Before we get to the main course, there's a tasty starter (don't worry, no more culinary metaphors, promise!) in the form of the latest Bitter Springs single. The a-side's title – ‘Gary Glitter Fan Convention’ - is likely to catch your attention on its own.The phrase looks to be crying out to be absorbed into our daily lingo - "mate, you'd get more people at a Gary Glitter fan convention" - but as always with Simon Rivers' songs, there's plenty going on, lyrically and musically. The song's a rousing stomp-along, enhanced by lively backing vocals and Terry Edwards' sax and trumpets, with a classic soul feel. As always there’s probably more happening here than I've caught up with so far, (it's taken me till now to spot the cheeky/blink-and-you've-missed-it "Nah! Not at all!" chorus/tribute to Television" promised in the flier). Anyway, to these ears, it continues the themes of the last two singles, ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘TV Tears’, in looking at our connection with media and the vicarious substitute relationships we build with remote and marginally 'real' stars, but there’s also a personal relationship dimension here - "Think you're the only one with baggage/ Look there's no room round the carousel". There's an outrageous pun (some might say gratuitous, but it’s too good to leave out) around "Billingsgate" and the word "selfish".... Anyway, it's another tantalising taster for the long-awaited Bitter Springs album, ‘Everyone’s Cup of Tea’. B-side ‘Free to Kill Again’ is a total contrast, being a slow acoustic song, a ghostly solo ballad of Simon's with suitably spectral backing vocals form Beatrice Rose Loft Schulz. It's got a dark and desolate 3-in-the-morning vibe - "I've hidden my tablets under the mattress, and I'm free to kill again" and one that needs more listening to be honest before I really know what's going on here.
Suede: Suede, Dog Man Star, Coming Up, Head Music
Brett Anderson's been doing the media rounds lately and there have been a succession of festivals and other Suede gigs this year. Whether this leads to new songs and records seems still to be up in the air. At a time when the momentum of reunions is close to getting out of control, this is one of the more welcome ones, though I do have nightmares at times that every group I've ever seen - from Gerry and the Pacemakers to Principal Edwards' Magic Theatre - is going to re-emerge from the mists at a festival with all the exits barred.
When they first appeared in the early 90's I loathed Suede as blatant Bolan/Bowie copyists, and the latest in a series of soon-to-be-forgotten NME 'next big things' (S*M*A*S*H* or These Animal Men anyone?). Gradually though I was won over by their deft touch with a catchy trashy chorus, some clever lyrics and ideas, and the way their songs captured the 'off yer face in the suburbs' vibe I knew so well. Now all the albums are re-released in three disc format, mopping up all the demos/alternate takes/b-sides/videos/live action you could wish for.
It's strange looking at that time now - in many ways, it doesn't seem that long ago, but Suede came up when vinyl was still a huge factor in the market (hence the Smiths'- like dedication to doing proper b-sides), and when appearances on Top of the Pops really meant something in terms of sales and reputation.
Brett Anderson's lyrics and delivery are part of the great tradition of the English rock Decadent school (current torch-bearer- Pete Doherty), singing in a fey hybrid of Barrett, Bolan and Bowie with a dash of Lawrence from Felt, or Luke Haines from the Auteurs - with a look based on classic Class A-chiselled cheekbones like Peter Perrett or Keith Richards, and Kate Middleton waistline. There's a great photo of master and apprentice meeting, with Bowie forcing a grin, but looking a little concerned at Brett Anderson next to him, heavily shadowed eyes practically out on stalks.
It's funny how many of these people are from the 'quiet desperation' of the suburban sprawl. In Suede's case it was the 'dormitory town' of Hayward's Heath, part of a belt of neighbouring places like Croydon and Crawley, rife with drugs and boredom. When Suede really hit it, their music totally captures the utter desperation of such places, where there's little to do but get wrecked and retreat inward, hopes of escape long gone.
Each of the reissues follows a similar format. Original album, obviously, plus demos and b-sides/tracks that didn't make the albums. In addition there's a selection of videos, which are for the most part great fun, really capturing Suede's stylish swagger and providing some great shots of 90's fads and fashions, and also some filmed gigs - some of near professional standard, and others that'd look pretty rough if you saw them on YouTube today.
One of the highlights are the Brett Anderson sleeve-notes that come with each album, and the track-listing he'd go for if he was doing the albums again now. It's always interesting to hear an artist assessing their own work - these notes are certainly more revealing than some pretty dull interviews tagged on at the end of the DVD sections, and certainly underline that the group weren’t always the best judges of their own material.
First album 'Suede' (1993) is bursting with hits, hooks and riffs, and has to be one of the best debut albums ever - try ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Metal Mickey’. ‘The Drowners’, or ‘So Young’ for starters - though it's astonishing that a song as good as ‘My Insatiable One’ didn't even make the album at the time. Still, there's a real surge and swagger here and for once it's justified by the quality of the music (unlike most of Britpop a few years later, where suddenly it was all about 'attitude', whether there was anything to back it up or not.
'Dog Man Star’ (1994) was the best Bowie album in years, drawing on his ‘Diamond Dogs’ phase (the title's almost an anagram), and shows a really conscious attempt by the group to make a big Album, and prove they hadn't played all their best shots on their debut. Again, there are some irresistible tracks like ‘We are the Pigs’, and ‘The Wild Ones’, but during the making of the album a rift had developed between Brett Anderson and musical mainman Brett Butler, resulting in the guitarist's departure, something that both older and wiser parties seem to regret now. Personally, if anyone's wanting to get just one of these reissues, ‘Dog Man Star’ would be my choice.
By the time of ‘Coming Up’ (1996) Suede had been reinforced by keyboard player/Nick Cave lookalike Neil Codling and 17yr old guitar man Richard Oakes. This was their biggest-selling album - providing no less than five, count 'em!, hit singles - and marked a conscious attempt at moving away from the sound of the first two albums by making a full-on pop record. There are some great tracks here like ‘Trash’, ‘Saturday Night’, and ‘The Beautiful Ones’, but elsewhere the first cracks were starting to appear. Their lyrics had always ricocheted between the sublime and the ridiculous, and ‘Filmstar’, for example, is pure fridge-magnet cliche.
‘Head Music’ didn't come out till '99, by which time a lot of things had changed. Brett Anderson makes a spirited defence of the album in his sleevenote, but recognises that by this stage his addictions were becoming a serious obstacle to the group's music and day-to-day functioning. It's a perfectly serviceable record, and loved by many Suede fans, but somehow it just doesn't engage like the other albums. At this point, readers, I must confess ... there is another album in the series ‘A New Morning’, which I've never heard, but after listening to these four I've od'd on Suede and am in danger of waking up with a floppy fringe. Ultimately, Suede started to run out of steam and lost certainty in their direction at the worst time possible. By 1996 it was much easier for the music biz to market endless Kinks-copyists and Beatles-karaoke acts, and Suede found themselves elbowed aside by a bunch of lesser acts. Their return fifteen years later isn't one that many people expected - it'll be interesting to see if there's to be a new chapter in the Suede story.
And - finally! - I sometimes feel like I'm yelling in an empty house when I do my roots reggae thing here, but if you've ever succumbed to the swirling melodica-thru-the-smoke sounds of Augustus Pablo, check out ‘Message Music’. I was suspicious to begin with due to the post-classic Roots era dates - 1986-1994 takes it into the Digi-Dancehall period, which saw off the reputations of several older stars who tried to follow fashion. Instead it shows how Pablo was an innovative enough musician to take on the new technology and see how he could use it, rather than being taken over by it. Try ‘Java Instrumental’ or ‘Ammagiddeon Dub’ for starters. There are quite a few poor-value Pablo compilations out there - this definitely isn't one of them.
Review by Den Bowne