Rank Your Records: Brett Anderson Sorts Suede’s Records
The singer of the hit UK act lists his albums in order, from least favorite to most favorite.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Few bands have been forced to overcome as much drama as Suede. The long-running London band broke out in 1992 with a string of singles that made them the UK’s most touted act since the Stone Roses three years prior. The hype alone would have made the average band implode from all of the pressure, but Suede were wise enough to believe every drop of ink written about them—because simply, they were that great. And they proved it, by releasing an album that became the fastest selling debut ever in the UK at the time, took home the Mercury Music Prize, and even shifted a respectable 150,000 copies Stateside. But slowly, cracks started to form. In the US, the band was forced to become “The London Suede” because an obscure singer owned the name Suede. Not long after, relations between singer/co-songwriter Brett Anderson and guitarist/co-songwriter Bernard Butler soured, and Butler left the band in a storm of animosity, just as they were wrapping up their sophomore album, Dog Man Star. Eventually, they replaced him with Richard Oakes, a baby-faced 17-year-old student who had no idea what he was getting into. When Britpop hit, Suede were thrust into the limelight and credited (or accused in their opinion) as the founders, much to their dismay. They managed to overcome the odds and prove the naysayers wrong with a comeback album, Coming Up, demonstrating Oakes’ songwriting abilities. But then the drugs took hold, and Suede’s bright star slowly began to dim. Their fourth and fifth albums consisted of unfocused and overblown ideas that threatened to negate the brilliance of everything before them. Few were surprised when Suede called it a day in 2003.
But then a funny thing happened. Out of the blue, Suede was invited to play a reunion show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in support of the Teenage Cancer Trust. They accepted and figuratively tore the roof off the illustrious venue. And slowly, the seeds planted by that “one-off gig” grew, and a few festival dates creeped in, followed by a career-spanning compilation, The Best of Suede, a few more gigs, Coachella, album reissues, and back-to-back-to-back nights performing their first three albums. Before anyone realized it, Suede was a proper band again. They sealed the deal in 2013 by releasing Bloodsports, a poised, triumph of an album that not only rivaled their first two, but proved it is very possible for a forgotten band to return better than ever.
All of that reunion and comeback talk ends with the release of Night Thoughts, Suede’s seventh album and second since returning. Like Dog Man Star, it is a deeply engrossing, dramatic record designed to hear from beginning to end. Noisey asked Brett Anderson to rank the band’s catalog with one stipulation: he wasn’t allowed to include Night Thoughts, a condition he was more than happy to oblige. “You’re absolutely right in not allowing me to place it in there because I need at least a year away from it to judge it properly. I’m very aware of how your judgment gets skewed by what you’re doing at the moment. I’m too close to it.”
7. A New Morning (2002)
Brett Anderson: Obviously the worst Suede album is A New Morning. I can scientifically prove that using graphs. It’s a poor record and we should never have released it. And it came at a confusing time for us, where we didn’t really know what we wanted Suede to be. I think what happened was that we released such a poor record that we had to split up because it’s always been about the records you release. That’s how I judge bands, by the music they release. If they’re not creating good music then they shouldn’t stick around. We live and die by that principle, so we split up after that record because it was necessary.
Noisey: I’ll be honest—I never bought A New Morning. It’s the only Suede album I never picked up.
Yes. Don’t go out and buy it now because it’s not very good. I don’t really know what the fuck we were doing, to be honest. But in a fun sort of way, it’s nice to have those ups and downs, because if I was to sit here and say, “Every fucking thing we’ve ever done is absolutely amazing!” you wouldn’t be able to take anything I said seriously, would you? Not everything that anyone ever does is amazing. No artist has done that, possibly apart from the Sex Pistols because they only made one record. They didn’t have the chance to go off the boil, but every other artist, apart from some that have made just one record, have made shit records. It’s just a matter of recognizing that.
You once said, “There was a part of me that wanted to make an electronic album and part of me that wanted to make a folk album.” Did you ever wonder what it would have been like had you gone with one of those instead of both?
[Laughs] Yeah… That’s an interesting question. I guess Head Music, the album before it, was an attempt at making a more electronic record. I agree with the suggestion that it would have been stronger had it just been a folk record. Or not a folk record because that sounds horrible! An acoustic, sort of contemplative record. And if you look at the songs that actually do work, like the hidden track “Oceans,” which is a beautiful song that should have been on the record, or “Simon” as well, or “Cheap,” which was the B-side to “Positivity,” all of those songs should have formed the spine of the record. We just sort of got to that point where we didn’t know where we wanted to go, we were confused. But yeah, it would have been much stronger if we just stuck to one thing. It was a vague attempt to mix genres that didn’t work.
Do you think the fact that you worked with so many producers affected how this album turned out?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes you can take too long to make a record, and you sit around too much. There is something really good about getting in there and slapping it down while the energy is still there. The problem is we made a version of that record and didn’t like it, then went back into the studio and re-recorded it with someone else. And by that point we had lost our momentum and our enthusiasm. It wasn’t any producer’s fault—it was an unfortunate point in our career where we had run out of ideas.
6. Head Music (1999)
Head Music is a weird album because it’s half a really good record. That’s how I often describe it. If it was cut in half and had tracks like “Elephant Man” and the title track taken out, it would have been really strong. There are some amazing songs like “Indian Strings” and “He’s Gone,” and even “Everything Flows.” So we had just lost a bit of focus. If we had kept our focus and edited a bit more it would have been a better record. There are elements of it that I’m really proud of, and we still play some of those songs. We played “Indian Strings” the other day in a church for an acoustic session and it sounded beautiful. I don’t have the same rejection instinct for Head Music that I do for A New Morning. It’s regretful that we didn’t try to pull it together and make it a whole great record instead of a half great record.
Is it true that Steve Osborne disliked the title track so much he refused to record it?
Yes. [Laughs] He didn’t really like it, and I was going through this real ego trip, this rock star hubris at the time, and I remember freaking out because he didn’t like it. I don’t think Steve has a great view of working with Suede. I don’t think he saw us in a very good light. He saw us very differently from who we really are. We were all quite weak and lazy and arrogant—we were fattened by success. He didn’t see a very good side of us.
In David Barnett’s Suede biography, you said “a more accurate title for the album would have been Crackhead Music.”
Yes. That would have been the perfect title for this album. I was spending a lot of time with my crack pipe during the making of that record.
5. Coming Up (1997)
I’m really proud of Coming Up. From now on, I don’t have too many regrets about these records. It’s just about how to order them. It’s hard to choose. The only reason it’s not higher up the list is a production thing for me. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the producer Ed [Buller] because he’s a friend, but I don’t really like the production on the record. It’s a little bit fake sounding. I think the songs are a lot stronger than the production techniques. There is a thinness to it that somehow belittles the songs. A song like “Trash” is one of my favorite Suede songs, but the recording of it doesn’t really do it justice. It doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t swell. It’s not as romantic as it should be. So the production lets it down for me. But the songwriting is great. I have very, very fond memories of making this record. It’s possibly the most fun record we made. When Bernard had left, and we had a new line-up was a very exciting time for the band. It felt like another debut. It was a beautiful time. We were a little gang that was having fun together. All of the darkness of the previous album had disappeared.
This was the first album with Richard playing guitar and writing songs with you. How was the adjustment going from Bernard to Richard?
I had to readjust the dynamic. Richard didn’t just slip into Bernard’s slot. They are very different musicians. Previously with Bernard we had written in a specific way. He would write all of the music—the chord sequences, the basic rhythm, that sort of thing—and I would take that and write words and vocal melody to it. Lots of songs on Coming Up started that way, but I would say, “Richard, that chorus melody isn’t right. I’m going to change that.” And then I would write some of the music. So the way we worked was different. It took a little time to get Richard into the band’s mindset. So it wasn’t that smooth, but eventually we got there. It was a very hard and challenging record to make, and I felt as though we had a lot to prove. To prove that we could carry on making great music after Bernard left. But I’m proud of the record. I think it still stands up. It is a little bit dated, production-wise.
Is it true that when the band was in Hamburg, Richard wasn’t allowed to come out and party with the rest of the band until he had written a song?
That’s right, yeah! [Laughs] I remember we went out to the Reeperbahn in Hamburg one night and got off our fucking heads on Jägermeister and went to the strip clubs and got up to all sorts of horrible stuff. But Richard wasn’t allowed out. He had to stay in and write a song. I think he wrote the music for the song that became “Together,” so it was worth it in the end.
That was when he was a really young kid, about 18. Looking back on it, I don’t know what the fuck we were doing! I’ve always been quite instinctive about these things, but it was quite a rash thing to do. For him personally, to be dragged out of this suburban, comfortable life and go on the road with a kind of mischievous pop band was strange and slightly irresponsible. But we did it.
Why do you think Coming Up sold more than the first two albums combined?
There are a number of things. I think it coincided with the Britpop movement, so the mainstream had shifted and gone more left field. They did well in the UK charts and the world charts as well. Also it was a very palatable record. It was designed as a pop record, to not be a prickly difficult record like the first two. We wanted to embrace that. It was very much a reaction to having made Dog Man Star, which was such a dank, tortured record. We simply couldn’t go there again. I couldn’t make another record in the same territory as that one because it was such a terribly poisonous and emotional experience. I wanted to go the opposite way and make something much brighter. And the fact that the band had a new lineup with Richard and Neil, I wanted it to have a different feel. Yeah, so it was a pop record, designed to sell and put us back on the map, I suppose.
As funny as it is for an album title, I’m glad you didn’t end calling it Old People Make Me Sick.
[Laughs] We always come up with these comedy titles that get out of hand. I remember telling the NME that the fourth album was going to be called Orchestral Peasant: An Orwellian Romance, and they took it seriously.
4. Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997)
This is a double album of B-sides, but a lot of these songs are some of your best.
The only reason this is number four, and not number one, is because it would have been better if a quarter of the songs weren’t there. Some of the songs on the second disc don’t come anywhere close to the quality of the songs on the first disc. And that is mainly because we had got into formatting at that point. The record company wanted more songs to put on B-sides. With the first four or five singles we never did any formatting. So there are some things on that second disc that just aren’t as good as “My Insatiable One” or “To The Birds.” It’s one of those weird anomalies in Suede’s career where the B-sides, songs that not a lot of people know, are some of the strongest songs. It does keep me up at night sometimes wondering if instead of having “Moving” or “Animal Lover” on the first album, “My Insatiable One” or “To The Birds,” how much stronger a record it would have been. These kinds of things bother me. Why didn’t we do that? It was fucking stupid! Why didn’t we put “Killing Of A Flash Boy” on Dog Man Star? It’s one of those things that keeps me up at night.
So were you writing the B-sides from those first two albums just as songs? And then after that everything was written specifically as a B-side?
Exactly. Yes, that’s very astute. Early on, the songs were just pouring out of us, and then later we were put in the studio to write some B-sides. I think one of the things that makes Sci-Fi Lullabies sound so good is that we weren’t trying too hard with it. And there is something to be said about that. Going back to the production for Coming Up, we were trying to hard to be brash. There is something a bit more organic in how “High Rising” sounds. We just went into the studio and recorded it. Sometimes you just need to go in and kick back a bit.
3. Suede (1993)
We’ll go for the debut album. I’ve still got very fond memories of making it. This is so hard to arrange these last three albums in whatever order. It’s almost like they could be in any order. But the debut album, I’m very proud of it. There are some amazing songs on it, like “Pantomime Horse,” “Next Life,” “Metal Mickey,” “The Drowners,” “Sleeping Pills”—they’re all really, really up there for me. And it was very, very exciting to be in Suede at this point. We were doing something that felt like it was really important. Like we were needed. Like we weren’t just another band trying to get people’s attention. Like we had a moral duty to put these songs out. I hope that doesn’t sound too pompous. We were doing something that had depth; that spoke very much about the world around us. It wasn’t such an idealized world; it was a document of British life in the early 90s. It was us trying to describe the scruffy, dog-shit pavements that we were walking up and down every day. That kind of a world.
And this is an important thing to talk about because obviously we have to discuss Britpop here. When Suede first started writing these songs, it was as a documentation of British life. And then these other bands came along and what they did was celebrate British life. We never celebrated it. We were just looking at the crappy, litter-strewn pavements. It was never that sort of jingoistic, beer-y sing-along with us. That was the difference between Suede and all of the Britpop bands that came after us.
I never really thought of Suede as a Britpop band. You never seemed to take part in the celebration, as you call it. And I think in North America, bands like Suede, Manic Street Preachers, and Radiohead were included purely because they were British and popular at the time.
Well, I can understand it. But it wasn’t just you guys. We were also labeled Britpop here, whenever I saw the genre that Suede was included in. It’s inevitable that a band has to be included in a genre, and really no one feels comfortable being put into a box or pigeonholed.
How did you feel when you first saw the “Yanks Go Home” cover of Select? To many people, that is considered Britpop’s impetus.
I was angry about it, to be honest. Because it looked like I was saying that. And I would never agree to be put in front of a Union Jack. This is what kind of happened. We were offered this role, like, “Do you want to be this spokesman for this little England kind of world?” And we were saying, “No we don’t! No thank you!” And then other bands came along and said, “Yes please! Can we do it? Can we do it?” I always look back on it and think, “Is that really what you want? This one-dimensional view of the world?” I found it sad, to be honest. I never had those sentiments. I was never anti-American. Looking at it in a culturally, analytical way, what was interesting about Britpop was, apart from the fact that it spoke about real life at its essence, was the fact that it did reject American cultural imperialism. That was an interesting thing about it. Because as we know, the world is fed Hollywood’s view of reality, which is a skewed view. And I think Britpop’s rejection of that was quite brave and interesting. That was the only value it had for me, really.
This became fastest selling debut album in the UK at the time and won the Mercury Music Prize. That must have felt great.
Yeah, it was good. It was a very exciting period. We were kind of standing on our own. That is another thing about how history is being rewritten. There was about a year and a half where it was just Suede. These other bands that were mentioned that were called Britpop weren’t in the picture at all. They weren’t at the party. It was just Suede. We were the ones trailblazing and doing it on our own. And then what happened with Bernard leaving, the whole thing fell apart. But before that it was all very exciting.
2. Bloodsports (2013)
I am incredibly proud of Bloodsports. I love that record. It sounds exactly how we should have been sounding instead of veering off and making things like Head Music and A New Morning. And I think a lot of the impetus for making these last records is a will to rewrite the past, to a certain extent, to say, “We shouldn’t have made those records. These are the records we should have made. Judge us on these instead.” Bloodsports was an incredibly hard record to make. To get that tone right, between sounding fresh and new, but also to sound familiar. It was hard to get that balance right. I think it was actually a little underrated too, in a funny sort of way. I feel as though a lot of people were surprised that it was good, and that’s how they judged it instead of judging it in its own right.
How different was the pressure with this one compared to say Dog Man Star or Coming Up, two albums where you had something to prove?
There was huge pressure to get this right. It felt like we were trying to prove that bands can come back and make good records. We wanted to make a new record that none of our contemporaries had done. Lots of them had reformed, but none of them had made new records. And I think we were quite ambitious, in that we actually wanted to make a record that was good, rather than a record that was just a souvenir from a tour. For me, some of our best songwriting is on there, like “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away” and “For the Strangers,” and “Snowblind,” which is probably my favorite song on the album. And sonically, I love the way it sounds. All of the faults in the production of Coming Up, we learned from that and used it to make Bloodsports sound like a rock band in a room. That’s how I wish we made some of the earlier records sound. Like an organic, very exciting sound.
Did you expect to make a new album when you reformed?
We definitely didn’t think about making a new album when we reformed. I didn’t really know how long we would be working together at that point. We were very surprised at how much we enjoyed that Royal Albert Hall show and went with it. I think after touring for about half a year I thought, “Really? Are we just going to carry on doing this?” And you just look at the other bands that have reformed and go round and round with the same songs. Like, oh God, can you really do it over and over again? So I said to the band, “We can’t do this anymore unless we make new music.” It didn’t matter how much money we were making, it was depressing. So we just gave it a go and wrote some songs. We wrote a whole load of songs and played them in Russia. They were quite poorly received by the fanbase, and quite rightly so. I don’t know what we were trying to do but we weren’t quite there yet. So we ripped it up and started again. We kept “Sabotage” from that group of songs and that kind of informed us as to where we should go. And it ended up good in the end.
1. Dog Man Star (1994)
Noisey: So why is this your favorite Suede album?
Many reasons. But certainly not because it was enjoyable to make because it was a horrible record to make. It was made in an atmosphere of real tension. Mine and Bernard’s relationship was beyond repair, which is a terrible tragedy. It’s all about the songs to me. I always judge it by the songs, and these were the best songs we ever wrote: “Wild Ones,” “Heroine,” “Still Life,” and “Two of Us.” And I like that it’s a complete record. That it’s the sort of record you put on and listen to the end. Somehow you’re dragged into the world. You won’t go, “Oh, I think I’ll go and listen to something else now.” It’s compelling in that sense, and that’s what I wanted to do with Night Thoughts. To have that sense, that you put that record on and you’re stuck in that world until the record finishes. You commit to it. And as soon as you hear, “Introducing the Band,” you think, “What the fuck is this? I want to see where this goes!” It’s that traditional concept of a record that takes you somewhere. So, the songs are good, but the production… I don’t mean to slag Ed off again because he also has issues with the production, but I feel it’s slightly murky and weird.
I can imagine the pressure there was going into writing a second album. How difficult was it to finish this record with Bernard leaving during the making of it?
It was enjoyable, actually. I don’t mean to sound flippant about Bernard leaving because it was an absolute tragedy, and looking back on it, I wish I had the tools to make him stay and keep it together. But our relationship was so unpleasant and it had broken down so much that him finally leaving was quite a relief, to be honest. And he left at a point where pretty much all of the recording had been done. There was still a little bit of recording left to be done in the studio, but it sort of felt suddenly like we’d been presented with all of this amazing music. It was up to the band and Ed to put it in order and add the strings, do all of the fun things. And I really enjoyed that creative process. But him leaving… yeah, he couldn’t have stayed in the band. He regrets it. I regret it. Everyone regrets it. But that’s what happens in bands! That’s why people are interested in them. These young guys suddenly get successful, and money gets into the equation and they don’t know what to do with each other. They don’t know how to express themselves emotionally yet. We were still in our twenties, for fuck’s sake. We were still boys, children. And you suddenly have this success where people are telling you you’re amazing, it does destroy how you see the world. Unfortunately, that’s what happens in bands.
Was there ever a moment where you, Mat, and Simon had considered ending the band?
No, actually. We were quite bloody-minded about the band. I think the fact that everyone said, “Oh, the band is over,” made us determined to make sure the band wasn’t over. Straight away I said, “No, we are going to find a replacement.” I didn’t want that to be anyone else’s decision. I wanted it to be our decision.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac