In Britain’s 1992-’93 alternapop playing field, still full of anonymous, asexual shoegazer outfits and imported American grunge, Suede moved quickly to fill a power vacuum with spark, spunk and androgyny in the grand tradition of Bowie and the Smiths. The London quartet generated such hot and heavy hype that Suede had been on the cover of Melody Maker before its first single (the luscious, muscled glam-pop of “The Drowners,” with its none-too-ambiguous lyrics, “We kiss in his room to a popular tune,” a bit of sexual image-mongering reflected in what appears to be a gay kiss on the first album’s cover) was even released.
Although some backlash was inevitable, Suede’s eponymous debut deserved the enthusiasm. Brash Baudelaire-in-waiting Brett Anderson sighed and wailed with startling presence and overt emotion — Bowie, Bolan, and (Kate) Bush all wrapped in one — but what gives the record its backbone is guitarist Bernard Butler’s painterly pyrotechnics, a controlled flashiness — alternating melancholic delicacy and tangy crunch — that connects the dots back between Johnny Marr and Mick Ronson. Raunchy rippers like “Animal Nitrate” and “Metal Mickey” balance the brooding balladry of “Pantomime Horse” and “Sleeping Pills.”
Like no band since the Smiths, Suede saves many of its most memorable tunes for release only as extra tracks on singles. The belated US EP, The Drowners, collects four of the best of these early B-sides, most notably the legendary, exquisitely obsessive “My Insatiable One,” soaring “To the Birds” and “He’s Dead,” shot through with Butler’s searing, almost Hendrixian leads.
Before getting around to a second album, the band (credited as the London Suede in America from this point on due to the usual conflicting claims crapola, this time with a female solo artist in Washington DC) crafted an excellent, elaborately arranged stand-alone single, “Stay Together.” The US release of the same name has five B-sides, including “Dolly” and the killer ballad “High Rising.”
With the attention of fickle punters having shifted to even newer upstarts like Oasis and Elastica (an early incarnation of Suede featured the latter’s Justine Frischmann, Anderson’s erstwhile paramour), dog man star had to get along commercially on its considerable musical merits rather than the band’s momentum. Suede offers more densely dramatic rockers — the thunderous “We Are the Pigs,” the aching “Heroine” and the terrific, tawdry “This Hollywood Life” — but the arrangements and production (again by Ed Buller) are far more sophisticated, incorporating horns and strings. “Daddy’s Speeding” has an orchestrated Beatles feel; the final four tracks evince substantial evolution, using spare piano motifs and acoustic guitar to underscore Anderson’s vocal histrionics, peaking on the Floydian “Asphalt World” and the epic closer, “Still Life.” An absolutely superb disc.
Talented but introverted, Butler quit Suede immediately prior to dog man star‘s release. (The guitarist resurfaced in ’95 as half of a diverse and fascinating ’70s rock/soul duo with falsetto singer David McAlmont before striking out completely on his own.) Riding out the near-calamity of Butler’s departure, the band hired a tender seventeen-year-old — the previously unknown Richard Oakes — to fill his glittering guitar shoes. While in live performance the youngster was content to display his mastery of the Butler sound (and image — he’s a dead ringer for his predecessor), his debut recordings — two new tracks, both co-written by Oakes and Anderson, on the UK “New Generation” CD single (not the EP) — bode well for Suede’s flamboyant future.