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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Suede Perform DOG MAN STAR @ Brixton Academy ~ still perversely lovely! An evening's email ....

This review needs some kind of introduction, otherwise you may think I have completely lost it, if not, as the Suede track 'Beautiful Ones' once spoke of - "to Bostik, yeah"!

In the summer of 2011, I had planned, and then written, a lengthy review of pop band Suede's breathtaking reunion concert performing their classic, and deliriously heady, second album - 'Dog Man Star'. Played in full, at Brixton Academy, Summer 2011. A reunion of the post-Dog Man Star era Suede - no Bernard Butler, the original guitarist/ songwriter, in sight of course. But a special, rare event all the same.

Of course, I didn't save my work (bad writer - smacks wrist!) and lost all of the first (and only) draft of written words in a moment of aching accidental deletion. A big sad goodbye to those epic, floral, exhausting thoughts I'd had post-gig comedown; the result of a life lived in the shadow and life-defining inspiration of an album called Dog Man Star (so not just another review, of just another band - or just another album, at all). As my review vanished into the ether, I think I almost gave up all hope. Yes, I truly abandoned hope for all ye who entered my brain at that moment - including myself!
It was possibly a good thing it did get deleted. It was a review that was all too heartfelt; giving too much away - with too much finality in those words of praise. It was like I was slipping around inside a full circle of spinning memories, almost catching up with myself - and how boring is that? I don't like looking back at the past with rose-tinted shades and getting all nostalgic about music 'back then - in the days when it mattered', because it always matters (and a new album is always better; more exciting, than a retread of an old one). Or in the case of Dog Man Star - almost!  

Which doesn't mean I don't hang on to the music of my youth or post-youth, or spend time listening to songs that mean something to me. Because I do - that's what music is all about; the past as a big cog in that forward motion of a person's life. Great songs drive life on; sometimes kicking you back onto the best path to be on when you stray or when you forget how great life can be - as much a part of our future as we want it to be. It can also sometimes, simply - and quite beautifully - reignite your present.

So, back to the moment after I pressed delete by mistake, right after the file fluttered away into the vastness of nothingness; where not even a remaining image of words remained on my retina, just nothing. I quickly gave up on writing a replacement review. I'd bared my soul and that was it - you can't go bare twice around the block with getting yourself mentally arrested.

Instead, I thought I would post an unsculpted, rambling message to a friend (ok - two friends) that I had emailed right after the gig on my way home - stuck on the 1 am train from Victoria station, instead. I did this partly as a way to record my own memory of the night's events. And it was liberating, a few weeks after the event, to read back this hastily written, early hours of the morning email, to just a couple of a few remaining friends from the old (and I do mean old - I think we were just out of our teens when we first started bickering and occasionally agreeing in public) online Suede fan forum who I still keep in touch with - a girl in Sweden and a boy in America.

I call us 'girls' and 'boys' - because Suede fans never think they grow old; we are constant tearaways running across concrete-cracked suburban estates and playing on rusty playgrounds, escaping daily life along roads made of melting asphalt in our minds, until the day we die (when we listen to Suede up loud). Even when our bodies get old. That, my friends, is what listening to an album like Dog Man Star does to you!

We don't know our real names, but we know something about our real lives (but not much). We remain, resolutely - the triumvirate of randomness. We've never even met, but we still email in a feverish rash every month (sometimes for days at a time) or every other month. Often, mostly, when we are worrying about something or when anything depressing in our lives is going on and we need advice or help along the way, or maybe, sometimes - when something good is happening. Though we rarely go into any detail and in every other area of our lives, we remain cynical, twisted and fairly often bitter.

It's a deliberately downbeat gathering of the three, most times we speak. Either that or we exist in the land of the surreal. Monty Python has nothing on us! Once we were in a club full to the brim with essential Suede fan chat (but that went ages ago), now (as we get older) we seem to be more like some kind of frustrated (the 'Not Famous') writers club, recognising monthly that life has dealt us a terrible blow - the first rule of any frustrated Not Famous Writers Club! Occasionally it's suicidal, often it's ecstatic - mostly we remain forever treading water.

So I sent this email to the two remaining Suede fans I had kept in touch with in the early hours of the morning, not long after the last lingering gig-goers had traipsed home. Suede had performed their stream-of-consciousness second album, probably one of the few albums that I would actually cling to, or die for, if I happened to find myself on a sinking ship or in the middle of a volcanic ash cloud from a spluttering volcano (as was happening the night of the first of many rewrites since, of this - simple, I thought at first - introduction). You know, it's taken me so long to get this introduction right (did the Dog Man Star night mean so much to me that it's been hard to stay objective?) that I could have rewritten that original lost review about twenty or so times. No, make that a couple of hundred!

And - I swear - on the night Suede performed Dog Man Star in its entirety, at Brixton Academy, the gods above blessed us with a filmic, poetic, nuclear-sky; stained blood red. The band rambled their way lyrically (with precision and loud musical grandeur) through those unknown lands, tainted loves, battered lives, faded glamour, random violence and brittle heartache of all that Dog Man Star stands for. A haze of madness and frailty, then - until all becomes clear, in one last momentous trek across the epic track 'The Asphalt World' (the album's penultimate indulgence), hand in hand with someone you love (or can't stand), to a stillness (in album closer 'Still Life') of a kind.
Tracks recorded close to the release of the second album, or some of the group's many outstanding B-sides (outstanding enough to also release an album of these, called 'Sci-Fi Lullabies') were also played on the night, including 'Stay Together' - an epic, almost last hurrah of the Anderson/ Butler songwriting years with lyrics wallowing in such meltingly melodramatic, suburban-scarred and achingly realised lines as: "Two hearts under the skyscrapers" and "Single file in the nuclear night" . .

The song is rarely played live; to the band now, it's seen as a memory of a time when tensions between Bernard and Brett ran high. A time when Bernard indulged himself in highly personal guitar stylings (now seen as 'epic' by all - but also, by all accounts, back then as 'indulgent' by other band members). A time when Brett Anderson's lyrics ran wild with alternately spiralling/ ascending, increasingly heady (reportedly drug-fuelled) inspiration.
Bernard, it was said, had started to get frustrated with Brett's Bryronesque lifestyle and lyrics that played games over his meticulous melodies. Brett started to hate, well - just Bernard. The band was in meltdown. Soon Butler had left; the man himself claiming he was asked to leave, others still saying it was more by his own decision. 

I remember reading a magazine piece, round about the time the band were laying down tracks for Dog Man Star, that mentioned Bernard having just walked out of a recording session, nobody knowing what would happen next - Brett, I think, had to do the interview on his own. Clearly 'long life' wasn't a description of the band springing to mind at that time; even the milk on the doorstep outside the studio had started, by this point - to sour. It wasn't long before the McCartney to Brett's Lennon was gone (Stay Together was the last song the band played live together, with the original line-up intact - the new tracks not really finished, but enough recorded to go on to make up the twisted heart and aching soul of the album that was to become Dog Man Star).

A young 17 year old guitarist called Richard Oakes joined the band as Butler's replacement and played Butler's parts for Dog Man Star on subsequent promotional duties and tour - he also started writing B-sides for the album's single releases. When the band's third album, and the first with Oakes as a full time member - 'Coming Up' came along, it proved to be their most successful; spawning pop hits from 'Trash' to 'She's In Fashion'. Still enigmatically decadent and a calling card to the brittle and the lost - but energised again and ecstatic, not longer languid and so effortlessly tortured or beautifully pained.


Dog Man Star and Coming Up seemed like opposites, but Trash (the band's biggest selling single) from a revitalised band who refused to go maudlin post-Butler and instead glammed it up and suddenly oozed fashion magazine-style cool, could be the coda to Dog Man Star's whole point - the reason they formed a band in the first place. Although Brett Anderson hated the production on the released version that he thought made him sound like both Pinky and Perky combined (even re-recording the lyrics for a later compilation album to prove his point). Most fans didn't agree.

"But, oh, if you stay we'll ride from disguised suburban graves. We'll go from the bungalows where the debts still grow each day."
Suede - 'The Wild Ones'

Second single from Dog Man Star, 'The Wild Ones', is the mirror image of the later Trash and the most heartfelt track off the earlier album - the clearest step yet into that overarching 'nuclear night'. It's Brett Anderson's own favourite; his and Butler's finest three minutes, and the perfect Suede recording - nothing could ever get more achingly romantic or more beautiful than this in their career. The track that (still) probably defines the band.

The recording of Dog Man Star has been full of rumour and fact: from Anderson's songwriting under the influence of drugs, walled-up in a decaying Victorian mansion next door to a religious cult; Butler planning versions of epic track The Asphalt World that increased the already lengthy (9 minutes plus) runtime (some rumours cited half an hour or so more) and Butler's increasing hatred of producer Ed Buller who was curtailing some of the more extravagant visions the guitarist (one of the best, of his - or any generation) had.

Butler, though later making peace with both Buller and Anderson, mid-Dog Man Star session, was coming to terms with the death of his father, engorged with a personal vision and lifestyle differing from that of his writing partner, and increasingly isolated from everyone else in the recording studio. For a band so clearly splintering in every direction - the unique scope and vision of the album they came up with (despite band members and producer since expressing niggles about production and recording of some tracks) was wayward - but perfectly wayward. Like the people whose lives made up the lyrics themselves. Many say that the non-album track 'Killing of a Flash Boy', one of their best and used as a B-side, should have been included on the album itself, in place of possible weaker link - 'The Power' (the only track Butler didn't record on).

Ah, 'Killing of a Flash Boy', flipside to the first single from Dog Man Star - 'We Are The Pigs'. One of the angriest, most swaggering tracks the band ever recorded - an Orwellian nightmare of spray-painted suburban streets and burning rubber tyre pyres, the seething staccato video for which starred British actor Andrew Tiernan whose breakthrough role came in Derek Jarman's Edward II in '91 (during the formative Suede years, Jarman had a strong connection with Suede, even supplying filmed backdrops for their gig at the Clapham Grand in 1993).

Killing of a Flash Boy was played as an encore at the Brixton Dog Man Star gig; still a staccato, strutting, suburban-stained paean to random acts of violence on deserted playing fields close to swaying rusting swings, under the cover of those apple-red and sunflower-yellow, spilt paint-splayed sunsets. Most touching of all, during this encore - Brett Anderson armed only with acoustic guitar gave us Stay Together's twisted love story of a B-side; 'The Living Dead', a song that features such wonderfully romantically-stabbed in the back lines, as: "But oh what will you do alone? Cos I have to go . . " as well as the slightly less romantic but equally perversely lovely: "All up the hole in your arm is the needle - a much better screw" sung to a gorgeous guitar-weeping lullaby.

Suede, once again, melted a few thousand hearts of the faithful at their Dog Man Star night and once again kept that 'frustrated famous writers' club (all 3 of us) that I told you about earlier, still burning bright with its black-torn-butterfly-winged chat, written this time - post-gig - at a slightly less than sober 1 a.m. A gush of a hastily written email to the anonymous other two members who I write often to. I think this is the best review I can offer, even if my original static review suddenly became found in a saved file of 'the lost'. Why? Because I want to keep reminding myself how good - yeah; how great life can be sometimes, when a memory is all you need to be armed with to face, or remind yourself of, the future.

This is the email I wrote, and (I've come to realise) the only words I need for my review of Suede performing their classic album Dog Man Star at London's Brixton Academy in the Summer of 2011 . . In fact, I may well just delete all of the above introduction and leave only this.

Some day.

"ALIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Sort of - but my computer hasn't been for a few weeks, so I had to replace it ~ it just died on me really suddenly after losing audio and other good things for a few months, like an old man going slowly more wrong! In the end it didn't even come on/ get up, it just sort of howled high pitched at startup - I CAN'T TAKE ANYMORE, it screamed ...
I did go to see Dog Man Star a couple of nights back. I didn't go to the other ones. I went with a friend, but didn't see or bump into any old Sueders that I recognised. Actually, it was a crowd full of lots of new fans as well as the older ones! Brett didn't say anything on stage, but he was clearly loving every moment - there was a lot of electrifying love in the air and crowd went mostly mad! All of Dog Man Star was played, Asphalt World was amazing, and somehow it was the livelier tracks like This Hollywood Life that went down a storm, though Still Life inspired a mass sing-along.
Then a few related bsides were played; with backdrops of album/ single covers; the Stay Together EP tracks, including - miraculously - Stay Together itself, and Killing of a Flash Boy followed by, well, a vicious, ear destroying medley of older first album tracks such as Animal Nitrate, So Young, Metal Mickey . . and that was it. Oakes waved at the crowd as he left stage, deliberately pausing as he did - like a real 'thank you', for ignoring the fact he's not Bernard, and appreciating the fact he played with venom and real passion, all the tracks he sort of has a right to get annoyed by. Tonight Richard Oakes came of age; after 'So Long' - and no longer 'So Young'.
But Dog Man Star is an outstanding masterpiece - the best album ever written - the ultimate Suede moment in time. Codling played more guitar than keyboards, but with his usual cool. None of the band looked much older really. Brett, by the end, was whipping his backside and swinging the microphone lead round his neck - it was like he was reliving his youth!!! Just like old times..:)) I think there will be a new SUEDE album - they were clearly loving every second. When there is - and it'll be soon - somehow we've all got to meet up and get there together. We can write a film about how we did it. But I think we will  . . and we will :))"


Update/ July 2014

And there was a new album following the reunion/ album gig . . called 'BLOODSPORTS', it was released to critical acclaim in early 2013. Most tracks written by Brett Anderson, Richard Oakes and Neil Codling. The tracks were darker, brasher, and much more melancholic than previous album (and band-soul destroyer) 'A New Morning'; far more akin to the Dog Man Star album almost 20 years its senior. It's something of a masterpiece. There was a gig too - at Alexandra Palace, that kind of cemented the deal (see pics below  - of course I had to be there!).
Suede are still touring (recently playing the Isle of Wight Festival, in June 2014) and writing. Still wild; still - probably - black and blue. Still a big part of my life. And the lives of at least two other people I know; the only other members of the (still) Not Famous Writers Club . .


words: mark gordon palmer

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