Suede: how the androgynous indie pioneers gave me pride in my bisexuality
I was late to the Suede party, only getting into the band when they released snotty pop cracker Trash in 1996. There’s nothing like a convert to make a true zealot, and at 17, that I very much was. Received wisdom at the time said that the band were doomed without recently departed guitarist and musical magician Bernard Butler. I didn’t agree. I loved Trash, and while eagerly awaiting new album Coming Up, bought their second record Dog Man Star from Woolworths during a rainy family holiday in Falmouth, Cornwall. I spent the rest of the trip poring over the CD booklet, staring at its cover of a naked man lying in front of a window, and obsessively reading the extravagant lyrics of sex and love and jealousy. Holiday over and reunited with my CD player, Dog Man Star and Suede took me over, and changed everything.
Thanks to them, my drab teenage existence in a tedious London satellite town started to make sense. Brett Anderson sang my life for me: the sense of frustration and not fitting in with the noxious lad culture of the time. I dreamed of ending up in London (and ideally in bed) with the androgynous beings who populated Suede’s videos and record sleeves. Even though Anderson’s sexual orientation remained obscure (he was unfairly pilloried for saying he was “a bisexual man who’d never had a homosexual experience”), there was enough slipperiness in Suede’s attitude, aesthetic and lyricism that for the first time, my bisexuality felt like something to be proud of, rather than a cause of shame. Sex à la Suede was naughty, nocturnal, decadent – a place of turmoil but also self-realisation and pride.
I knew there were other songs out there even more exciting and louche than the ones on the records. Suede were infamous for the high quality of their B-sides and I longed to hear tracks like Killing of a Flashboy and My Insatiable One, but this was pre-internet, and I lived in a town without an independent record shop. I was broke, working at Argos, cleaning the school toilets after lessons and doing a couple of paper rounds so I could save up to go to university. There was no way I could afford to write off for the expensive back catalogue records advertised in the back of the NME and Melody Maker.
Then, Suede announced their next fanclub gig, promising a set made up of B-sides only. Suede’s fanclub gigs were notorious affairs. The previous one had been used to unveil Neil Codling, a new keyboardist who at gigs would sit stock still, occasionally playing the keyboards while smoking a cig and being the most astonishingly attractive man I had ever seen in my entire life. I knew I had to go, even though I didn’t have any friends sufficiently Suede-obsessed to travel to London with me. It ended up being the first gig I went to alone.
Everyone else in the queue to get in seemed gorgeous and confident. I regretted trying to blow dry my frustratingly curly blond hair straight (to look like Brett) and chuffed on a B&H, desperately trying to look cool. I can’t remember the gig itself, aside from my intense overwhelming adoration for the band, and the energy of being surrounded by people who were similarly obsessed, even if I was never going to talk to any of them. As Anderson himself sang in The 2 Of Us: “Alone but not lonely, you and me.” I wasn’t there for community, or pen pals, or anything like that. It was more selfish, in a way – Suede were a tool or a drug that was altering the course of my life.
Related: Brett Anderson: ‘I had started my musical journey wanting to be the quiet one at the back’
I didn’t know it at the time, of course. It’s strange, looking back, to realise how long it takes for these obsessions to percolate through your system. I didn’t know then that my Suede obsession was a huge part of what gave me the confidence to be myself, eventually move to London, to try to create. Giving up on my futile attempts at a Brett Anderson-style floppy fringe, I cropped my hair short and dyed it red in homage to drummer Simon Gilbert. I sought women’s blouses in charity shops. I was so fervent that I kicked a boy out of bed for lying about his enthusiasm for the band – he had been quoting their saucier lyrics at me in emails, but it turned out that he had copy-and-pasted them from a fan site rather than knowing them by heart.
I’d never have tried to become a writer, let alone publish a book, had they not set a spark within me. When I listen to their old music now, those once-exotic songs now attainable at the click of a button, I’m taken back to my teenage years and their heady blend of sadness, confusion and hope, but it’s not a feeling of nostalgia. In it I hear the sound of my transformation, from a shy boy who didn’t fit in with the laddism of middle England to what I became, to what I am still becoming now.