Number 10: Suede – Dog Man Star (1994)
Britpop is looked back on with a great deal of distain these days, and in on some levels that stance is fully justified. Atrocities like Shed Seven, Northern Uproar and Menswear are genuine contenders for the title of Worst Band Of All Time, appalling acts that blatantly rode in the slipstream of Oasis’s success and had absolutely no interest in making original music. So in many ways it is ironic that the two bands who are credited with starting the movement would be the ones who moved furthest away from it.
Blur, after gaining front page headlines for their singles duel with the Gallagher brothers, and the nauseating video for Country House, would stop pretending they went to greyhound races and ate jellied eels, as it was clearly a lie. Instead they bought a load of Pavement records and made the self-titled Blur album to no sales but huge critical acclaim. Meanwhile, in the midst of the afore-mentioned Britpop wars, in a gothic town house in the Highgate area of London, Suede front man Brett Anderson listened to some Syd Barrett and Kate Bush, consumed a mountain of acid and fell out with his guitarist. The result was the weirdest album ever made by a mainstream British band.
Suede’s first run of singles was practically flawless, and the B-Sides (remember those?) were, for the most part, as good as if not better than the A-Sides. It was on the flip of the So Young 45 that the first hints of Anderson and Butler’s wild ambition would be heard, on a song called High Rising. Starting off as a sparse ballad featuring the standard Suede themes of being strung out in a tower block yearning for a disreputable woman, about two thirds of the way through it explodes into an enormous swirling cavalcade of swooping guitars and enormous, multi-layered operatic backing vocals. It is one of the most ludicrous songs ever written, but Suede, like their primary influences David Bowie, Kate Bush and The Smiths, were always at their best when at their most over the top.
The first lyric on this album is as follows: “Dog Man Star took a suck on a pill, and stabbed a cerebellum with a curious quill.” So from the first line we’ve already gathered that appalling amounts of narcotics are involved here. Introducing The Band is actually a perfect pace-setter for this album; dark, warped and subversive, with a great segue into the lead-off single We Are The Pigs. This track is glam-Suede at their absolute peak. Stomping, arse-swinging and fierce; snarling guitar parts and squalling brass sections. Heroine continues the thread with its deliberate “Is he singing about girls or drugs” sleaziness, and The Wild Ones, nearly twenty years later arguably still Suede’s greatest song, has the kind of hopeless romanticism that you’d associate with Renaissance-era poetry rather than a pop song. It also features some of the best singing by anyone, ever.
Daddy’s Speeding collapses under its own weight and The Power features some wonderful spiralling lines from Butler whilst New Generation would provide the most accessible moment on the record. It is, however, the closing four-song suite that makes this album so far beyond any over music recorded in its era. The 2 Of Us is one of the stillest songs ever recorded, a snowy, echo-laden torch song that is completely without any sort of swing or groove, a massive departure for an indie band. Brett’s singing on this song is phenomenal, soaring and yearning, reminiscent of Scott Walker’s early Phillips albums, which he claimed he had never heard (that is surely a lie.) Black Or Blue is the druggiest song on the album, and one which has no place on a pop record, instead sounding like it should be part of a particularly creepy West End musical, Anderson’s disgusted shriek of “She understood the law” hilariously camp.
The penultimate track was reportedly what prompted Butler to leave the band. A nine-minute epic, The Asphalt World had apparently been edited down from anything from seventeen to twenty-five minutes, depending on which account you hear, an act which prompted Butler to record the remainder of his parts in isolation from the rest of the band. Allegedly the tapes which he sent in also contained whispered threats and insults, but as we already know, there were narcotics involved. The song itself is probably Butler’s finest recorded moment, his needling and pulsing guitar providing a claustrophobic canvas for Brett’s howled vocal about giving drugs to women and “time-honoured fur.” No, I don’t know either.
Still Life closes the set, basically because nothing else could possibly follow it. It starts off with an acoustic guitar and a discreet string section which gradually builds and builds until, at the two and a half minute mark, the song explodes and all at once we’re hit by an amazing operatic vocal and an orchestra the size of Wales. It is at this point that you realise they have left Britpop light years behind, and we are now in the realms of classical music.
Dog Man Star is the great unheralded musical leap of faith of its era. It is certainly a bigger artistic transition than Blur was after The Great Escape, and arguably even more so than Kid A was after OK Computer, and its tantalizing to imagine what Brett and Bernard could have go onto if they had stayed together. At the same time though, maybe its best that they finished it here. Dog Man Star walks a tightrope between genius and pretentiousness, and talk of twenty-five minutes demos with forty guitar parts would suggest that they very nearly fell off. It is no co-incidence that Suede’s next album, released after a two year break, would be a collection of brisk, bright, three minute pop songs, as if realising that this era was most definitely over, but it produced an intoxicating document of what can happen when two little drama queens take a mountain of hallucinogenics and have Brian Gascoigne on speed dial. It’s a hell of a record.
Best Tracks: The Wild Ones, The 2 Of Us, Still Life
Best Moment: The majestic coda which closes Still Life, and the album.
Like this? Try: Hounds Of Love by Kate Bush, 1985
Allen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014