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Magick, Sex, William Blake & Lewis Carroll: Brett Anderson’s Apocalyptic Visions

By Guy Mankowski.

Morrissey’s uneasy descriptions of England evolve into something more fractured, even hallucinatory, in the nineties lyrics of Brett Anderson. The lyrics on Suede’s self-titled debut album would stratify new conceptual space within England’s cultural life. Brett Anderson portrayed the drug-addled, the sexual outsider, those looking for elation outside the aspirations of normative life. In so doing he would prefigure the psychonauts of inner space that would increasingly populate the urban hinterlands of tenements and tower blocks as the end of the century, finding the outside world an increasingly frightening and fractured place. As he sang on an early B-side; ‘where the pigs don’t fly / I do.’

Suede certainly weren’t the only artists to be portraying England during this cultural era. Blur would adopt the template for portraying England from The Kinks, who had given us a point of view through characters called Terry and Julie in ‘Waterloo Sunset’. But whereas Davies’ view of England seemed loving and affectionate, Albarn’s characters from ‘Ernold Same’ to ‘Tracy Jacks’ — appeared lost and sad in neoliberalism’s contemporary manifestations. Not so much ‘lazy Sunday afternoons’, but more brief bank holidays before it’s ‘back to work / A.G.A.I.N.’

Albarn would soon be accused of patronising the working classes in his songs, glamourizing customs and traditions with the insincerity of a tourist. Brett Anderson’s vignettes would be darker, and more abstracted, in their view of a developing England. An England whose more dystopian aspects have come to the fore in recent decades, given the atomised nature of urban life.

The video to Suede’s early single ‘Animal Nitrate’ would see the cameras eye hurry from outside a Brutalist tenement, along its bleak walkways and inside a tower block. The interior is revealed as a sleazy performance space. In it, a shiny Taffeta curtain suggests transformation from a bleak urban flat into a liminal space that recalls the pre-war Berlin nightclubs. This is an impression enhanced when drag artists in masks frolic around the band in leopard print. With the band playing amongst figures dressed in pig masks (‘pigs’ being a key feature of Anderson’s psychic landscape and the name of his schoolboy band), the allusions to drug-induced conceptual room are clear. The fact that the camera’s eye then retreats from the flat as the song ends implies that it is only within in the fleeting boundaries of the pop song that alternatives to living can be devised — as if that was ever in dispute.

Bernard Butler’s guitar part for the song is a micro-history of contemporary English music in itself. The combination of overdrive and phaser in the opening chords is psychedelic, creating space for Anderson’s ideas. The hammered low E string of the verse fills recall rockabilly, and the slashed B-minor and A major chords recall glam-rock. The lead guitar of the chorus snatches the melody from BBC police series Dixon of Dock Green, whilst showcasing Butler’s technique. He is adept at combining chords with plucked leads in one guitar figure. A trick which itself recall’s what Mick Ronson could only do using overdubs on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Any guitarist who has tried playing Butler’s parts will marvel at how he played both rhythm and lead in one figure — with Johnny Marr seeming to be the only comparative guitarist.

Suede’s debut album is full of the temporary conceptual spaces used in the video for ‘Animal Nitrate’. Lacunae snatched from a culture that won’t economically permit something more permanent for the artist who exists outside orthodox life. In Breakdown, Anderson sings ‘back where the dogs bark / where still life bleeds the concrete white / try not to go too far inside your own mind.’ He warns of how becoming what Hamlet called a ‘king of infinite space’, though understandable amongst the mess of concrete that is contemporary England, does not make for a healthy journey. In ‘All The Young Dudes’ Bowie had asked if the concrete was all around or in his head, and in this song his heir-apparent answers the enquiry.

In ‘The Next Life’ the idea of a better alternative is rooted in Worthing, where Anderson longs to join a lover and ‘flog ice-creams / ’til the company’s on its knees.’ It seems it isn’t just concrete that’s in his head- England is too. As Anderson explores more deeply in follow-up album Dog Man Star, the English tendency is to dream of distant times, and to be possessed by the dreams of other cultures. In ‘The Power’, a song unfinished during Butler’s tenure with the band, Anderson sings —

‘You might live in a screen kiss
It’s a glamorous dream
Or belong to a world that’s gone
It’s the English disease’

The quote seems just as relevant today, given the Conservative Party’s push towards a Brexit that strives to recapture a bygone Britain. But for all its lyrical fluidity, the song was a source of great conflict in the band. The original demo of the song, when it was titled ‘Banana Youth’, reveals what a different vision Butler had for it. His original guitar line is vaulting, dramatic, shocking. Listening to it now we realise that the album version of ‘The Power’ is itself an audio ghost. To this day I hear the album version and miss Butler’s crashing chords from the demo, which are not evidenced in the released album track. Following Butler’s acrimonious departure session musicians would record a sleeker version of his guitar parts, cobbled together from the demos he left behind. Though these parts prefigure the kind of acoustic strumming The Verve would make famous, they lack the drama that made Suede infamous.

Anderson acknowledged that David Bowie’s ‘Quicksand’ (which namechecked Himmler, The Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley) was an influence on the song. In it, Anderson begs for a power that will ‘make them believe.’ This in itself echoes Aleister Crowley, who spoke of ‘the magus-like power of the rock star.’

In titling the album Dog Man Star, with no little pretension, Anderson used an onomatopoeic device to describe man’s development in microcosm. But in fact, the album seems to describe something beyond the status of the ‘star’ — something closer to the Messiah. On the lavish and elegant Dog Man Star-era B-side, ‘My Dark Star’, Anderson sings —

‘She will come from India
With a love in her eyes
That says ‘oh how my dark star will rise’
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a tattooed tear she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise’

In this description he envisions a messiah for the new millennium. One who will come to address the ‘lies of the government’s singular history.’ Who will be loving, vengeful and very feminine. It is a strikingly memorable vision, and it’s a testament to the riches of Dog Man Star that ‘My Dark Star’ didn’t make the cut.

As is apparent on his blissfully inventive guitar line to ‘The Wild Ones’ Butler’s parts for the album were often confrontational, frightening, and unusually layered. The fact that some of his work on Dog Man Star didn’t make the final record is all the more astounding when you consider that in the early days of the band Butler and Anderson had been close enough to smoke the same cigarettes and wear the same clothes. The sense of rivalry that had seen the singer and guitarist jostle for audience’s attention by outdoing each other live reached its climax with the writing and recording of Dog Man Star. Both tried to compete with each other by writing the most dazzling parts, exchanging them by post, and even recording in separate studios. This aspect of the album’s backstory imbues the music with a tension and drama, and that is never more apparent than in the song ‘The Asphalt World’. Anderson, having just read an interview with Butler in Vox that disparaged his contribution to the band, channelled his sense of hurt into the song’s vocals. It was a performance which Anderson himself cites as evidence that songs can ‘achieve alchemy.’ In describing a painful love triangle, Anderson sings —

‘Sometimes we ride in a taxi
To the ends of the city
Like big stars in the back seat
Like skeletons
Ever so pretty’

In this lyric he is not only bringing to bear the suburban dreams of Hollywood fame, lurking in the recesses of many English minds. He is also evoking the title of John Hudson’s 1950’s B-movie, The Asphalt Jungle, featuring no other than the ultimate ‘big star’ — Marilyn Monroe. She seems to appear as well in ‘Heroine’, where Anderson begs her to come to his slum ‘for an hour’. The song describes a wretch begging a star to go from the silver screen of his fantasy into the filth of his existence. It’s a song which uses the metaphor of pornography to explore the theme of isolation that suffuses the record. Quoting Byron in the opening line (‘she walks in beauty / like the night’) here Anderson explores how fame has made him place the female archetype on a pedestal. The woman is an addiction, a need that can’t be made flesh or brought into the isolation of the male existence.

Elsewhere on the album, Anderson’s prescient visions of England are of a landlocked in revolution. In ‘We Are The Pigs’ he sings —

‘As they call you to the eye of the storm
All the people say ‘stay at home tonight’
I say we are the pigs
We are the swine
We are the stars of the firing line’

Just as, a few years later, The Libertines would sing of ‘stylish kids in the riot’ who ‘set the night on fire’, Anderson too foretells of a younger generation rebelling against the orthodoxy. Speaking of the genesis of Dog Man Star, Anderson comments ‘I was having visions about songs. Lots of songs were about visions, like ‘We Are The Pigs’. I was actually having visions of riots in the streets and inventing insane things, living in this surreal world.’

But how insane were these visions? The 2011 London riots that would follow were blamed variously on racial tension, economic decline and financial inequality. All themes Morrissey and Anderson explored in their own lyrics. In ‘We Are The Pigs’ Anderson predicts an England increasingly torn apart by drugs and violence, bludgeoned by the heavy shadow of nuclear war —

‘And as the smack cracks at your window
You wake up with a gun in your mouth
Oh let the nuclear wind blow away my sins
And I’ll stay at home in my house’

Anderson admits that his own isolation may have fed into this lyrical content — ‘I deliberately isolated myself, that was the idea,’ he said. ‘It was like; I’m going to go up to Highgate and write a fucking album. See you later everyone.’

During the writing of this album, Anderson found his own quintessentially English space. Holed up in Highgate, in his own version of David Bowie’s Haddon Hall, Anderson took up residence in a flat that was, in his words, ‘in the basement of this really beautiful, big gothic place. It had this amazing garden. There was a summer house at the bottom; a real kind of mansion-type vibe.’ If the twisted Englishness of the setting was more than conducive to his writing, a surreal quality was added by the proximity of a Mennonite cult living above him. The Mennonites — a 16th-century Dutch cult critical of the luxuries of the modern world, would, Anderson states, ‘sing hymns all the time.’ Their critique of contemporary Britain, as well as their chants, are perhaps apparent in the chanting outro of ‘We Are The Pigs’. It is a song in which Anderson imagines the future that an increasingly divided England is hurtling towards.

He may have been looking ahead, but Anderson had a mindset informed by the past. He cites William Blake as an inspiration around this time. In ‘Daddy’s Speeding’ the lines ‘Sorrow turns his eyes to mine / Sorrow breaks the silent day’ evokes Blake’s lines (‘With Sorrow fraught, My notes are driven; They strike the ear of night / Make weep the eyes of day’). The album contains echoes of other English visionaries, buried deep enough into the text to feel subliminal, even archetypal. This is an album that has England, and lucid visions of England, in its blueprint.

Given the song’s preoccupation with James Dean, Kenneth Anger’s infamous Tinseltown exposé is apparent too. Using the device of the car crash in relation to the famous corpse also brings to mind JG Ballard’s Crash, with its ultimate fantasy of a head-on motorway collision with Elizabeth Taylor. If Anderson was having nightmares about car crashes it was only one type of vision that made itself evident on the album.

Anderson gradually immersed himself in the idea of trance-like states as a creative methodology (the French ‘seer’ Nostradamus would use nutmeg — arguably a weaker substance than those Anderson was imbibing — as a hallucinogen in order to write his revelatory verses). He claims that much of the imagery on songs like ‘Introducing The Band’ are a result of giving his subconscious free reign. He delved into books on witchcraft, sex and Aleister Crowley, as well as his protégé, Kenneth Anger. Crowley’s whole shtick was that, in the practice of ‘Magick’ the mind can overpower matter. It is about more than visions — it is about manifesting those visions through incantations- another word for which might be songs. The opening track ‘Introducing The Band’, with its echoes of Buddhist chanting, has more than a touch of the mantra about it. On this album, Anderson is a twentieth-century necromancer, fuelled by visions of Hollywood, pornography and the English incantations of Blake, Byron and Ballard. The stifled dreams of suburbia and of international travel are there too, in the ‘lonely wives of the Business Class’ that populate ‘The 2 Of Us’, ‘alone but loaded’. Anderson spoke of how fame brought the contradiction of adoring fans along with personal isolation. In ‘The 2 Of Us’ the song’s protagonist enviously watches ‘two silhouettes by the cash machine’ that make ‘a lover’s dance.’ The female protagonist of ‘Still Life’ too watches the slow crawl of the day through her window, yearning for her lover’s return.

‘It was part of having a fertile imagination’ Anderson states. ‘I was quite into all these people that had visions and were slightly off their nut, people like Lewis Carroll.’

This praxis might have reached its zenith by the time Anderson conducted a bizarre interview with the NME. In it, he stated his favourite artist was a creature he’d invented called Jaquoranda. ‘I was deadly serious about it,’ Anderson states. ‘It had a deer’s head and wore a sari!’

This extract is part of a collection out for review, entitled ‘Albion’s Secret History – Snapshots of England’s Pop Rebels and Outsiders’.

Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of Letters From Yelena and How I Left The National Grid. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was re-published in 2018.

(Author portrait by Rebecca Burdon.)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 16th, 2018.