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The birth of Britpop: Revisiting Suede’s self-titled debut album

Suede - 'Suede'

On March 29th, 1993, London alt-rock group Suede ostensibly kicked off the Britpop era with their eponymous debut album. The album has gained attention over the past three decades as one of the landmark releases of the 1990s, but at the time of its release, it wasn’t as impactful on a global scale as it perhaps should have been. It is generally noted that the failure of the album to push the group to international acclaim and recognition was due to the non-starting American tours of the early 1990s. The first tour in the US was impacted by internal conflicts in the group leading to early cancellation. Shortly thereafter, the second run of live shows in the US was cancelled following the death of guitarist Bernard Butler’s father.

In their stead, Blur and Oasis seemingly took the Britpop flame and ran with it hurriedly towards a distant finish line. All the while, Suede were somewhat sidelined as one of the background heroes of the Britpop era, competing with the likes of Elastica and Sleeper until the success of their 1996 LP Coming Up. Despite the failure to make an early impact in the US with their masterpiece debut album, it was a success in the UK. Suede entered the UK Albums Chart at number one and observed the biggest initial sales for a debut album since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome a decade before. The album even won the band the 1993 Mercury Prize, and the group subsequently donated the entire £25,000 prize money to Cancer Research.

The album’s enduring importance and appeal comes from the unique, androgynous and yelping vocal style of Brett Anderson. The throwback to Ziggy Stardust era androgyny was fortified by the bold and memorable cover art featuring an androgynous couple kissing. The image was taken from the 1991 book Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, collated by Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser. The cover art provoked some controversy in the press and prompted Anderson to comment: “I chose it because of the ambiguity of it, but mostly because of the beauty of it”.

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The group’s sound came as a modernised take on the early 1970s glam style that David Bowie championed. The lyrical and vocal prowess was given its updated sound with Butler’s intricate guitar stylings that appeared to take inspiration from the Smiths legend Johnny Marr. Conceptually, the music depicted the darker side of life in London in the 1980s and ’90s, with references to poverty and drug abuse throughout. 

Suede bassist Mat Osman, brother of comedian and TV presenter Richard Osman, once said of the 1993 debut album: “London was a touchstone for everyone in the band, so the album became about us being placed in this city of sex, drugs and poverty after living in these suburban satellite towns. London is full of a certain kind of arts professional—people in bands whose parents bought them guitars when they were 12 and went to state school. The sense in all of us was that we wanted to get revenge on all that as the underclass outsider punks. We wanted Suede to be a pop record in the way that The Pretenders’ ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ is a pop record.”

The album opens with ‘So Young’, which was released as the fourth and final single from the LP. The anthem comes as an ironic jab at the naive confidence of youth, a sense of invincibility that is often enhanced by the first dabblings with recreational drugs or “chasing the dragon”. As Anderson once explained: “I used to eulogise that sense of youth as powerful, vital energy. That’s what ‘So Young’ is. Let’s ride the razor’s edge of youth.”

The second track, ‘Animal Nitrate’, was the best performing of the singles from Suede and remains one of the band’s most memorable tracks. The song, again, comes with direct references to drug abuse with the name a wordplay for the substance amyl nitrite, which is sometimes used to enhance the high from cocaine or ecstasy. The heavy guitar intro brings us into the song with an intensity that appears appropriate once the lyrics begin to register, “Like his dad you know that he’s had /Animal nitrate in mind /Oh in your council home he jumped on your bones /Now you’re taking it time after time”. The lyrics also appear to depict non-consensual sex, adding to the brilliantly grotesque quality of the pop classic. 

With the third track, ‘She’s Not Dead’ depicting the shared suicide of Anderson’s aunt and her secret black lover – which allegedly took place as they copulated in their car while the engine was running – it was clear that the album was going to be void of cheer. In fact, the LP comes as one of the most haunting in ’90s pop music. 

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‘The Drowners’, the lead single from Suede, was originally released in 1992 and was the group’s first recorded single. While it initially failed to impress the public with a poor performance in the charts, it experienced a successful second wind following the release of the album in 1993. Against the backdrop of the other themes explored in the album, the opaque lyrics suggest salacious activity with added morbidity from the mention of guns and drowning. 

‘Metal Mickey’ completes the run of four singles predating the album’s release. The song was written in reference to Katie Jane Garside of the London band Daisy Chainsaw. However, the exact meaning and motivation of the lyrics remain unclear. The references to money could perhaps be related to Daisy Chainsaw’s biggest hit, ‘Love Your Money’. 

Suede was masterful, if depraved and morbid, delve into the unbridled reality of life in London. Anderson’s arresting and unique lyrics and delivery enticed the world for the first time in Suede and gave the band their identity amongst the swell of Britpop bands making their presence heard in the early ’90s. While the group had greater commercial success with their third album, Coming Up, in 1996 with buoying hits like ‘Trash’ and ‘Beautiful Ones’, it was this debut album that has transcended as the group’s most iconic and influential work. Suede have consistently created fantastic and inspired albums, but following the departure of guitar virtuoso Bernard Butler in 1994, following the release of Dog Man Star, the group had sustained a loss that they would never quite manage to patch up. 

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