What does it take to turn you on?

by Steve

Suede - cover of Animal Nitrate single16 February 1993. I’m just a few weeks away from becoming a teenager, but musically I’ve made my first, tentative steps in that direction. In the autumn of 1992 a school friend lent me a beat-up cassette of Nevermind. Christmas Eve I buy my first copy of Melody Maker. I continue to buy it in the New Year, discovering all these new bands, but not actually hearing many. One band is Suede. Their first two singles are number one and number four in the Melody Maker albums of the year for 1992. I’m already a little wary of any hype, so decide I probably won’t like them. Yet, this February night I tune in to the yearly British industry awards, the Brit Awards. Suede are playing. I’ll finally hear what all the fuss is about.

As the decade progressed, the Brit Awards would get ‘cooler’, would acknowledge and reward newer artists. But in 1993, the awards were very much part of the music Establishment, showcasing and rewarding the old hands. It was a corporate event. It was also a bit of a joke. Yet, somehow, Suede got a last-minute invitation to play. While they were no nearer a nomination, they had a platform on national television.

From the first bars of Animal Nitrate, I was blown away. There was a power, a violence and a danger to the music. It was noisy. It wasn’t slick and overproduced. Yet, it was incredibly catchy. This was what pop music could be like. And what a frontman. Brett Anderson was unashamedly a performer, and a provocative and sexy one at that, wearing a torn-open blouse and wiggling his arse against his microphone. This was quite a lot for a twelve-year old to take in, but in many ways this was my Elvis/Beatles/Bowie/Sex Pistols moment. It sounded and it looked dangerous and unpredictable. Music suddenly mattered. Music, this music, was suddenly mine.

They left the stage to the sound of feedback and a silenced, bemused audience of suits. The suits clearly didn’t get it. I was hooked.

22 February 1993. For a week I had just the memory of the song to keep me going. I didn’t catch it on the radio. I just wanted to hear it again, reacquaint myself, and feel the rush of the chorus again. It was the kind of anticipation we just don’t get anymore. So, on this day, I rushed out and bought the single. I pored over the detail on the sleeve. I held the record up and read the message scrawled into the vinyl. I played it to death. And once I’d played it to death, I turned the record over and played the B-side over and over. The Big Time, a beautiful, grown-up song, evocative of something I didn’t quite get yet.

29 March 1993. I need to go to the doctors, not for anything serious as far as I remember. On the way home I convince my mum to stop at the local record shop, and with my collected monies, I buy the debut album, Suede, on cassette. Within six weeks they have become my band. I read every interview. I record every TV appearance. Their posters cover the walls of my bedroom. I read from the lyric sheet and slowly decipher it.

The greatest artists and bands are those that really mean something to their fanbase. Suede very much took up the baton from The Smiths, and not only in the dynamic of the charismatic, sexually mysterious singer and prodigal genius guitarist (and under-rated rhythm section for that matter). Suede’s fans genuinely cared about the band. You could define yourself by them.

Suede on the cover of Melody Maker25 April 1992. Cover of Melody Maker: “The Best New Band in Britain”. It’s a bit of a cliché now. Everyone is always on the lookout for the next big thing. The internet makes it much easier for bands to grow in popularity before they release a single. But in 1992, there was something quite extraordinary in a band making the front cover of a national music paper before they had even released a single. Yet, there were Suede. The music scene was still very much in thrall to grunge, to shoegazing, to the backend of ‘baggy’. Suede were very much a departure from all this. They were a very English-sounding band. They were performers. They had personality. They had a romance, a poise and a flair that you would not expect from the British ‘indie’ scene.

April 1993. Cover of Select: “Yanks Go Home! Suede, St Etienne, Denim, Pulp, The Auteurs and the Battle for Britain”. Britpop is born, with Suede at the vanguard. Britpop, as a genre, would soon become a stunted, lowest-common denominator form of music. But here, the concept held promise and hope. These bands were intelligent, unafraid of experimentalism and acknowledged the broad scope of British society. It felt like they were reclaiming the Union Flag from the racists and the bigots. They were creating music about the modern British experience.

But perhaps most importSuede on the cover of Select Magazine, April 1993antly, all of these initial bands were outsiders. And the best pop music is made by outsiders, from Bowie to Rotten, Lennon to Cobain. They look upon the world with a critical eye. They rail against the status quo. They make us, the perennial teenage outsiders, feel less alone. The Britpop that followed, of Blur and Oasis, was made up of insiders, of bullies, of braggarts and of the musically and lyrically conservative. It was a massive waste and a massive shame. Luckily, the likes of Suede and Pulp rose above it, to create something far more imaginative, worthwhile and long-lasting than the Country House versus Roll With It wars.

Perhaps it was for the best. It is and was far too reductive to view Suede as part of a scene, particularly such a parochial one, and the same goes for those other bands that made that cover of Select.

30 May 2011. The start of the Suede reissue programme, with an album a week. The whole reissue culture is a strange one. It obviously makes financial sense. But why do we buy reissues? Is it to satisfy, or induce, a sense of nostalgia? Is it out of a sense of completism? Or is it to understand an album within a broader context of rarities, demos and the like? It is probably a combination of all the above, but it is a risky business returning to music that you loved so much, which played such a formative role in your life. You can’t go home again and all that. Still, I risked it, I bought that first album.

Cover of Suede's debut albumI won’t deny that playing Suede brings on waves of nostalgia. It brings back memories of listening to the album and beyond that it brings back more general memories, of school, of reading the inky music papers on the bus, of flicking through record racks trying to find bargains, of just discovering and loving music.

But it also stands up as a great, cohesive and mature album. While their second album gets its fair share of praise (and maybe one day a blog post of its own!), this debut may well have been Suede’s definitive statement.

There is the giddy, abrasive pop of the first three singles, The Drowners, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate. There is growing maturity in So Young. There are some fantastic ballads in Sleeping Pills, She’s Not Dead, Breakdown, all showcasing the virtuoso guitar-playing of Bernard Butler, so fluid, and responsive to the needs of the song. Even the more throwaway Moving and Animal Lover help with the pace and movement of the album as a whole.

Anderson is also shown as a great lyricist. The imagery of “From our home, high in the city, where the skyline stains the snow” still gets me every time, as does “Too Siamese to catch the leaves from those trees”. While he could be very direct (“What does it take to turn you on?”), he could also be incredibly evocative and poetic, finding beauty in the everyday, in the downtrodden, in the outsider. What other top 10 band were singing about outsiders, from rent boys to depressed housewives?

It is also clear that Bernard Butler indeed was one of the greatest guitarists of his generation. Outstanding technically, playing virtually all lead, yet always in service and in sympathy with the song. Everything he plays is melodic and striking. The aforementioned under-rated rhythm section weren’t half-bad either. Mat Osman’s bass was ever melodic; shoring up the songs, while Simon Gilbert’s drumming is a revelation. He is a punk at heart, and so there is none of the horrible indie shuffling that permeated the early nineties. The singles are full of attack. The ballads are full of fills and little touches that drive them forward.

The broader context of the record is served well, and it completely appropriate – the extras are far more than just padding. There is that Brit Awards performance. There are the videos I tried to copy off The Chart Show on a Saturday morning. There are two live performances that show that Suede brought back showmanship and community to British rock music. There is no standing staring at their feet. Anderson readily engages with the audience, reaches out to them. It couldn’t be further from the insularity of the shoegazing bands that preceded them.

But perhaps most importantly, there are the B-sides. Much like The Smiths (again), Suede put some of their best songs on their B-sides. In the sleevenotes to the reissues, Brett Anderson admits as much, and even proposes alternative tracklistings for the albums, substituting the weaker album tracks for the superior B-sides.

Giving away such great songs with their singles was a real key element for me loving Suede. It showed them as immensely generous to their fans, in not just accompanying their singles with cast-offs and misfires. There was also an incredibly attractive confidence, near-arrogance to it. They believed in their songwriting so much that they wouldn’t hold back their best material. They would make their singles as powerful and as long-lasting as their albums. Why worry about throwing away a classic, when you can write another one?

So, it is a real joy to hear the likes of My Insatiable One, To The Birds and He’s Dead again. These songs aren’t filler; they are proof of a band producing an incredible body of work from Day One.

The reissued album is a beautiful standalone document, but it also feels a little like a capsule of my youth. It is still a record and a band I love. I guess many of us have records that take us back to those formative years when we fell in love with music. It is a reminder of when music meant everything. And this reissue, with all its additions, does that memory and that record justice. For all that, I’ll treasure it.