20 years ago today, Suede released their third single, “Animal Nitrate”. A grimy paean to violent gay sex, it became the band’s first top ten hit, thanks to a chorus so big it could swallow continents. For the band’s growing army of rabid, hysterical fans, this breakthrough felt like an extraordinary and unlikely victory. In the first of a two part blog, Pop Lifer Neil – one of those hysterical fans, and probably the first person in Newcastle to own a copy of a Suede single – recalls how the band won his heart and wrecked his life. Singer Brett Anderson and bassist Mat Osman agreed to take a stroll down memory lane for this piece.
1. “Introducing the band”
“I don’t remember us telling people to move to Streatham,” says Mat Osman, looking puzzled and a little aghast.
I’ve been explaining to Mat and Brett Anderson the price I have paid for being a lifelong fan of their band, Suede. There’s the thousands spent going to see their shows, the abuse hurled my way in their early flamboyant phase, the pair of glasses lost dancing at their Royal Albert Hall reunion show and – worst of all – the six months I spent living in Streatham, one of South London’s grottier and noisier enclaves.
Brett Anderson’s face, on the other hand, is suddenly dawning with recognition. “Oh my God,” he starts to laugh. “Because of the lyrics in “The Chemistry Between Us?”” His dry chuckle becomes a throaty cackle, “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
Yes, in 1997 I finished university and was foolishly entrusted by two friends with the task of finding us all a flat in London, a city I knew almost nothing of. Obviously, I turned for guidance to the lyrics of Suede, my favourite band, and one of the most London-obsessed outfits in pop history. I remembered Brett dreamily singing “maybe we’re just Streatham trash and maybe not/ And maybe we’re just capital flash in a stupid love,” and how it had sounded seductively, romantically scuzzy. It turned out to be scuzzy, at least.
“Well,” Brett says, still laughing, “you should really have done a bit more research. But at least you got to see a bit of the world.”
In fact, Suede had inflicted more profound damage years before this sorry episode. They’d persuaded me back when I was little more than an impressionable child that life was a glamorous undertaking, that England was a land of sordid sex and soaring romance, and that pop music offered meaning and hope to human existence. At least the last point wasn’t a lie.
2. “Slow down, slow down – you’re taking me over”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind.
When I first encountered Suede, they hit me with a bang. This isn’t a metaphor, it’s literally true. When I saw the band on TV I fell painfully out of bed. Years later, I read a biography of the band and found the exact same anecdote told there. For a moment I felt indignantly like the writer had stolen my story, but then realised that actually this was one of pop’s peculiar magic tracks: that experiences which feel so intimate and unique, when you forge a special connection with a band you love, are actually shared by thousands. Just think of the many famous guitarists – from Graham Coxon to Noel Gallagher – who say that seeing Johnny Marr on Top Of The Pops was the moment their spine tingled and they realised, “that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
It was around noon on a Saturday morning in 1992, and I was in bed listlessly watching the Chart Show, the most brilliant pop programme of its day. Of course I was still in bed, I was 16 years old – not to mention a sports-shunning, socially disastrous, secretly gay, music-obsessed bookworm stranded in a former mining town in North East England. Where else but bed would I be?
One of the Chart Show’s many loveable gimmicks was that it featured a specialist chart like “dance” or “rock” alongside the main top ten. That star-crossed Saturday it was the turn of “indie.” At the time, indie was the worst of all the charts: a sad and saggy procession of the dull and the uninspired, from Kingmaker to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, the detritus floating around in the wake of the fading Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. But then at number 6 a song called “The Drowners” flickered onscreen and instead of skipping over, the show slowed it down and a big “PLAY” symbol appeared. My life was about to change forever.
I can still visualise all of this almost perfectly over 20 years later. I’ve forgotten people I worked with for years, and can only vaguely remember some of the flats where I lived, but I remember these few minutes to the last detail and will – I believe – until the day I die. I remember the sun streaking irritatingly through the thin curtains. The beige and food stained duvet cover wrapped around my waist. The fuzzy image of Suede on the portable TV perched on the shabby chest of drawers.
What followed was a low budget and lo-fi video, full of half embarrassing/ half charming flourishes involving weird androgyny and mannequins. But at its visual heart was the spinning, imploring figure of Brett Anderson, pale and oddly beautiful with his long snake fringe and lemon blouse, singing this incredible, visceral pop song that sounded like it had been soaked overnight in sex. Gay sex, at that.
I sat up, transfixed, dimly aware that this band was something I had been waiting for all my life, even if I hadn’t known it. My heart literally pounded as the chorus took flight, grabbing at the sky and my heart. I edged closer to the TV and then – so completely unaware had I become of my mundane physical surroundings – I fell out of bed with all the dramatic clumsiness that is the special preserve of the adolescent male.
No, Suede didn’t break my bones in my council home, but it was close.
“We’ve got a lot to answer for,” a relaxed Brett ponders, almost 21 years later, as I recount this story to him in a lounge in West London (the surrealism of this encounter, given how much this band have meant to me, shouldn’t need spelling out). “Streatham, lost glasses and bruised knees.”
Mat warms to the theme: “You don’t know what kind of an impact you’re having while it’s happening. I mean, you know you’re having an effect on people’s day to day lives, but it’s only later on that you meet people who got married to “The Wild Ones” or came out because they met Simon, or things like that. It’s then that you realise people might have been a different person without the band, but it’s something you can’t know at the time.”
3. “You may be going to heaven tonight.”
Even I, even in those first glorious thunderstruck moments, could never have guessed that the most durable love affair of my life had begun, one full of ups and downs, intense periods of obsession followed by disillusioned sulks (mostly mine), but always ending in a passionate reunion. Adored boyfriends have come and gone, treasured friendships have bloomed and withered, but Suede have always been there. Suede are my band, you see.
Let me clarify. When I talk about Suede as my band, I really mean the band they were for their first two albums and astounding early b-sides, when Brett Anderson’s flamboyant songwriting was matched by the feral and increasingly ambitious musical genius of guitarist Bernard Butler. Suede produced many amazing songs after Butler left, and even a couple of great albums (the epic, fervently romantic “Bloodsports” – released next month – is one of them) but they no longer seemed like the centre of the musical universe, the band capable of anything.
And, no, I am not saying I think Suede are the greatest band ever (oh, but part of me is, part of me is). Objectively, as someone who has written about music for 18 years, I know there are other bands who are technically more accomplished. Bands even more pivotal to the history of pop, more breathtakingly original. Bands who have a larger and more consistent body of work, a greater musical versatility. But no band has ever burnt in my heart as fiercely as Suede, so profoundly shaped the way I live my life, for better or for worse. Given that this kind of bond can only be forged in the white heat of adolescence, I don’t believe any band ever could.
They were made for me and I was made for them, you see. In those early days the themes which streaked and stained Brett Anderson’s lyrics were the glamorous siren call of London, desperate romance and the violent passion of queer sex. As a bullied gay teenager growing up in the virulently homo-hostile, economically depressed North East of England, these were the things that I wanted most in the world and which seemed furthest away. The fact Suede wrapped these desires up in such swaggering and soaring sounds, such beautiful songs, made them painfully desirable to me.
This blog is about Suede, of course, but it’s also about what it means to be a fan (or fanatic, if you prefer), to discover a band or an artist who you connect with on that desperate, passionate, transcending level. It’s an emotional connection which has been part of pop music’s DNA since long before the word Beatlemania was coined. Sometimes the phenomena becomes headline news, as in the early 70s outbreak of T Rextasy, but it’s always bubbling away, as true and real for a Belieber as a Smiths fan. If it ever dies, then pop surely dies with it.
It must be a force of real and mysterious power, after all, if it can force a teenage boy into motion. By 4pm that Saturday I had caught the bus from the grim, grey New Town I called home into the nearest metropolis (Newcastle) and returned bearing my prize: a copy of “The Drowners” CD single. I’d bought it in the one independent record shop in the city and was told I was the first to buy it, the first of my fiercely protected Suede claims to fame.
By 10pm the next night, desperately trying to avoid thinking about the return to the petty oppressions of school the next day, I must have listened to all three songs on that CD at least twenty times. My soul sang, my mind reeled and my body reacted instinctively, sending me strutting around my room to the thunderous primitivism of “The Drowners”, swaying to the sleazy sadness of “My Insatiable One” and swooning to the skyscraping romance of “To The Birds”. Each song seemed – and still seem, even after all these years – impossibly good. It was one of a handful of records that I still consider perfect, a breathtaking fanfare announcing an extraordinary new talent.
Objectively speaking, “The Drowners” CD single is 12 minutes and 29 seconds of glam-influenced rock music, marked by guttural guitars, bold melodies and sexually suggestive lyrics. But that’s just the facts, and facts don’t tell you the whole story. The truth is that it was the big bang of an entire and expanding universe, one I was to spend the next year living entirely inside, as it seemed to consume not just me but the whole of British music.
One week after that first encounter I was front row at the Newcastle Riverside, the diminutive and charmingly run down music venue where all up and coming bands who bothered to visit the North East were obliged to pay their dues back in the 90s. At this point, Suede’s hype far outstripped their actual success. Although “The Drowners” had only just clawed its way to number 49 in the charts, both of the music weeklies of the time – NME and Melody Maker – had put the band on their covers, backed by articles panting about them as “the best new band in Britain”. Not wanting to miss out on the next big thing, Radio 1’s Mark Goodier was recording a live performance from the Riverside and I had somehow managed to land tickets.
“Yeah, I remember that,” Brett says today. “We were that poncy new band from London and no-one up there had decided if they really liked us yet.”
He’s right, and it was probably because they knew they had a lot to live up to that they played so furiously that night. It wasn’t the best Suede concert I’ve ever seen. Their Newcastle Mayfair performance two nights after their debut album was released was more jubilant, their “Dog Man Star” show at the ICA in 2003 was more spellbinding and the Royal Albert Hall reunion of 2010 was more emotional. But if any part of my 16 year old soul was still resisting them, those defences were shattered that night, broken down by a stampeding seven song set.
It was, for one thing, the first time I began to grasp the band’s extraordinary emotional and sonic range. As well as a romp through “The Drowners” and a stomp through a future single called “Metal Mickey”, they debuted a sad and luscious creation called “Sleeping Pills”. Streaked with drugs, strings and suicide, it sowed the seeds for their future melodrama masterpiece “Dog Man Star”, which remains my favourite album to this day.
It was such a small show that I and the three or four others who lurked around afterwards were invited backstage for autographs. Despite the fact I felt like this band were already the most important friends I had in the world, the only people who understood me, I found myself frozen and speechless, awed by their capital glamour and hard won life experience (they were around 24 at the time). I managed to snatch autographs and an enduring memory of Bernard Butler guzzling chocolate cake, but little else. How could I know that it would be my last chance to meet the band for more than two decades? Things were about to get a little bit star crazy.
“I do remember it – vividly,” Brett Anderson says 21 years later, his eyes sparking as he recalls Suede’s zeitgeist-shaking, life-changing early success. “There are bits of my life that I’ve forgotten, because I was drunk or whatever, but that was such a defining, beautiful time that I forced myself to remember. It was an amazing thing to experience.”
Blog part 2 – covering the rise, fall, rise, fall and rise again of Suede – coming soon.