TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
"The idea of a Suede book had been on and off for ages. I'd kind of started it around 98 but then the guy who was going to be editor switched jobs. He eventually came back to us with the suggestion that Simon Price could co-write it with me as he's obviously a far more experienced writer. So we actually did a couple of interviews together but then Simon had to bale out because he'd just landed a new job at Bang magazine, so suddenly it was all back to me with Brett insisting that the book had to come out this year to coincide with the greatest hits album!"
HP Tinker interviews David Barnett, author of Suede biography Love and Poison and discusses the legacy of Britain's finest exponents of degeneracy and 'pornography set to music'.
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
"... 23rd May 1992: a Scotsman falls out of bed. While a band of no fixed gender sing about drowning on TV. They are named Suede, rather aptly, and one decade of pop perversity later, that very same Scotsman David Barnett (who has been inside Suede longer than most) serves up the band's very true story. It's the story of Brett and Matt... then Simon... and even Bernard for a while. The story of various poisons, gay animal sex, bizarre love triangles, Ricky Gervais. Ex-Smiths appearing from nowhere. Androgyny turning into an art form. Sounding like God with a Stratocaster. Even Dame Bowie being impressed. Insatiable songs about sodomy you can whistle in the shower? Morrissey raises an eyebrow and makes notes. Meanwhile, all this audacious underground glam unleashes a renaissance in audacious underground glam generally. Although nobody does it better. Finally a British pop band who matter again. But, oh, the melodrama dogs Suede. Stay together, they don't or won't or can't. God leaves under a cloud and a schoolboy takes over. (The ersatz oasis of Britpop passes in something of a blur...) Coming up on the rails, Neil brings his cheekbones along for the ride. Suede hit the big time beautifully again. More sci-fi lullabies for a new generation who just can't get enough. But somewhere in the distance... there's paranoia and illness in Primrose Hill. The gloomy electronica of crackhead music flows. Have they ever been this low? Neil takes to his sick bed, taking his cheekbones with him... still, a new morning of positivity dawns... eventually. And suddenly armed with a whole new attitude, there's Love & Poison on the shelves and 21 singles helpfully packaged in the shops. Reintroducing the band, then: prepare to re-cast Suede in your collective imagination... the greatest living English band are back ..."
3AM: So, David, tell us about yourself...
DB: I grew up in various rural Scottish towns and villages. Left school at 17 to go and work on Jackie magazine but got an instant unwanted transfer to Commando (because I was a boy, obviously). It was a great job, getting paid for reading comics all day. I moved on to an insurance company for a bit doing their staff magazine which was incredibly dull but great money. Then I went to work for Suede which was exactly the opposite...
3AM: When and where did Suede first enter your life?
DB: 23rd May 1992. It was The Drowners' video on the Chart Show. It made such an impression that I rambled on at great length about it in my diary at the time. I literally fell out of bed watching it because I was straining to see it properly (I'm desperately short sighted). I was actually convinced there was at least one girl in the band...
3AM: Perhaps people underestimate the astonishing impact they made at the time. Post-Smiths, here was the band we'd all been waiting for.
DB: I think the thing I liked about them was that they were slightly awkward and gangly, like myself, but yet incredibly cool, unlike myself, so there was something quite inspiring about that. And obviously the music was amazing. They really did sound like a combination of all my favourite groups -- Sex Pistols, Adam and The Ants, David Bowie, The Smiths, T-Rex and so on -- it was like they'd been manufactured exactly to my specifications. There were lots of little details that I'd always liked in certain bands, like the falsetto and the double-tracked octave vocal. It was also really refreshing that they sounded so bloody obvious at a time when all other bands seemed to be trying to be deliberately obscure and cooler-than-thou and would name-check people like Gram Parsons and Big Star, whereas Suede came along and said, "Actually we like Kate Bush, Hazel O'Connor and Buggles!"
3AM: Quite! So I gather you instantly became something of an obsessive and then created the fanzine Suave & Elegant in their honour.
DB: I was incredibly sad and just collected anything and everything to do with them. I'd spend entire evenings with my fingers poised above the play and record buttons just in case they came on the radio. It took me a while to start Suave & Elegant , though. I think it was because I found all the other fanzines deadly dull. They didn't seem to have any of the slightly haphazard quirkiness which was so much a part of the band's appeal for me. I'd always been a trainspottery fanzine fanatic. I think the first one was a Sex Pistols one called The Swindler Comic when I was about 16. There was one called Basta which actually had a feature on how to write your own Suede song, with titles like 'She's Still Not Dead' and stuff like that . . . and that kind of mutated into Suave & Elegant .
3AM: As such a rabid fan, what were your early encounters with the band like?
DB: I'd been to see them a couple of times before but the first time I met them was Bernard's last gig, which was at Edinburgh Queens Hall in February 94. I was selling the fanzine outside the gig when Simon stepped off the bus. It was a completely magical moment. You have to remember I came from a village of about 800 people and one shop. I'd never even seen anyone remotely famous before, apart from possibly Jimmy Saville at a fete once! So anyway, I gave him a copy of Suave... and he disappeared back on the bus. Then Brett emerged shortly afterwards going "which one of you is David then?" I thought he was annoyed at me for taking the piss, but he said he actually really liked it. Which was, of course, the ultimate accolade. You could see all the other fans gasping. It was funny. A couple of us managed to sneak into the aftershow party somehow and Brett and Simon recognised us which was great and they were really chatty and friendly. And Mat was nice too. The only one who wasn't there was Bernard, portentously enough...
3AM: So how did you come to be accepted into the inner circle, as it were?
DB: How did I penetrate Brett's intimate circle? Ho ho! It was a very gradual process. After the excitement of meeting them the first time I was determined to go to every gig I possibly could. I think at the next one Brett introduced me to Charlie Charlton, their manager and told him to make sure I got into the aftershow there. And then that became a regular occurrence and at one show they asked me to write for the official fanclub zine, so I started doing that and then got an all areas laminate so I could basically get in free to as many Suede gigs as I liked. I did a couple of other things, the most famous of which was the Gayanimalsex t-shirt. That was quite a thrill, going to the Albert Hall and seeing Brett's girlfriend walk in wearing my t-shirt design! Eventually after the Phoenix festival show, Charlie told me he was taking on another band and would I like to help out in the office. I think he was quite possibly very drunk at the time.
3AM: How mad was it suddenly being involved with your idols on an intimate level?
DB: It was obviously a very surreal experience. I was ridiculously naïve and inexperienced and the music industry can be quite cut throat. I remember very early on the Melody Maker called up asking how the recording of the latest album was going and I'd said something like, "oh fine, they've got loads of songs but they're still just at the experimental stage" and then the next week there was this huge news story titled "THE SUEDE EXPERIMENT" going on about how a Suede spokesperson had revealed that Suede's latest record was going to be a 21-track experimental album! I had Saul [Galpern, the Nude Records supremo -- 3AM] and Charlie both screaming down the phone at me and I had to phone up all the band members individually to apologise for being a twat. So I had to learn pretty quickly.
3AM: Obviously it seems quite fitting that Suede should have a manager called Charlie! You must have been performing some quite interesting tasks!
DB: Yes, many a witty bon viveur made the "So you work for Charlie then?" jape. Most of the work was fairly routine, booking cabs, vans, studios etc, but there were quite a few odd requests such as the trousers through the catflap story and others which you can read about in the book...
3AM: So did the initial impulse for an official biography come from you or from within the band?
DB: The idea of a Suede book had been on and off for ages. I'd kind of started it around 98 but then the guy who was going to be editor switched jobs. He eventually came back to us with the suggestion that Simon Price could co-write it with me as he's obviously a far more experienced writer. So we actually did a couple of interviews together but then Simon had to bale out because he'd just landed a new job at Bang magazine, so suddenly it was all back to me with Brett insisting that the book had to come out this year to coincide with the greatest hits album!
3AM: How did you position yourself when it came to the writing -- as an insider or as a fan?
DB: I think a good balance of both. I just wanted to cover as many areas as possible and obviously sometimes that meant looking at it from a fan's perspective and vice versa.
3AM: With a ten year career to squeeze between the covers, how long did the book actually take you to complete?
DB: Aside from the preliminary work mentioned before, the bulk of the book was written between February and August this year.
3AM: You spoke to a plethora of salacious characters who figure variously through the history of Suede: former Brett beau Justin Frishmann (ex of Elastica), writer/star of BBC2 cult The Office Ricky Gervais, ex-Smith drummer Mike Joyce, Beck producer Tony Hoffer, plus various band insiders like Brett's best friend and former flat-mate Alan Fisher, who seems an amusing character...
DB: Everybody was really, really great. Justine was fantastic. She let us use loads of her private photos and she lent me videos of when she was in the band which was all really useful because documentation of the very early days is virtually non-existent. And it's just as well she was there because the rest of the band's memories of those days are hopeless! Brett had people joining and leaving years off from the actual dates. And he insisted that they played 'The Drowners' for the very first time at Justine's last gig, when in fact they'd been playing it for months and stuff like this, so it was a bit like being a cross between a detective and an archaeologist half the time. Meeting Mike Joyce was pretty exciting, having been a huge fan of virtually every band he'd ever been in -- Smiths, PiL, Buzzcocks, Suede... He was hilarious. We went to the pub after the interview and I ended up missing my train back to London because he was regaling me with his impressions of Morrissey and Johnny Rotten. Again, he dug out loads of tapes and stuff that was really helpful -- including the tape of his "audition" with the band. I have to say though that the most enjoyable interviews were with Jon Eydmann [a former Suede manager -- 3AM] and Alan Fisher. I was virtually pissing myself laughing while transcribing their stories. There were a couple of anecdotes from both of them that couldn't go in for legal reasons which would have made the book even more eye-watering!
3AM: Were there many anecdotes that you couldn't include, then, for reasons of decency or legality!?
DB: Surprisingly few. In fact I was quite surprised at the bits the lawyers insisted on taking out as there are bits they left in which seem far more juicy to me. There were also a couple of stories that were a bit apocryphal, Suede urban myths that nobody could actually remember if they really happened or not. I tried to keep it to stuff that was totally true, unbelievable though much of it may seem.
3AM: Well, there's one commonly held belief doing the rounds that Ricky Gervais was once actually the manager of Suede, but that's not quite the case, is it...
DB: As he himself points out, the term "Manager" is probably too grandiose. The simple answer is that he was one of three university Ents managers helping out the band in the early days. He worked at ULU where Simon Gilbert was manager of the ticket office -- which is how Simon met the band.
3AM: Another urban myth bites the dust, then. You do uncover some very interesting stuff in the book. I mean, I always assumed Justine left the group much earlier in the story, when in actual fact she only departed just before they hit the big time.
DB: I think Justine's influence on Suede has always been massively underrated. She came up with the name, hustled venues and labels, designed the t-shirts, paid for most of the rehearsals, drove their equipment everywhere and gave Brett somewhere nice to live for years. And of course most of the first album is about her. I think the exact chain of events leading to Justine eloping with Damon Albarn is pretty interesting too.
3AM: Extremely. I also believe Bernard Butler refused to contribute to the book, was that a big blow for you -- or were you already half-expecting it really?
DB: It wasn't a huge surprise to be honest, although I got the feeling there was part of him that wanted to do it. I think it's a real shame because it would have been nice to get his point of view and his version of events which I'd imagine would be greatly at odds with the band's recollections. He also had some quite funny stories which I'd love to have used. But at the end of the day I can't really blame him, there's obviously a lot of bad memories and I think probably he just wants to forget the whole thing. He was really nice about it though and it was great to meet him properly at last. I'd actually met him once before years ago at the very height of Suede-Butler animosity. My girlfriend at the time was mates with his A&R man at Creation, so somehow the four of us all ended up on the bus together on the way back from this festival in Scotland. And I was actually sitting right next to him for hours on this bus, rabbitting away frantically about how great I thought his gig was because I was terrified he'd ask me what I did for a living!
3AM: There seems a generally more conciliatory attitude between Brett and Bernard these days -- in print at least -- do you think the Anderson/Butler song writing partnership COULD ever function again?
DB: There's so much personal politics involved that it's not really my place to say. I can't really see it happening within the framework of Suede, but I don't think it's entirely impossible that they might collaborate in some other way. I think it's probably worth a go, don't you?
3AM: Very probably! Without over-stating it, the fracturing of the Brett/Bernard song-writing axis is one of the tragedies of modern pop music history, isn't it!? So the way the band turned themselves around after his departure is amazing to look back on.
DB: This is Brett's official line: that Suede were heading for the moon and it's only because Bernard left that their trajectory was interrupted and they didn't become the biggest band in the world and so on. I have a nagging suspicion that people were beginning to tire of Suede anyway, that in fact Bernard leaving and Richard joining actually rekindled some interest and gave them the kick they needed. I certainly remember as a fan it being a terrifically exciting time with everybody saying Suede were finished then seeing the band ripping it up on stage and realising that this was most certainly not the case.
3AM: Following Bernard's departure, the band completed the beautifully overblown Dog Man Star , now regarded as a masterpiece. It's ironic that the very pioneers of guitar-driven alternative 90s music actually got eclipsed by the Britpop party straight after and missed out on the main event -- was that a blessing in disguise, perhaps?
DB: Definitely maybe.
3AM: Mentioning no names, a lot of lesser bands rode on Suede's coat-tails at the time, achieving a degree of success far in excess of their actual talents. Which must have been frustrating for them at the time...
DB: I think Suede have always been pretty separate from the rest of the pack and this probably polarised them even more. The impression I get is that they knew they were onto a good thing and were walking around thinking "Just wait till you hear this!"
3AM: One thing that shines out from the book, which I found oddly comforting, is the way Brett's lyrics really do stem from his own experiences. People don't realise that songs like 'The Living Dead' and 'The Asphalt World' are actually based on real circumstances and not just authorial invention. 'She's Not Dead', for instance, was inspired by the events surrounding his aunt's death...
DB: I totally agree. It certainly gave me a lot more respect for Brett as a writer and also made me go back to the songs again, which I hope is something the book does for other people too. It's astonishing to what extent Suede's records are virtually a day by day photo album of Brett's life.
3AM: Absolutely. So when you went back and listened to those songs, did they hold anything new for you?
DB: The thing that really surprised me was how strong an album Head Music is. It's probably one of my favourites now. And I think definitely songs like 'Indian Strings', 'Down' and 'He's Gone' take on an extra resonance when you realise what they're about and the circumstances they were written and recorded in.
3AM: With there being many interesting angles to the Suede story: Brett's involvement with Justine, the never-ending feud with Damon, the bizarre early participation of Mike Joyce, Bernard Butler's less than amicable departure, the arrival of schoolboy replacement Richard Oakes, Neil Codling's struggle with illness, and so on... which was the most interesting turf to dig around in?
DB: The Head Music period is possibly the most interesting because people know at least part of most of those other stories, whereas the doom and gloom of Head Music was pretty successfully shielded from public view. I think just about everybody very nearly left the band at one point or another, but it's fascinating to see how they actually came up with a pretty good album despite all that.
3AM: I suppose we can't really delve further into the recesses of Suede's world without mentioning the role played by certain, er, recreational substances! Initially, were you shocked by this?
DB: Suede have never really made any great secret of their love of stimulants - "let's chase the dragon" , "we take the pills to find each other," "Class A, Class B," etc etc etc. What did surprise me is how much they directly influenced the music. The demos of stuff like 'Stay Together' and 'Losing Myself' [later re-born as 'New Generation' -- 3AM] are just hilarious, Brett is so obviously completely out of his tree, and yet the finished result is almost magical. It was a dangerously seductive idea that drugs and creativity could be linked in that way.
3AM: Literally dangerous, I suppose, because around the recording of Head Music you describe Brett as a "text book junkie" -- although this really wasn't common knowledge at the time, was it?
DB: Even in the office it was all very hush hush, but there was a really paranoid atmosphere and whispers of trips to the methadone clinic and so on. The episode in the book where I describe accidentally taking crack for the first and last time gives a pretty clear indication of the state he was in. I also remember Mat's girlfriend telling me a story of how they were walking down Kensington High Street one Saturday afternoon and they saw Brett, literally looking like a tramp, rolling around in the gutter and shouting "You guys are no fun anymore!" I wish I'd put that in the book actually. Fuck!
3AM: After the tensions of Head Music , the band came up with these great, almost folky demos at Parkgate studios, Hastings. Then teamed up with Beck producer Tony Hoffer to record a new album, something which must have been very energizing for everyone...
DB: Everybody was hugely excited about the idea but the reality was sadly different. Tony was great, everybody loved him, and some of the stuff he was doing was actually quite interesting, but it just didn't work -- and I think anybody who heard the alternate versions that were available on line will agree with that.
3AM: So two years of experimentation were ditched in favour of a more striped-down approach from former Blur and Morrissey man Stephen Street which closely echoed those original demos. Yet the resultant A New Morning album (recorded in an eight week blitz) represented something of a dip in sales terms -- what happened, do you think?
DB: The biggest problem is it just took too long. Most of Suede's biggest supporters like Select and Melody Maker had all bitten the dust. The musical landscape had shifted hugely as it always does a couple of years into a new decade. There's almost a parallel with The Strokes being like the new Suede, opening the doors for a new movement and kicking out the old guard (including Suede!) at the same time. Also they'd re-recorded the songs so many times that all the spark had been squeezed out of them. I agree with Alex's sentiment [Alex Lee, the latest Suede recruit - 3AM], though, that it's an album that will be looked on more favourably in years to come.
3AM: And as ever with Suede there were just so many quality b-sides flying around like 'Simon', 'Cheap', 'UFO', 'Cool Thing'... is there sometimes the feeling that certain b-sides might be better served on actual albums, or even as singles?
DB: Absolutely, but in a way that's one of the greatest things about Suede. It's like there's all these secret treasures to discover that are often more exciting than the main attraction. My favourite Smiths albums were always Hatful of Hollow and The World Won't Listen , not Meat Is Murder or Strangeways, Here We Come , for the same reason.
3AM: In the book, you postulate this interesting dichotomy of Suede: on the one hand they are a genuinely left-field band, yet on the other they really want to be as successful chart-wise as possible. You suggest this means some songs, 'She's In Fashion', 'Positivity', say, fall between two stools almost, not perverse enough for the hardcore fans, yet still way too out there for the casual mainstream punter...
DB: It's a dilemma totally of their own making. Before Suede if an indie band like Ride or The House of Love got into the Top 40 there'd be dancing on the rooftops. But Suede raised the stakes to such an extent that bands like Blur and Oasis were regularly having number ones and in a way it's sad because alternative music has become more about commercial success than actually being any good. Hence bands like the Manics -- and some would say Suede! -- became the total antithesis of everything they ever stood for in the first place.
3AM: For a non-mainstream single like the murderously good 'Attitude' to hit number 14 seems a real achievement, then. Like Suede are still very much in business.
DB: This leads on directly from the last point. I think 'Attitude' was a really brave thing for them to do, because it's obviously purely an artistic statement with absolutely no pandering to commerciality. It seems to have paid off too, because despite having had virtually no radio play whatsoever, it's a bigger hit than 'Positivity' which was all over Radio 2 and Virgin Radio. And I really, really hope it's an indication that Suede have returned to doing cool, weird, pioneering type material rather than desperate stabs at mainstream acceptance.
3AM: The video featuring the original Elephant Man -- John Hurt -- is absolutely brilliant too... very "Suede", as it happens! And with Brett now threatening to record an album of "pornography set to music" (!) does 'Attitude' actually signal a new, er, attitude for the band?
DB: Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much -- as if! -- I think the whole experience of the book has been really good for Brett and the band. He admitted himself he found it quite therapeutic and I like to think it's given them some perspective about Suede's strengths and weaknesses. Just the idea of Suede using Lindy Heymann (who did Suede's earliest videos) for the 'Attitude' video is a great piece of synergy. And then to have John Hurt -- one of Brett's favourite actors, this kind of quintessential English icon -- doing this grotesque caricature of Brett complete with arse-slapping, is just genius! So, yes, I hope so.
3AM: Finally, a word on those recent ICA gigs, where each of the five studio albums were performed in their entirety over the course of five sold out nights. They sound like they must have been amazing, iconic, life-affirming events...
DB: It's no exaggeration to say that that was probably the greatest week of my life. Every night was brilliant but the most surprising thing was how good the last couple of nights were, which I'm sure everybody had been expecting to be a bit of an anti-climax. They really managed to pull it off and of course ending on 'Stay Together' was a master stroke. I cried. And I wasn't the only one.
( Love & Poison by David Barnett is out now, published by Andre Deutsch. Suede's Singles collection is also out now.)
Buy David Barnett’s Suede: Love & Poison: The Official Biography.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
HP is a purveyor of poor quality prose who lives and shops in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, not too far from where Quentin Crisp took his very last breath...