Suede (or The London Suede in the United States, although they were often called by their original name by fans in that country) were an English rock band of the 1990s and early 2000s that helped start the Britpop musical movement. Through their several incarnations, they were able to consistently put out albums that charted well, while still holding the respect of critics. Though they never achieved great success in North America, they were considered by some to be as big in the UK in the 90s (at least in terms of popularity) as The Smiths were in the 80s, or Roxy Music in the 70s.
Suede were formed in London in 1989 by bassist Mat Osman, singer Brett Anderson and his then girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, on rhythm guitar. They soon added guitarist Bernard Butler – who was recruited through an advertisement in Melody Maker. Along with a drum machine as percussion, Suede were signed to RML Records, a label from Brighton. Comedian Ricky Gervais (who later found fame with The Office) managed the band for a brief period before they were signed to a record label.
With Mike Joyce (formerly of The Smiths) famously filling in as drummer, Suede’s first record “Be My God”/”Art”, was printed but never released due to a dispute with the label. The few surviving records out of a batch of 2000 are considered amongst the rarest of Suede collectibles. Simon Gilbert soon replaced the drum machine and Suede signed to Nude Records. Though still living with Anderson, Frischmann was ejected from the band around this time because of her failure to attend rehearsals while flaunting her new relationship with Damon Albarn of Blur.
The band’s first single “The Drowners” was released amid a media frenzy that began before Suede had released any actual music. The band was on the cover of Melody Maker, which proclaimed them as “the best new band in Britain” prior to any official release. The debut single created an enormous amount of excitement because of its sharp contrast to the dying Madchester scene and the grunge sound of the time. Suede were further distinguished from their contemporaries by Anderson’s flamboyant looks and noticeably unique vocals, combined with Butler’s melodic guitar playing.
Surprisingly given the amount of press exposure the band had received, “The Drowners” - featuring two strong b-sides in “My Insatiable One” (later famously covered by Morrissey in concerts) and “To The Birds” - was only a moderate hit. Success would only come with the follow-up singles “Metal Mickey” (written about Daisy Chainsaw/QueenAdreena frontwoman Katiejane Garside) and “Animal Nitrate”, both of which reached the UK Top 20 on release a few months later.
Their first album Suede became the fastest selling debut since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome To the Pleasuredome and was catapulted onto the charts after a breakthrough performance on the 1993 BRIT Awards. Featuring heavily-layered production by Ed Buller, the album showed influences from The Smiths, David Bowie, and many other glam rockers, but managed to filter and blend them together, creating its own trademark sound. However, the fan hysteria that surrounded Suede in Britain would be shortlived, and never duplicated by the American public.
Their American success was limited, despite securing a tour slot with the Cranberries, who had support from MTV. Moreover, a lounge singer’s lawsuit forced the band to stop using the trademarked American name “Suede” (a fate also suffered by fellow UK band The Charlatans/The Charlatans UK). For the North American market, the band would release all of their future albums under the moniker The London Suede.
Some possible factors cited to explain the band’s lack of U.S. success are their quasi-androgynous look and distinct British sound, both of which might have alienated North American audiences. Despite this, the band retained a cult following in the U.S. Following the release of their debut album, the band began work on their highly anticipated follow up single and album in late 1993 and much of 1994. The hectic schedule the band was facing hinted the problems that were soon to come.
In February of 1994, the band released the single “Stay Together”, which as well as being a massive critical success, also became their highest charting at the time, reaching number three. Despite their growing profile, tensions within the band mounted as they began working on the second album. Anderson and Butler fought constantly; a major issue was the production of the album (again done by Ed Buller). Things reached a head when Bernard Butler quit the band altogether in the middle of the recording sessions, leaving behind tapes containing his ideas for the songs that had been written. The remainder of the guitar work on the album was reputedly completed (depending on the source) either by studio musicians or Brett Anderson himself.
When Dog Man Star (1994) finally appeared, its sales were generally sluggish, though the album was critically acclaimed. The record was vastly different sounding than the band’s debut. It featured a large sound, backed by strings and a horn section in much of it. The year that Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe were fighting for pop supremacy, Suede explored darker territory with Dog Man Star. Their image, however, was tainted by the departure of Butler, as they searched for someone to fill his undeniably large shoes.
The vacancy was soon filled by 17 year-old guitarist Richard Oakes (initially nicknamed by the UK music press as “Little Dickie”) before an international tour to promote the album. Many critics and fans alike had their doubts about the ability of the band to move on without Bernard Butler, who was an integral part of the band’s songwriting. However, the band broadened their sound when they were joined by keyboardist and backing vocalist Neil Codling in the making of their third album, Coming Up (1996). This would be the album which gained the group their most mainstream success. The first single from the album, “Trash” was immensely popular and tied with “Stay Together” as the group’s highest charting UK single, reaching number 3.
The album was a hit throughout Europe, Asia and Canada, but still not in the U.S. It did, however, answer those who questioned whether Anderson and company could produce another hit without Butler. Suede had again changed sound drastically; Coming Up featured more of a glam tinted pop/rock sound, as opposed to the darker elements that the previous albums had showcased. Reviews were again mixed, but the album topped the UK chart and became the band’s biggest-selling release. The band was finally getting the mass video and radio play that they lacked during the Dog Man Star period and in many ways fulfilling the hype that characterized much of the early part of their career. The album brought the band five straight top 10 singles, a remarkable feat by any standards.
The band’s next venture was a collection of b-sides and rarities entitled Sci-Fi Lullabies, which charted well for such a compilation, reaching #9 on the UK chart. The band were well respected for their b-sides, which were often regarded by critics and fans as being equal to or exceeding the quality of the a-sides they backed.
By the time the compilation was released in 1997, though, the Britpop movement was noticeably waning in popularity, and the band had decided to split with long-time producer Ed Buller before commencing work on their follow up to Coming Up.
Despite being backed by the popular lead single “Electricity”, Suede’s fourth album, Head Music (1999) was something of a critical disappointment, though it once again took the band to number one on the album charts. A synth-infused album that focused less on guitar riffs and more on keyboards, it was produced by Steve Osborne, who had worked with Happy Mondays and New Order. Critical opinion was sharply divided; many felt the record was too shallow and lacking in substance, while others thought the album was the group again taking a different direction and charting new territory.
The next three singles released from the album failed to crack the top 10, breaking a run stretching back to 1995’s “New Generation”. The b-sides for the singles were also arguably not up to par with their usual standard, which hinted at the drying up of the creative well. Anderson also began being criticized more by fans for his often use of redundant vocabulary and limited lyrical themes. Despite this, even with their drop in mainstream popularity, the band still maintained a large core group of fans.
Not long after the release of Head Music, Nude Records effectively ceased to exist. Like many of their labelmates, Suede ended up signing to Nude’s parent company/distributor Sony to record their fifth album, A New Morning (2002). The long and troubled gestation of the album saw keyboardist Neil Codling leave the band, citing chronic fatigue syndrome, to be replaced by long-time band associate Alex Lee, formerly of Strangelove.
In concerts, Lee played second guitar, as well as keyboards, backing vocals and, at one point, harmonica. The album title, according to Anderson, referred to “a fresh start, a new band and a new fresh outlook” - the singer had reportedly been addicted to heroin and crack cocaine for a number of years by this time, which was having an increasingly deleterious effect on his health. He was quoted at the time as saying “we’ve all cleaned up our drug problems …which is nice.”
Despite the rejuvenation of the group’s health, the album was a commercial disappointment and failed to crack the top 20. Produced by “big name” Britpop producers John Leckie (who famously produced The Stone Roses’ debut LP, as well as records for Radiohead and Muse) and Stephen Street (most famous for his work with The Smiths and Blur), A New Morning was considered a solid enough outing by fans of the band, but critical reaction was decidedly lukewarm and the mainstream public interest had long disappeared. Only two singles, “Positivity” and “Obsessions,” were released from the album, the fewest singles taken from any of the band’s albums, and neither charted particularly well.
In Autumn 2003, after the release of their Singles compilation album and accompanying single “Attitude”, Suede played five nights at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, dedicating each night to one of their five albums and playing through an entire album a night – with B-sides and rarities as encores – in chronological order. After these shows, the band announced there would be no more projects under the Suede name for the foreseeable future – effectively announcing the end of the band.
Their last concert at London’s Astoria on December 13, 2003 was a two-and-a-half hour marathon show, split into two parts (plus encore) with the first part being “songs we want to play”. Brett made an announcement that “there will be another Suede album” to everyone’s delight, but added “…but not yet”. “See you in the next life” was their closing remark.