Six Degrees of The London Suede’s Suede

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 07.13.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Suede (Deluxe Reissue)

The London Suede

"Pretty much about sex and depression in equal measure," is how singer Brett Anderson describes The London Suede's first album. He's not kidding; essentially every song on what was, in 1993, the fastest-selling debut album in U.K. history is about mental illness, or fucking, or a brutal combination of the two. "In your broken home, he broke all your bones/ Now you're taking it time after time," goes "Animal Nitrate," the album's U.K. Top 10 single. Even more crucially, the music itself embodies sex and violence and madness. Guitars churn and twist over a skintight rhythm section as Anderson brays and hisses like a man yielding to another's force: This is glam-rock recharged at the absolute worst point in the AIDS epidemic, and the danger and melodrama it exudes felt - and still feels - vividly real.

Announcing an abrupt break from England's hazy shoegaze sounds while sharply countering America's grunge movement, Suede was a shock-chocked album that kick-started Britpop by daring to bring back audacious, instantaneous rock. Sporting luscious cheekbones and better hair, The London Suede was exactly what the trend-hungry English music press required. Yet in this case the hype was justified, although short-lived, and the vicious feyness with which the band both charmed and repelled fans was soon eclipsed by the far more universal laddishness of Oasis. Guitarist Bernard Butler left in a huff before '94's equally extraordinary and even more extreme Dog Man Star hit stores, and Anderson for a time became the embodiment of his songs' crash-and-burn protagonists as his life became consumed by a crack and heroin addiction.

Anderson's cleaned up now; Butler's a hit producer (Duffy, Kate Nash, Aimee Mann), and the post-Butler Suede has reunited in time for an extensive excavation and reexamination of its catalog. "We're so young and so gone/ Let's chase the dragon from our home," the cataclysmic opening cut still beckons, forever young, forever gone.

The Vocal Forefather



"We kissed in his room to a popular tune/ Ohhhhh, real drama," declares The London Suede's debut single, 1992's "The Drowners." "Take your torch and burn me and turn me over and over in your dreams of godliness," the inaugural cut on the initial album by the first openly gay rocker on a mainstream label similarly whines 19 years prior. The London Suede surely had Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie on its mind and not America's Jobriath, who for years languished in obscurity until eulogized and anthologized by Morrissey 21 years after his death from AIDS. But aside from the differing accents, The London Suede singer Brett Anderson's voice more closely resembles the screech of Jobriath, a fleetingly hyped, flaming creature who made Bowie seem understated. Veering from Elton John at his most gothic to the Rolling Stones at their most decadent, nearly every track on this 1973 outing is deliriously, deliciously overwrought. It's an aesthetic Jim Steinman would popularize via Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," but it's far more fascinating here because it's in the service of someone so obviously not long for this earth. Jobriath's sights were set on the stars.

The Charming Prototypes

The Smiths

The Smiths

When The London Suede came along, it felt like the Smiths all over again. Here was another singular, guitar-based band that radiated the talent and determination of winners while coming across like misfit toys. This was no accident: The London Suede's Bernard Butler learned how to play guitar by studying the Smiths' Johnny Marr, and before Suede started recording, Smiths drummer Mike Joyce nearly joined the band. There's ardor in both Butler and Marr's playing, but there's also a sense of femininity as well, because their commitment to the music demands sensitivity. You can't be a truly versatile player like these guys without receptivity.

"Slap me on the patio/ I'll take it now," goes the arresting opening track "Reel Around the Fountain." If fucking is rock's central topic, then being fucked is the implicit subject of both The Smiths and Suede. Of course it ends in tears, but that's how things went back then, and still to some extent does today. Yet there's that fleeting moment when the sun truly does seem to shine out of your behind, as Morrissey so indelicately puts it on "Hand in Glove," and that transcendence, however brief, is as much a part of the story here as the despair it mercifully interrupts.

The Snarling Sisters



The London Suede's frontman Bret Anderson may have famously proclaimed that he was a bisexual who'd never had a homosexual experience, but he was essentially a straight guy with a vivid imagination; the object of his affection was early bandmate Justine Frischmann. She left him and took up with Blur leader Damon Albarn, which of course destroyed Anderson and inspired him to seek revenge by writing the brilliant, highly distraught songs found on Suede. Frischmann's response, 1995's Elastica, is nearly as sex-soaked as that album, but as cool as her ex's debut is hot. Taking its stylistic cues (and plagiarizing several riffs) from pioneering punk bands Wire and the Stranglers, the first and sole great album from this three-gal, one-guy (Justin Welch, another former London Suede-ster) London quartet sequences deadpan drones between sassy rave-ups until climaxing with what's essentially an 84-second commercial extolling the erotic possibilities of petroleum jelly. Remarkably, it outsold both The London Suede and Blur in the U.S. Albarn and co.'s subsequent reinvention of themselves, 1997's American breakthrough Blur (particularly its unexpected sports anthem "Song 2"), can be heard as an answer to Elastica's many come-ons.

The Soulful Stepchild



After Bernard Butler acrimoniously split from The London Suede, he hooked up with gay black singer David McAlmont to score U.K. pop hits that fused modern rock, soul, and Scott Walker, before he went solo with diminishing success. Around the same time, his guitar playing/songwriting/production credits popped up on albums from artists ranging from dance-pop siren Sophie Ellis-Bextor to veteran Scottish folkie Bert Jansch and, in 2005, he even buried the hatchet with Anderson to co-helm their short-lived but similarly melodramatic band, the Tears. Three years later, his name suddenly and quite simultaneously appeared everywhere, and his payday came by way of an unknown Welsh retro pop-soul singer. Duffy scored an instant worldwide smash with this, her debut album, and although its surface sheen breaks from early London Suede, the storminess at the core of it most certainly does not: Co-penned by Butler, the title track is essentially an orchestral Suede ballad as belted by Dusty Springfield.

The Enfant Terrible

In Lust We Trust

The Ark

When Adam Lambert nearly won the eighth season of American Idol in 2009 on the heels of Lady Gaga's mega-stardom, glam once again became a buzzword. By that time, the Ark had already hit No. 1 in its native Sweden and neighboring Scandinavian countries numerous times with a glam rock explosion that suggests what Hedwig & the Angry Inch might've sounded like had John Cameron Mitchell's East German transgender-led band been a real band and not just the name of his Off-Broadway musical and movie.

Like Lambert, Ark frontman Ola Salo has a musical theater background and, accordingly, holds a stage like the superstar that he is back home. Unlike Lambert, he's also an astoundingly self-assured songwriter, one fond of marrying grand pop melodies and finessed rock arrangements to lyrical content ordinarily not found on chart-topping discs. On the Ark's 2002 album, Salo advocates for the gay right to parent children on "Father of a Son," while on "Disease," he sings of a desire so thorough he'd welcome HIV into his bloodstream in order to become closer to his beloved. Even more remarkably, both not only sound like hit singles, but also actually were exactly that in Sweden. Like Suede in its prime, the Ark's penchant for overstatement is also its greatest gift.