In the '90s, many were bigger, but few were better than Suede at their best, led by the dynamic duo of "glamly androgynous Dickensian whippet" Brett Anderson and "Danger High Voltage" whirlwind guitarist Bernard Butler. Just don't call 'em Britpop.
En-ger-land, 1993. One nation shivering beneath the slate-grey Victorian shadow of Conservative rule for a fourteenth year and now led by the dullest, limpest Prime Minister in history, John Major. A time with no heroes, no Internet, no iPods, and where most UK homes only had four TV channels. O the poverty of dreams! This wasn't the Age of Aquarius, but the Age of beige blandness and Kevin "Nice Slacks" Costner. Bryan "Not Ryan" Adams had recently held Number 1 hostage for 16 bloody weeks -- several lifetimes in pop -- with his Robin Hood gushfest and Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard soundtrack was fulfilling its malevolent masterplan to brainwash an eventual 44 million zombified punters. If it wasn't Costner-courting criminality, it was toytown techno ("Ebeneezer Goode") or the waiting room slow death of Wet Wet Wet and Charles & Eddie.
For the youthful musical outlaws, the weeklies were still our Bible -- NME and Melody Maker. Every week they'd be devoured and raided in a search for a new saviour. Yes, there was a resistance -- the incendiary Manic Street Preachers, those merry pranksters dubbed the KLF, the melon twisting Primal Scream -- but most of the real big hitters were American. England's bedroom anarchists were fed up of waiting for the second Stone Roses album to save us. We'd waited long enough. We wanted a riot of our own. Enter stage left, Suede...
16th February 1993. The annual BRIT music awards at Alexandra Palace. The Suits gathered en masse to toast n' gloat and squeeze another platinum disc out of their latest batch of middle-aged MOR mannequins. Calling Ms. Annie Lennox, curtain call for your annual award! Simply Red? Here have two! Best British Newcomer? Why only that colossus of talent Tasmin Archer (who?). How simply enchanting! Pass the Moët please, Marcel. For us rock'n'roll orphans holed up in our wintry slums watching on telefizzle, there was only one reason to endure this morbid parade of smug, predictable horror. SUEDE! For some inexplicable reason, and in a momentary spike in taste, someone had booked Suede to perform its new single a week before release. Yes, the actual Suede, led by the dynamic duo of "glamly androgynous Dickensian whippet" Brett Anderson and "Danger! High Voltage!" whirlwind guitarist Bernard Butler.
Having been tipped off in '92 thanks to the infamous "Best New Band in Britain" Melody Maker cover, a generation of freaks, misfits, and curious indie pups were perched on the end of their chaises longues in anticipation. Ladies and gentlemen, it was a triumph, one of the great moments in pop TV. Watching a skinny man (we think) in a tiny blouse flagellate himself with a microphone whilst howling "What does it take to turn you ONNNN??" may not seem revolutionary now, but in 1993 it was everything. The way the band strode off. The confused dismay on the faces of the execs with their half-cut secretaries. Suede fought the law and the Suede won. The man in the street now knew who Suede were. Who we were. And he hated us with a passion. Stick 'em up, Muthafuckers, this is a hold-up and we've come for what's ours! A fortnight later "Animal Nitrate" -- an ode to sleazy highs n' lows -- would be Top 10 and the band would be teetering on the verge of its first album hitting Number 1 and becoming the fastest-selling début in years.
The self-titled Suede still holds up impressively well. It's perfectly split 50/50 between punky, glitterstomp tantrum pop like "Metal Mickey", "Animal Lover", and "The Drowners", and the mournful, kitchen sink melodramas of "Breakdown", "Sleeping Pills", and the flickering, ghostly "The Next Life". Anderson's lyrics were simply unlike anything else at the time. They were inspired undoubtedly by Morrissey, but with such feverish empathy and odd, vivid detail -- "Angel, give me your sleeping pills / You don't need them / Give me the time they kill." The touching aftermath of a suicide on "She's Not Dead" is as powerful and tragically haunting as Carver, whilst "The Drowners" is as irreverent and sharply suggestive as prime Orton. Ten passionate, bleak, sometimes ridiculous tales of souls who were lost, loveless, disenfranchised, moonage daydreamers, the simply f*cked up, all together and alone dreaming of escape. Suicidal housewives, junkies, wayward teenagers, circus freaks, Suede gave them a voice. They made the gutter a better place to lie whilst you waited for the stars to fall into reach. They offered something more like unification than grungy disintegration. If you had snake hips, a floppy fringe, a wardrobe of black, and could translate Camus into a pout, you were in.
The sense of solidarity with their audience was built from day one, and those early Suede gigs were organised riots. The most violent, intense, passionate concerts I'd ever witnessed. Butler wrestled with his guitar like a Matador teasing a bull, whilst Anderson would offer himself as sacrifice to the rabid crowd who gladly tore the shirt from his back like starved piranhas. Just like the grand finale of Susskind's Perfume -- two thousand claws sprung to devour the one. Like Pied Piper Paupers, Suede marched into town and a thousand freaks would appear from under the floorboards and tear down the night. As strong as Suede sounds today though, and like the Smiths' début, it can never quite truly reflect the white hot fire that surrounded the band in its infancy. It's also bizarre how fiery fluff like "Moving" made the cut ahead of the incandescent flipsides "To the Birds" and "My Insatiable One". In retrospect, such insanity only adds to the charm, and besides, Suede fans had long discovered the b-sides were where the loot was hidden anyway.
"The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long," warned Blade Runner's chief replicant Roy Batty shortly before crushing Daddy's skull with his barehands. And so it remains. In Summer 1994, 95 percent of the way through recording the group's second record Dog Man Star, the key musical force behind Suede left the band. Maybe Butler sensed the light that day was at its very brightest. It's hard to argue against it, DMS is one of the most imaginative guitar records of the decade, and far and away Suede's greatest achievement. Butler's playing is unpredictable, threatening, hypnotising, whilst Anderson's lyrics are given new depth and pathos, by turns harrowing, heroic then heartbreaking. It's the debut's budget bedsit ballads blown onto glorious widescreen; epic in scope and full of intense, wildly operatic grandeur, and inspired experimentation.
Even following a début riddled with suicide, abusive relationships, and drugs, DMS is one step beyond. This was no cash-in on their new found success. The Orwell-inspired lead single "We Are the Pigs" pretty much killed their chart potential overnight. Add to this the brooding n' trippy ghost of James Dean's Little Bastard roaring through "Daddy's Speeding", or the spiraling nine-minute Greek tragedy "The Asphalt World", and this was a record never destined for Saturday afternoon in Woolworths. Contrary buggers they were, in the darkness lay bright fireworks of beauty, serenity and romance like "The Wild Ones", which Sinatra could've sung at the Sands: "As I open the blinds in my mind / I'm believing that you could stay." Elsewhere, the ludicrously ambitious but awe-inspiring, tear-soaked, string-laden finale "Still Life" was the equivalent of Sid gunning down the toffs at the end of "My Way". Don't just bring down the curtain, bring down the whole fucking theatre. After this, whatever happened next seemed almost irrelevant...