Fine Enlightened Minds: The Genius of Suede’s Self-Titled Debut Album
To mark the album’s 20th anniversary, James Sweeney looks back at the album that hijacked the grunge party and saved British guitar music.
A clutter of skinny, mascara clad male teens direct screams of adulation toward the enigmatic androgyny standing before them as he delivers the final nihilistic chorus from the opening track of his band’s debut album: “We’re so young and so gone/ let’s chase the dragon, oh.”
The adored figure is, of course, Brett Anderson, Suede’s flamboyant frontman who swaggers, from start to finish, around the stage of Brixton Academy with all the self-certainty of a man in the presence of his own cult. The year, more surprisingly, was not 1993 but 2011. Suede reunited in 2010, reclaiming their legacy with a series of shows highlighted by this triumphant gig 14 months later which saw the band play their scintillating debut album in its entirety.
Like the band themselves, this album has maintained the same hardcore following it attracted two decades ago and, judging by the crowd at Brixton, it seems to have captured a new generation of fans who wear the tortured, galvanising glam of Suede on their sleeves.
Before Suede’s recent comeback, it was easy to forget how and why they commanded so much devotion in the mid-90s. At the beginning of 1992 British guitar music was on life support- The Smiths had long gone and Madchester’s baggy beats were in the midst of an almighty comedown.
The two biggest alternative bands in the UK were Seattle born Grunge titans Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and their British counterparts were hardly embracing Rule Britannia.
“Going back, reviewing bands at this point was a reliably depressing experience,” recalled former NME writer John Harris.
“Grunge hung over everything. So even if the band you were watching wasn’t a grunge band there was something lank haired and apologetic and withdrawn about what they did.”
While Grunge dominated the airwaves, there was a generation of disenchanted outsiders growing up without a voice for their generation. British music was desperate for someone with the seductive star quality of David Bowie, the provocative attitude of The Sex Pistols or the cutting social commentary possessed by Morrissey. Luckily, it got a band that had all three in abundance.
Introducing The Band
Formed in 1989, London-based Suede were crafting their musical manifesto in an era still defined by Thatcher’s politics- government views on issues such drug consumption and homosexuality were remarkably right wing. The only recent political stand in music had been through the escapist values promoted by Manchester bands who had discovered the drug Ecstasy, and the testosterone-fuelled angst being showcased by Grunge acts hardly spoke to the confused, bedroom resigned teenagers of ‘90s Britain.
With a generation so desperate for heroes, a band like Suede were always going to gain attention from the offset but the level of hype they received was unprecedented. Placed on the front cover of Melody Maker under the title ‘The Best New Band in Britain’ before they’d even released a record, Suede would have to release something of remarkable quality to avoid an inevitable backlash.
"Suede have had more hype than anybody since the Smiths, or possibly even the Sex Pistols,” wrote Independent writer William Leith on the eve of the album’s release.
“The reviews are florid, poetic, half-crazed; they express the almost lascivious delight of journalists hungry for something to pin their hopes on."
This anticipation was replaced by manic devotion from the moment Suede released The Drowners in May 1992, a song that truly encapsulates everything great about British guitar music. Bernard Butler’s pulsing opening guitar solo sounds as though Mick Ronson has been reincarnated as a snarling punk before it makes way for Anderson’s provocative lyrical attack. Anderson’s interests in androgyny and sexual ambiguity are brought to the surface with controversial lines such as: “he writes the line/wrote right down my spine/ it says “oh do you believe in love there?”
The Drowners was the perfect single for Suede’s first release. The combination of Anderson’s poignant lyrics and Butler’s majestic riffs lined the two up as natural successors to Morrissey and Marr. Also, Anderson’s image, combined with his sexually ambiguous lyrics made him a polarising figure and this made fans all the more passionate.
“It gave us that last gang in town mentality,” recalls long time Suede fan Matt Archer.
“As soon as they released The Drowners you were either hooked or you hated them. Most of my friendships were defined by Suede after this and it was the same for many others.”
This level of devotion would be strengthened throughout the next year as every controversial moment Anderson attached himself to would be followed the emergence of another great tune.
The release of Metal Mickey further cemented fans’ loyalty by continuing a trend that had started with The Drowners and included two outstanding, album-calibre B-sides on the single. He’s Dead, in particular, is an instantly memorable dark rocker that easily competes with its A-side. Metal Mickey itself is a snarling, menacing slice of glam-punk that gave Suede their first top 20 single.
Suede's debut single 'The Drowners'
The Big Time
By 1993, Suede’s momentum was unstoppable and they were granted an opportunity to cause their biggest stir yet. When NME campaigned for Suede to receive a nomination for the Brit Awards the band were granted an opportunity to perform at the ceremony.
The Brits were a far cry from the modernised, car crash events of the twenty first century and this was a highly conservative affair that tended to hand out copious amounts of awards to such anarchic mavericks as Mick Hucknall and Lisa Stansfield.
Suede opened the show with new single Animal Nitrate to a sea of gobsmacked squares in Tommy Hillfiger suits. Brett Anderson took his gender bending to a new level- prancing around the stage while wailing sinister sexual references over the top of Butler’s crashing guitars.
The performance gave Suede mainstream exposure while further establishing them as a band for society’s outsiders. Animal Nitrate made it to the top 10 and the album was finally released the following month- shooting straight to number one and becoming the fastest selling debut album of all time. Later that year, Suede would be declared the winner of the Mercury Music Prize capping off an unbelievably successful period for the band.
While all of the media hype and live performances give the album a great narrative, it’s the 12 songs on the record that make it stand the test of time. Anderson’s lyrical moods turned out to be far more diverse than the early trio of singles suggested, and Butler’s guitar onslaught is simply virtuosic. Certainly not an album drenched in subtlety, it often feels as though Anderson and Butler are trying to outdo one another over the backdrop of Matt Osman’s baselines and Simon Gilbert’s drumming.
Album opener So Young is a hard, hysterical ode to youth and hedonism that remains one of the finest songs the band ever produced. This is followed by Animal Nitrate, the album’s biggest hit which features another memorable guitar solo and Anderson’s most openly sinister sexual lyrics. At odds with the tempo of those two songs are the expansive, melancholic suicide tale She’s Not Dead and the epic, six minute guitar driven ballad Breakdown. Both of these songs benefit from the spacious yet hard sheen created by regular band producer Ed Buller. Moving is the one moment when Simon Gilbert genuinely outshines Anderson and Butler with his fast paced, urgent drumming which resembles a shotgun being fired repeatedly in the background of the song.
For all of the musical showmanship and thought provoking lyrics, it’s the album’s simplest song that provides the purest moment of beauty. The Next Life is a harrowing piano ballad that perfects the art of being euphoric and heart-breaking in equal measure with Anderson solemnly crooning the words “See you in your next life/When we’ll fly away for good”. This moment, more than any other gives reason as to why this album deserves to be celebrated in the same manner as The Queen is Dead or OK Computer. While the musical showmanship and sharp social observations are highly entertaining, it’s the authentic beauty lying beneath every track on the album that will give future generations of skinny, mascara clad males the same devotion as the original fan base.
What Happened Next
Suede’s success inadvertently inspired what would become the Britpop movement, with many bands providing their take on British life through their own personality and musical influences. This resulted in the group being eclipsed by a number of other groups in terms of popularity, but never in style.
Suede moved away from the sound of their debut and released the dark, string drenched masterpiece Dog Man Star in 1994. Following that album, Butler left the group due to a breakdown in relations with Anderson and a new incarnation of the band was born featuring new guitarist Richard Oakes and Keyboardist Neil Codling. The band’s flamboyant third album Coming Up was a huge commercial success and Suede seemed to have successfully reinvented themselves as a trashier sounding Indie-pop outfit. Unfortunately, drug addiction and creative decline marred the band’s later work and they split in 2003.
The bands epic reunion shows in recent years have done a lot to restore their original legacy and the release of their phenomenal 6th album Bloodsports earlier this year confirmed that Suede’s story had come full circle.
Interestingly, 20 years on from the release of Suede, British guitar music finds itself coming out of a period of extreme bareness and Stateside dominance. Like the beginning of 1993, many new British groups have garnered extreme hype on the back of early singles released late last year. Will any of these bands replicate Suede’s success and become ‘The Best New Band in Britain?’ As one Anderson lyric states “Let the New Generation Rise.”