A Retrospective on Suede (Part 2)

By on Tuesday, 9th April 2013 at 11:00 am
 

Missed part 1 of this amazing retrospective on Suede by our Martin? Right this way, folks.

Sixteen months after their gloriously successful debut, and by way of a taster for the second album, Suede released their career pinnacle: the faultless trifecta of ‘We Are the Pigs’, ‘Killing of a Flash Boy’ and ‘Whipsnade’. The portentiously-tolling minor-chord intro of ‘We Are The Pigs’ gives way to Brett Anderson in full, finely-fettled flow: flouncing around the soundscape, a figurehead for the dispossessed, disenchanted victims of urban decay, empathising, encouraging, exhorting a beautiful flash of direct action against the oppressors before the attraction of the crack pipe becomes once again irresistible.

Bernard Butler has by this point found the electric guitar incapable of fully expressing his musical ambitions: sections of the orchestra are called on one by one to amplify his concepts: strings sweep through the chorus, brass adds sandpaper edge to the breakdowns, neither of which can compete with Butler’s enormous wall-of-sound guitars – like being trapped in a lift with mirrors on all three sides, he manages to conjure a seemingly infinite number of guitar parts from one source, each in turn a little further away, distant but distinct. The rational brain knows there must be some end to it, but no matter how hard you listen, there’s still something else in the background. The B-sides are just as exhilarating: ‘Killing of A Flash Boy’ is simultaneously ribald and genuinely threatening: a seedy provincial holiday resort imagined, or perhaps documented, descending into vicious jealousy and violence:

Shake your fake tan through aerosol land and you’ll know
That you’ll suffer for your sex by the caravanettes, oh no!
That shitter with a pout won’t be putting it about no more
Oh shaking obscene like a killing machine here we go

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXxOT5h5-xg[/youtube]

This is the zenith of Anderson’s obsession with the twisted side of the humdrum British way of life: like a Martin Parr photograph with the lights out, familiar white working-class settings become arenas of disease and violence. Even though it’s caricatured and embellished, there’s a truth to Anderson’s lyrics that shift them into the realm of genuine social commentary: he’s saying, “this is what happens, this is how people feel and behave when there’s nothing better to do.” And there’s a glamour in the revulsion, an attraction in the dirt that he sees, and he wants us to see it, too.

A month later, in October 1994, ‘Dog Man Star’ was released. From the very first seconds, and perhaps to the slight disappointment of those hoping for ‘Suede’ mark II, it becomes apparent that the short, sharp, three minute arrangements of its predecessor are almost entirely absent: this is very much an orchestrated album, almost conceptual in its execution. There is a proper introduction, a rousing orchestral finale, and arguably a coherent narrative of love, sex, drugs and loss. The atmosphere is one of faded autumnal grandeur, of end-of-the-pier desolation; the soundtrack to a black-and-white film yet to be made. The film might take as its theme that of breakup, and breakdown, given the emotional strain and animosity running through the band at the time of recording.

The tension between Butler and Anderson was so high, neither of them could stand to be in the studio as the same time as the other. Bernard Butler’s increasingly erratic and demanding behaviour culminated in his departure before the album was even finished, giving rise to curious situations like the guitar part of ‘The Power’ being recreated note-for-note from the demo by a session guitarist. Despite, or perhaps because of its problematic gestation, ‘Dog Man Star’ contains many astonishing moments amongst its crumbling artifice: the peerless guitar solo in ‘We Are the Pigs’; the literal car crash of ‘Daddy’s Speeding’; the intertwining banshee howl of vocal and guitar in ‘This Hollywood Life’; Anderson’s falsetto crescendo in ‘The 2 of Us’: defining moments worthy of the high-concept glam-rock pantheon.

One surviving marker of Butler’s increasingly dominating personality is his insistence on length. Latterly-released long versions and demos reveal exactly the scope of Butler’s ambition – if it had been given free rein. The unedited version of ‘The Wild Ones’ is a case in point – the piece considered by the band themselves as the pinnacle of the Butler/Anderson partnership, would, if one of its co-writers had had his way, be no less than 7 minutes long with a tour-de-force instrumental at its heart. The truth is, the extended version is for completists only: the edit works better as a song. No matter how good Butler’s guitar shredding is, the song as a whole is too strong to be distracted by such fripperies. More suited to ego-driven over-indulgence is the extended version of ‘The Asphalt World’, which clocks in at an eye-watering 11-and-a-half minutes. This song represents every excess Suede had partaken of in the previous half-decade, made music. The 5 minutes of song proper serves as just an introduction; the almost-silent breakdown section seethes with threatened violence, sparks of filtered sound and rumblings of sub-bass stalk the background, looking for an excuse to jump from the shadows and reveal themselves in their vulgar glory. And an excuse arrives in Butler’s most audacious guitar solo yet put to tape. The unedited version reveals a scope of ambition cut from the initial release – hard-panned squalls of guitar pour forth from both sides, while a filthy, tremoloed lead part builds to a guilty, orgiastic climax. “Who does she love?”, indeed.

The truth is, if they had disbanded after the release of ‘The Wild Ones’, their last release of the Butler era, Suede would have had as unblemished a career as it’s possible to achieve in pop music – two albums and seven singles, and all arguably perfect. In a pleasingly circular way, their story would have been the perfect subject for a Suede song – a brief glimpse into an intense love affair, stubbed out in a whirlwind of drugs and bitter recrimination, with an absolutely superb soundtrack. But, astonishingly, their most successful years were still ahead of them.

Suede’s newest album ‘Bloodsports’ is available now.

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TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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