Suede: Re-Introducing the Band (FILTER Exclusive)
By Nevin Martell on April 11, 2011
This week, FILTER kicks off a whole week dedicated to Suede, the London-based, chronicled cult favorites who will be making their first U.S. appearance in over a decade this Saturday at Coachella. Below, check out our week-long coverage of all things Suede and be sure to catch the band's reunion if you're out in Indio this weekend.
Suede burst onto the scene in the early ’90s when music was in the throes of a “me, me, me” blitzkrieg. Grunge was fueled by self-loathing, Madchester by self-destruction and shoegaze by self-indulgence. Suede didn’t want anything to do with any of that; they wanted extroverted extravagance. The London four-piece—singer Brett Anderson, guitarist Bernard Butler, bassist Mat Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert—aspired to grandiosity, like David Bowie, The Smiths, Scott Walker and Joy Division before them.
The group’s original songwriting core of Anderson and Butler wrote glitter-rubbed-in-grit, operatic glam-pop songs that flaunted sexuality, decadence and depravity. Anderson spun out a world filled with fantastical characters—flash boys and film stars, lonely girls and graffiti women, the living dead and pantomime horses—while Butler crafted guitar lines full of operatic highs, swooning lows and space age flourishes.
It all began when Mat Osman met a busking Brett Anderson at college in the ’80s. Osman’s first words to the future frontman were: “Do you want to be in a band?” They messed around in a series of half-serious projects—Paint It Black, Geoff and the Perfects—which existed mostly in their imaginations. A few years later the pair was living in London, where Anderson met Justine Frischmann at architecture school. They began dating, Frischmann started playing rhythm guitar and the first incarnation of Suede was born.
The fledgling trio realized that they would need a drummer and a lead guitarist if they were going to ever play live. When Bernard Butler walked in with his guitar in hand, Anderson knew that he had found his foil. They looked like they could have been lovers or drug buddies, though they would claim to be neither. Black-clad drummer Simon Gilbert joined right before Frischmann left Anderson for Blur’s Damon Albarn and exited the band. (She would later find fame in her own band, Elastica.) The remaining four were now Suede.
There were two years of grueling, thankless gigs in London until Suede finally started garnering the attention of the music press in 1992. After a few hyperbolically enthusiastic live reviews, the foursome ended up on the cover of Melody Maker and were named the best new band in Britain. They gained early fans in people like The Smiths’ Mike Joyce and a then-little-known Ricky Gervais, and their first single, “The Drowners,” was a confrontational, sexually charged monster that brazenly paraded Anderson’s homoerotic lyrics across a fizzy and fuzzy guitar line. They didn’t even have a record deal to their name, but that changed overnight.
[photo by Tom Sheehan]
Suede’s eponymous 1992 debut was an unqualified smash. Suede hit Number One in Britain, won the Mercury Prize and kick-started Britpop (though the band wanted nothing to do with that title). This success in overdrive spawned Bacchanalian habits and creative conflicts, imploding Anderson and Butler’s relationship in a frenzy of egotism and excess. By the time they ended up in the studio to record a follow-up, they were barely talking to each other except to exchange barbs. Butler recorded his parts separately and then walked out for good, leaving Anderson to finish the production with producer Ed Buller. Despite its anguished birth, Dog Man Star was an ambitious masterpiece that swung from echoing anthems (“New Generation”) to swooning balladry (“The Wild Ones”) and operatic finales (“Still Life”).
The band were more concerned with finding Butler’s replacement than appreciating the scope of their achievement. The scene was confounded when they picked 17-year-old Richard Oakes, a fresh-faced guitarist wunderkind with baleful eyes who had sent his demo to Suede’s fan club. For the next two years, most of the Suede talk in the British music mags was gossipy notices about the latest lineup, which had expanded further to accommodate keyboardist Neil Codling. But when the anthemic Bolan-bravado-meets-pure-pop of “Trash” crash-landed in 1996, that chatter stopped. Coming Up was the quintet’s most straightforwardly poppy record to date; the songs were sleek, sexy and to the point. Five hit singles put the bullshit backstabbing to rest. Suede were still a band that mattered, maybe more than ever.
Unfortunately, it marked the bright flash before the explosion. 1999’s Head Music marked a change in direction towards dancier, more electronic material. Producer Steve Osborne (Happy Mondays, Placebo) was called in to oversee the proceedings but inherited a shit show: Anderson was cultivating a full-time crack addiction and Oakes was drinking heavily. Somehow, they pulled the album together, but just barely. It hit Number One in the U.K., but it was the sound of a band falling apart.
Over the next two years, Anderson dealt with his addiction and Codling left to battle chronic fatigue syndrome (he was replaced by Strangelove’s Alex Lee). When a torn and tattered Suede reconvened to make what would be their final album, the stars failed to align. Over the course of four producers, seven studios and a million pounds, the band struggled to find a new course. A New Morning, a depressingly cheerful and somewhat simplistic record, failed to find the right point on the compass. When the band called it quits a year later, they went out with a whimper. The creative and personal excesses that had taken them to such atmospheric heights had left them stranded back at the low-tide marker. The story felt unjust and unfinished, but that was that.
Then, in the beginning of 2010, Suede announced that the second incarnation of the band—Anderson, Codling, Gilbert, Oakes and Osman—would be playing a one-off reunion show at London’s Royal Albert Hall to support the Teenage Cancer Trust. Sold-out instantly, lauded widely and bootlegged immediately, the show was a smashing success that recalled the band’s halcyon days.
2011 marks the full return of Suede. The band will make their first U.S. appearance in over a decade at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in April and the band’s Best Of collection will also see release on these shores. Suddenly, quite unexpectedly but very happily, the story of Suede has a new chapter. Here we go again.