Well slap my bony arse with an SM57 if the new Suede ‘Best Of’ hasn’t convinced me they’re the most under-rated band of the 90s. Don’t worry, I’m not about to trot out that tedious argument about how they “prefigured Britpop”, whatever that means.
But it’s true that they’ve been written out of the narrative. And as much as I love the fake Brett Anderson on Twitter, it does raise the question – why do we patronise Suede as cuddly cartoon dandies, instead of celebrating them as one of Britain’s greatest and most distinctive bands?
It’s difficult to imagine now just how weird and exhilarating their debut single ‘The Drowners’ must have sounded in 1992. Back then, there was plenty of thrilling guitar noise about, from Ride to Sonic Youth, but no-one could sing. Glamour was in short supply, unless the idea of Cud doing a Peel Session was your idea of wild rock n roll flamboyance.
People bang on about Brett’s androgynous image – but lyrically, sexual ambiguity was the least interesting thing about him. Like all the best songwriters, he carved out his own unique voice: a kind of druggy English gothic. In songs like ‘Stay Together’, fantastical elements (all those nuclear skies and poison rain) co-exist with the dismal real world: motorways, exhaust fumes, suburbia.
To be mildly pretentious for a second, there’s something Ballardian about the way he maps out an alternate, sci-fi London, at once both alien and familiar. But there’s romance in there too. Who else could take the word “bungalows” and invest it with passion and longing, as he did in ‘The Wild Ones’?
I’ve always thought the definitive Suede song was ‘The Next Life’, with its plaintive dream of escaping to the coast and flogging ice creams, “’til the company’s on its knees.”
That line echoes a whole tradition of English bathos, from Philip Larkin to Morrissey to Reggie Perrin. It’s our own version of Springsteen’s open-road – the promise of cutting loose and leaving town. Except instead of “pulling outta here to win”, for us Brits it’s trudging along a grotty seafront, and gazing gloomily at the waves.
Obviously it’s easy now to mock Brett’s overcooked imagery, and the attention-seeking personality that led him to make statements like, “America is a thing to be broken, like an insolent child.”
But what wouldn’t you give right now for a band half as ambitious, and brave, and ludicrous? ‘Dog Man Star’ is one of the great rock follies of the era. Who today would dare write a song as grandiloquent and demented as ‘Daddy’s Speeding’?
I’m talking about the first two albums here. After Bernard Butler left they started trying too hard to write hits, as opposed to languishing in their own bizarre fictive world. It made them (briefly) more commercially successful, but less interesting.
And then… well, let’s be honest: after ‘Coming Up’ they just went a bit crap. But, oh, for those two years between 1992 and 1994, they were astonishing, and we shouldn’t forget.