influence and sheer brilliance right from the get-go, they’re up there with [a]Oasis[/a], [a]Nirvana[/a], [a]Strokes[/a] and [a]Stone Roses[/a] and [a]Smiths[/a]. Hear ‘Singles’ and taste what [a]Suede[/a] once brilliantly termed [I]“the love and poison of London”[/I] afresh.
Get ‘Singles’ at the NME Shop