‘I once described the history of the band as being like a pram that’s been pushed down a hill. There was always a hint at the back of my mind that our journey could be quite twisted’; muses Brett Anderson at the start of Suede: The Insatiable Ones, Mike Christie’s highly anticipated new feature documentary, of one of the most iconic bands of the British alternative music scene.
Commissioned by Sky Arts and created by Christie (most recently known for part-concert, part-documentary New Order: Decades), this definitive feature was made with full access to the group and their extensive personal archives and as such is both fascinating and uncomfortable, brutally honest and painfully raw.
Throughout Christie’s film, drummer Simon Gilbert’s collection of rough, tour-bus video footage is used to voyeuristic effect, as we are allowed to see first-hand the frenzy and the tensions, the addictions and the excesses, as well as the elemental genius which has accompanied Suede for 25 years and spanned eight studio albums.
So why now? ‘One of many things I’ve learned in two decades of documentary making is that some stories can’t be told until they’re ready to be told. We’d debated making a film before but this time was absolutely the right time. This is a band who are once again at the peak of their artistic powers and only now in the right place to reflect deeply on their lives, past and work with brutal honesty’; Christie explains. His footage is accompanied by interviews with all current band members as well as with friends and family members, ex-band members Justine Frischmann and Mike Joyce, early manager Ricky Gervais, legendary art director Peter Saville, Nude founder Saul Galpern and producer Ed Buller, amongst others.
The film starts and ends with recordings and tour rehearsals for 2018’s album The Blue Hour, as Anderson – his face set in serious concentration, like a father overseeing his progeny – watches the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra perform, whilst his voice-over warns us of what is to come: ‘We were much less in control of it than people might assume. I did realise that we were on a kind of collision course’. The tone is set: this is not to be a comfortable depiction of Suede’s achievements and pop-stardom but instead, a harrowing, visceral account of their rise and fall, of the waves of self-destruction that almost overcame them, and the toll taken upon its members.
Falling into four distinct sections: Identity, Power, Self-Destruction and Acceptance, the film is imbued with the sense of Greek tragedy, the latter’s pre-requisites of Place, Time and Action feeling equally fitting. Although we are initially taken on a tour of Hayward’s Heath for a retrospective of Anderson and Mat Osman’s early years, this is very much a tale of London – of pleasurable temptations and insidious vices, one which unfolds over the course of almost three decades and one in which every character will play a vital part.
IDENTITY retells the band’s early days, from haphazard rehearsals in student bedrooms to the day Bernard Butler famously answered Anderson’s NME advert for a guitarist. The brotherly connection between Anderson and college friend, bassist Osman, is evident in this section; with Mike Joyce’s unlikely and surreal application to join the band – Osman humorously noting that had the ex-Smith remained, Suede would have been relegated to ‘Mike Joyce’s new band’ – and Ricky Gervais’ comedic reminiscences, providing a light touch.
The wonderful black and white footage of the band’s 1991 appearance at The Falcon in Camden is evocatively reminiscent of the milieu of the time, it has the effect of transporting the viewer back – we are standing in that crowd, hearing ‘The Drowners’ for the first time, delighting in Anderson’s ostentatious posturing, sensing those goose bumps at the now familiar refrain: ‘We kiss in his room to a popular tune, Oh, real drowners’.
A key point of this documentary is that whilst chronological in structure, its purpose is to explore the band’s creativity and influences rather than provide the viewer with a bio-pic of salacious sensationalism. Thus, when Frischmann fleetingly mentions having met Damon Albarn at The Premises in Hackney, Christie sensitively utilises this information to let Anderson talk openly about the devastating effect that her subsequent departure had on the band and his creativity. Any additional information would have seemed inappropriate here and the film skilfully dispenses with pop-culture gossip. Anderson’s blunt admission that his girlfriend and fellow band-member’s departure was ‘possibly the best thing that ever happened to me’, is used as a bridge to the next stage in the group’s evolution and their ultimate salvation in the form of Saul Galpern who – fortunately for Suede – had lost his record label job. Nude was born and Galpern the ‘stable dad’ to his fledgling band’s collection of ‘errant sons’ transported Suede onto the front of Melody Maker and ultimately – with the releases of ‘The Drowners’, ‘Metal Mickey’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’ – propelled them into the limelight.
Hearing Anderson clarify the true intent behind his much-quoted boast of 1993 –at the time taken apocryphally to refer to his sexual exploration – is enlightening and demonstrative of much of what Suede has always been about: occupying the perspective of the other, the marginalised. Whilst we may now shy away from using the hackneyed Britpop label (oh Stuart Maconie, what a monster you created), Suede and some of their contemporaries were choosing to depict a world on the fringes of society; a realm of outsiders and refugees. This was a ‘revenge of the suburbs’ whereby the minutiae of life became part of the mainstream and where lyrics such as ‘well he said he’d show you his bed, and the delights of the chemical smile, so in your broken home he broke all your bones now you’re taking it time after time’ became inveigled into popular culture. Anderson uses the wonderful metaphor of the Trojan horse of seedy sexuality that is ‘Animal Nitrate’ being smuggled stealth-like into the ‘fortress of the mainstream’, clearly delighting (as do we) in his brazen chutzpah, ‘so overt, hiding in plain sight’.
POWER Christie’s second section, brings the dichotomy of Suede to the fore: simultaneously presenting Butler’s increasing disillusionment with the musical process, in contrast to the group’s rapid upwards trajectory. It becomes clear that for Butler, the necessary frivolity of videos and photo shoots held no allure and the associated record label posturing, where musical creativity took a backwards step, was clearly a deep frustration. It is uncomfortable viewing: the narcissism of these young men being played out, caught up in the excitement and hedonism of touring and indifferent to the pain being suffered by Butler at his father’s death. Acknowledging their lack of emotional maturity now, it is clear how their youthful naivety both drove their success and enabled their destruction.
Butler’s subsequent departure from the band is – as Frischmann’s before – reflected in Anderson’s lyrics, possibly the only format in which he was able to articulate the devastating effect both absences had on him. Christie’s use of ‘Stay Together’, ‘Still Life’ and most poignantly ‘The 2 of Us’ here are heart-breaking. This isn’t just pop music, this is a break-up, the aftermath being played out in public, expressed in the final manifestation of the songs which make up Dog Man Star. Anderson can latterly deride his younger self’s lack of social skills – both he and Butler have long since made peace with one another, if not themselves – but for the viewer this section lends a fascinating and raw insight into the construction of this daring, aesthetically challenging and searingly beautiful album.
As before, Christie does not dwell on the what-ifs for as Maconie observes, ‘sometimes the grit in the oyster makes the pearl’: salvation arriving (again in response to an advert in the NME) in the unlikely form of a 17 year old sixth-form student from Poole, Richard Oakes. Self-deprecatingly downplaying his entrance and immediately flung into the maelstrom of touring, one can’t help but wonder at how this must have affected the teenaged guitarist, who by his own admission, was totally unused to the riotous world in which he so suddenly found himself. Whilst the jackals of the press may have prophesied failure, for the remaining band members, Oakes’ entrance heralded a regeneration – a point proven when we are reminded of his creation of the catchy guitar part that would ultimately form part of one of the band’s most iconic tracks, ‘Beautiful Ones’ – high on diesel and gasoline and rather a lot more.
Final entrant to the Suede stage was of course Gilbert’s cousin, keyboardist Neil Codling, who popped in to borrow a suit and never left. The band had now evolved from a classic four piece; a new dynamic had been introduced and the band were truly cohesive once more. Coming Up, their most commercially successful record, produced five top ten singles; yet on hearing the band affirm their sense of feeling ‘bulletproof’ during this time, one can’t help but feel a sense of nervous anticipation: this is rock and roll; something is bound to go wrong.
As Anderson’s ex-house mate Alan Fisher describes the state to which his friend had fallen, I find myself wishing I could turn away; his depiction is deeply disturbing and brings a tone of intense disquiet and foreboding to the narrative. What follows is one of Christie’s most unsettling and uncomfortable scenes, in which Anderson stands in the alley near his old home in Westbourne Park, starkly recounting events of the time. His honesty is extraordinarily raw, his difficulty in elucidating the period painfully clear, expressing himself with air of shock and a sense of atonement. Anderson doesn’t shy away from reality now, acknowledging with a rueful laugh his prior pomposity at justifying his behaviour as a part of ‘rock and roll mythology’. Clips of rehearsals, Anderson with ribs protruding, bare chested in jogging bottoms, cause the viewer a sense of disquiet, loss even – this doesn’t feel like our band any more, it feels frighteningly off-kilter and for a moment I forget how this story ends.
Replacing Buller with Happy Mondays’ producer Steve Osborne; accounts of Anderson being largely absent from the studio; of his dishevelled appearance and inconsistent behaviour, almost make us want to turn away – it all seems too personal for public consumption, I feel like a voyeur. Christie has worked wonders. I am not simply a passive observer, I am emotionally caught up in the scenes I am being forced to watch; excruciatingly uncomfortable as Anderson stumbles through an obscenely parodic acapella of ‘Head Music’. Providing a visceral account of the appalling events which led to the creation of ‘Down’; avoiding the camera, looking to the side, trapped by his memories of such an intensely shocking and traumatic event, Anderson looks harrowed. Do we really need to know all this? The answer clearly, is yes, Christie is presenting us with the full picture, warts and all.
As Anderson vocalises his addictions, there is a brutal and beautiful honesty in his words. We are shown the darkness of hedonism, the demands of the music machine, a no holds-barred depiction of the personal cost and of the edge of the abyss to which they had all been pushed. It feels extraordinarily brave to hear him face up to his demons and touching to hear Richard Osman, Mat’s brother, criticise the industry that had built them up only to then facilitate and condone their self-destruction. When Anderson openly disowns ‘A New Morning’ I want to plead with him – to remind him how much this album means to me and countless others, to remind him of the beauty in tracks such as ‘One Hit to the Body’ and ‘When the Rain Falls’; but this is not my story.
As the band stand awkwardly in the empty auditorium of the ICA, reminiscing their five-night residency in 2003, I feel as though I’ve unwittingly stumbled in to a group therapy session. Anderson expiates, admitting that by spiralling out of control, he hadn’t cared enough about the band. He lies awake at night now, full of regrets, this is a forum for his apology. I feel like a usurper, I shouldn’t be hearing this, it’s far too personal, something these five men should be allowed to share alone, and I am eavesdropping. Again, I feel ashamed. Anderson looks at the ground, the others shuffle clumsily.
Suede had their triumphant ending in March 2010 when for one night, they reformed to play a charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall. This was supposed to be the denouement they had never had; there were no plans for the future, just an intention to play one gig and then walk away once more. However, it seems they had not bargained on the rapturous response of the crowd or the potent affect that the return from a seven-year hiatus would have and so, here they still are: eight years and three albums later.
2018 has seen the release of The Blue Hour, the last in a successful triptych which began with Bloodsports and Night Thoughts and the band have subsequently toured, playing to ecstatic crowds at packed out venues. Christie doesn’t focus in detail on the resurgence of the last eight years, and indeed pays almost no heed to the two albums which precede The Blue Hour (one element of this film which somehow feels slightly rushed). Instead he focuses on the newly found sense of cohesion which led the band to create this latest record. Christie’s documentary has been one without an intrusive narrative voice: he has let the music and protagonists tell their story, quietly observant, guiding his viewer, whilst revealing truths and debunking myths, letting the past spill into the present as we come to terms with the tumultuous workings of the last 25 years.
In the end, maybe Suede are best viewed through the lens of Godling’s analysis of the album’s final track, ‘Flytipping’, which he posits as an encapsulation of the Suede journey; a glorious, sweeping, theatrical vision of an unrestricted, exhilarating future, extricated from the encumbrances of the past. The absurdity of freedom attained by way of gratuitous abandonment, is a typically Suedesque oxymoron. Theirs is a dystopian vision of the future: amidst the desolation, there is solace, amidst the B-roads and the verges of the hinterland there lies a dark, elemental poetry.
To me, the final message of Christie’s work is one of atonement – here are a group who have paid their dues, faced and exorcised their demons. We only must listen to The Blue Hour’s opening track ‘As One’, melodramatic and bombastic – so typically Suede – to be sure of that: ‘Here I am, talking to my shadow, head in my hands’. The string sound of discordant nightmares, the darkly operatic choir, grandiose and gothic – we could be back in the world of Dog Man Star but emotionally we are a world away from that time.
What strikes me on watching this film, is the brutal honesty the band members expose: their observations looking back are tinged with apology – and at times, embarrassment – at the actions of their younger selves and it is possibly this ability to reflect and in turn lay these terrors to rest, which has finally enabled them to move forward so successfully and to rediscover their Suede-ness; and for that we are all infinitely grateful.