Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ at 25

❉ 25 years ago today, Suede lit the fuse of Britpop with their mission statement.

“The laddish jingoism of what Britpop would eventually became was nowhere to be seen, when Britpop was christened by Select Magazine in 1993 it was about literate indie-pop which simply documented British life rather than celebrated it.”

The debut single by ‘the best new band in Britain’ arrived 25 years ago today, on 11 May 1992 – three excellent songs perfectly packaged and which helped kick-start the scene which would dominate British guitar music for the 1990s. Overshadowed by the Blur/Oasis controversy of three years later Suede’s influence is often downplayed.

To understand their impact on the indie music scene in 1992 I’m reminded of the clip on The Old Grey Whistle Test of the New York Dolls and Bob Harris’ grumpy “mock rock” put-down. There was undoubtedly lots of great music being made in 1992, but with the exception of the Manic Street Preachers it was a while since a guitar-pop band had had the chutzpah to take it to the level that Suede did. Luke Haines recalls in his excellent book Bad Vibes the sheer “teenage rampage” of the moment Suede came on the scene; even Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a Suede badge.

The lead-up to the release of The Drowners was quite a journey. Suede was formed in 1989 by long time friends Brett Anderson and Mat Osman with Brett’s girlfriend Justine Frischmann (Bernard Butler arrived soon after from an advert in the music press). But it wasn’t until the arrival of drummer Simon Gilbert and the departure of Frischmann in 1991 that they really started to find their feet. Three years of being out-of-sync with whatever musical trends were delighting the music press that week saw Suede largely ignored.

At the start of 1992, Suede were still unsigned. In recent years guitar music had been through greebo, Madchester and shoegaze, and was currently in the grips of an American grunge takeover. Suede’s pop sensibilities seemed completely at odds with all the other indie music at the time. On 3 January 1992 the NME put on a night of four up-and-coming indie bands at The Venue in New Cross. The other bands playing were Adorable, Midway Still and Fabulous. Apparently almost everyone from the music industry ignored Suede and instead watched Adorable and Fabulous.

“Suede were shocked and ashamed to discover that they were declared on the front cover ‘The Best New Band In Britain’. It was a lot of hype to live up to but on this rare occasion, here was a band good enough to live up to the hype.”

One person who was watching was Saul Galpern, a seasoned A&R man who had decided to go it alone and the previous August had started his own label; Nude. Competing with interest from Island & EastWest Suede signed a 2 single deal in February (with Bernard’s brother acting as their lawyer) with Nude. Mainly because of Saul Galpern’s previous involvement with The Fall of which Anderson was a big fan:

“I think the influence on Suede was huge. The awful, lazy ‘glam’ references that sometimes get chucked at us were I suppose born of a desire to emulate the visceral pulse of ‘New Big Prinz’ and ‘Mr Pharmacist’ and ‘2X4’ rather than being some horrible, ironic nod to the 70s”

What happened next took everyone by surprise. Suede had been for a photoshoot and interview with the Melody Maker for what they thought was going to be for one of their ‘Sidelines’ pieces about up-and-coming bands. When the went to the newsagents to buy the MM that week, they were shocked and ashamed to discover that they were declared on the front cover ‘The Best New Band In Britain’. It was a lot of hype to live up to but on this rare occasion, here was a band good enough to live up to the hype.

The years that the teenage Brett Anderson and Mat Osman spent imagining record sleeves paid off, and the front cover is another piece of their perfect mission statement. From the book ‘Trans-Figurations’ (by Verushka with Holger Trülzsch) the front cover features a photo of the German model Verushka naked, but body-painted to look like a gangster, holding a cigar in one hand and a gun in the other. The image was chosen by Anderson because he felt the cigar looked sexual and the gun gave a suggestion of violence (every Suede release would go on to feature a design overseen by Brett Anderson).

The front cover doesn’t list the main song – it only has the one word ‘Suede’ typeset in a lower case swiss font that has gone on to become their iconic trademark. On the 12” each song is given equal billing, the back cover lists each song as an ‘A’ side:  ‘A’ The Drowners, ‘AA’ To The Birds and ‘AAA’ My Insatiable One. Three slices of faultless guitar pop, each one as good as each other. Even the catalogue number (NUD1) was stylistically perfect; the first release on a label whose name couldn’t be a more perfect encapsulation of the music contained within if it tried. Etched on the run-out groove is the legend ‘do you believe in love there?’.

“As hardcore Smiths fans Brett and Bernard knew the value of excellent B-sides.”

Brett and Bernard both loved the fact that The Smiths’ debut LP started with drums and that’s how The Drowners starts (Bernard still likes starting his songs with drum intros). I’ve loved these songs for 25 years now and have played them countless times, but I still couldn’t tell you what they’re about lyrically. Although often compared with David Bowie, the only intentional Bowie copy is in the production with the simultaneous two octave vocals in the verse. Critics were also keen to point out the “Slow-down”/”Star-man” chorus melody similarities. Less commonly acknowledged, there’s a more obscure echo of the Dame in the “slow down” refrain, a la 1967 Deram outtake Karma Man. (Brett professed his admiration for Bowie’s Deram recordings in 1997, when he cited In The Heat Of The Morning as a personal favourite.)

The Drowners has that indefinable adrenalin-inducing pop-single production, the acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Prince Charming by Adam & The Ants, the drums have a Joy Division feel and the electric guitars have a Bolan/Ronson fizz. It was a sound no-one in 1992 was expecting and a sound on the record is one that the band would struggle to repeat in a live setting.

To The Birds is perhaps the only song of the three which hints of what decade it came from. There’s definitely a taste of shoegaze, and maybe even a splash of John Squire, in the guitars – yet over the top of this wall-of-noise is a fantastically overstated Brett vocal. It’s a sound The Horrors would later build a career out of.

My Insatiable One could have easily been the a single, of the three it’s the best signifier of what Suede really sounded like. But the band were so wrong-footed by how quickly and easily it came together that they never thought to make it a single. Also, as hardcore Smiths and T.Rex fans Brett and Bernard knew the value of excellent B-sides.

Such was its obvious class, My Insatiable One is a song which has actually been sung by both of the artists Suede were most often compared to; Bowie and Morrissey. Morrissey, a Suede fan from the start (he even attended a pre-Drowners gig in February 1992), covered My Insatiable One no less than 17 times on his 1992 tour. Recently unearthed footage shows Bowie singing along to My Insatiable One during Nick Knight’s cover photo session for 1993 LP Black Tie/White Noise (an album which, ironically, toppled Suede’s debut from Number 1 in the UK LP charts). Bowie remained a fan of the band he called his “nephews”, and invited Suede to perform as guests when he curated Meltdown in 2002.

In the Britpop story, hindsight shows us the significance of Blur’s Popscene single. Released a few weeks before The Drowners (but then overlooked for inclusion on their subsequent Modern Life Is Rubbish LP) Popscene is absolutely the blueprint of what ‘Britpop’ would eventually become (and indeed peak with). But for impact at the time, and lighting the Britpop-fuse, nothing beats The Drowners. Along with the many grunge copycat bands there was a sudden influx of intelligent and often witty British and/or glam guitar groups. The laddish jingoism of what Britpop would eventually became was nowhere to be seen, when Britpop was christened by Select Magazine in 1993 it was about literate indie-pop which simply documented British life rather than celebrated it. The influence of Suede on the bands themselves is debatable, but the influence on the labels that signed them was huge.

Suede’s sudden success was like a spark in a fireworks factory as the music industry tried to bottle the lightning they missed the first time. Although Pulp had been releasing records on independent labels for over a decade, in the wake of Suede’s debut single, they signed to Island and recorded an LP with Suede’s producer Ed Buller. Shed Seven, Marion, Tindersticks, Echobelly, Elastica, Gene, Salad, My Life Story and The Auteurs were all signed after the release of The Drowners (and before Oasis threw a curveball with Supersonic on 11 April 1994). The success of Suede in the wake of The Drowners also enraged Blur to up their game. With most of Modern Life Is Rubbish written before Suede had signed with Nude, Blur felt that Suede had taken their sound (although I struggle to see the similarities between Suede’s material and Modern Life Is Rubbish, excellent though they both are). However, late in 1992 Damon Albarn did write the Drowners-soundalike song, Chemical World, as one of two potential singles for the LP. Suede would also earn the dubious honour of having Spitting Image and Newman & Baddiel doing parodies of them.

It’s encouraging to think that this was all the result of a band, ignored by everyone for three years, on a genuine independent label whose debut LP would go on to be the fastest selling debut LP since Frankie Goes To Hollywood and give the music industry a wake-up call it needed. 25 years later, as the ridiculous world goes by, Suede have remained my favourite group and I’m always excited to hear whatever they (in their many incarnations and offshoots) come up with next.

❉ Bibliography:

Love & Poison by David Barnett
Bad Vibes or Britpop And My Part In Its Downfall by Luke Haines
The Last Party by John Harris
Mozipedia: The Encyclopaedia of Morrissey and the Smiths by Simon Goddard
3862 Days. Blur: The Official History by Stuart Maconie


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