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Trash: The Problems Of Being An American Fan Of The London Suede
Ned Raggett , March 18th, 2013 07:21

Our man in Orange County Ned Raggett reports on what it's like being an American fan of the London Suede

In early spring or so of 1992 I was wandering around the bookstore at UCLA, where I was due to graduate in a few months’ time. At some point the previous year, I had finally started picking up Melody Maker on a regular basis; I was enough of a random – near indiscriminatory, in fact – Anglophile to prefer its coverage to that of the regular music press in the US. In retrospect the reason why was often simply that of immediacy – music talk in print every week versus every month or every two weeks is a powerful motivating factor, as was the fact that Rolling Stone seemed eternally stuck in 1972 no matter how hard it tried while Spin never fully got the Guccione stink out of its system enough for me, especially with the AIDS conspiracy nonsense. In contrast, I already knew that Melody Maker did things like actually feature My Bloody Valentine as a cover story, so clearly superior forces were at work, at least in my brain.

But as I noted, immediacy. Plus the benefits of being a national publication, but for that reason it was also hyperbolic, often bizarrely so (when you grow up without a general UK press model to provide context, it seemed like it was shouting all the time on the front page). So when I picked up an issue that had as its headline “BEST NEW BAND IN BRITAIN?” I was a little dubious. Though at the same time, curious.

Nearly twenty years on and I’ve seen Suede go through just about everything, albeit at a remove – and that’s the thing; as any distant fan of a band can tell you, when musicians you really really like are getting famous seemingly everywhere but your neck of the woods, even the shrinking of the world via the net doesn’t change a certain residual feeling of ‘why not HERE too, ferchrissakes?’ Just ask any Robyn fan in the US right now, for example. My hyperfandom has, as with so many things, changed with time, but for a while there I kinda needed everything I could get my hands on, see them as often as I could. Except, well, I was in Los Angeles and not London. Oops.

Going through everything about My American Life With Suede, Sorta would take a little too long to go through in detail here without just taking over the Quietus as a whole – I’ve written here or there about some of it, though, so feel free to pore over when I had a Chinese lunch with the band or seeing them do a triumphant show headlining over the Cranberries, who were about to leave them in the dust in terms of US sales and profile. It was a bit of a weird alternate history of the nineties for me, given that Suede have no place, nothing at all, in the wide popular memory of the US. Hardly the first UK act to do so, hardly the last, but some bands or musicians never cross the Atlantic anyway, so at least Suede did that much, and on an initially higher profile than some.

It was all very 20th century, really, how I and others kept in touch or saw the band as we did. Bootleg videotapes were swapped, converted from UK to US TV settings, naturally. Lo-res scans of articles helped to fill in details. Fanzines, fanzines galore! LA at least had figures like Rodney on the ROQ playing them irregularly but that was the exception, not the rule; I was a college radio DJ myself so I could do my part but when you’re a 120 watt station you’re lucky to get a small swathe of people to pay attention, if that.

And LA and its environs were, at the least, a logical place for the band to play, enough collective Anglophilia among some level of the populace to ensure some turnout, somewhere, especially for any band that claims the Smiths as an inspiration in a town where Morrissey might as well be a patron saint. I ended up catching Suede every time they came through, four times total, if not every show they played. But I saw them with Bernard twice in 1993, a wonderful show in early 1995 with Richard Oakes nicely settled into his new role and a killer concluding encore of 'My Dark Star', then finally a frustrating show in 1997 shortly after the instrument theft, with borrowed gear, sound problems, Brett slamming his mike into the ground at least once and a sense that they wished they could have done much better. (I remember being astoundingly jealous of the folks who saw them the night after that, when they went acoustic as a result and played a bunch of B-sides among other things.) Then after that the long, long wait for another American tour that never materialized, even as I and others continued to hunt down double-pack CD singles and other oddly formatted releases. (Remember the MiniDisc single for 'Electricity'…then again, perhaps you don’t want to.)

No Top Of The Pops appearances for me to remember, though, no comeback dates at Reading in the rain, no fan club gigs, no video invites, none of that rush of possibility anyone in the UK had by default. The grass is always greener, of course, but it seemed like to us over here that the hometown crowd could just turn on the TV or radio or open up a magazine or newspaper and boom, there they were – maybe not every year of the nineties but close to it. I’ve always been one to be a solitary rather than a social listener in general but it’s always nice to have a sense that people know what you’re talking about rather than being asked “So what music do you listen to?” and getting blank looks in response to answers provided. (And to my mind I was talking about the accessible stuff I enjoyed at the time! I knew it would have been even worse if I started going on about stuff on Rephlex…)

It should be noted, of course, that Sony was doing its best early on to prevent those blank looks. One reason why Suede has a kind of residual memory here or there lies in the fact that there was some pretty heavy marketing going on; I seem to remember everything from mobiles (yes, I had one) to mass flyering and the like. It should be kept in mind too, from a US business standpoint in 1993, that the previous couple of years had seen some UK-based fluke successes hit the big time, Jesus Jones and EMF getting number one singles, not to mention the slow burn-to-massive breakouts of the Cure and Depeche Mode shortly before that. Then there was that little Nirvana thing that happened, so the idea that something ‘alternative’ could be something more was established. Hey, these guys are kinda weird, aren’t they? Pass the cash, let’s see what happens!

Yet marketing and publicity is never everything, and even at the time it was well recognized that the fact that Nirvana and of course Pearl Jam did break through, followed by everything else in their commercial wake, meant that a lot of people were all about gravelly yarls and real rock, man. If Anglophiles are prone to blinders, Anglophobes can have their own (not to mention other phobic types that looked at the earring and the random pronouncements about sexuality and drew their own conclusions). Brett’s singing definitely wasn’t that of Eddie Vedder, even if the crunch of a lot of the songs weren’t out of place at all – and hey, Pearl Jam used pianos too. The newly suspicious college radio/fanzine underground further relied on hometown heroes, whether Bikini Kill or Pavement or something else. In retrospect, it’s telling that the glam/goth-damaged band with an over the top guitarist and a high-voiced and uneasily-pitched singer that did end up hitting the full heights around that time was the Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and company might have been – in a specific context – a little freaky, definitely Anglophilic themselves, but they were an American band, coming to your town to party it down, however self-loathingly.

So as a result, there was always a feeling that encountering Suede in the US was something done by accident. The Tonight Show appearance they did in 1993, their one and only moment of national broadcast TV media I’m aware of, was a late night thing that you had to be there to know about; without YouTube at most I’d have a slightly scuzzy video smear of a memory of it. Some time later I remembered hearing from a friend about how they had ended up on some random music program apparently making a meal in a kitchen set; when I finally saw a bit of it I was amused but again, it wasn’t like anything came of it. There was the whole kerfuffle about having to change their name to The London Suede in the US – still THE most unwieldy answer to the situation I can imagine (seriously, was ‘Suede UK’ that hard to choose as an option?). The huge gap in release dates between the UK and US versions of Coming Up almost drove me to despair, until I finally broke down and got the UK version – not the easiest thing to do when I was on a tight budget. The discourse was elsewhere, firmly so.

Then again, it’s not surprising. Sure, in my head the world should be listening to everything I am because of my wonderful and unimpeachable taste and all, though there’s points of disagreement on that fact to this day. Such is the life of the outraged fan, even if it’s a low simmer of annoyance. Of course Suede wasn’t the only thing I was listening to, widely popular or not, while all the various complaints and criticisms of the band have as much of a place as the wild celebrations, whether the complaints were from people who just didn’t like them or thought that they weren’t that interesting from the start or were from fans of early days who felt that whether it was Bernard’s departure or a switch to an increased use of electronics or just one too many references to nuclear skies or a remark on the intellectual capacity of mice, something had gone wrong. “Well, whatever,” I’d think, using my first home CD burner to put together a collection of Head Music B-sides from all the singles I’d been feverishly picking up. (And a lot of those are really good, I should say. One was even a big Swedish hit in its own right. I told you I was a hyperfan.)

Also, there were emerging contexts I could talk to people everyday about the band as I’d like. Suede might not have been Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails when it came to establishing a website early on and making it increasingly central to their existence, but they did take a full plunge in 1996 – I still remember wishing to hell that their audio broadcast of a London show that year had worked out as planned, but we got the Neil Tennant guest appearances on a single later so hey. Meanwhile, just the year before, I’d set up a mailing list for fans to chat called wild-ones – it was never official per se but the management was on there (and I sometimes wondered if some of the band were on there in deep cover). Pre-widespread bulletin boards, pre-AIM/ICQ, pre-everything else, it was the easiest and simplest thing to do outside of the Usenet groups, and if all one could do was plaintext most of the time, communication was communication and I’m still friends with many from the list – and for that matter from the Usenet groups – to this day.

In a weird kind of way, I supposed I had a shining moment of sorts as an American fan back in 2003 when, on a visit to London for celebrations of a friend’s wedding, I had the chance to visit Suede’s management offices. I didn’t go on about it anywhere, on the list or elsewhere, and the band themselves – only a couple of weeks from the announcement of their breakup – were somewhere else in the world doing promotion for their Singles compilation (I think it was Dubai, which somehow seems appropriate). Seeing the workaday existence of the offices – and the very friendly folks there, Charlie, David, Ben, all of whom I’d talked with to one extent or another online over the years – was both fun and a reminder that it wasn’t all glamour. It was also a hell of a chance to pick up some alternate editions of albums and singles I didn’t already have so I have to thank them again!

But how appropriate, really, that it ended up liked that – an office visit, a swing by the ICA to pick up David’s just published biography of the band, which I devoured on the flight home, then the news a couple of weeks later of the breakup along with various reports of the final shows. Once again, everything at a distance, no big attention or news in the States about it, there were far larger fish to fry and the crackle of energy was elsewhere, even in the realm of increasingly expansive online music discourse. At a friend’s encouragement I did end up making the journey again to see one of Brett’s first solo shows in London in 2007 but that was probably my last act of active fandom still, a final fling.

The past is a foreign country, one’s own as much as a collective past, and if the story of distance from a previous passion is an old one to tell, it seems multiplied when it was all done at a physical distance to start with. It seems appropriate that Suede’s recent return to the US and to the LA area was, like their first visit, accompanied by tales of packed shows and excitement in the UK, not to mention lots of press – and now torrented recordings, YouTube clips, all the joys of the SEO world we live in – and would be at a big area festival as well, much like their first LA-area visit in 1993. It also seems appropriate they were stuck a few rungs down the bill, labeled yet one more time as the London Suede and were resolutely untalked about and unreported on from what I could tell outside the hardcore fanbase, aside from a random mention along the lines of how ‘the London Suede played and did anybody care?’ See you in the next life, indeed.