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Hair Metal Micky: Notes on Suede, Hard Rock Band

Hair Metal Micky: Notes on Suede, Hard Rock Band

The term for mishearing lyrics–in general, but with the implication being that the mishearing is something silly like “dirty deeds and thunder cheese” in place of “dirty deeds done dirt cheap”--is “mondegreen.” In the biz that I call my brain, the phenomenon of mishearing a song’s lyrics as something better than what’s actually sung, is called “pulling a London Suede.” I use the “London” designation, inferior a band name as it may be to the band’s actual name, both as an extremely clever nod to the phenomenon itself and as an acknowledgement that a proper English accent in particular lends itself to an overestimation of a statement’s (or person’s) wit. If it weren’t for hearing Placebo lyrics as being on par with Smiths lyrics, there’d be no call for Placebo in the first place. Not that Suede lyrics are ever “bad” per se (or even that Placebo lyrics are any dumber than they ought to be), but it’s no fun shake to spend half your life thinking you're reading Brideshead Revisited and then one day you take off the book jacket and you were, like a goddamn sucker, reading Atonement all along. Hardly the end of a world, but I can’t help but be disappointed that, in “The Drowners,” Bret Anderson follows up the fanfuckingtastic line “We kiss in his room to a popular tune” with the perfectly cool “oh, real drowners.” As opposed to the too-smart-by-half, but still infinitely cooler, “oh real drama” I spent the first decade of my Suede fandom thinking he was singing. In fairness to myself, Brett Anderson may have had some of the singer’s sense of gritty grandeur implanted in him from, by his telling, his teenage error of playing the Feeding Of The 5000 Crass record at 33 rpm, as opposed to the correct speed of 45 rpm, and, even after being being corrected by a punk pal, finding he preferred it slow and epic. In fairness to Brett Anderson, it’s only the swooning power of the frontman’s own voice and melodies that make my hearing what would be, lyrically speaking, an admittedly cartoonish veering upwards–from indie angst to Sirkian operatics–even remotely plausible. It’s not like Anderson was ever inclined to saying the quiet part quietly. Further, it only matters to me because so many other Suede verses are exactly what I want from a hard rockin’ dandy with hair so beautiful, black, and swooping–like a Lisa Stanfield cut from all around another world–that it practically invented MySpace. If you’re going to sing “I want the style of a woman, the kiss of a man,” and make it sound like a manifesto on par with Martin Luthor’s 95 Theses or the first Nation of Ulysses album’s liner notes, you can’t blame a teenage Zachary for holding your band to unreasonable standards.

Oasis fans don’t have to worry about shit like this. They can substitute the lyrics of “Champagne Supernova” with a recitation of Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors, without fear of losing any essential meaning. But some bands have souls too big and blazing to allow their anorak baked fans to retreat into any such comforting goo goo g’joob inanity.

Suede is on my mind for a few reasons. First, they’re always on my mind. Because they kick ass. Second, because I’m working on a Britpop piece for Creem (subscribe here!) and I might as well use this chaotic space to get some stuff–that will certainly be cut by my wise and ruthless editors–out of my system. And the third reason for the band to be forefront in my thoughts is because, as a birthday gift from the two of us, Zohra and I bought tickets for Josh Strachen (of Blacklist and Vaura, and also Zohra’s collaborator in Azar Swan) and his lady, Charleen, to join us in seeing Suede play live at the King's Theatre, for what was the band’s first NYC show in 25 years. (Suede played Coachella in 2011, but that–for reasons both geographical and aesthetic–doesn’t matter.)

The show, part of an alternating headline-slot package tour with Manic Street Preachers, was full, if not sold out. I have plenty to say about both the crowd and the ticket sales, but I’m afraid discussion of both will have to wait till I see what my editors at Creem consider “two thousand words too many.” But I will say that if, in 2006, the basement ceilings of either Dark Room or Pianos had collapsed from the centrifugal force of the cocaine inhalation occurring below them, then two decades later the resultant rows of empty seats at Kings Theatre would serve as a tribute to all those lives lost, one as stirring as–while numerically outstripping by a factor of ten–the Field of Empty Chairs Memorial in Oklahoma City. Also I’m told that one of the guys from Elefant was sitting in front of us.

To those with only a passing familiarity with the band, Suede is probably not considered a hard rock band. After all, Brett Anderson’s voice, a plaintive tongue-kiss tenor that never met a phrase it didn’t figure couldn’t be improved by an Errol-Brown-pushing-the-top-of-his-range style dive bomb into Darling Nikki-esque falseto-sass (and ass), coupled with the singer’s whole Rebel Rebelette persona, doesn’t exactly scan as “tuff.” But tuff is exactly what Suede was/is. Even when original recording/songwriting guitarist (after Justine Frischmann, who played on the demo before forming Elastica, the only other Britpop band–besides maybe, uh, Kula Shaker–to match Suede’s rough and ready energy) Bernard Butler was at his most art-rock digressive, Suede was never soft. If the skeptical listener is able to disregard Anderson’s voice (their loss), and even if they’re somehow operating under the impression that ‘70s glam rock wasn’t hard as brass, there’s no denying that the music underneath the Suede frontman’s caterwauling inhabits a tight-pantsed riff mongering that scrapes the bubblegum off glitter’s most caveman rhythms so all that’s left is a churning hip thrust and speed.

Even in moments of quietude–like “The Next Life” that provided the piano coda to the band’s self-titled debut, and Dog Man Star’s “Daddy’s Speeding” (an art pop slice of personal verité, kinda about James Dean, which is kinda Brett Butler’s very own version of Frank O’Hara’s Poem: Lana Turner has collapsed!) --Suede’s ballads stay firmly above the sentimental/atmospheric baseline set by Cockney Rebel and the more dystopian discursive tracks on Diamond Dogs (the Bowie album that served as Suede’s guiding star whenever they weren’t shaking Mick Ronson’s riff from “Cracked Actor,” to see if another ten songs might fall out).

(If I will be making “jokes” of this nature throughout, it’s only because they are fun, I’m good at them, and they contain a lazy grain of truth, in an NME Intern Received Wisdom sort of way. But let me be clear: I think Suede are a truly GREAT and original Rock and Roll band, and I love them a lot. The Britpop Big Four is, imo, Suede and Pulp and Elastica, with Suede counted twice. Just tbc tbc tbc tbc.)

I say all this not because toughness is some sort of inherent virtue (or that “softness” is an inherent negative). It’s not. And of course one of the highest virtues inherent to Suede’s catalog is the band’s willingness to play and sing with their whole exposed belly. Suede is a band that, while rock classicists in many (many) ways, have never subscribed to any “one ballad for every four rockers” template. If b-sides are counted (which, when a band can fill a double album of outtakes with other-bands-wish-they-could homewreckers like “Killing of a Flashboy,“ they are) Suede’s ratio of ballad to banger is nearly 1:1, with the band even, as a bridge and a treat, threading a ballad or two into a number of the ostensible rockers.

And, yes, even if I do think the songs–divorced from their frontman’s flamboyance–are inarguably as hard as anything by either Nirvana or Kix, I don’t know that that divorce is possible. It’s certainly not recommended. And while I disagree with Rolling Stone’s not-entirely-an-insult assessment of Dog Man Star being “one the most pretentious ever released on a major label” (you replace the recorded tap dancing on one track with a flute, and everybody just loses their mind I guess), I’m not sure that the band does; at least they certainly don’t seem afraid of the designation. They’re a band consistent in their fearlessness in the face of seeming overwrought, overreaching, overblown, or remotely having gotten over a single thing that might have happened to Brett Anderson’s open wound heart from the age of six onwards.

I suppose I harp on Suede being “tuff” as more of an exercise in trying to place the band in some sort of “correct” context. Even if neither the band nor their fans are overly concerned with any such correction, I’m allowed to indulge my hobbies; self serving and neurotic as they may be. So, gathering my rosebuds where I may, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of American bands who might work as being comparable to Suede. In discussions of why Suede never caught on with American audiences the way that, say, Oasis (or even Elastica or Blur) did, the argument often centers on Suede’s “Englishness” being a key hindrance. Which makes a certain amount of sense; certainly it’s that Englishness which is/was part of the appeal to young anglophiles. It’s not like Blur caught on here until, seeing how many gold plated Vespas Oasis was able to buy with the Yankee dollar, they rewrote “There’s No Other Way” as to be licensed across all of ESPN’s properties. I’m not sure I totally buy the idea that anything is Too British For The American Ear, but accepting the dubious premise for a moment, it’s fun to consider who might then be the true blue USA equivalents of Suede; hard glam rockers, with singers more yearning than pissy, who indulge in some localized specificity that could be conceivably alienating to those across a big pond. At first I considered bands like Kix or Love/Hate. But then I realized that, as satisfying as it might be to indulge in that level of “look… their glam rock is like our glam rock!” contrarianism, Kix isn’t really comparable post 1986 and Love/Hate only works for, like, one part of “Blackout in the Red Room.”

Same with Enuff z’ Nuff.

Look, I tried, ok? Here’s Suede covering “Bodies,” the song by the Sex Pistols, the band that gave us Guns n’ Roses n’ also Suede. (Never Mind the Bollocks was the first record Brett Anderson ever owned. I’m not just making these connections for my health, you know.)

Really, the American band that immediately comes to mind as most analogous to Suede is probably Screaming Trees. Starting with Uncle Anesthesia, when Mark Lanegan became the band’s chief lyricist, Screaming Trees explored (and tastefully subverted) ‘70s classic rock tropes, while infusing their songwriting with the same obsessions Suede did; depression, addiction, barely sublimated small town class rage, a distinct sense of geography, and finally; enough dead friends to populate a Titanic where running head-on into an iceberg was the least of the unfortunate lifestyle choices. And, in the same way Suede was underrated as a heavy rock outfit, Screaming Trees, until very recently, were egregiously under-appreciated for the sensitive-souled designated mourners that they so clearly were.

The matter, important as it may be, is hardly settled. I imagine encyclopedic swells of alt Americana such as Ned Raggett or Annie Zaleski have suggestions that fit better. I’m open to suggestions. Again though, please don’t suggest American bands that sound “English.” That’s not what we’re doing here and I’d hate to feel unbridled contempt for you for coloring (or colouring) too much within the lines.

Unsung in larger culture as they may be, Suede have been enjoying a creative renewal. Since 2013’s Bloodsports, Suede has put out a new album every few years, and each record has been both excellent and received as such. Up until the newest one, they’ve been sonically and thematically hefty and cinematic (not in the boring way); akin to Gun Club’s Las Vegas Story in vibe if not in riff. (Oh shit! I may have just found the American counterpart! Great job, me!) In contrast, this year’s album, Autofiction, is a return to Suede’s punchier roots (if we’re considering a band’s first and third albums as roots). As much as my preference, in theory, is a leaner and meaner Suede, I didn’t love Autofiction at first. At least not as much as I wanted to. Initial listens gave off the impression of a band attempting to recreate a debut album drive. A hysterical drive that, for musicians in their fifties (with the two babies of the band, Richard Oakes and Neil Codling, being in their late forties), wasn’t necessary. Not that I begrudge anyone (very) slightly older than myself proving to themselves that piss and vinegar still runs through their veins, the impulse can often lead to results ranging from “could be worse” to the aural equivalent of Bryan Ferry texting “u up?” to one of his grandkid’s girlfriends. Or maybe I’m just at the age where I’m more a Push the Sky Away guy than a Grinderman shit kickee, and don’t necessarily trust any performative hip thrusting from anyone over the age of Turnstile. Anyway, Autofiction felt propulsive to be sure, but also a bit… shrill.

Having listened more, and especially after seeing some of the songs live, I don’t still feel that way at all. The album is still, to my ears, trebly as hell. But now I find the band’s attack–the way that the keyboard lines and falsetto singing seem to operate at the same frequency as the squealing guitars–to be as enlivening as a nice bucket of caffeine, sweetened with strychnine. Regardless of the heartfelt and empathetic romanticism of some of its themes (with the song for Anderson’s mother, “She Still Leads Me On,” being particularly affecting), the record feels naturally bracing. Less a diminished-return attempted recreation of their heyday, and more in line–spiritually if not sonically–with the work of even older artists (Nightingales or Lydia Lunch/Kid Congo et al. for example) who never stopped lashing out for their lunch money in the first place.

Suede’s continued capacity for the lash was clear at King's Theatre. Maybe I’ve just been lucky (or have impeccable taste) but the theater is one of those rare gorgeous venues that doesn’t feel stultifyingly fancy. As opposed to Radio City, where nearly every show I’ve attended felt like a visit to a high end aquarium, shows I’ve attended at King's Theatre actually felt like rock shows, albeit rock shows draped in velvet and dangling earrings (and with drinks priced to keep the gilding well buffed). Suede played a set that leaned heavily on Simon Gilbert’s drumming and the bass of Mat Osman maintaining a steady and rolling thunder, over which the rest of the band jerked around like fit-as-fuck muppets and Brett Anderson focussed on the highest of his high parts, letting the audience handle the grunt work of shouting out the choruses like the first three rows were a youth crew choir and not a post-post-post grad school of former Tiswas deejays, with children old enough to follow Indie Sleaze Revival on Instagram. The band was focussed and raucous; loud enough, despite the presumably mandatory reasonableness of the soundperson, that Zohra only had to nicely tell the two chatty Manic Street Preacher fans seated in front of us to shut the fuck up once, during the piano interlude of “The 2 of Us” (for which the dude from Elefant and his lady thanked her during intermission).

The show wasn’t the riot of energy shown in live clips of the band from thirty years ago, but it wasn’t three decades removed either. Brett Anderson kept telling the audience what a special night it was, which could have felt like a laugh track but didn’t. It felt like he was being an entirely correct hype man, preaching to an adoring choir.

The reason that Suede has aged better than nearly all the bands of their era, let alone most of their Britpop contemporaries, is because even during their (first) heyday, they were a strange and singular concern. Neither as gossamer as the strictest acolytes to The Smiths, nor as pointedly important as NME portrayed them (admittedly using their own interviews to do so), nor as washily populist as all the laddish Beatles cosplayers; Suede made a noise that was one part gong-bang glitter, one part (pre-bandwagon) Scott Walker worship, one part showtune (more Sondheim than McCartney), and a hundred parts amphetamine (sonically, in actual usage, and in number of lyrical references, seemingly drawn from some previously unpublished thesaurus of speed). They were a band that was resolutely working class, as evidenced by the dandified posturing that–because so many buy into the misguided notion that the “real” working class doesn’t do flouncy or literate–would send middle class (and up) bands screaming in the opposite direction, lest anyone check their parents’ bank records. They were a band that managed the dubious miracle of playing with gender in a way that felt welcoming rather than a con; a relief from the unintentional boys club brutalism of grunge and the entirely intentional same of Oasis (though this may have just been the benefit of existing before the term “queerbaiting” was in common usage, and tbh there may have been a number of homosexuals who found it extremely irritating). They were a band that, indebted as they may have been to the Smiths, eschewed irony, stereotypically “English” or otherwise, entirely. As Anderson describes in his (excellent) memoir, Coal Black Mornings, Suede was born out of his father’s obsessive playing of bombastic classical music (the father loved Wagner and made annual pilgrimages to Lizt’s grave) as much as they were influenced by anyone.

Which is also why my glib pronouncement, that my mishearing of “The Drowners” is superior to the actual lyrics, is absurd. Suede would never be so self referential as to imply that the agony of adolescence, or an agonized song about adolescence, might be so winkingly diminished as to have any such meta-astic DVD commentary. It has to be “oh… real drowners,” or to hell with it.

Finally, Suede fulfilled the promise of a dream of a contemporary glam rock; a glam rock that took Bowie and the New York Dolls as starting points, threw in as much artsy broad canvas color as Bernard Butler could spray out and Brett Anderson’s painter mother could instill in her baby boy. From there, Suede dreamed true a glam rock alt-reality where monstrous riffs didn’t need to be recorded thinly for radio, the guitar phasing on “Mr. Brownstone'' (and “Atomic Punk”) was used, again and again, for one “November Rain” after another, and Mick Ronson never–not even once–had to play “Once Bitten (Twice Shy).” Worshiping at the altar of god given ass was enough, for him and everyone else.

This might be an overlong way of saying “I like Suede because they sound like what I wanted Hanoi Rocks to sound like after I read about them.” After all, both bands seemed to be about hair, riffs, and tragedy. I had no internet, few anglophile friends, and barely any context for Suede’s debut album at all, outside months old issues of Melody Maker which kept telling me how great Suede was but seemingly only in relation to how much they were the second coming of Merlin in the Mists of Avalon and not at all like Pearl Jam. I was trying to make sense of this thing that I loved that wasn’t quite the rave rock shown on 120 Minutes, the morose atmospherics of goth adjacent standbys like the Cure, or remotely like my twin boy passions of grunge and hardcore. It sounded like Sexy Rock and Roll; a genre that, if American radio and alternative culture had taught me anything, was then the sole purview of misogynistic zombies; of either the classic rock or hair metal variety. And here was Suede. Pretty as Poison, playing power ballads with piano like Queensrÿche, playing guitar solos like REM never happened, and strutting their stuff like that was a thing that somebody might conceivably do, even outside the ankle bracelet range of Sunset Strip. How could anyone seriously think that grunge killed hair metal when, evidently, Nirvana had merely done the genre a favor by providing a bit of course correction? Now we all would reap the benefits.

But, apparently that was just me. The hair metallers didn’t show up for Suede. They just spent what was left of their label advances on pre-owned distortion pedals, let their junkie bassist write some verses, and shot their last video shots through fisheye lenses.

And, really, I’m not actually sure if I’d heard of Hanoi Rocks when I, as a teenager, found a $1.99 promo cassette for the first Suede album. Plus I’m pretty sure I was too much of a brat to see comparisons between disparate threads of glitter rock. So hindsight remains a real mucky pup. Regardless, I maintain that Suede is one of the best hard rock bands ever. Only Britpop by dint of being British and (in Britain) popular. Only alt in America because everything that wasn’t specifically “Whoomp! (There It Is)” was. As cosmic-boogiefied as “Sweet Emotion” cascading down from a council estate balcony. Why UFO and Uriah Heep fans aren’t gaga over the band is just one of the many things I’ll never understand. I guess some people just don’t like huge guitars, soaring vocals, and pitch perfect songs–about teenage sex and drugs and dying whilst looking good–enough to bridge the gap between one burning slab of hot rocks and another.

OK, I do understand why hard rawkers don’t generally love Suede. Or at least a theory or two comes to mind. But I do try to see the best in people. (For the record, Brett Anderson never much cared for UFO either.)

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