Suede - Biography
BY Marcus Kagler
In 1993, the British music landscape was dominated on one hand by Eurobeat and techno imports like 2 Unlimited, Ace of Base, Snap! and Culture Beat. One the other hand, the homegrown scene methodically produced unremarkable, anemic dance-pop hits by the likes of Gabrielle, Take That and Mr. Blobby. It was a decidedly faceless and bland fallow period. Then, onto the stage sashayed Suede, who brought sleazy guitar anthems back to forefront of mainstream British music. Anchored by vocalist Brett Anderson’s androgynous mystique and guitarist Bernard Butler’s highly melodic, glam guitar parts, Suede restored a decidedly British take on guitar rock to the charts in the face of the grunge invasion, in the process opening the doors for the Britpop era that followed.
Although Suede seemed to appear overnight in an explosion of hype (appearing on the cover of a Melody Maker which touted them “Best New Band in Britain” before they’d even released a single) their story began a few years earlier. Singer Brett Anderson had originally played guitar for The Pigs, Geoff, and Suave and Elegant; all of which included future Suede bassist, Mat Osman. Suede were formed in 1989 with Osman, Anderson and his girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, on guitar. After placing an ad in NME for a “non-muso guitarist,” the decidedly-muso Bernard Butler joined the ranks.
Originally the band played with a drum machine and were managed by none other than Ricky Gervais. Their first recording was the simultaneously Smiths-and-Cure-influenced “Wonderful, Sometimes” which appeared on a compilation album titled, What the World is Waiting For (1989 Powerhaus 1). Next enlisting Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, they recorded the glam, "Be My God," backed by the Smiths-esque, "Art” (1991 RML). 2000 copies were printed, but due to a dispute with the label, the single was never commercially released. Shortly afterward, drummer Simon Gilbert joined their ranks. Around the same time too, Frischmann, (though still living with Anderson) began dating Blur’s Damon Albarn. After losing interest in Suede, she was fired. She ultimately gained more attention for her role in her next band, Elastica.
The first proper single, “The Drowners” was released in 1992. While quite guitar heavy, it was decidedly at odds with the then popular, guitar-based, shoegazer and grunge scenes. It relied on catchy, timeless melodicism instead of heavy riffs or dreamy guitar effects. Owing a considerable debt to Bowie and Ronson, it sounded like a lost artifact from the early ‘70s. The band’s considered image – glamorous, unsmiling and androgynous – set them apart from the scruffy, torn-jeans-and-long-underwear hordes making up the rock scene.
The single wasn’t immediately successful, however. The press began to take notice mainly after Morrissey took to performing its B-side, “My Insatiable One,” in his performances. Select then featured Brett Anderson on their cover with the caption, “Yanks go home!” In Anderson, the British music press found another witty, quotable figure whose sexuality they could speculate about endlessly. The group’s eponymous debut, Suede (1993 Nude/Columbia), became the fastest-selling debut album in Britain’s history and entered the charts at number one. Astoundingly, the quality of the music actually matched the feverish hype. While heavily indebted-to Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, the album had a personality and charm entirely its own. Arriving around the same time as likeminded releases like The Auteurs’ “Showgirl,” Denim’s Back in Denim and Morrissey’s Mick Ronson-produced Your Arsenal, the press declared a glam revival underway. In the fall, Suede won the Mercury Music Prize and embarked on a series of successful tours.
By the end of the year, however, Suede experienced several considerable setbacks. Still struggling to gain more than a sizeable cult following in America, the group was forced to cancel their first US tour when Butler’s father suddenly died. Later that year, Suede had to change their name on American releases to “The London Suede” due to a lawsuit brought on by an obscure American lounge singer going by the same name. Furthermore, personal and creative tensions between Butler and Anderson also began to escalate throughout Suede’s various 1993 tours and the sessions for their next single.
Suede’s next release, despite the tensions in the band, capitalized on their considerable powers. The epic “Stay Together” (1994 Nude) single was more baroque than anything they’d recorded before or since. The B-sides, however, were of amazing quality and it became Suede’s highest charting single. It also revealed that the band’s B-sides frequently matched or exceeded the quality of their already brilliant A-sides. This fact made is readily apparent on their 2-disc Sci-Fi Lullabies (Nude) B-side compilation that was released in 1997.
The recording of their full-length follow-up, Dog Man Star (Nude/Columbia), was fraught with bitter fights between the band’s two songwriters. Butler departed from the group before the album’s completion. Allegedly, it was Anderson who finished Butler’s guitar parts himself and Dog Man Star was released in the fall of 1994. The album was darkly cinematic, over-the-top and somewhat in the vein of mid-‘80s Echo & the Bunnymen. It was heaped with critical accolades but failed to sell as well as their debut.
Much of the British music press expressed a good deal of concern about the future of Suede without Butler, widely regarded as one of the best guitarists of his generation. Undaunted, Suede did the unlikely by hiring 17-year-old guitarist Richard Oakes (whom the press mockingly nicknamed “Little Dickie) and 22-year-old keyboardist Neil Codling to fill Butler’s considerable shoes. They then embarked on mammoth tour in support of the album.
After a one week stint in The Verve, Butler went on to form McAlmont & Butler with Dave McAlmont, a flamboyant soul singer with a three octave range. Together they released The Sound of McAlmont & Butler (1995 Hut) and Bring it Back (2002 EMI) which both did fairly well. In addition to considerable work as a producer and session musician, Butler also made two solo albums, People Move On (1998 Creation) and Friends and Lovers (2000 Creation).
It would be almost two years until Suede produced another album. In 1996, the Britpop scene was at the height of its popularity and Suede’s relevance became questioned in a musical landscape dominated by a slew of new bands. Coming Up (1996 Nude/Columbia) took a poppy, radio-friendly turn with Oakes and Codling passably imitating their massively talented predecessor. Lead single, “Trash” was enormously successful throughout Europe and the album produced four more UK Top 10 singles with “Beautiful Ones,” “Lazy,” “Filmstar” and the epic ballad “Saturday Night.” Reviews, however, were mixed and a sense that the band had creatively stalled wasn’t helped by Anderson’s cannibalization of past lyrics.
Seeking to broaden their sound, the band parted ways with longtime Ed Buller. They instead entered the studio in 1998 with New Order-and-Happy Mondays producer, Steve Osbourne, to record their fourth full length, Head Music (1998 Nude/Columbia). The electronic flourishes, the gleefully silly lyrics and the big, stupid stomp owed more to T.Rex and Gary Glitter’s candy-coated glam confections than their usual Bowie-influenced theatrics. This seemed to alienate the trenchcoat-wearing segment of their fans who had taken the band’s camp romanticism at face value. Others found it to be evidence of a band willing to grow and adapt. After its first single, none of the following three singles reached the top ten, ending their five year streak. To make matters worse, Nude records folded shortly after its release.
After some time off, Suede resurfaced with their fifth album, A New Morning (2002 Columbia). While more stylistically unified than its predecessor, most of the band’s audience had apparently moved on. So had some of the band, with Codling replaced by Strangelove’s Alex Lee. The title referred to the band’s cleaning up their drug habits and pursuing a sunnier, more organic direction (e.g. using harmonica). Critics were lukewarm and the album failed to sell. Brett Anderson’s new persona, crack-free, newly blonde and raspy-voiced, seemed to suggest that even this new outlook was a carefully considered pose. Mostly produced by Stephen Street, in many ways it was an accessible, throwback to Coming Up. However, it failed to reach that album’s audience and it was obviously time to retire Suede.
In December of 2003, the band played five shows, each devoted to one of their albums (including B-sides), at London’s Astoria Theatre. After the last one, Suede disbanded permanently. Anderson later made amends with former writing partner Bernard Butler and the two formed the band The Tears in 2005, but after one album, the group went on an indefinite hiatus. In 2007, Anderson released a surprisingly strong, self-titled solo album, Brett Anderson (Drowned In Sound) to positive reviews.