“The Smiths are sooooooo depressing!” said every naff twat you knew in the Eighties – which was millions upon millions. But, annoying as it was, every time you heard that lazy dismissal it confirmed something deeply, almost sexually satisfying: that most people simply didn’t deserve to be Smiths fans.”
I wrote an essay for Rolling Stone celebrating the 30th anniversary of the demise of The Smiths, explaining why we’re really lucky that they split in 1987.
And while it would be hideously indecorous of me to review it – especially since Morrissey was kind enough not to mention my biography of him – I will say this:
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
In lieu of a review, here are some especially cherished lines. Because of course, everything that he says ringstrue-oh-oh-oh.
On his hometown
…we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.
On his big head
Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, but soon it is I, and not my mother, on the critical list at Salford’s Pendlebury Hospital.
On being Irish Catholic
…we Irish Catholics know very well how raucous happiness displeases God, so there is much evidence of guilt in all we say and do, but nonetheless it is said and done.
On school punishment
‘You touch me and my mum’ll be down,’ I warn Miss Dudley. I am nine years old.
On Myra Hindley
Tormentedly, everyone appears to know someone who knew Myra Hindley, and we are forced to accept a new truth; that a woman can be just as cruel and dehumanized as a man, and that all safety is an illusion.
On George Best
My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apocalyptic disturber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remember my father’s rasp as he dragged my twisted body through the crowd and out into the street, causing him to miss the rest of the match.
On Lost in Space
Dr Smith’s voice is the caustic cattiness of a tetchy dowager rising in pitch as each line ends, hands a-flutter with away with you, my child intolerance. Major West, on the other hand, will kick to kill. My notepad resting on my lap takes the scribbles of unspoken truth: effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.
On being caught by a teacher with a New York Dolls album sleeve
‘LOOK AT THIS!’ she demanded of everyone, ‘LOOK AT THIS!’ and everyone looked at this. ‘THIS is sickness. These are MEN making themselves sexual for OTHER MEN.’
On delicate boys and rough girls
In King’s Lane a sporty Welsh girl lands me such a powerful clenched-fist blow that I fall to the ground deafened. ‘What was THAT for?’ I said, sightless with soreness. ‘Because I like you and you won’t look at me,’ she said – as if what she had done might improve the situation. It didn’t.
On 1970s teenage sex
Honeypots sprawled like open graves, their owners doing nothing at all other than letting you. The call of duty is all yours – to turn on and get off; to hit the spot and know the ropes; to please and be pleased; as the owners of such Bermuda Triangles do … nothing.
On 1970s porn
Female nudity is generally easy to find – if not actually unavoidable – but male nudity is still a glimpse of something that one is not meant to see. In mid-70s Manchester there must be obsessive love of vagina, otherwise your life dooms itself forever.
On Top of The Pops
All human activity is fruitless when pitted against the girls and boys singing on pop television, for they have found the answer as the rest of us search for the question. I will sing, too. If not, I will have to die.
On AE Housman
Housman was always alone – thinking himself to death, with no matronly wife to signal to the watching world that Alfred Edward was now quite alright – for isn’t this at least partly the aim of scoring a partner: to trumpet the mental all-clear to a world where how things seem is far more important than how things are?
On Patti Smith
In a dream state I watch her explode as she takes on the lesbian contingent at the front who are calling to Patti to ‘come out’ (where to? from what?), and they heckle her in almost every song.
Ron Mael sat at the keyboard like an abandoned ventriloquist’s doll, and brother Russell sang in French italics with the mad urgency of someone tied to a tree.
On being banned by his best mate’s mum
I ponder on how I could possibly be considered a bad influence, since I am neither bad nor remotely influential. It is not as if, at this age of 18, I designed dresses under the name Violet Temper. It is not as if I sought a career in exotic dancing, or read jokes aloud at funerals. I had never even once been drunk. My main concern in life was to find somewhere that could make spectacles in less than an hour.
On Sandie Shaw
I had collected all of Sandie’s slap-bang singles of the 1960s, and thought that they perfectly traversed the cheap and loud sound of east London skirty jailbait.
On the North
…the north is a separate country – one of wild night landscapes of affectionate affliction.
…there is Paul Newman, sitting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smiling at La Luna restaurant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sitting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unemployable Stretford canal-bank cleaner is introduced. This all could be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.
On Rough Trade Records
These are the days when almost any unsigned artist that I favor instantly awakes to find Geoff Travis sitting at the foot of their bed, a short-form agreement between his teeth. It’s a compliment, of sorts.
On David Bowie
David quietly tells me, ‘You know, I’ve had so much sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive,’ and I loudly tell him, ‘You know, I’ve had SO LITTLE sex and drugs that I can’t believe I’m still alive.’
On life with the boxer Jake Walters
…every minute has the high drama of first love, only far more exhilarating, and at last I have someone to answer the telephone.
On Jake’s belly
I am photographed for Creem magazine with my head resting on Jake’s exposed belly. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ asks new manager Arnold Stiefel. ‘No?’ I say in a small voice. ‘Well, that’s a very intimate shot.’ ‘Oh?’ I say, baffled. ‘A man doesn’t rest his head on another man’s stomach,’ Arnold goes on. ‘No?’ I answer, all adrift on the cruel sea.
On that November Spawned a Monster video
Tim had asked me to do the entire November spawned a monster video naked. I explained to him that this would be impossible since my entire lower body had been destroyed by fire in 1965. His expression remained wide-eyed with belief as he replied, ‘Oh.’
On his fans
As I watch and study, I am mirrored by a handsome legion of the tough and the flash, and with this vision all of my efforts succeed.
MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”
Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.
His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?
Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.
But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.
A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.
Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”
But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.
And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.
But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?
But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?
Because the 80s is the decade that actually ended the 20th Century – the 90s was just an after-party clean-up operation – it’s also the decade that never came to an end itself. In fact, the 80s is the decade that just won’t die.
Economy in (‘Big Bang’) recession. Tories in power. Cuts on the table. Riots on the streets. Royal weddings on the telly. The Falklands becoming a fighting issue. And my mother complaining about Morrissey: “I see that chap you like so much has been in the papers again. Ridiculous man! And he still can’t sing!”
As Madonna might put it, it’s all a bit reductive.
In fact everyone has been enjoying moaning about Morrissey lately – just like the good old days. In case you somehow missed it, at a performance in Argentina last week, his band appeared in t-shirts printed with the charming message ‘WE HATE WILLIAM AND KATE’ (remember 80s protest t-shirts?).
Perhaps worried this might be overlooked back home, the former Smiths front-man also offered this bouquet to his Argentine fans about those bitterly contested, sparsely-populated rocks in the South Atlantic: “Everybody knows they belong to you”.
The Times, Mirror, Telegraph, Sun and Mail all dutifully denounced Morrissey’s big mouth. The Guardian for its part ran an earnest discussion between two music critics titled: ‘Is Morrissey a national treasure?’ (The answer seemed to be ‘yes – but a very naughty one.’)
Not bad for a 52-year-old crooner currently without a record contract. But then, just like that other 80s diva keen on hairspray and frilly-collared blouses, we’ll never entirely be rid of him.
The British experience of the 80s is forever dominated by two very difficult personalities. Both from the north, both unafraid to speak their mind, and both possessing a gender all of their own.
And while one was a working-class militant vegetarian anarchist Sandie Shaw fan with a flair for homoerotic imagery, and the other a bossy petit bourgeois social Darwinist and devotee of General Pinochet who famously outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, both of them were radicals on a revenge trip.
But if Margaret Thatcher owned the 80s, Steven Patrick Morrissey stole its youth. Or at least, the youth that didn’t want to be a part of Thatcher’s 80s. The Smiths were not just an‘alternative’ band: they were the alternative that Maggie said didn’t exist.
In fact, The Smiths were reviled by almost everyone at the time – Fleet Street, the BBC (they were effectively banned from daytime Radio 1), the record business (they were signed to a teeny-weeny Indie label), and indeed most of the record buying public (their singles struggled to even get into the top 20).
But they have become the heart of a decade that didn’t have one. They are now the band that everyone liked – two or three decades after the event.
Including, most famously, David Cameron, who used The Smiths and Morrissey as a Tory re-branding and detoxifying tool at least as important as those melting glaciers he went to gawp at. Declaring The Smiths his favourite group not long after gaining the leadership of the ‘Nasty Party’, he was even pictured, if memory serves me right, with a copy of Morrissey’s 2005 album Ringleader of the Tormentors on his desk.
But Morrissey, whatever you may think of him, isn’t a man to be assimilated lightly. Especially by a Chipping Norton Tory.
When, in 2010, his estranged former Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr tweeted that he ‘forbade’ David Cameron from liking the Smiths, animal rights activist Morrissey endorsed him, adding:
‘David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either Meat Is Murder or The Queen Is Dead were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence.’
No-one can be genuinely surprised that someone who called an album The Queen is Dead is fiercely anti-Royalist. No-one can be shocked that the man who sang ‘Irish Blood English Heart’ is no fan of the remnants of the British Empire. And let’s not forget his famous 1984 quip: “The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Margaret Thatcher escaped unscathed”, or the track ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ for his 1988 album Viva Hate.
Unless, that is, they hoped that Morrissey had mellowed with age and become some sort of singing Stephen Fry with a quiff. Morrissey’s views haven’t changed. Morrissey hasn’t changed. He still hasn’t grown up. He’s still an adolescent curmudgeon, an otherworldly prophet from Stretford – he’s just older and thicker around the middle, and with a bit more cash to spend. He did, after all, promise us again and again that he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change.
It’s we, his fans, who have changed. If we’re embarrassed by his antics it may be because we’ve finally become the people we used to hate.
I have something to confess. When I listened to Suede’s eponymous debut album last year I was disappointed. Disappointed that it turned out to be as good as the hype had trumpeted it to be. This was an album that went gold on its first day and sold 100,000 copies in its first week, by a group whose canny PR people secured them no less than nineteen magazine covers. Suede were everywhere, and everyone was hailing them as the greatest thing since The Smiths. So I’m sure you can sympathise with my frustration on discovering I couldn’t loftily dismiss them as paste imitations and actually had to admit that Suede, at once savage and tender, sleazy and sublime, was one of the greatest first albums ever.
Suede, the bastards, they had it all. They had the press; they had the material; they had the success. And to cap it all they had a dangerous, scandalous edge in the form of seventies androgyny queered up for the nineties. It was there in their songs—”We kiss in his room to a popular tune” (“The Drowners”); “In your council home he broke all your bones and now you’re taking it time after time” (“Animal Nitrate”)—and an album cover that featured two disabled lesbians snogging. Most of all, it was there in the sissy shape of front man Brett Anderson. With his irritating girlish fringe, weedy pointy shoulders, and pigeon chest, his swinging, childbearing hips (to which he insisted on drawing attention by banging the microphone against them), and his big-collared blouses baring a waspish waist and nibblesome navel, Anderson was the most offensively, delectably unmanly pop star since Morrissey. Damn him, damn them.
But I needn’t have fretted. Even as Suede were being feted, a backlash was brewing that would unmask them as fakes. What finally unleashed it was Brett’s remark that he considered himself “a bisexual who had never had a homosexual experience.” So Suede were frauds after all! All that mincing of hips and meeting of same-sex lips was phony, a sham! How satisfying.
Gay critics fired the first salvos, denouncing Suede as shameful exploiters of their culture. “Is there any real difference between what Brett from Suede is doing and what the Black and White Minstrels once did?” demanded one furious gay music journalist in Melody Maker.
Meanwhile, those straights who had been discomfited by the queerness of Suede, were given a green light to ridicule them for being big girl’s blouses, now that they had no fear of being called “homophobic.” After reading one gay critic’s attack on Anderson, “comedians” Newman and Baddiel included a typically witty sketch in their last tour that derided him for his poofiness.
Now, more than a year later, as Suede prepare to release their second album, Dog Man Star, they seem as cursed as they were blessed last year. Second albums are always a test, but after such a debut album as Suede, it becomes a trial. Gone is the honeymoon with the press, and gone also is Bernard Butler, the band’s guitarist and Marr to Brett’s Morrissey, in an acrimonious and very public separation. What does the Posing Sodomite have to say about that remark now?
“It was completely misread,” he says, the annoyance registering in his voice. “I was talking about the way I write and the way I generally feel about life. I don’t feel 100 percent akin to the male world or 100 percent akin to the female world. I was trying to express in a sexual perspective something that was more spiritual. Lots of things I write about are third person but written in the first person. Basically it was about not wanting to be pinned down.”
Brett Anderson is perched awkwardly on the arm of the sofa opposite, his body angled slightly away from me. Is he afraid of being “pinned down” as Someone Sitting on a Sofa? Is he, in fact, occupying some more artistic, ambiguous space between sitting and standing? Simon Gilbert, the band’s drummer, who came out as gay last year, is also here, facing me with his knees apart, apparently happy to surrender to the definite, fixed position of sitting on the sofa (albeit in the middle).
Brett continues in his fast-talking, surprisingly laddish South Coast voice: “I don’t think that anyone should have to be pinned down, even if they are definitely in a category—definitely gay or definitely straight. Because you happen to engage in certain sexual practices you shouldn’t have to be that and nothing more. I was trying to state something universal while everyone wanted to read something specific.”
He has a point. OK, so the refusing to be pinned down, “I-don’t- want-to-label-myself” thing is, in a sense, laughably adolescent. But isn’t that what pop is for? To be wilful, self-absorbed, self-important, pretentious? To refuse the definition, the certainty, the common sense, the maturity, the lifelessness of grown-ups? However hopeless such a resistance might be? But gays and straights did not appreciate Suede’s irresponsibility. Like most who advocate the possibility of a third position in the Sexual Identity War, Anderson was caught in the cross-fire between the two camps.
“The gay side thought it was a cop-out and the straight side weren’t happy with it either,” he complains. “Everybody wants you as a figurehead for their party: the world is just a series of tribes that want you to speak out for them but I’ve never felt myself part of any of tribe. I don’t intend to be a spokesman for any of them in particular. I’d like to think that individuals have got a bit more intelligence than to be happy with belonging to a glorified football team.
“I was seen as a whipping boy for people who wanted to be right-on as well. I happened to lay my defences open. Before I did people had thought: he probably is homosexual so we can’t criticise him on those grounds because we won’t be seen as right-on. Newman and Baddiel wouldn’t have dared do the same sketch about Andy Bell – although I’m sure they would like to – because they know they would have been slated as homophobic. I think men who are perceived to be gay but who aren’t actually don’t have the political defences to fall back on that gay men do.”
But then you were a rock star making this statement. Wasn’t it a rather cynical thing for someone in your privileged position to say, exploiting for your own ends the good old-fashioned “ambisexual” appeal of rock ‘n’ roll?
“Perhaps, but that would only be true if it were a charade. I think it would be impossible for me to act any other way. It’s not a ploy.”
So you refute the accusation that you were appropriating gay culture by “posing as a sodomite”?
“I wasn’t appropriating it – that sounds like stealing. I thought I had a kinship with it. My own sexuality aside, I’m quite deeply involved in the gay world because a lot of my friends are gay and because of this feeling of kinship. But like I said, I didn’t actually feel as if I was part of any particular group and didn’t want to be, so I didn’t feel a fraud at all. I wasn’t ‘posing as a sodomite’ – I felt completely justified in what I was doing.”
“I think it’s more to do with the way the press decide to portray us that caused the gay community to turn against us. In the NME there were cartoons representing us as limp-wristed Lord Fauntleroys. We weren’t trying to come across that way at all; that was the way the media decided to perceive us. Now I think we’ve gone beyond that – but that’s not to say that I’ve turned my back on what I was talking about then; it’s just the way my mind works.”
But surely you can’t just blame the press for your images as effete fops?
“Look, any pop band can get some success by wearing pink feather boas and some makeup – ‘Ohmygod, they’re outrageous‘ – we’re doing the opposite. We never felt we fitted into any categories. I think the music we make is a metaphor for everything including our sexuality, the way I’ve always tried to avoid barriers. Simon’s the same…”
“I have to say that I really sympathise with Brett’s position,” Simon chips in on cue. “I come from the other side of the fence if you like. I’ve called myself a bisexual person who’s never had a heterosexual experience. I never wanted to fit into the stereotypical image of what a gay person is. I think that it’s a lucky accident that brought me together with Brett because we really do share a similar outlook. Of all the bands I’ve been with, it’s only with Suede that I felt able to be honest.
“But I don’t want to be defined by my sexual preference, to be put in this category which is, to all intents and purposes, a clubby crowd. I never felt like I belonged in the straight world before I came out. After I came out I didn’t feel like I belonged in the gay world either.”
Actually, Simon doesn’t exactly look like he belongs in Suede. His hair – which is short, spiky, and an angry red-purple – is somewhat at odds with the louche Suede-boy coiffure. Apparently, people often think that he must be “the straight one” because he has short hair. As he continues talking, it becomes apparent where his image comes from. Like many young outsiders growing up in the late 70s, Simon had found a home in punk.
“It seemed to express something about me and I really enjoyed the ambiguity of the lyrics – like The Clash’s ‘Stay Free,’ which I interpret as a love song from one man to another. I’d never identified with politically gay bands and performers like Jimmy Somerville. I think that a song should speak to whoever’s listening without hitting them over the head with rhetoric that’s bound to turn some people off.”
But all the bands Simon had belonged to had displayed sufficient casual homophobia to persuade him to stay firmly in the closet.
“They all had their puerile antigay banter which I had to sit through without saying anything. Suede were different. One day somebody asked if I was gay and I just said, ‘Yeah.’ For a moment I thought, Oh shit, what have I done? I’m out of the band now I fact, the way everyone reacted was brilliant. It felt so right .ill that. I think it has a lot to do with the similarity between his outlook and mine.”
Have either of you consummated your “bisexuality” since last year?
Brett: “Not physically.”
Simon: “I’d say the same.”
What does that actually mean, though?
Simon: “It means that I can relate to a woman without actually getting into bed with her. In the same way as Brett does with men.”
So superficially there’s a neat symmetry between you in that you both want to avoid categorisation, aspiring to be something more and less than what you might be seen to be…
Brett: “… yes, there is …”
Simon: “. . . I’d agree with that. . .”
. . . but perhaps only superficially. Some might argue that you, Brett, were claiming a certain credibility without actually putting your iron in the fire or, probably more to the point, allowing someone else to put his in yours.
Brett: “Mine’s a kind of active statement and Simon’s is a kind passive statement? Yeah, I know what you’re saying. There’s a huge history here which I’m kind of attaching myself to, or port assume I’m attaching myself to. I don’t really see how to get away from it—I’m not saying that I never said it, but….
Now Brett is swallowing water. I throw him a line: Perhaps you were attacked for merely putting into words what has been the unofficial formula for truly great rock ‘n’ roll all along?
“Yeah, I’d agree with that.”
Does he think that his crime was more explanation than exploitation?
“Yes, I think that’s been my problem all along—giving too much away. It would have been very easy for me not to mention my sexuality at all and people would draw their own conclusions. I’ve been incredibly honest. I’ve never said anything that wasn’t true.” As a result of Brett’s honesty, some sections of the indie press slated Suede for being “inauthentic” poseurs—possibly the worst crime in the indie universe. Perhaps this had something to do with the notion among some sections of the music press that masculinity is equivalent to authenticity, and both are equivalent to working classness?
“Yeah,” Brett agrees. “Indie does have this huge emphasis on authenticity: everyone has to play and it’s a case of all the lads together. But the whole indie thing is so much a fucking fake itself!” he exclaims with real vehemence. “It’s actually the children of the landed gentry with guitars! I can name quite a few names—but I won’t—people with extravagantly rich parents who have decided to go for this scruffy image.
‘None of us have ever been part of that sort of gang at all. We made music from the other direction: we’re from a scruffy background and aspired to something much more . . . ambitious. I’ve always wanted to make pop music; I’ve always wanted to have hits; I’m always had a really pop ethic and loved the bands who were out-and-out Motown. These other people are the reverse: they’re coming from successful backgrounds and want to have this authenticity and avant-garde appeal by slumming it. I want to make pop songs that everyone can understand and really . . . shine.”
This is the moment to mention those lovable dog-racing cock-er-nee geezahs (or so they’d like you to think) who have risen to fame since Suede’s disappearance from the scene. Brett pauses at the sound of their name-—maybe bristles would be a better description. “Ummmm … I don’t really have anything to say about Blur.” He looks at Simon.
“No, there’s not much to say,” concurs Simon, almost spontaneously. “A lot’s been made of our supposed spat with them but it’s all crap really.”
Brett: “They do their thing and we do ours. The press make out that there’s this big rivalry between us, when there isn’t really.”
I try to explain that all I want is a kind of “compare and contrast” angle on Blur. Brett shifts uneasily, moving even more of his body line away from me, flicking nervous sideways glances in my general direction, head close to his chest as he speaks—like a painfully shy boy making his first pass or telling the police where he hid the body.
“Look, any of these bands that have been getting all this attention lately have made it because we haven’t been around [flick]. That sounds really big-headed I know, but I don’t think that anyone has had the track record that we’ve had. Most people only know our singles—that doesn’t reveal the depth to our musical style [flick]. Things like our B sides. We’ve never made a duff B side. Some of our B sides are better than our album tracks. Without being really, y’know, conceited [flick], I don’t think that there’s anyone who has produced such a body of work in such a small amount of time. Not even some of the great British groups of the past [flick, flick], I think that the next album will completely ground everyone else [flick]. I think.”
His speech over, Brett shifts his bony bum around on the sofa arm a teensy bit more towards me.
“I hate all this big-headed crap, y’know?” he confesses. ” ‘We’re the greatest,’ blah, blah. We’ve never gone around with this attitude”—now his voice is almost plaintive—”we just happen to think that our music is great and that it has real depth to it.”
Did he face away from me because he was embarrassed at having to sell himself; or was it because he was embarrassed by the “real” Brett Anderson—someone fiercely ambitious, competitive, and egotistical? Whatever the reason, there’s more than a certain amount of truth in what he’s saying. It wasn’t until Suede came along and showed that the body of pop wasn’t quite as cold as everyone had taken it to be that groups like Blur had any chance at all.
The few tracks I’ve heard off the new album suggest Suede have indeed taken a new direction. Toned down is the raw energy of the first album; anger is here replaced by melodrama, and, astonishingly, it comes off. Emotions are painted on a larger canvas with more unabashed extravagance than British pop has had for years. Some will denounce it as self-indulgent and pompous. But at least one track, “Still Life”—a ballad that grows into a breathtaking orchestral production—is going to be huge. It’s so expansive, so gorgeous that no one will be able to resist its goosepimpling embrace. It will be played on Radios 1 and 2; housewives will hum distractedly to its bittersweet melody in kitchens while their sons weep disconsolately to its wailing angst in their bedrooms.
“I think that we’ve successfully combined those things which we’ve always been good at before,” claims Brett. “We’ve always been able to produce those bubblegum singles like ‘Animal Nitrate’ and ‘The Next Life,’ and on this album we’ve been able to blend the cockiness of these with something more wistful. ‘Wild Ones,’ for example, is for me the most successful thing I’ve ever written. It’s incredibly catchy and poppy and at the same time, it’s something quite beautiful. I think,” he intones solemnly, “it’s really, really rare for pop music to produce something beautiful.”
Do I detect something of Ravel’s Bolero in the finale of “Still Life”?
“Yeah, we ripped it off a bit. If people just heard that track off the album they’d be quite misled because it is very orchestral. We wanted to go for something quite heroic. It’s very easy for a pop band to get a bit of money and pay for an orchestra to accompany them. I think that song justifies it because if you hear it on its own, as an acoustic vocal, it builds naturally anyway. The orchestral embellishments just suggest themselves.
“It is quite pompous, especially the end part. But pop music has always been about being pretentious—you can’t be worthy; there’s no point. That’s the crappy thing about the indie scene: it doesn’t go any further than a bunch of people slapping each other on the back going, ‘Yeah, that’s worthy.'”
Like the Manic Street Preachers, Suede are a pop group, who have that loyalty to pop music that most fans don’t have time for any more. Suede are from an era where there were only three TV channels; two were showing football and one was showing a documentary on fly-fishing. They are from an era of youth-club discos and smoking behind the bike sheds, when the idea of a good time was rattling around in a battered Cortina without tax or insurance, or beating up the local queer. It’s also an England that arguably no longer exists or, if it does, is fast fading away.
Simon disagrees. “Since I came out, I get a lot of letters and I can tell that life in small towns hasn’t changed much. People tell me about getting beaten up in the school playground and stuff. Mind you, Stratford, where I grew up, is really weird. The first time I went back to Stratford after coming out I expected people to be really put off about it—y’know, ‘Oh, here’s that fuckin’ queer.’ But not at all. People were saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us when you used to hang around with us? It would have been cool.’
“It’s easy to say that things have changed sitting here in London as a member of the media elite. This world just carries on and on, no matter that there are smart people walking around with black briefcases. [Brett glances at my black briefcase.] There are kids out there who desperately need something to cling on to. Yeah, it is an old- fashioned idea, but it’s what we grew up with. I think it’s easy to talk about the advancement of society when you live in a big city, but I don’t think things have moved on from 1954 once you get outside it.”
But isn’t this a rather patronising view?
“Yes, it is quite patronising, but I also think that it’s quite true,” he says rather impatiently. “It’s patronising towards the people who inflict it on the ones who don’t want it. But they deserve it. Like all my family. They’re living in a different age. It’s all lino and corned beef, like something out of Look Back in Anger.”
Brett and Simon grew up in those corners of Britain where Thatcherism, satellite TV, and Sega Mega-Drives never happened. For Simon it was the tourist/rural limbo of Stratford-upon-Avon; for Brett it was Haywards Heath, a dormitory town north of Brighton. Both men wanted to be pop stars for as long as they can remember. “When I was about four I used to imagine being Paul McCartney,” confesses Simon. No wonder he became a punk.
I put it to Brett that yes, Britain is still dowdy and desperate—perhaps more so—especially in those forgotten corners. But the world that produced a passion for pop has gone.
“Yes, that’s true—the world has completely changed in that sense. That’s why I think the new album is a step forward because it is not as caught up with the inverted nostalgia. Where the last album was retrogressive; the new album is much more wistful and in love with the modern age.”
Brett admits, however, that his new optimism is somewhat stifled by certain local realities. “The Suede backlash was partly to do with a reaction against success. Anyone in this country who achieves success is struck out against. You’re allowed to go only so far and no further. This or that song will be dismissed as a ‘pile of shit’ because it’s not avant-garde enough, not because it’s actually any good or not. America’s very different—it seems to be more hopeful.”
But isn’t that part of the deal? That the melancholic, repressed twistedness that your music has fed off can’t be separated from the bitterness, envy, and narrow-mindedness?
“Yes and that’s where the dichotomy lies. This band is caught up in its own history and that’s what makes us what we are. Yet there’s that desire to reach a kind of spiritual state and shed your skin and go on to another plane . . .”
Isn’t this where you end up following in Morrissey’s steps, someone who also celebrates the mundane and the desperate in British-ness and yet tries to transcend it?
“I don’t think he’s expressed any desire to escape it,” replies Brett quickly. “After fifteen years in the music business there’s been no development in his intention, and I intend to develop. He’s found his niche and seems content within it. That’s fair enough; that’s the way he feels. I don’t want to come across like that. We want to do different things, and even over the space of the last two albums, I think we’ve made quite giant leaps.”
Brett seems rather keen to put some distance between himself and Moz. Maybe this is because he was mocked by the Glum One himself for his hero worship of Bowie and Morrissey. (Morrissey reportedly said, “His reference points are so close together that there’s no space in between.”)
But talking of “giant leaps” actually encourages the comparisons. The world gasped at the recent discovery that Morrissey liked a game of footie and now I can exclusively reveal that Brett was good at sport at school.
“Sport was the only thing I did. I held the record for the 800 metres at my school, Oat Hall Comprehensive, for five years,” he says in a studiously casual way, obviously enjoying the turbulence this fact creates in the wake of his Prince of Fey image. “They used to feed me a special high protein diet at school because I was the only one good at sport.”
Simon was not such a prized pupil. “I hated school for the first year but then I became a punk and got respect—perhaps because I was the only one in Stratford. I wasn’t any good at sport but I was very good at forging my mum’s handwriting on the off-games chits.”
Just before the end of the interview I ask Brett about his relationship with pigs. References to things porcine abound in his work, including the track “We Are the Pigs” on the new album. What do porkers mean to him?
“I don’t know really,” he says looking away with a half-smile on his face. “The cover of Animals by Pink Floyd is probably one of my favourite images in the world. It’s a metaphor for sexuality and brutality, stuff like that.”
I suppose that pigs are very . . .
Yes . . .
Absolutely. And in touch with their bodily functions.
“Yes. They’re supposed to smell but they don’t.”
And so the truth is out at last: Brett’s thing for pigs and pig culture is not so much exploitation as identification.