Suede: 'Dog Man Star is lonely music for lonely people'
By George Chesterton
20 November 2019
Having invented Britpop, the Haywards Heath poseurs eventually went to war with it – and each other – over the era’s most ‘difficult’ second album. As Dog Man Star turns 25, the men who made it reveal the story of a masterpiece the Nineties almost forgot but posterity remembers
Suede saved British pop music. In 1992 there was no glamour, style or sex in the charts, which were squatted in by Euro-house, the unconscionably bland and bands who didn’t care how they looked or even sounded. Then Suede came along in their Crimplene shirts and leather jackets and said come to the cabaret. They were rushed onto the covers of magazines before they even had an album deal and their first three singles created a hysteria that consumed teenage girls, style-conscious boys, indie kids and any old outsider searching for a home. Less than a year later, their first album, Suede, became the fastest-selling debut for a decade. It was as if someone had applied a cultural defibrillator.
In Brett Anderson they had a nose-in-the-air frontman who sang about satellite towns and rough trade, while protean guitarist Bernard Butler switched from crunching rock chords to lyrical ballads at will. They were the most interesting and lithe partnership since Morrissey and Marr. Suede were pretty. They were power pop and art rock, seedy, funny and a tad pretentious, exactly what a great band is supposed to be. And they were unashamedly, excitingly un-American, an antidote to grunge and an androgynous swish against the fading machismo Madchester. All over Britain, kids with floppy fringes and no rhythm were swaying in bedrooms and student unions because their lives had been lit up by some poseurs from Haywards Heath.
“It’s hard to convey now a culture based around scenes and the excitement that came from the next big thing,” says Stuart Maconie, the writer and broadcaster whose article on Suede in the April 1993 edition of Select – with the headline “Yanks go home!” – is now seen as the starting pistol of Britpop. “I thought they were in a direct line from T Rex and Bowie. It seemed such an essential corrective to all these grunge bands in plaid shirts saying, ‘I don’t want to tidy my room.’ Brett was saying, ‘I don’t want to tidy my room,’ but in a much more interesting way."
It felt as if Suede were the chosen ones. In 1994, work began on a second album designed to be a cultural landmark, but somewhere between base camp and the summit something went wrong. By the end of the year the band were an embittered wreckage, Butler had quit and the album, Dog Man Star, was left unpromoted and overshadowed. It turned out to be an end point for them, a beginning for everyone else. In the year of Parklife and Definitely Maybe, Suede would see their own creation almost consume them.
Everything we were writing felt like gold dust. But we knew people were listening and with that comes hubris
Second albums are often a disaster because bands have nothing left to say. If anything, Suede had too much left to say when they recorded theirs between March and July 1994. This difficult second album was difficult to make, difficult to sell and difficult for some to listen to. When it was released that winter, Dog Man Star caused a mixture of awe, confusion and sniggering. But the 25 years since have been kind to this imperfect masterpiece. It is the art of falling apart.
“It was our imperial phase,” Anderson tells me. “Everything we were writing felt like gold dust. But we knew people were listening and with that comes hubris.”
It was more ambitious but more masochistic than anything their contemporaries could conceive, let alone pull off. Suede didn’t quite pull it off themselves and yet Dog Man Star remains a remarkable achievement.
“The first album started Britpop but we didn’t get sucked into that cavalcade of nonsense and we wanted to go somewhere else,” says Anderson. “We saw other bands jumping on the British bandwagon and Dog Man Star was a reaction to that.”
“Dog Man Star fails quite a lot,” says bassist and founding member Mat Osman, “but it falls in a really interesting place. It’s a pretentious record, in the sense it’s reaching for something beyond its grasp. There’s something quite charming about that.”
The original version of Suede was formed in 1988 after Anderson and Osman met Justine Frischmann at University College London. Butler, an Afghan hound to Anderson’s poodle, joined the then Camden Town scenesters a year later after answering an advert in the NME, gradually replacing Anderson’s then-girlfriend Frischmann, who left in 1991 to date Damon Albarn and eventually form Elastica. Drummer Simon Gilbert had joined a year earlier at the recommendation of Ricky Gervais, of all people, who was their pretend manager for a few months.
Butler’s writing and playing has a uniquely dynamic melodrama and a sense of theatre that dovetailed with his partner’s. Suddenly labels were clamouring for a signature. Their first trio of hits on Nude and the debut album (which won the Mercury Music Prize in 1993) suggested Suede’s rise to national and then global dominance was inevitable. The grime of the Suede universe was in balance with a sense of seedy charisma that had been missing from British music since the Seventies. “Those early records were very on-the-cheap sexual glamour,” says Maconie. “It’s more about snogging than actual sex. Illicit, rushed, cramped and finding the glamour in that.”
“I look back on those days – until things really fell apart – with great pleasure,” says Osman. “It’s an amazing feeling, like you’re in the eye of the storm. To walk out into the streets and feel like this world was yours. We had money. We were young. With Dog Man Star it’s easy to think of it as this dank thing, but there are moments of pure joy in it.”
The volatility that powered Anderson and Butler’s collaboration soon turned into something as likely to destroy as to create. In the gap between the hype of Suede and the near collapse of Dog Man Star, the band did what successful bands do, although by the time of their biggest hit “Stay Together”, in February 1994, Butler, it seemed, wanted to resist the inexorable rush to debauchery. “You can justify drugs by saying you are trying to expand your ideas,” says Anderson. “We lived a pretty dissolute lifestyle. It was a mad blur of consumption. In between moments of hedonism we’d stumble into the studio and write songs and go on tour and I don’t know how we managed to get anything done. Every day was crazy.”
On their second visit to the US in early 1994, Suede were supported by The Cranberries, who were having a huge international hit with “Linger” and were being asked to top the bill at some gigs, much to the supposed headliners’ chagrin. “News came through the grapevine that all was not well,” says Maconie. “Rumours were that Bernard refused to talk to anyone and when he did he only wanted to talk about guitars. Things had turned very bad between Brett and Bernard. It had gone feral.”
Things had turned very bad between Brett and Bernard. It had gone feral
Butler travelled on his own or on The Cranberries’ tour bus rather than with his bandmates. To add to the gathering storm, his father had died and the grief isolated him further. “Everything that we became defined by drove me up the wall,” said Butler in 2011. “I wanted to destroy it.” At the time he said the others resented him because he “didn’t want to party” and Anderson and Osman concede they were ill-equipped for such a crisis. “We had no emotional tools to deal with it,” says Anderson. “Our emotional intelligence was so limited. I knew things were falling apart but we just thought it would be all right... probably. If the music was working we thought it would pull everything else through. We were still children.”
On their return, Anderson moved to Highgate, North London, where he lived in solitude, listening to the chanting of the Anabaptist Mennonite sect living in the flat next door and drawing on a fresh set of influences, from acid-fuelled dreams of Hollywood casualties to watching Performance on repeat. “By that point I’d become quite a strange person,” he says. “That’s what success does to you. I indulged my strange obsessions.”
“We are naturally contrary people and Bernard is the most contrary of all,” says Osman. “When we started recording we were really optimistic about the music and we thought that would be enough. We were aware relationships in the band were not as good as they had been, but it was always fractious with Bernard. He’s one of those people who works through friction. We definitely didn’t go into it thinking we wouldn’t make it to the end.”
When recording of Dog Man Star began at Master Rock Studios in Kilburn, London, in March 1994, Anderson and Butler avoided each other entirely, with the guitarist battling for control with Suede’s producer Ed Buller (who Butler tried to have replaced). “I didn’t get out of my coffin until four o’clock in the afternoon,” says Anderson. “We worked in shifts, so Bernard, Simon and Mat would work in the day and I would waft in after dinner and just do vocals, so I’d take the evening slot. It was fractured.”
Despite their cold war (Butler had been complaining to the press unilaterally about Anderson’s perceived lack of musicality and, in the words of one headline, that “Brett drives me insane”), Dog Man Star began to emerge in all its glorious folly.
Opener “Introducing The Band” – with Buddhist monk-inspired chanting – is certainly a statement, even if that statement is “Welcome and up yours”. “The riff is fucking great,” says Osman. “Bernard’s entire personality is in that riff – awesome and needling.”
What follows is a journey up and down the terrain of Anderson and Butler’s scarred imagination, with lyrics that encompass James Dean’s death, JG Ballard dystopias and a crushing sense of romantic doom, all imbued with the Suede tropes of nocturnal avenues under street lamps and brooding offices.
What had been a template for quicksilver vignettes of the British underground had become darker and more complex. “With a debut, it’s always autobiography,” says Anderson. “It’s just about the writer’s life. Dog Man Star wasn’t just about my life. It was the first time I’d thought about themes. It was a product of the success of the first album and, of course, the conflict that was going on within the band. You can’t ignore that. The problem is that backstory can smother it and people assume it’s about Bernard leaving the band and it wasn’t.”
The mood of Dog Man Star changes so acutely from song to song it’s hard to get a feel for it at first, but eventually a broader narrative emerges in which each story complements the next. “Bringing ‘We Are The Pigs’ out as the first single may have been commercial suicide, but it’s still my favourite,” says Maconie. “It had everything about Suede distilled into that four minutes. Some of the reviews of Dog Man Star used the word pretentious, which makes me think, ‘Great.’ By and large, when a rock critic calls something pretentious it means it’s interesting.”
“The Wild Ones” is Anderson’s sweetheart song and it’s the epitome of his and Butler’s ability to communicate a kind of elated melancholy, with a chorus that conveys as much joy as pain. “‘The Wild Ones’ is pure romantic pop,” says Anderson. “It’s the most uplifting thing we ever did.”
After three months of barely contained animosity, the one-in, one-out arrangement became unsustainable and Butler quit before the album was completed. “I didn’t have the diplomatic skills to deliver what I needed to do,” said Butler, now a successful producer. “I’m full of apologies now.”
Session guitarists were brought in to finish “The Power”, a rousing sing-a-long about breaking free, Anderson’s most beloved theme. Now, Buller indulged the band in Butler’s absence. Some of the extended outros were cut. Brass and strings were added. A tap dancer was hired to record a percussion track. A zither was recorded and abandoned when they realised the zither player couldn’t play the zither. London’s Philharmonia Orchestra was enlisted for the last song. Just the usual rock’n’roll breakdown stuff.
“It was a strange period after Bernard left,” says Anderson. “There was a real sense of relief. I don’t mean to be catty but it had been very unpleasant for a long time and it felt like a weight had lifted. We had a few days in the studio when there was a weird sense of release. But then we suddenly realised we had work to do and we thought, ‘What the fuck are we going to do now?’”
The last four songs of Dog Man Star form an unsettling, self-contained cycle. From “The 2 Of Us” to “Still Life”, Anderson’s lyrics get as dark as the cityscapes of his delirium. Love is not merely doomed, but violent, addled and betrayed to the tunes of Butler’s twinkling piano. “The Asphalt World” is so obviously an attempt to write a gothic epic, but when it’s over, that premeditation doesn’t really matter. It’s still a gothic epic. Only in “Still Life”, a beautifully simple song that became the bombastic finale, does Anderson offer a glimmer of hope in the voice of an unloved housewife who vows to carry on fighting. Just like Suede, in fact.
The subjects Anderson turned to for Dog Man Star always seemed to mirror something in my own life. It was not a pleasant experience. I moved back to my own private Andersonland at the end of 1994, amid the flyovers and semidetached houses of outer London. In the suburban wasteland, the legacy of recession and the collapse of the housing market was toxic. There was bad blood everywhere and, with the waves of urban migration about to turn them into a minority, gangs of racist white brigands were turning over corner shops and attacking Asian kids in the streets. The woman with whom I’d spent the final year of university entangled in an elaborate but unconsummated courtship got on a plane and returned to America. It was as if “The Wild Ones” had been written for me. Dog Man Star sounded like the great romance of a lost cause – the cause being to somehow overcome the greyness of life.
“There is a sense in that record of children playing in the ruins,” says Osman. “There is nothing further from Cool Britannia than Dog Man Star.” The cover was suitably lugubrious: a 1971 image of a naked figure lying on a bed by photographer Joanne Leonard. This being the Spinal Tap version of Suede, though, the original cover was of a woman on her knees in a dog collar from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom.
Bernard Butler quitting Suede was meant to be, according to Osman. He says from the moment Butler joined it was always a matter of when not if. But then and now I can’t help imagining an alternative universe (the Spanish Armada doesn’t get blown off course, for example, or the Confederacy survives the American Civil War). In my timeline, Butler never leaves Suede, Dog Man Star is the stepping stone to an even grander album and Suede become the biggest band in the world, which would also have meant Britpop never happened.
“What we were doing was documenting Britain and the other bands were celebrating Britain and that was the difference,” says Anderson. “Suede was never about waving a flag. As soon as we saw it become this jingoistic, nationalistic thing, we made Dog Man Star. When it comes to Englishness, it just happens to be where we’re from. I was more interested in real life and in Englishness as it was a reflection of real life. I wasn’t interested in the caricature of Englishness.”
As soon as we saw Britpop become this jingoistic thing we made Dog Man Star
This is only partly true. Blur were also documenting Britain, just in a different way. The same can be said of Pulp, who shared so many qualities with Suede and navigated Britpop on their own terms. Oasis, however, dumped their quarter-pounder with cheese on the table and changed everything. Suede may have channelled Bowie and Blur may have channelled The Kinks, but Oasis channelled The Rutles.
Unlike Dog Man Star, Britpop gets worse with age (especially when compared to trip hop and drum and bass, whose long tails still wag today). After 1994 it became the most conservative music in pop history, perpetrated by the children of baby boomers brainwashed by the myths of the Sixties and desperate for a piece of the action. Part of that Sixties afterlife was the urge to ape a perceived Englishness and update it to include football and beer with guitars.
“Britpop became synonymous with ordinariness,” says Maconie. “It was supposed to be about eccentricity and Brett and Jarvis Cocker embodied that. But it became about replica football shirts and ultra-conformity.”
Bernard’s departure completely overshadowed the release of Dog Man Star, clearing the way for Oasis and Blur to dominate the rest of the decade.
“The soap opera overtook the record,” agrees Maconie. “If it hadn’t, there could have been a whole Britpop parallel universe. How much better would that have been? No ‘Roll With It’ and ‘Country House’. Britpop became a monster, partly because a lot of second-rate bands got record deals and partly because of the pernicious influence of Oasis.”
From the wreckage of Dog Man Star, the only chance of survival was to climb as far away from its Stygian sensibilities as possible. When Suede returned, some of the grime was gone, but so was a bit of the glamour. Of course, Suede did survive and thrive with new members guitarist Richard Oakes and keyboard player Neil Codling and their next album, 1996’s Coming Up, would be their most successful. Their last, The Blue Hour, is my favourite since. “The whole experience of making Dog Man Star was so intense and it is such a dank, labyrinthine record, that we had to go in the opposite direction for the next record or it would have killed us,” says Anderson.
“Dog Man Star is a record entirely out of time,” says Osman. “It sounded weirdly old-fashioned then and modern now. Because it didn’t have any huge cultural impact it’s also a record a lot of people hold dear. People feel it’s their record. It’s not a record for Knebworth. It’s not a record for car radios. It’s a lonely record for lonely people.”
OK Computer may be the album of the decade, but even then Radiohead were a band for adults. They made grown-up music. When Suede started out they were for teenagers. They were also what their detractors would call a bunch of ponces. That, I think, is a compliment. They were, and remain, a pop band and pop music is a dressing-up box. It is sly, fun and, more than anything, romantic. I think they have more in common with The Supremes and The Human League than with Pink Floyd. Dog Man Star is a Cinderella of an album that never got to go to the ball, but in the end it outshone its ugly sisters.
“One of the reasons I like it more now is because I see the effect it has on people,” says Osman. “There is a dark light to it. It has a life force I didn’t realise at the time.”
https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/a ... nLopIqk8LA
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