Ahead of three Dublin shows during which Suede will play their first three albums in full, Brett Anderson tells BRIAN BOYDhow tension between him and Bernard Butler, along with the desire to stick two fingers up to Britpop, led to their classic second album Dog Man Star
ON JULY 7th, 1994, Blur released Parklife. It was followed the next month by Oasis’s Definitely Maybe. Britpop was up and running and about to reshape the musical landscape. Yet the band who had been credited with inventing the genre with their 1993 debut album were in tatters.
In the summer of 1994, as Damon and Noel were beginning a career-long feud, the members of Suede were in the studio, struggling with their follow-up album, collapsing internally and still licking their wounds over a disastrous US tour that had seen their support act, The Cranberries, replace them as headliners on most shows.
Suede were the biggest British band of the time, but the US reacted with the same shrugging indifference it had to The Smiths and The Jam years earlier. Egos were deflating, upstarts were snatching at their UK crown and guitarist Bernard Butler would soon walk away/be sacked.
Singer Brett Anderson remembers that summer vividly. “I had moved into this bizarre house in Highgate in London, which was just beside where a Mennonite sect lived. At this stage I had stopped communicating with the human race and was only interested in this opus we were producing. Success, money and drugs were playing a lot of strange games in my head, and I remember this real desire to produce something spectacular and something which would push all known musical boundaries of the time.”
In Dog Man Star, Suede would have one of the albums of the 1990s, a stunning piece of work that easily sits beside Blue Lines, Lovelessand OK Computer.
Given the era in which it was released – in October 1994 – it was a welcome anti-Britpop antidote. Anderson had come to detest the musical movement he is credited with inventing. Britpop had become some sort of ridiculous Carry Onfilm, he says. “Yes we had initiated it with our debut album, but we wanted to distance ourselves from it as soon as possible. It was the whole Little England thing of it, and I really hated the inverted snobbery where middle-class musicians were pretending to be working-class. Dog Man Staris everything Britpop wasn’t: it’s epic and tortured. I really wanted a dank, doomed romantic, sexual and European-sounding album. We went for something spectacular and widescreen. It was deliberately extreme in its execution. We certainly didn’t want a grey little indie album.”
Interpersonal relationships in the band had deteriorated to the extent that Bernard Butler couldn’t be in the same room as other band members and recorded all his guitar parts when everyone else had gone home.
“To be honest, there had always been tension between myself and Bernard,” he says. “On Dog Man Star, that tension became unworkable and he was no longer in the band by the time the album came out. It was a very difficult time for the band, but what was going on between me and Bernard definitely informed the sound of the record and shaped it. It all came down to the song Asphalt World, which to me is the key to the whole album. Bernard wanted it to be 18 minutes long or something, and he was very stubborn and single-minded about this, but we got it down to nine minutes – something which really upset him. I clearly remember doing the vocals for that song – it was the same day Bernard had a go at me in a music magazine, and you can hear the hurt and the chill in my voice on that song.”
Anderson wanted a concept album, and nobody was going to get in his way. “I wanted to sort of ape Sgt Pepper’s, so the first song is Introducing the Band. This was to be a complete, holistic piece of work. I suppose by doing the concept album I was guilty of a bit of self-mythologising, but this had to be extraordinary and ambitious. I was locked away in this mad house reading George Orwell and cut off from the outside world. I was like a mad artist. And there were a lot of drugs involved.”
With tracks as sonically extravagant as The 2 Of Us, Black or Blue, The Asphalt Worldand the truly staggering closer Still Life(their best ever moment), Dog Man Starwas released to mass confusion from critics. The words “overblown” and “pompous” were used in many reviews, and the album sold poorly.
“I think we were thrilled by the bewildered reaction,” says Anderson. “It was all part of the ‘let’s make an extreme album’ plan. But looking back, we behaved in such an imperious way back then. We listened to nobody – literally nobody. We didn’t take any advice and were very much ‘shut up, this is art’ about it all. New Generationwas the obvious single off the album, and I remember the head of Sony – and this is true – getting down on bended knees pleading with me to let it be the first single, but we put out We Are the Pigs instead, and then the second single was The Wild Ones. We were so quixotic about everything back then. I think we made very good artistic decisions but very bad business decisions. But there was no talking to us.”
Over the years Dog Man Starhas been elevated to not just cult classic status but one of rock music’s great albums. At the time, Q magazine was one of the few publications to herald it as an all-time classic, giving it a five-star review and writing: “With Dog Man Starthe group has vindicated just about every claim that was ever made on their behalf. It will be hailed in years to come as the crowning achievement of a line-up that reinvented English, guitar-band rock’n’roll for the 1990s.”
Increasingly these days, it makes its way on to all-time lists, and just last year US music magazine Crawdaddy! reappraised it, writing: “Despite the challenges Suede faced, Anderson achieved the anti-Britpop album he wanted in Dog Man Star, to the kudos of the hipper critical circle, and the detriment of the band’s mainstream appeal. For all its indulgence and Bowie-esque melodrama, it’s more literate, more tortured, and more ambitious than its peers. More substantive than a woo-hoo, brighter than any champagne supernova, Dog Man Star’s origins, theatrics, and sense of rebellion are the stuff of rock’n’roll legend.”
Though Suede are on a much easier footing with Bernard Butler these days, the guitarist won’t be joining them on the upcoming tour to play Dog Man Starin its entirety. “We’re now in a place where there is every possibility that myself and Bernard will work together again,” says Anderson. “There’s a big part of me that wants Bernard to be there playing this album with us again, but emotionally I think it would be too complex, considering what happened during the recording of it. Also, he hates the ideas of reunions.”
Anderson can’t see a Dog Man Starcoming out of this generation of musicians. “They wouldn’t be allowed today. We were at the time because the first album had done very well. It was a glorious gesture – a madly ambitious work and I’m heartened by how its reputation has only grown and continues to grow. Of all the bands out there now, the only one I think are in any way capable of a Dog Man Starare These New Puritans. We really could do with more sheer bloody-minded artistically extravagant statements out there.
Treble, treble Those three Suede classics
COMING UP (1996)
Their first full post-Bernard Butler album was their biggest seller and contains five top 10 singles. In Trash and Beautiful Ones it contains some of their most powerful work, and remains a fan favourite.
DOG MAN STAR (1994)
Not what anyone was expecting. This was Britpop’s prog rock album – expansive and enigmatic. Their most complete work and also their most damaged - with Brett as the tragic hero. Totally out of step with the times – it confused most all on its release.
The fastest-selling debut album in history at the time, this debut kick-started Britpop and sounded like an illicit affair between Bowie and The Smiths. A great singles album, and is still stands up today. It won that year’s Mercury Music Prize.
Suede play three successive nights at Dublin’s Olympia. On Tuesday they play Suede in its entirety, on Wednesday Dog Man Starand on Thursday Coming Up