Book of the Week: Animal nitrate in mind

Simon Sweetman goes all-out fanboy of a new, tortured memoir by Suede frontman Brett Anderson.

The very best music memoirs ignore the tenets of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. They are about the life, the context in and around the music. And they are about the writing.

And so it is with Brett Anderson’s Coal Black Mornings, a “memoir of failure” that helps to position Anderson as the rightful founding father of Britpop, floundering in these pages, rather than succeeding instantly. His anxious dad moving from job to job, passing on a love of art and music through bonkers-but-brilliant vignettes such as the time he refused to swear on the Bible during jury duty, asking instead for a biography of Lizst on which to place his hand; his heart of course was already right there. Elsewhere, arresting images like Anderson’s art-school graduate mother nude sunbathing out the back of the family’s council house evoke the lurid, slightly sleazy lyrics of Suede’s earliest singles.

In just 200 pages Anderson ignores the rift with original Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, bypasses the addiction issues, pays passing lip-service only to the start of the colossal hype and instead tunnels down into the themes that inspired the band’s music, if not the madness.

The best of Suede’s music stands up – and Coal Black Mornings will have you right back on the white-hot edge of Dog Man Star or dancing along the knuckles of that quite phenomenal self-titled debut. The band wouldn’t remain strong or vital forever but the moments when they were are palpable and potent still. And here in the pages of a thoughtful, beautifully written memoir Anderson shows that context is key, that what people derided as posturing was in fact purposeful, informed by an early love of music and by struggle, grit and gumption.

If Anderson is not quite defending pretentiousness he is at least aware of his perceived pomposity. And if you’ve qualified for free school meals and have the olfactory sense of Mum’s cheap hairspray and milky tea then why not hang on to what seems most serious to you? Why be ashamed of what matters most? Suede was described as the most humourless British band since Joy Division; Anderson’s sure that’s a badge of honour. He writes, Why shouldn’t something as transforming and life-affirming and celestial as music have a heft and a gravity that transcends the trivial and the everyday?”

Suede modelling trouser belts in 1992. Brett Anderson is standing louchely second from right. (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

If you remember the early/mid-90s foppishness of Anderson – and hey, it was the time of the fop after all, from Hugh Grant to Jarvis Cocker, even across the Atlantic to Chandler bloody Bing – he’s here to show the soul beneath it all.

As with Smith’s Just Kids, this is about the lessons from pre-fame daze; about the learning, the yearning, the heartache and breaking that occurs in the making of someone. As with Dylan’s Chronicles this is about pieces of the man that go into the moments within the music – snapshots only though, never the whole journey.

Anderson knows the full fighting glory, the blood and guts story was captured in fairly vivid details in the 2003 band biography, Suede: Love & Poison. And though almost everyone who reads Coal Black Mornings will pine for a second volume – will want his take on what came next – this pre-fame examination exists for more reasons than to simply send one back to the music. It’s been written, first of all, as a way for a father to tell his story to his son, making sense of his life in order for the lineage to mean something. It’s also a deep meditation on what goes into music – these are the notebooks further fleshed out, the inspiration for ‘So Young’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’ is here, as are ‘She’s Not Dead’ and ‘Pantomime Horse’. You start to see these songs, hear them in your head, as the pages turn.

Suddenly we’re at the crucial relationship with Justine Frischmann. She would go on to create Elastica but before that she was a founding member of Suede. And if she wasn’t musically important to that band she was its muse, the early love of Anderson’s life, the motivation for so much of the music, a conduit. She would leave Anderson for Britpop’s other crucial player, Damon Albarn. And though he’s not named directly in the book we feel Albarn’s presence, and we feel Anderson’s rage. He never quite slights Blur though he does refer to so much of what became Britpop as being “a beery cartoon”. He can only mean Blur and Oasis. But we know he mostly means Blur. He does point out that it was he who spotted the graffiti MODERN LIFE IS RUBBISH. That’s as close to mentioning Albarn as he can bring himself.

Vivid descriptions of London in the late 1980s and early 1990s abound, and it’s clear that Anderson’s vision for what became Britpop was more about documenting than lampooning. Britpop eventually became a grotesque, a cartoon version of itself, and Suede wanted no part of that. The grey streets and skies are there in the songs, solemn oaths, broken people rebuilding. It was never about Rule Britannia or Cool Britannia, it was about finding a way through. Surviving.

Suede found their way through by settling into a formula: what might it have sounded like if David Bowie fronted The Smiths? And in doing so they become the next in the ongoing list of Important British Bands.

Coal Black Mornings shows how taglines and marketing schemes are in fact far removed from the dreams of young, hopeful musicians. That trial and error and record collections and an old, cheap crusty turntable (from Boots, of course) are quickly forgotten once hype redefines the aims and intentions, displaces them, replaces them. But it’s the spit and snarl and hopeful hitting out of a young, vital band that is the story we need to remember. Because the rest is not only more recent history, but it’s also the part that is forever replicated. It’s those earliest dreams that continue to inform the very best work of the very best bands.

Without being desperate to state it or make his case for it, Coal Black Mornings is helpful as a reminder of Suede’s importance. Because even if you already thought you knew that, recent music history seems the hardest to keep pinned down. The bands that meant something and moved things in the late 1980s and early 1990s are the ones most easily forgotten. There will always be people quick to remind the next generation that before anyone did anything Elvis did everything. Or that The Beatles were the greatest pop group of all time. (Of all time). But what about the bands that didn’t just aim for beat-combo complacency; the ones that took aspects of what came after Elvis and The Beatles and the other early headline grabbers and then wrestled it into a new shape for new ears. By vice and virtue of too much music, they’re swiftly forgotten.

Put on a Suede record – the 1993 self-titled debut, or 1994’s difficult-classic Dog Man Star or even 1996’s Coming Up (for that matter, 2016’s Night Thoughts is quite possibly the band’s finest effort after Dog Man Star) – and whether for the first or umpteenth time you’ll be transported, taken away to a time and place where the music was “something as transforming and life-affirming and celestial”.

In Coal Black Mornings, Brett Anderson acknowledges that what came first meant the most. Everything that followed was gravy. Everything that was earned came from what was learned in a council flat, with mad and lovely parents. With trial. With error. With heart. With soul.

Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (Hachette, $39.99) is available at Unity Books.

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