Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Suede

The classic Suede line-up circa 1993, left to right: Simon Gilbert (drums), Bernard Butler (guitars, piano), Brett Anderson (vocals), Mat Osman (bass guitar)

Welcome to this next entry in my series of profiles on some of my favorite bands.   Today's article is about Suede, a band that burst forth from the grimy underbelly of London in the early 1990s and became, for a short time, one of the finest British bands of the decade.  Propelled by the exquisite songwriting team of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler, along with Butler's equally impressive guitar playing and the great rhythm section of Mat Osman (bass guitar) and Simon Gilbert (drums), Suede explored a seedier, more haunting, and realistic urban vein of British rock than many of their peers in the 1990s BritPop scene. However, tensions within the band brought on by a variety of reasons led to the original line-up's implosion by the end of 1994. Regrouping with a new guitarist who also happened to be a 17 year old Suede superfan (Richard Oakes) and Simon Gilbert's cousin on keyboards (Neil Codling), Suede remade themselves and released a two more successful albums before quietly losing steam in the early 2000s and calling it a day. After solo albums and various side projects (including a surprise reunion between Anderson and Butler that led to the excellent, albeit short-lived band The Tears), Suede reformed in the late 2000s (with the Oakes/Codling configuration) and, with a great new album released two years ago, are again an active band producing great music.  How they got to this point, as well as the excellent music they made along the way, will be the subject of the following profile now that you've read my potted Suede history, so read on and be enlightened...

The genesis of Suede was at University College London in 1989 when Brett Anderson met Justine Frischmann and, along with Brett's childhood friend Mat Osman, decided to form a band.  After placing a now-famous ad for a guitarist in NME that read "Young guitar player needed by London based band. Smiths, Commotions, Bowie, Pet Shop Boys. No Musos. Some things are more important than ability. Call Brett," they received a response from a young guitarist named Bernard Butler.  He was only 19 but even at the stage was an incredibly talented musician who was obsessed with Johnny Marr's work with the Smiths. Initially playing small club gigs with a drum machine, they eventually recorded a short demo with none other than former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce occupying the drum stool. Joyce declined to stay full time, not wanting to burden the young band (who were influenced by his former band) by staying on as a member (which is quite a gracious thing to do, actually!).  Eventually they brought Simon Gilbert into the fold and, apart from Frischmann on rhythm guitar, the now classic Suede lineup of Brett Anderson (vocals), Bernard Butler (guitar, piano), Mat Osman (bass guitar), and Simon Gilbert (drums) was complete. This is where the great music (and later, the drama) really started...







By 1991, Brett and Justine had split as a couple but she was still in the band. Making matters worse, she then embarked upon what would eventually be a high-profile and extended relationship with Damon Albarn from Blur. Her tardiness or absences at Suede engagements, often because she was hanging around with Blur on video shoots, hurt and angered Brett enough that eventually she was sacked; according to all involved, it galvanized the band and crystallized their sound into what they would become famous for.  (Justine would eventually go on to fame fronting Elastica). While their brand of dark, sweeping, and despairingly romantic music was out of step with the Madchester/baggy and shoegazing sounds then in vogue in the early 1990s UK, they continued to gig while the Anderson/Butler songwriting partnership began to bear real fruit. They began to attract the notice of the UK music press and even ended up on the front cover of Melody Maker with the headline "Suede: The Best New Band in Britain." Eventually signing with indie label Nude Records in 1992, they released a trio of singles that were stunning in quality and sound for such a young band: "The Drowners," "Metal Mickey," and "Animal Nitrate." Furthermore in what would become a Suede tradition these songs had B-sides that were as good as (or sometimes, better than) their A-sides. Suede's B-sides would continue to be of such high quality that many of them outshone album tracks and would eventually lead to a double-album release later in the 1990s.

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1993 and quickly went to #1 in the UK charts. It was full of incredible songs in addition to the first three singles, such as "So Young," "She's Not Dead," and "Pantomime Horse." The palpable sense of despair, longing, and doomed romanticism permeated every one of the album's songs and was so unique amidst what contemporaries like Blur, Pulp, and Oasis were doing. Even given the success of the album in the UK, as well as its respectable performance in the US (where it remains to this day Suede's biggest selling album), things were not well within the band. Bernard Butler was unhappy with producer Ed Buller while he and Brett, whose songwriting partnership had been so productive and successful, were moving in totally opposite directions. While Brett and the rest of the band were enjoying their fame and increasing their indulgences in drugs and alcohol, Butler was moving into writing and arranging more complex music. A grueling tour of the USA in support of their first album with the Cranberries as their opening band turned out to be the beginning of the end for Suede Mk. I as the two bands eventually swapped positions on the bill since the Cranberries were more popular with American audiences than Suede (there's no accounting for taste, I suppose). While the debauchery of the road was described years later as "wicked" by Mat Osman, Butler was dealing with the death of his father back in England and his recent engagement; he had no interest in partying with the rest of Suede and even took to riding on the Cranberries' tour bus between shows. Worst of all, they were sued by an obscure American smooth-jazz singer who had trademarked the name "Suede" in the USA; from then on the band have been legally forced to use the name "The London Suede" in the USA which not only sounds terrible but, as Brett said years later, is NOT the true name of the band. A standalone UK #3 single, "Stay Together" was released between the first two albums and while much loved by Suede fans, the song and its video have been disowned by the band (unfairly so, in my view).  During their UK tour of early 1994 Bernard Butler played what would turn out to be his final show with Suede as work on their second album proved to be the final nail in the coffin for his tenure in the band.  Brett Anderson had recently moved into an old, isolated Victorian mansion in Highgate and escalated his intake of hallucinogens in pursuit of artistic enlightenment and inspiration. He was also going through trying personal times in his romantic relationship while Butler took some swipes at him in the press. The major factors leading to his split from the band were Butler's presentation of longer and more elaborate songs and more critically, his dislike of Ed Buller's production: he felt it was lacking and that he could do a better job, while Brett, Mat, and Simon sided with the producer. Bernard gave them an ultimatum: Buller or me, and shockingly they called his bluff.  The album, which would be released as Dog Man Star pate in 1994, was still some distance from completion and required overdubs from Butler which took place alone in a different studio, while Brett had to finish writing lyrics and replaced all of his guide vocals with proper tracks. One song, "The Power," didn't even have final guitar parts by Butler and was completed by a session guitarist who used Bernard's demo for reference. The end result was an album that, while a critical darling now considered Suede's masterpiece (an assessment I wholeheartedly agree with) which sold respectably and reached #3 in the UK album charts, was completely overshadowed in a year that was dominated  by Blur's Parklife and Oasis' Definitely Maybe. It's a shame because from beginning to end it's a stunning record, from the striking album cover to the gloomy, romantic, and despairing music contained within. Such exquisite songs like "We Are the Pigs," "The Wild Ones," "Daddy's Speeding," "New Generation," and "The Asphalt World" stand up alongside anything anyone else in 1990s rock was producing. The album as a whole presents a look at England and relationships that is seedier, darker, more violent, and rougher than what was going on around them in the dayglo BritPop scene, making it out of step enough from the rest of the BritPop/Cool Britannia movement that it was never mainstream despite being as good artistically as anything else.






So there Suede found themselves at the end of 1994 with an album that deserved far better than its commercial fate and without their guitarist who also happened to co-write all of their songs.  The latter issue was quickly resolved by bringing in Richard Oakes to fill the vacant spot. Oakes was a 17 year old Suede fan who had sent in a demo tape of himself playing Butler's parts note-for-note, much in the same way Butler had made tapes of himself doing the same to Johnny Marr's guitar parts from the Smiths a decade earlier.  He even looked the part, with long black hair and a red Gibson ES-355 just like Butler played. Indeed, Bernard was less than impressed, criticizing his old band in the press as having replaced him with a "copy."  The band toured Dog Man Star in 1995 but as it was an album recorded by an incarnation of the band that no longer existed, their hearts weren't really in it.  Regrouping for their next album, Anderson decided the band would make a pop album where every track could be a single, similar to his and Osman's beloved 80s pop records. Bringing in Simon Gilbert's cousin Neil Codling on keyboards, the resulting album, Coming Up, was released in 1996 and was a bold and bracing statement from Suede Mk. II. Eschewing the dark, 70s glam sartorial style of the original lineup, the new version of the band favored of an all-jet black look (hair, leather jackets, t-shirts, jeans, and Dr. Martens) as they underwent a visual as well as a musical makeover. The resulting album showed that musically the band were as good as ever with Oakes a more than capable replacement for Butler while Codling's keyboards added a new texture to their sound.  The album itself was a big success with Brett's prediction proven to be half correct; a whopping FIVE of the album's ten tracks were released as singles, all reaching the top 10.  However, the following album would prove to be more problematic...

Suede Mk. II (1995-present), Left to Right: Gilbert, Richard Oakes, Osman, Anderson, Neil Codling

In between 1996's Coming Up and its follow up, 1999's Head Music, Suede released a double album compilation of their B-sides called Sci-Fi Lullabies. What this album did was show the rest of the world what Suede fans had known for years: that the band's B-sides were of a quality equal to or surpassing many other band's album cuts.  Standouts like "My Insatiable One," "He's Dead," "To the Birds," "Together," and "Young Men" were just some of the riches to be found on this compilation.  Focusing on new music, however, all was not well in the Suede camp during the making of Head Music. Brett had sunk even further into his drug habit, now becoming addicted to crack cocaine. In order to cope with the increasingly chaotic sessions, Richard Oakes began to drink heavily while Neil Codling began suffering from the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).  Coupled with a more electronic and experimental sound, it all added up to a recipe for disaster and while the resulting music wasn't terrible, it was inconsistent and contained the single worst song Suede ever recorded (the Neil Codling-penned "Elephant Man").  The album did, however, contain some absolute stunners like "Electricity," "She's In Fashion," "He's Gone," and "Everything Will Flow." It went to #1 in the UK album charts but there was a sinking feeling that Suede were a spent force as Brett's lyrics veered into self-referential self-parody and the experimental approach to the music didn't come off as well as hoped. Codling's CFS caused him to leave the band shortly thereafter, further upsetting Brett as he struggled to and finally succeeded in conquering his drug addictions. Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, the band recruited former Strangelove member Alex Lee as Codling's replacement and recorded 2002's A New Morning.  Vilified by the band and fans alike, the album proved to be Suede's nadir and while there are some decent songs ("Lost in TV," "Beautiful Loser," and "Astrogirl") overall it was an unsatisfying confection: Suede as toothless, middle of the road pop band.  After playing some gigs where they performed each of their albums in full on successive nights and releasing a single compilation with two new tracks, the band quietly split up in 2003.  Brett would go on to reunite with Bernard to form the band The Tears, who recorded and released an excellent album entitled Here Come the Tears. They played several gigs around the UK and Europe and even supposedly recorded a follow-up album that sadly remains unreleased as they quietly disbanded a short time after.  In the immediate aftermath of his leaving Suede, Bernard had recorded two excellent albums with soul singer David McAlmont as well as two uneven but solid solo albums.  Following the demise of the Tears, Brett released some low key solo albums that were quite good but sadly got little exposure.  However, after years of rumors and clamoring from fans, Suede got back together (with Codling back in the fold) for a one-off show in 2010 for the Teenage Cancer Trust.  They continued to play some festival shows and handfuls of gigs around the UK and Europe before the reunion finally became official.  Their most recent album to date, 2013's Bloodsports, brought the band's sound up to date while still retaining all of their trademark touches...the result was a fantastic work that is among their best and stands up to any of their excellent 1990s work.  The same goes for the B-sides associated with the album's singles.  Suede are rumored to be working on a new album that will hopefully be released within the next year, showing that they are back for good as a creative force to be reckoned with; the music world and die-hard Suede fans are all the better for it.




Personally, Suede were a band I discovered relatively late in my musical development; it wasn't until I was around 20 or 21 years old when I finally bit the bullet and sought out some of their music to listen to. I'd been a Blur fan for several years by this time and had certainly heard of Suede but I'd never taken the time to listen to their stuff until I hit my early 20s. I can say without exaggeration that I was absolutely blown away from the very first listen. Beyond the great music and the mood and emotion they conveyed, the guitarist in me fell in love with Bernard Butler's playing and I added another huge influence to my pantheon of guitar heroes.  His sound, his guitar tone, his songwriting, and his approach to playing all loomed very large in my own playing and he's a major influence on me to this day.  Like another mutual hero of ours, Johnny Marr, Butler mastered and expounded upon the approach of playing chordal lead lines and rhythm parts at the same time. He even influenced some of the gear I now use: his red Gibson ES-355 (with a Bigsby vibrato arm) played through a Vox amp is a key component of his sound. While I've long been a lover of Vox amps, I hadn't ever used semi-hollow bodied electric guitars but after getting into Suede, in 2005 I bought an Epiphone ES-335 (a great guitar made by the Gibson company but for a quarter of the price!) and I installed a Bigsby vibrato on it.  Since then, it's been my go-to guitar for the majority of my playing, a really versatile workhorse that not only affected my playing by my songwriting as well. I've also worked very hard at incorporating Bernard's technique into my own playing...while I'm not nearly as good as he is, I'm getting there! Musically they've given me a wealth of material to enjoy and are one of the bands where absolutely every track they release is essential to have. I've got all of their B-sides and oftentimes will listen to just those on their own, they're that good. Because I don't have personal experience with most, if not all, of the aspects touched on in the darker reaches of Suede's music, I can't personally relate to much of it even though I continue to enjoy the hell out of it. There still are, however, many, many of their songs that mean a lot to me for reasons having to do with love, loss, uncertainty, confusion, and yes, even happiness. Just like the Smiths, Suede are often unfairly labeled as a "depressing/gloomy" band, but they have their fair share of songs about the various joys of life, love, and music.  Perhaps more than most bands from my own generation that I'm into, they've had the strongest impact on my own music-making and as such, deserve their lofty position in my hierarchy of favorite bands. 

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