Brett Anderson puts his bare feet up on a Columbia Records conference table and rakes back his lank fringe. Suede’s gaunt frontman wonders why no one back in balmy London troubled to mention that he’d be arriving in New York on the heels of an early spring snowstorm. In the corner of the room, a pair of sodden moccasins pays mute testament to his climatic misjudgment.
As befits its neo-glam reputation, this month’s English Band of the Century travels with only carry-on luggage. Suede’s glamour, though, is of a distinctly seedy stripe. Anderson’s leather bomber jacket is peeling quite badly, and his black needle cords have seen better days, while bass player Mat Osman’s pin-stripe jacket, desert boots and suede appliqué shirt are equally unlikely to spawn a collection of designer rip-offs.
With its triptych of instantly classic singles – “The Drowners,” “Metal Mickey” and “Animal Nitrate” – Suede announced a changing of the guard in British music, powerfully confirming it with a debut album, Suede, of formidable grace and authority. Anderson’s sterling writing partnership with guitarist Bernard Butler lends much-needed gravitas to the singer’s arch vocal style, a pained cockney whine that recalls London pop lineage from the Small Faces and David Bowie through the Sex Pistols. If Suede has done anything to deserve the mark-down tag of glam, it has been introducing the post-acid-house generation to pelvic posturings.
The trajectory that dumped these threadbare dandies in New York has been a sharp one. Brett Anderson grew up in Haywards Heath, a glorified stoplight between London and Brighton, and after the standard-issue alienated adolescence he lit out for the bright lights of the capital with fellow Smiths buff Osman. They placed a small ad seeking a guitarist for their “eminently important band” and reeled in Butler, at 22 three years their junior, who was later joined by drummer Simon Gilbert.
The nascent Suede slogged around lowly London stages until its penchant for preening drama got the band members laughed out of town. They slunk off to spend the last half of 1991 in squalor, a siege mentality shrouding intense bouts of writing and rehearsal. “We started out with the idea that we wanted to be in a great band, but it was a while before the musicianship caught up,” Anderson now admits. “We began listening to classic songs like ‘A Day in the Life,’ more for their sense of elegance than anything specific in the chord structures.”
When Suede emerged, the turnaround was alarming: Melody Maker anointed it Best New Band of 1992 before one new song had been committed to vinyl. So strong was the avalanche of media that the band’s publicist garnered an industry award for “campaign of the year.” For once, though, the press hype has a toehold in reality.
“We’d have been birched on the streets of Bermondsey if people didn’t think we’d got it after that,” says Anderson. “But it was the new year, and people were getting bored. London was overrun by these shoegazing bands, and there was a feeling of ‘I’ve had enough of this. . . .’ “
And sure enough, the nation was soon gripped in the throes of Suedemania. The band’s turn-on-a-dime dynamics not only counterpoint Anderson’s falsetto flights, they put a jut in his strut that provokes followers to hysterical displays of worship at live shows. So violent are these reactions that Suede has actually had to tone down its stagecraft of late.
“This group appeals to people who are isolated in some way,” says Osman of Suede’s dramatic rise. “Geographically or socially or sexually or fashion-wise.”
“Or biologically,” says Anderson with a laugh. “I think there’s a section of music lovers in Britain who are in certain dead-end situations who flock to certain sentiments in music. And I think for that to happen, the artist has to have felt them themselves. That’s probably where a lot of the Smiths comparisons came from. I think there’s a parallel to be drawn.”
One early Suede convert was in fact Morrissey himself, who sent the group perfumed regards before covering its stately, decadent anthem “My Insatiable One” (from the B side of Suede’s first EP, The Drowners) on his world tour. Like Manchester’s Nabob of Sob, Anderson has been the subject of intense sexual speculation. An oft-quoted – and much-regretted – remark about being a bisexual man without homosexual experience only furthered an impression given by lyrics slathered with NC-17 imagery, where a third person of transient gender nibbles freely at the whole carnal buffet; now he leers, “She’s a luvverly little numbah!” (from “Moving”) and now “we kiss in his room to a popular tune” (“The Drowners”). Before you can say, “It’s Pat!” this switch-hitter is imploring, “Have you ever tried it that way?” (“Pantomime Horse”).
“I think I’ve got scope as a writer, so not everything I write is completely autobiographical,” explains Anderson thoughtfully. “I feel vague when it comes to where I stand sexually; I don’t know what to say – I’m willing to be persuaded, whatever.”
In a climate clogged with infantile techno-novelty records and TV-marketed oldies, Suede has rushed through the British charts like a hormone shot – even if no one knows which type of hormones. As one of the most subversive stars ever to taste Top Ten action, Anderson’s seamy subconscious terrain bears greater resemblance to the world of, say, the Sixties playwright-provocateur Joe Orton than it does to the lazy lexicon of contemporary rock, with its calcified sentiments of indolence, infatuation or “rebellion.”
“My mind has always been much more encased in reality than that,” says Anderson. “And the reality that everyone knows involves a certain amount of sexual failure. Not everyone’s stomping ground is Venice Beach – I can’t think of anything more boring than Baywatch set to guitars, which is how a lot of music treats the idea of sex.
“Most music is lazy; it speaks in pop-speak, prodding your memory about things you’ve heard before,” Anderson adds. “I’ve never wanted to write like that. I wanted to do something with a bit of tension, look at things through different perspectives. It’s the Oscar Wilde thing of lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Life has always been cinema to me, even when I’ve been sitting in the dole office. That’s the only way to do it sometimes.”
The following afternoon sees Suede visiting the influential alternative radio station WDRE in an office block in suburban Long Island. The band is, it seems, coming to terms with the New York weather. Six-and-a-half-foot Osman has scored some inexpensive socks at J. Chuckles, while Anderson has economically stuffed a plastic bag inside his shoes.
Suede might find America’s cultural climate a little harder to accommodate. Several U.S. record companies tend, bizarrely, to set their clocks by British hype (Suede’s reputed $500,000 Sony pact is unexceptional), as does a significant cohort of media Anglophiles. When the bicoastal greeting parties are over, however, things can get a little sticky. The freeways of the Midwest are littered with the bones of pale, snaggletoothed hopefuls who came to grief on America’s punishing concert circuit.
As Osman takes the Columbia promo man’s rental Ford Taurus for an unscheduled spin around the DRE parking lot, he muses. “We’re completely aware that we’re a bunch of insects over here compared with even Screaming Trees or Soul Asylum,” he says, “a horrific thought, but one we recognize.”
This story is from the May 27th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.