As Suede finish a three-night residence at Brixton Academy, playing each of their first three albums in full (plus extras) on subsequent evenings, a little history lesson is needed to put the proceedings into proper perspective. This exercise has, after all, been largely about glorifying the past and finding themselves in the process.
Back in 1996, few but the most optimistic Suede fans would have predicted tonight’s performance. Two years after the departure of lead guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler, breaking up the most seminal partnership in music since Morrissey and Marr, things looked bleak, not least because the band had chosen to replace the surely irreplaceable Butler with Richard Oakes, a 17-year-old Suede fan who had seen his chance when the original guitarist departed and sent a demo tape to the band’s fan club in what must have seemed like fairytale hope.
The music press balked. Even the most committed Suede fans were cautious. Little did any of them guess that rather than mark the beginning of the end for the band, Oakes signaled the opposite: the chance to return to the raw energy and glam stomp of their first album, unburdened by the overblown pomp and orchestral strivings of Dog Man Star. Oakes pulled his heroes back down from their own backsides, slapped some sense into them and catapulted them into the second phase of a career that would – certainly commercially – far eclipse the first. Suede’s third album, Coming Up, produced five top 10 singles (Trash, Filmstar, Lazy, Beautiful Ones and Saturday Night) and reached number one in the UK album charts, going platinum in the process.
Tonight, undoubtedly, belongs to Oakes and he should feel damn proud of himself. Nearly 20 years after Butler’s departure, rather than being a footnote in Britpop history – the more glamorous but less sustainable poor relations of Blur, Oasis and Pulp – Suede can end a three-night nostalgia trip at Brixton Academy on the up-note of an album that has not only stood the test of time but more than holds its own against the eponymous debut and Dog Man Star, performed over the previous two nights.
Coming Up, unlike perhaps either of its predecessors, is an album full of songs designed for, and at their best when, belted out with intense energy to a decent-sized venue full of adoring fans. They are the type of songs bands should make – great fun to play, great fun to listen to, not over-encumbered with trying to show how clever they are, not overly self-indulgent. They are simply great songs.
When the energy is turned down a notch or two, for the staggeringly beautiful By The Sea, for instance – their knowing tales of lives that didn’t turn out quite the way we hoped while our dreams slowly seeped away cut all the deeper for the fact that the audience have now lived through such stories of their own.
Most importantly, the band – and Brett Anderson in particular – have rarely looked as if they’re enjoying themselves so much. Only by living through Suede and Dog Man Star again has Anderson remembered why it didn’t work with Butler first time round. Oakes is not the rebound revenge but the comfortable home where the band belongs; Bulter who was the over-demanding too-intense first love with whom a long-term relationship would never work. Just as in the mid ’90s, if Suede has a future, it lies here.
If there is to be a criticism of the evening, it is perhaps that during the encore/second half of the set, four b-sides from the period is at least one too many, but this pales next to the final half hour of the performance: a run through of Can’t Get Enough, from subsequent album Head Music, then the first three singles – The Drowners, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate, just to give a direct comparison with Coming Up that shows how far the album had come and simultaneously how closely it had returned Suede to what they were best at: infectious punk/glam chemically-fuelled energy from the slightly darker side of the tracks. It was a return to form then, and these series of concerts mark the same now.
It would be a terrible shame if this three-evening nostalgia fest, and the forthcoming festival appearances, proved to be the last chapter in the Suede story. For now, they make no promises of new material or a future beyond live performances. Yet if the concerts remind them how much fun this can be – as seems to be the case tonight – surely there must be more to come?