The word androgyny, it’s a boring overused word, but it does have a point. Androgyny wasn’t a style thing, it wasn’t something to be turned into a photo shoot for the cover of The Face, it was more of a point of view, more of a thing of trying to reject old values, it wasn’t a sort of homage to early 70’s glam rock, it was sort of like saying, “no, I’m a human being first, and let’s have a look between my legs and see what I am second.” What sex I am is secondary to me, I connect with people on an emotional level, and that was what I was trying to say really.
– Brett Anderson
Suede burst onto the scene in the early ’90s when music was in the throes of a “me, me, me” blitzkrieg. Grunge was fueled by self-loathing, Madchester by self-destruction and shoegaze by self-indulgence. Suede didn’t want anything to do with any of that; they wanted extroverted extravagance. The London four-piece—singer Brett Anderson, guitarist Bernard Butler, bassist Mat Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert—aspired to grandiosity, like David Bowie, The Smiths, Scott Walker and Joy Division before them. I loved them and everything to do with them. My first dance at my first (failed) marriage was, ironically, Stay Together.
Fast forward to Southend, 2013. Brett Anderson stands atop a podium and takes a pause in the middle of epic, yearning ballad Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away, while his band remain poised and silent, four blank-faced men dressed in black waiting for a signal from their preening, long-limbed leader. The crowd play the game too, not interrupting with peremptory applause, waiting for their cue. After a daringly extended break, Anderson breathily oozes back into the song with the arch phrase “I can count the times I forgot my lines and you pretended that you didn’t know” while the band slips in behind, building up to a thunderous noise.
“Ooh Brett, you’ve still got it,” sighs the middle-aged woman next to me.
What is particularly remarkable is that this is not some fondly remembered classic of stagecraft from Suede’s back catalogue, but a new song. Suede open with three tracks from their recently released sixth album, Bloodsports, and include four more in a swaggeringly confident 23-song set. It is material that matches the best of their back catalogue in terms of melody, drama, romance and attack, with Richard Oakes and Neil Codling’s bright guitar lines meshing and shining beneath Anderson’s mannered croon. Hit Me, another new song, has Anderson plunging daringly into the crowd, yelling “Sing it! Sing it!”. The audience oblige, with raised fists and “la la las”. He plunges into the crowd many many times after this, grabbing hands and giving sweaty cuddles.
The gig is sold out, with at least half the crowd made up of women (not always a given at a loud, standing rock gig), Suede’s audience are in enthusiastic voice all night, although inevitably the big nineties hits inspire the greatest lung power. Animal Nitrate, once so provocatively weird, becomes a beery singalong. On Trash, the crowd make a brave if not entirely successful attempt to hit the falsetto in unison. By the set’s end, thousands are bellowing “here they come, the beautiful ones”, as if in defiance of their own advancing years.
At Southend Cliffs Pavilion, Suede confirmed that they are staging one of the great comebacks. In almost all respects they are slicker, grander, more purposeful than when they broke up, to mass indifference, in 2003. And yet there is, almost inevitably, the sense of something missing, or misplaced.
It is partly the 47 year-old Anderson’s sweaty, lad rocking enthusiasm, dressed in plain black shirt and black jeans, jumping up and down like a lanky bunny, throwing himself into the crowd yelling “sing it!” at every opportunity. Where is the poise and mystery (not to mention dress sense) that once set them apart from the pack?
There was a time when Suede seemed destined to become one of the great groups, playing epic fanciful rock with a preening, narcissistic frontman on a mission of self-discovery. In the hands of young men, this was music of melodramatic, romantic possibility, taking the spirit of early 70s Bowie and charging it with post-punk energy, the heavy guitar flourish of grunge and space rock possibilities of psychedelia. Suede are often cited as the pioneers of Britpop, but they promised something much grander and stranger.
Well, 20 years on, the music retains all of that flavour but, performed by middle-aged men, it has shed its liquid possibility and solidified into a camp fetishisation of wasted youth. At 47, Anderson is still singing (and writing) songs of forlorn, romantic disillusion and alienation. It is music that no longer aspires to greatness but settles for crowd pleasing. You could say the same of a lot of groups, of course, most of whom have never managed a comeback remotely as effective. After this show, I am genuinely interested in what Suede do next. They have re-established their base in unlikely circumstances. Can they still shoot for the stars? The joy of getting older is that our heroes are more accessible. I gave Brett a kiss on his cheek during Metal Mickey. I shouted to him that it was my friend’s birthday, so he held her hand as he sang “So Young”. He was singing to my ex-wife. Stay Together indeed.