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Suede

Suede kick started the Britpop revolution of the '90s, bringing English indie pop/rock music away from the swirling layers of shoegazing and dance-pop fusions of Madchester, and reinstating such conventions of British pop as mystique and the three-minute single. Before the band had even released a single, the U.K. weekly music press was proclaiming them as the "Best New Band in Britain," but Suede managed to survive their heavy hype due to the songwriting team of vocalist Brett Anderson and guitarist Bernard Butler. Equally inspired by the glam crunch of David Bowie and the romantic bed-sit pop of the Smiths, Anderson and Butler developed a sweeping, guitar-heavy sound that was darkly sensual, sexually ambiguous, melodic, and unabashedly ambitious. At the time of the release of their first single, "The Drowners," in 1992, few of their contemporaries -- whether it was British shoegazers or American grunge rockers -- had any ambitions to be old-fashioned, self-consciously controversial pop stars and the British press and public fell hard for Suede, making their 1993 debut the fastest-selling first album in U.K. history. Though they had rocketed to the top in the U.K., Suede were plagued with problems, the least of which was an inability to get themselves heard in America. Anderson and Butler's relationship became antagonistic during the recording of their second album, Dog Man Star, and the guitarist left the band before its fall release, which inevitably hurt its sales. Instead of breaking up, the band soldiered on, adding new guitarist Richard Oakes and a keyboardist before returning in 1996 with Coming Up, an album that returned them to the top of the British charts.

Through all of Suede's incarnations, vocalist/lyricist Brett Anderson and bassist Mat Osman remained at the band's core. The son of a cab driver, Anderson formed the Smiths-inspired Geoff in 1985 with his schoolmate Osman and drummer Danny Wilder. Anderson was the group's guitarist; Gareth Perry was the band's vocalist. Geoff recorded two demos before splitting up in 1986, as Anderson and Osman left to attend university in London. A few years later, the pair formed Suave & Elegant, which lasted only a few months. By the end of 1989, the pair had placed an advertisement in New Musical Express, asking for a "non-muso" guitarist. Bernard Butler responded, and the trio began recording songs, primarily written by Anderson and Butler, with the support of a drum machine. Taking the name Suede after Morrissey's "Suedehead" single, the trio sent a demo tape, Specially Suede, to compete in Demo Clash, a radio show on GLR run by DJ Gary Crowley. "Wonderful Sometimes" won Demo Clash for five Sundays in a row during 1990, leading to a record contract with the Brighton-based indie label RML. By the time the band signed with RML, Anderson's girlfriend Justine Frischmann had joined as a second guitarist.

Suede placed an advertisement for a drummer, and former Smiths member Mike Joyce responded. Joyce appeared on the group's debut single for RML, "Be My God"/"Art." Scheduled to be released on a 12" in the fall of 1990, the single was scrapped shortly before its release, due a fight between the band and the label. Throughout 1991, the group rehearsed and recorded demos, eventually adding drummer Simon Gilbert. Frischmann left Suede in early 1992 to form Elastica; she was not replaced. A few months later, Suede signed a two-single deal with the indie label Nude Records. Shortly afterward, the band appeared on the cover of Melody Maker, without having released any material. The weekly newspaper declared them the Best New Band in Britain.

"The Drowners," the band's first single, appeared shortly after the Melody Maker cover, and it became a moderate hit, debuting at number 49 due to strong reviews and word of mouth. "Metal Mickey," released in the fall, became their breakthrough hit, reaching number 17 on the U.K. charts after a suggestive, controversial performance on Top of the Pops. Anderson soon became notorious for causing controversy, and his infamous comment that he was "a bisexual man who never had a homosexual experience" was indicative of how the group both courted controversy and a sexually ambiguous, alienated audience.

A short tour before the spring release of their eponymous debut album was very successful, setting the stage for "Animal Nitrate" debuting at number seven. Shortly afterward, Suede entered the charts at number one, registering the biggest initial sales of a debut since Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome. By the summer, Suede had become the most popular band in Britain -- winning the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for Best Album that fall -- and they attempted to make headway into the United States. Their progress was halted when Butler's father died in the fall, forcing the cancellation of their second tour; they had already begun to be upstaged by their opening act, the Cranberries, who received the support from MTV that Suede lacked. Shortly afterward, the band was forced to change its name to the London Suede in America, due to a lawsuit from an obscure lounge singer performing under the name Suede.

Tensions had begun to develop between Bernard Butler and the rest of the band during the group's 1993 tours, and they peaked when they re-entered the studio to record a new single in late 1993. Butler conceived the song "Stay Together" as a sweeping epic partially in tribute to his father, and while it was a success upon its February 1994 release, debuting at number three, the recording was not easy. As they were working on Suede's second album, Anderson and Butler began to fight frequently, with the guitarist claiming in a rare interview that the singer worked too slowly and that his partner was too concerned with rock stardom, often at the expense of the music. Butler left the band toward the end of the sessions for the second album, and the group finished the record with Anderson playing guitar. Bernard's departure launched a flurry of speculation about Suede's future, and Dog Man Star didn't answer any of those questions. A grandiose, ambitious, and heavily orchestrated double album, Dog Man Star was greeted with enthusiastic reviews but muted commercial response. As Suede were working on their second album, their remarkable commercial success was eclipsed by that of Blur and Oasis, whose lighter, more accessible music brought the groups blockbuster success in the wake of Suede.

While Dog Man Star sold nearly as much as Suede, the impression in the press was the group was rapidly falling apart, and the band didn't help matters when they replaced Butler with Richard Oakes, a 17-year-old amateur guitarist, in September. Suede embarked on a long, grueling international tour during late 1994 and the spring of 1995, before disappearing to work on their third album. During the interim, Butler had a Top Ten single with vocalist David McAlmont, and Gilbert, the only homosexual member of Suede, was attacked in a hate crime in the fall. At a fanclub gig in January of 1996, the group debuted several new songs, as well as their new keyboardist, Neil Codling, the cousin of Gilbert. Suede returned as a five-piece in September of 1996 with Coming Up. A lighter, band-oriented affair than either of the group's two previous albums, Coming Up was an unexpected hit, entering the charts at number one and generating a remarkable string of five Top Ten hits -- "Trash," "Beautiful Ones," "Saturday Night," "Lazy," and "Filmstar." Coming Up was a hit throughout Europe, Canada, and Asia, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until the spring of 1997.

Coming Up never did win an audience in America, partially because it appeared nearly a year after its initial release and partially because Suede only supported it with a three-city tour. Nevertheless, the record was their most successful release to date, setting expectations high for the follow-up. Upon their return to the studio in the fall of 1998, the band decided to ditch their longtime producer, Ed Buller, choosing to work with Steve Osborne, who had previously produced New Order and Happy Mondays. The resulting album, Head Music, was released in May of 1999; an American release followed in June. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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