The Observer, 1993 i think
by SIMON REYNOLDS
"When we started the group, we felt that people were starved for music which allowed them to really let themselves go," says Brett Anderson, Suede's 24 year old singer. "The last group like that was The Smiths."
Since their demise in 1987, The Smiths have not exactly been a hip reference point. Morrissey's English self-consciousness seemed precious and inhibited next to the wild, exploratory noise coming out of the US. For the last four years, the most interesting British groups have all been Americanophile. But Suede think qualities like self-consciousness, stylization and pretentiousness aren't the English disease but a blessing.
"I'm not patriotic," says the foppish Anderson. "But I think British people are among the most creative in the world, just because of the madness of the country. It's a giant web of perversity, repressed sexuality, and shyness."
It's this terrain of closetted, clandestine and peculiar sexuality that Suede explore, following in the footsteps of their idol Morrissey. "Twisted sexuality is the only kind that interests me," says Anderson. "Any kind of sex is extreme if you think about it, but it's become banalised. It's become boring to talk about sex
in the way pop does. We like to deal with it in a way that grates a bit more, that brings out the comedy and tragedy of sex. The songs are often imaginary situations based on real sentiments, or real situations taken to their logical extreme."
Suede's debut single "The Drowners", released this spring, featured homo-erotic lyrics like "we kiss in his room/to a popular tune". But Anderson refuses to be categorised, extolling instead a sort of pansexual passivity.
"I don't have a banner that I uphold for any sexual faction. I just don't feel like I'm a fully-fledged member of the male sex. But I think lots of men feel like that. Which doesn't necessarily mean you're gay or even bisexual, just that there's a lot more to sexuality than you're fed."
With its swoony vocals and lyrics like "stop taking me over", "The Drowners" seemed to be about a feverish desire to be ravished, engulfed, devoured.
"That's very much how I feel. I'm quite interested in lying back and taking it. And that's traditionally a female thing, isn't it? It's about emotional submission as well. Relinquishing control isn't considered very manly. 'The Drowners' is about being drunk through love, being so in love it's almost like you're smacked out
While the lyrics are provocative, musically Suede are relatively traditional. Their sound is old-fashioned guitar pop, with a distinct glam rock aura that came through in "The Drowners" (whose chorus reminded many of David Bowie's "Starman") and is even stronger on the brash new single "Metal Mickey". Anderson's fey, mannered vocals and camp London accent recall Bowie or Pete Perrett of The Only Ones. Seventies rock matters more to Suede than Sixties, which is why they have no time for the neo-psychedelia music of today's alternative scene, with its pursuit
of the "mindblowing" or "far out".
"We're not into that scientific approach to breaking boundaries of sound or making weird noise," says bassist Mat Osman. "We're really fans of pop, we want to reach the largest number of people, but still have this quality of otherness."
And so Suede pledge allegiance to the English art-rock tradition (from the Beatles through Bowie to Kate Bush and The Smiths) and disdain the current post-Nirvana hordes of shaggy-haired American grunge bands.
"I've never been into that James Dean idea of cool," says Anderson. "I'd always find a shopkeeper more interesting."
SUEDE IN THE USA, feature/thinkpiece/live review
Melody Maker, June 19th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
"Hysterical and historic" is how Brett Anderson describes Suede's gigs in Britain. So it must be a bit humbling, after all that fandemonium, to come to America and play modestly sized venues packed with punters who haven't whipped themselves into a delirum before you've even played a note.
The audience at Irving Plaza, the second date of Suede's debut US tour, is, I suspect, quite a bit older than UK Suede-heads:college rock twentysomethings, lots of industry and media types, a smattering of gay men. But the atmosphere is surprisingly charged. As the pre-gig music flits bizarrely between ancient disco (Village People's "YMCA"!) and classic Kate Bush, electricity flickers amongst
the crowd. Then the stage is bathed in lavender light, symphonic strings sweep and soar, and Butler & Anderson make their grand entrance: Bernard, bowing, and Brett, arms folded across his torso, all willowy "take me, I'm yours" passivity. Gasps and sighs ripple through the audience: Suede, it seems, already have an ardent mini-
Suede are all about hysteria. And hysteria is all about a revolt against sexual difference, against the cage of gender identity. The original 19th Century hysterics were young women whose bodies rebelled against the constraints of 'proper' femininity, which enforced passivity and sexual repression. For 'male hysterics' like Brett, it's a revolt against 'proper' masculinity, a revelling in
passivity and emotional uncontrol. But in another sense, Suede as a phenomenon is all about an audience enjoying the spectacle of its own hysteria. As Brett put it: "when we first started, we felt people were starved for something for which they could really let themselves go".
The first song tonight, "The Next Life", is drenched in 'male hysteria': as Butler pounds the piano, Brett spirals up into stratospherics midway between Kate Bush and Roy Orbison. After this grandiose pop-era, worthy of The Associates, Brett bows, skintight shirt clinging to his tits, and the audience orgasms. This is
exciting! Then the rest of the band appear and Suede git "Moving". Brett's preposterously over-stated Cockernee accent makes me think first of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady", then of early Adam Ant, when he did kinky songs like "Whip In My Valise". As the band bump and grind, Brett turns his back on the audience and shimmies his arse (what little there is of it), offering it up invitingly, practically begging to be initiated. The roisterous "Animal Nitrate" incites a
little forest (well, let's not exaggerate - a copse) of arms outstretched at the front.
By "My Insatiable One", I've decided Suede are everything I could have hoped for. But then, something starts to flag. With "Metal Mickey", Brett's thrashing his butt with the mike in a fey frenzy, but the song itself is glam-racket ordinaire (I always thought it was as disappointing a sequel to "The Drowners" as "What Difference Does It Make" was to "This Charming Man"). Brett's anti-elocution is
starting to grate a bit. And Butler, flouncing and mincing like a muthafucker, is beginning to seem more charismatic, more enigmatic a figure than the frontman.
Then an astute change of pace with "Pantomime Horse", Suede's "Reel Around The Fountain". Butler unfurls gilded cascades of guitar, and Brett turns his back on us, arches his spine like a cat, and again seems to offer himself, spelling out blatantly and bluntly the saucy suggestiveness of the line "ever tried it that way?". My wife points out that Brett's decollete shirt is the kind of garment
that looks tacky on a girl but good on an underfed boy. That's the essence of Suede: the kind of simpering, self-caressing coquettish-ness that is outmoded, reactionary and plain embarassing when done by a woman, is now, allegedly, subversive when taken up by a man.
After a bad B-side, Suede glide into the eternal majesty of "The Drowners", all swashbuckling rifferama and swoony ravishment. Then another cruddy B-side, signed off with an unexpectedly sarcastic comment from Brett: "that's for you lot in America, you like noisy rock, doncha?" A heckler hollers: "it's not loud rock, it's good rock we like". Butler lashes the insubordinate punter with abuse, while Brett glares daggers, tries to stare down the upstart, but comes off a bit of a schoolm'arm. Eventually he breaks off and hurls himself into "She's Not Dead", dedicated to the Anglophiles in the audience.
"So Young" is boisterous but quaint, vaguely redolent of Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni. By now - perhaps because of that jarring interlude of audience antagonism - the electricity of the first four songs of the set has dissipated. The shrill histrionics (I've never heard a singer whelp and whinny like that), the flamboyance of the arse-wiggling, is getting tired and tiresome. By "Sleeping Pills", the
hall has thinned out significantly. "To The Birds" sees Brett performing the 'touching the audience's hands' ritual, but perfunctorily. He evades and ignores the few stage invaders, who are whisked offstage with amazingly brisk efficiency. Anderson clearly wants to incite the same kind of tactile ardour as Morrissey, but doesn't seem to know what to do with it. It occurs to me that where
Mozzer's artifice seems the authentic expression of his freakish nature, Brett seems to have thought his way through to the idea of theatrical excess: the boots he's chosen are too big for him.
Then Suede are off, Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" booms over the system, and the audience seem both baffled at the lack of encores and yet not that bothered by the band's failure to return. Apart from the pre-converted Anglophile worshippers at the front (the seeds of Suede's Stateside cult-to-be) the audience seem underwhelmed, like they've seen just another pretty good English
band. Overall verdict: swayed but not SLAYED...
SUEDE IN AMERICA
Brett Anderson recently declared, haughtily, that "the US is a thing to be broken, like a disobedient child". But America is a big child, and conquering it is not going to be instant like the U.K. It's going to one helluva hard slog. At the moment, it's very early days for Suede. The album has slid to #37 in the CMJ (College Music Journal) Top 150 for college radio airplay, having peaked at #27. On
the CMJ retail chart, the debut is hovering around the #20 Spot. Another alternative radio chart, The Gavin Report, has Suede doing better, creeping up to #7 as I write. But MTV has so far limited play for the "Metal Mickey" video to its alternative slots, and has yet to shift it to daytime rotation.
So how far can Suede take it in the USA? Will they go all the way, or are they destined to be the latest instalment in a long-running series of bands whose divine status in Britain just doesn't translate to America: a grand tradition that includes The Pistols, The Jam, The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Stones Roses.
According to Craig Marks, music editor of Spin, "it might be a little tough for them when it comes to radio. College radio is a natural home for them. But where they really need to make it is the 'modern rock' stations, the kind that play The Cure, Pearl Jam, Midnight Oil, but don't play 'challenging' music, like P.J. Harvey. That's where they have to get over, and I'm not sure they will. Then
again, all it takes is MTV to get behind one video..."
Ann Powers, a critic and editor at Village Voice, is particularly interested in questions of rock and gender. She has an unusual perspective on Suede's US prospects. "I think they have a chance. See, I think they're really cute! If Sassy [the hip magazine for teenage girls] gets behind them, they could make it. Suede are perfect for 12 -15 year old girls. The gender ambiguity thing isn't a problem, 'cos girls love that boy-who-looks-like-a-girl thing.
What might hold them back in the teenybop market is that their music's a little too hard." Powers reckons that one sector of the US market that Suede may not conquer, is, ironically, the indie scene. "That English gender-bender thing puts American indie guys off. There's a layer of homophobia that's not very far below the surface
amongst that scene."
Rolling Stone's Anthony De Curtis is also doubtful about the sexual ambiguity thang. "Historically, that kind of English artist - Bowie, Morrissey - has a hard time translating to America. They find a niche, but they never become quite the thing they are in the UK. Morrissey has a sizeable cult, but that's all it is. A lot of it depends on Suede's staying power. They won't be an instant sensation. "But it's true that America's never really had that English obsession with androgyny. The only area you get it at all is heavy metal, with singers like Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, who has the make-up and the long blonde hair and slender physique. But it's couched in a framework of overt heterosexuality and homophobia. Like Sebastian Bach wore that T-Shirt that said 'AIDS kills fags dead'.
So long as it's framed within a strident heterosexuality, a bit of androgyny is acceptable. But take away that framework, let the gender definintions really blur, and Americans get nervous. The classic example is Marc Bolan, who was a god in the UK, but nothing much here - basically just known for "Bang A Gong (Get It On)" ".
The problem for Suede is that the pop/rock divide that they've effortlessly crossed in the UK - following in the footsteps of The Beatles, Bowie, Pistols, Smiths - is still cast-iron in the States. Image flash, a healthy dose of contrivance - all the things that are the very spice of pop life in the UK - are anathema to US rock fans,
who still believe in "authenticity". Which is, of course, precisely why Brett Anderson hates American rawk. "I can't think of any American bands I like except Iggy Pop and Patti Smith," he told me. "English bands have that feeling of pop about them, but pop is still a dirty word in America."
It's impossible to downplay the significance of the fact that the US doesn't have those highly-visible arenas - Top of the Pops, Radio One, the weekly music press - that English bands can invade so easily, thereby conquering the nation's consciousness. A vast sprawl of regionally disparate and racially-divided markets, the US has thousands of radio stations, scores of TV channels, and monthly
rather than weekly music magazines whose crits tend to be more cautious than their UK counterparts. Suede took eight months to go from MM cover to TOTP; Guns N' Roses took two years to break America.
And then there's the gender-bender thing. "America does like its stars quite straight, really," concedes Brett. "It's always frustrated me that the English bands that succeed in America are the least interesting ones. Like Jesus Jones getting to Number One, while Bowie was never really anything in the US. I've always thought the American public has quite a bland taste in music. America produces loads of good musicians and songwriters. But never anybody you'd want to get injured for, or defend with your life. Which is what music is all about when you're young: the bands I loved I always got injured for. In England, it's like small armies fighting each other."
Finally, there's the fact that it takes so fucking long to crack America. So many British bands get worn out trying to break America the hard way (Echo and The Bunnymen); even if they eventually win an audience, it usually takes them so long they've lost their original spark. "It's good that Morrissey is finally getting
successful in America," says Brett. "But it's a shame it didn't happen when he was in The Smiths and was actually good.... The timescale is so much longer in the US. To really make it there takes seven years, whereas in England, the music papers pick up on stuff immediately."
One factor in Suede's favour is the Anglophile tendency of the college rock audience, who are apt to lap up anything British. Unfortunately, the cool crowd, the people who define indie taste, tend to react against college rock. In America, it's hip to be Anglophobe. There's a kind of nativist sensibility here which treats
UK imports with extreme scepticism, and which is already dismissing Suede as just another English "haircut band" who can't rock their way out a damp paper bag. These hardheads never rated The Smiths and regard Bowie not as an heroic ancestor but as the culprit who ruined The Stooges' Raw Power with his poncified production.
Appearing on MTV's alternative show 120 Minutes a few days after the Irving Plaza gig, Brett seemed anxious to downplay the idea that there's anything stage-managed about Suede. "It wasn't strategised," he said of their ascent in the UK, "there's no Malcolm McLaren". He tried to downplay the subversiveness of the album cover: "there's nothing controversial about two women kissing is there?". Such nonchalance may come a cropper when they get out to the America heartland. Unfortunately, throughout the MTV appearance, Brett came over as snide, supercilious and full-of-himself, littering his talk with UK-specific references (how he used to be a 'plastic punk' with a 'Nagasaki Nightmare' badge) and making lofty pronouncements. Preciousness, pretentiousness, "I Am the Resurrection" style proclamations: these may be the very lifeblood of the British music press, but they cut no ice with American audiences, whether they're indie hipsters or rock'n'roll heartlanders. I cringed as I sensed a nation being rubbed up the wrong way.
But for all this, Suede may yet conquer the USA. As Anthony DeCurtis puts it, "there's an eagerness here for something to happen right now. There's a vacuum and a lot of people wouldn't object if Suede became the next big sensation." But it'll take a lot of soul-destroying graft, lots of touring: Americans often say they'll withold judgement until they've seen if a band can cut it live.
SUEDE IN THE UK
Perhaps the only thing that should matter is is that Suede really are good. I love the album, especially the swoon-song ballads. But Suede don't want to be judged as a purely musical proposition. They've always aimed to be a world-historical, Zeitgeist-defining band. And it's on this iconic level that you have to ask: when it comes to the myth-stakes, are Suede a mistake?
It worries me that nothing - in the production, the guitar sound, even in the lyrics - indicates that the "Best Album Of 1993" actually comes from '93. It could have been recorded any time between 1972 and the present: circa "Ziggy Stardust", or in 1979 (circa The Only Ones), or in 1986 circa The Queen Is Dead? But
perhaps this out-of-time quality does says something profound, and profoundly depressing, about Britain today. Suede have often remarked that the Nineties feel like the Seventies. Could it be that our society hasn't advanced significantly since 1975, that the Eighties were a mad, bad dream of "go for it!" fake optimism (the manic phase of manic-depression), and that we're now locked in a perpetual 1975? There's that same pre-punk feeling of stagnation and barely arrested collapse; the same decrepit class system, delapidated public services, all pervading shabbiness and sordidness. We're still scared of Europe, the IRA are still with us, and so are the hippies, struggling to carve out some space for themselves (except that crusties face even more desperate odds than the bedraggled rump of the counter culture). London's still burning with boredom.
All the characters in Suede songs are lost souls, looking for transcendence in drugs or sexual thrills. So if Suede reject the futuristic technology that lends a cosmetic gloss to Nineties life - samplers, Nintendo - it's because underneath the surface frippery, we're stuck in the Seventies. Britain has gone nowhere in 20 years.
So I wonder who is this audience that celebrates itself in Suede, and what does it actually have to celebrate? Rock'n'roll has always been the cult of adolescence as the highest state of being, a period in which you're alive to possibility, able to "live in the now" free of memory's reproach or anxiety about the future. At the
dawn of Brit-pop, The Beatles and The Stones were purely affirmative: 'we're young, we're the majority, this time is ours'. The Sex Pistols were a negation concealing a hope of rejuvenation: 'we're young, our time has been stolen, but we refuse the "no future" to which we've been condemned'. The Smiths were purely nostalgic: 'we are young, our time is long-gone, we're the minority".
And Suede? They say we're "So Young", but I wonder what that means anymore. Suede and their following - you lot - are a minority within the larger minority that is youth today, the bulk of whom live for Nintendo, or if they're into music at all, prefer computer games' speed-crazed equivalent (tekno). From The Beatles to The Pistols to The Smiths to Suede, the "we" has contracted, gotten smaller and more
"Pleasure is all about attaining a state of unconsciousness", opined Brett airily, reducing the 120 Minutes veejay to speechlessness. Another problem for any band in the Nineties is that rock is pretty long in the tooth, and critical knowledge has built up like barnacles. Knowingness has polluted the water table, irrevocably.
The Smiths, whom Brett describes as 'an ultimate point of something", were densely laden with iconography and reference points. In working from The Smiths, Suede are paying homage to a homage. Brett Anderson seems too boned-up, steeped in pop history. Marc Bolan said: "pop must be a spell". Has Brett broken the spell by spelling it all out too clearly, being too articulate a spokesman for ambisexuality and ambiguity? Doesn't he have too clearly defined a gender agenda?
Brett admits: "sometimes I worry I'm too explicit. It's possible people will get totally bored and there'll be no mystery left whatsoever".
It's doubtless futile and foolish to hope for 'innocence' from rock this late in the day, but to me, the only really driven artists seem to be those who appear to have never picked up a music paper in their life, like The Aphex Twin or Polly Harvey. P.J. Harvey is a good contrast with Suede. Brett and Polly are the two icons of 1993. Their bands are traditionalists who've rejected the innovations of
the late Eighties (the sampler, sequenced rhythms, the studio-magick of My Bloody Valentine et al). Both arose as iconic personalities in opposition to the facelessness of the shoegazers and techno. And both bend gender: Brett envies female "privileges" (passivity, self-preening, being penetrated), Polly usurps male privileges (the "neutrality" of the male rocker who doesn't have to think in terms of gender). But Harvey seems to have kept her mystique, unlike Anderson, who knows only too well what it takes to be a good interviewee. Above all, Suede are the latest in a long lineage of male "gender tourists", who revel in "femininity" (as Brett put it: "I'm interested in lying back and taking it.... relinquishing control - and that's traditionally a female thing, isn't it?"). They do it very
well, but it's deja vu. Suede are the last gasp of a glorious tradition; P.J. Harvey are the first, fierce breath of something new.
BOYS KEEP (ON) SWINGING
Of course, Suede's 'gender tourism' is also a colonisation of gay sexuality. Anderson is obsessed with gay sex, but in a very particular sense: he's interested not in playing predator (which is too close to heterosexist machismo), but being prey, play-thing, the bottom. Village Voice writer Barry Walters has noted how many Suede songs seem fixated on the idea of surrender, of 'taking it up the
butt', to put it crudely. Obviously, this swoony passivity speaks strongly to a lot of young Brit-boys who feel a vague sexual ambivalence inside themselves but would never quite describe themselves as gay or bisexual.
In Brett's case, this longing to be taken ("ovaah") seems more like a metaphor than a literal craving (Lord knows, it could easily enough be realised). All the bum-wiggling, the lyrics like "have you ever tried it that way" and "do you believe in love there?", make me think of a famous case of Freud's, a man named Schreber who
fantasised about being God's wife. Basically, he wanted to be sodomised by the Almighty. Taking it up the ass, for Anderson, seems to be a metaphor for some kind of overwhelming erotic/mystic experience, total surrender, an Apocalyptic Orgasm. Hence the lugubriousness of the "Pantomime Horse", who only feels whole when
playing the bottom role.
All of which is pretty piquant after the laddishness of grunge, but let's put it in its proper perspective. If the truth be known, what you could call the hysteric-isation of the male body is the norm in club culture. Gay eroticism has filtered, via house, techno etc, into the consciousness of working class boys. Subsonic bass goes right up your ass, literally; lost in the polymorphous swirl of rave music, you become androgynous. And the weird thing is that all this 'feminisation' of men (in Suede's audience, in rave culture) makes very little difference to the position of women in either subculture. A smidgeon of gay eroticism only adds to the male bonding. In Holland, a hardest-core techno band called Sperminator released an
anthem called "No Woman Allowed"; 90 percent of the skinny bodies who drape themselves over Morrissey onstage are male. "All Rock Is Homosexual", the Manic Street Preachers proclaimed on a T-Shirt: the subtext, whatever the intention, reads -'girls, keep out!'. In the end, is the fervour for Suede (like the Manics, a four man band, as trad as they come) just a last-ditch denial of the tumultuous
invasion of women into rock? Are they the last of the Old, rather than the first of the New?
Dog Man Star
New York Times, November 27, 1994
by Simon Reynolds
The London Suede: 'Dog Man Star' Nude/Columbia CK66769; CD and cassette.
A supergroup in Britain, Suede failed to sway America last year with its heady blend of raunch guitar and flamboyant androgyny. Its self-titled debut was too steeped in glam rock and mope rock connected with only the most devout Anglophiles. Rather than toning down its preciousness, the group soars to new heights of swoony hysteria on "Dog Man Star." (The band now calls itself London Suede.)
Right from the start, with the futuristic bombast of "Introducing the Band," the album heedlessly lunges for the epic. The vocalist Brett Anderson has shed his adolescent mannerisms for a quasi-operatic croon. On songs like the orchestral "Still Life," he approaches the sonorous majesty of the 50's balladeer Scott Walker.
But "Dog Man Star" is really a showcase for the guitarist Bernard Butler, who crams the record with cranked-up guitar overdubs and mid-70's production effects. Half pomp-rock folly, half baroque-and-roll grandeur, "Dog Man Star" deserves attention, if only for its absurd ambition.