By Dave Thompson
Of all the vinyl box sets released in 2013 —particularly those that appeared only in the U.K., and thus arrived in this country only with monstrous price tags attached — the most alluring for a certain kind of listener was Suede’s (or London Suede, as they were known over here).
The albums, spread over 11 discs, traced the band through its 1990s heyday, through a stellar compilation, and onto the band’s newest “comeback” disc, “Bloodsports.” The speed with which the 1,500-strong edition sold out testifies not only to the devotion of the band’s fanbase, but also to the curious reluctance of American listeners to get behind London Suede. Sad, as the band was among the brightest sparks in the entire Britpop movement of the mid-to-late 1990s, and the band’s reunion — first for live shows, and then a new album — was among the most eagerly anticipated events of 2013 — well, in the U.K., Europe and elsewhere. Here in the U.S., we were too busy doing … whatever.
Suede’s story is convoluted. Looking back at it from the early 2000s, singer Brett Anderson was unequivocal in his comprehension of all that the band achieved. Music in the 1990s wouldn’t have been the same without Suede.
In a decade that saw as much musical turbulence as any of those that preceded it, from the miasma-drenched meanderings of the Shoegazers, and the gut-ache angst of American Grunge, through the Britpop that Suede itself brought into being, and the brat pop of the teen bands that have devoured the market ever since, Suede survived and thrived, not only beyond the expectations of anyone who witnessed the band’s incandescent emergence in 1992, but also despite more upset and upheaval than most bands undergo in a lifetime.
“The history of this … band is ridiculous,” Anderson complained in 1994. “It’s like Machiavelli rewriting ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.’ It involves a cast of thousands. It should star Charlton Heston. It’s like a pram that’s just been pushed down a hill.”
Back then, however, the worst thing that had happened was the loss of Suede’s original guitarist, Bernard Butler. Since that time — well, Anderson himself got it right when he continued, in that same public outburst, “it’s … been fiery and tempestuous and really on the edge, and it never stops. I don’t think it ever will.”
It didn’t. Over the course of another full decade, until the band’s first hits collection became its final new release, Suede remained poised on the edge of a musical, cultural and iconographical precipice that was as much of the band members’ making as the music that soundtracked it. And it was all the more important because of that.
It’s true. Other bands have meant more to more people at any given time and place: Nirvana in the first aromatic months when everything, it seemed, smelled just like teen spirit; Blur and Oasis, during the peak of Britpop, before their conjoined notion of Cool Britannia was hijacked by a decidedly uncool politician; The Spice Girls, for the few split seconds when zig-a-zigging sounded like a reasonable alternative to independent thought.
But those moments were frail and fleeting and embedded, in any case, in the mania of a specific moment. Besides, it was Suede that made it possible in the first place, as they dragged British rock out of the trough in which it had lain for years, and ushered in the most invigorating age of pure pop pleasure in at least a decade.
Unique among peers and pretenders, Suede never nailed the band’s reputations to any given timeframe. Synchronicity might have dictated when the band’s flavors taunted every tongue, but common sense demanded that the band swiftly flick it away again, to move down its own sweet course to its own private ideal. The fact that this journey was so beset by tumult and torment only strengthened Suede’s desire to march on, refusing to bow to the crushing inevitabilities that, in their own way, only strengthened the support in which the band could rely on.
Other bands have their moments in the sun, and their fans swear deathless fealty to their cause. But how long does it really last? A couple of singles, a handful of tours and a month of ripping posters out of the teeny-bop press. Then the bedroom is redecorated, the cuttings are lining the litter box, and true love is trashed without a backward glance.
Suede, too, lost fans and friends over the years; no band that so purposefully changed its outward appearance on such a regular basis could sustain its support without a degree of degradation. But the fans Suede kept, it kept for life, whether they met in the first flush of “Metal Mickey” youth, or were drawn in by any of the records that followed — “So Young,” “Stay Together,” “We Are The Pigs,” “New Generation,” “Trash,” “Saturday Night,” “Electricity,” “Can’t Get Enough,” “Obsessions” …
Howard Wuelfing, Suede’s U.S. publicist throughout the 1990s, once reflected on what he believed was the “typical” Suede fan.
“I personally felt that the band’s strongest support came from individualist young adults, people in their late teens and early 20s, who were looking for role models that sat outside the mainstream. Sensitive. Poetic. Artistic. All the types that usually wind up being a minority population, but who then go on to be the next generation of artists. Indeed, I ran into scores of young musicians who all counted Suede as a major inspiration,” he said.
It’s an astute observation that appears is already bearing fruit every time you hear a new record that makes you think, “That reminds me of …” It’s also an observation that can be applied to only a handful of the other bands that rose up during the 1990s, the decade in which rock ’n’ roll itself became little more than a camp follower of all the icons that had stalked its landscape in the past.
For anybody with any appreciation whatsoever of the music’s half-century history, there is something morally repugnant about seeing the Sex Pistols prowling the same boards as The Strokes, or the singer with The Cult in the same band as The Doors. Repugnance, and a realization that, not only does modern man refuse to learn from the lessons of history, half the time he’s still trying to come to grips with that history in the first place.
Though certainly part of a brash and gallant tradition, Suede never sat comfortably among the idols of the past. Critics could — and did — compare Suede to the giants of ’70s Glam Rock, but that’s only because Suede’s own most primal reference points were forged within that revolution. Then again, David Bowie simply reiterated the Velvet Underground, and Velvet Underground merely echoed the beat poets of the ’50s — and so it goes on, until all such comparisons become meaningless.
A band’s inspirations, like its importance, can only be measured against the age in which it lives. That is why, long after the rest of the 1990s have been forgotten, the first three Suede albums will be held up as the spirits of the era, shamelessly self-contained, utterly self-assured and timelessly selfless. It is music of the ages, not of the moment, and neither fan expectation nor critical acclaim ever diverted the group from its purpose.
It was that stubbornness, that ferocious independence, that kept Suede aloft through trials and tribulations that could — no, certainly would — have dissolved a lesser combo. At the end of the day, that stubbornness was and is (via the reunion) the single defining force in Suede’s story. Not because the tale would have ended years ago without it, but because it makes the tale worth telling in the first place.
And while latecomers to the tale will have to pay an even heftier price than retail to snag a copy of the box set, relying on the largesse of previous purchasers alone, a degree of salvation is imminent. Sci-Fi Lullabies, the aforementioned compilation of no less than 27 B-sides, is about to be repressed as a separate entity, the original two CDs transferred to three slabs of 180-gram heavyweight vinyl. Demon Records reminds us that it’s another limited edition, though, so move quickly. You’ve already missed out once! GM
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” and “Goldmine Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition” both available via www.krausebooks.com.