Suede frontman Brett Anderson on his newly published memoirs and beginnings in Sussex
- Credit: Leia Morrison
In the early 1990s, Suede frontman Brett Anderson was one of the best known and most distinctive faces in the charts. But as his newly published memoirs reveal, his foppish image gave little clue to his impoverished and eccentric beginnings in Mid Sussex – a world far removed from rock-star success.
Article first published in 2018
Fans of Haywards Heath should look away now. Brett Anderson, 50, the lead singer of the Britpop band Suede, grew up on its fringes and documents his intense dislike for this “drab, dreary little train stop” in his newly minted memoirs, Coal Black Mornings.
Anderson spent his childhood and adolescence in a “poky, claustrophobic, low-rise council house” on the outskirts of Lindfield, breathing in the aroma of paraffin heaters and his mother’s cheap hairspray, poor enough to be eligible for free meals.
“Officially, we lived in a quaint Sussex village,” he writes, “but our house was somewhere the tourists never visited, hidden well away from the chocolate box fantasy of the high street. It was a place where, beyond the torrid kitchen-sink dramas of everyday lower-middle-class life, nothing ever really happened and probably nothing ever really will.”
Ironically, it was this very ordinariness that appears to have been the making of him because it gave him something to kick against and instilled an almost physical urge to get away.
In the early 1990s, Suede’s angular, anxiety-wracked indie songs – which included such hits as Animal Nitrate, Beautiful Ones and Trash – reigned supreme. In 1993 the band’s eponymous debut album – described as “a dark, druggy, carnal beast fuelled by Bernard Butler’s snarling guitar lines and Anderson’s falsetto yowl” – went straight to the top of the charts and scooped the Mercury Prize that same year.
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As one music critic observed, Suede’s swaggering, self-consciously arty intensity was especially seductive to a generation of misfits and dreamers turned off by lager and laddism. Theirs was an innately English aesthetic, and they sounded quite unlike anything around at the time.
“We wrote about drama and sex, poverty and passion – subjects that hadn’t been touched on in pop music for years,” says Anderson. “We wanted to pick over the minutiae of British life and celebrate it. We pretty much kicked off what became Britpop, and for a very limited time, we were proud of that.”
At the age of 22, Anderson, who cultivated a Bowiesque androgynous look which was a homage to his 1970s music heroes rather than a reflection of his sexuality, became, albeit briefly, one of the best best-known faces of his generation.
Some reviewers, unfairly in my view, have complained that his memoirs conclude just as they start to get interesting – at the point when Suede sign their first record deal. But this, he says, was motivated by tone. “I think the book is about failure, that sense of struggle, and as soon as you drift into the success years, you lose that. I wanted it to be about my relationship with my dad. I’ve got real ownership over that. From 1992 onwards, the story isn’t really mine.”
In his foreword, he stresses that he wanted to avoid the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir; the predictable arc of struggle, success, excess, collapse and rebirth. He also wrote it for his little boy so that “when he’s old enough, which may indeed be when I’m no longer around, he’ll have this to add a little bit of truth to the story of who his dad was and the passions and privations he lived through, and ultimately where we both came from.”
He describes a childhood of almost Dickensian poverty and his parents as gloriously atypical, which left him with the feeling of never really fitting in. Anderson’s mother, Sandra, was an art school graduate who sunbathed nude in the back garden. His father, Peter, had been a postman, swimming-pool attendant, ice-cream seller, window cleaner and taxi driver; he was also a classical music obsessive who, while on jury service, refused to swear on the Bible, asking for a biography of Liszt instead. Later, he acquired a set of Arab robes and roamed around the family home dressed as TE Lawrence.
“We were dirt poor, but our parents filled our council house with trappings more akin to the lives of upper-middle-class Hampstead intellectuals,” observes Anderson. “Mum’s paintings were everywhere; she devoted her entire modest career to detailing the gently rolling Sussex countryside, and the walls would be full of her beautiful watercolour landscapes.
“Where her own work was absent, she hung prints of Hendrick Avercamp, Vincent van Gogh and Aubrey Beardsley. She had decorated the whole place with strong colours – midnight blues, William Morris wallpapers and her own rich velvet homemade curtains in the windows. And everywhere was the deafening torrent of my father’s classical music: Wagner, Berlioz, Elgar, Chopin and the ubiquitous, inescapable Liszt.”
Looking back, he realises his mother was a remarkable woman: incredibly creative and practical and stoical, and in her own way as hard as flint. “Apart from a cheap electric oven, we had no mod cons, so she washed and dried all our clothes by hand, something that seems unbelievable to my pampered 21st-century self.”
Anderson clashed with his father in “endless adolescent skirmishes”, but maturity and his dad’s passing have altered his perceptions. “As I get older, all the things that used to annoy me about him I now think are amazing. He was a taxi-driving Liszt obsessive who walked around in three-piece suits when everyone else in the 1970s was dressed in Status Quo t-shirts.
“He was amazingly brave in lots of ways. There is a sort of quiet dignity to so many people’s ordinary lives. My father was never famous, but he lived
his life with a certain sense of style and individuality that I hugely respect.”
Anderson describes himself as “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy, raised on Salad Cream and milky tea and cheap meat”. He recalls his time at Lindfield Junior School as “a sweet and relatively happy time: a summery, hazy watercolour of tarmac playgrounds, conkers and five-a-side football”. His teenage years spent at Oathall Comprehensive (now Oathall Community College) were somewhat less happy.
“The school was awash with the kind of minor violence and intimidation that the teachers were unable or unwilling to do anything about. It was only because I was fairly tall and good at sport that I escaped the ever-present threat of ‘the bog-wash’ or the regular vicious gang beatings that groups of older unruly kids dished out to younger boys.”
Eventually, after several false starts, he moved to London and met Justine Frischmann, who became his girlfriend and a member of his band, Suede. His friend Mat Osman was also a member, and eventually, guitarist Bernard Butler jumped on board.
Their first album was brashly confident, but their path to success had been a chequered one. It had actually taken the departure of Frischmann in 1991 (who went on to form her own band Elastica and date Britpop rival Daman Albarn) to fire Suede into life. Well, this and the devastating loss of Anderson’s mother to cancer, the emotional impact of which he describes with visceral intensity. The grief nearly destroyed him. As it turned out, without those two events, he says he would never have had the sense of carpe diem to make the band happen.
Suede, of course, became a seemingly indomitable force in British music, but on the eve of their 1994 album, Dog Man Star, Butler quit. Anderson candidly acknowledges his leaving changed everything because he had been a very creative force in the band. “It was a tragedy because there was still a lot of gas in the tank.”
Suede has been credited with jumpstarting the Britpop wave that followed – characterised by Oasis, Blur and Pulp – but Anderson doesn’t like what the movement became. “I was documenting Englishness, and those other bands were celebrating it. Mine was a slightly scruffy Mike Leigh vision of the world, but it mutated into a Carry On film – a beery cartoon about some mythical working-class life.”
Suede broke up in 2003 and later reformed in 2010, and Anderson’s memoir coincides with a 25th-anniversary silver edition reissue of the band’s debut album.
But I suspect it’s his book that will create the larger ripples this year. You sense that in penning this dazzling, novelistic memoir, Anderson has found a new direction because this book will surely not be his last.
Coal Black Mornings is published by Little, Brown at £16.99
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