Photo: Suede at the Supper Club in New York City, May 14, 1997
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith 2014 bringing about the 20th anniversary of Britpop, there’s been a sudden, if not unexpected entirely, renewed interest in the genre here in the states and in its home base of the UK. Stereogum dedicated an entire week to Cool Britannia, while over in England, the BBC and others rolled out an avalanche of posts, shows, and retrospectives. There’s even been a few modern reboots, from the resurrected Menswe@r gig in London in March to us launching Britpop Social Club this Wednesday at Abigail’s in Cambridge. [Side note: Maybe DJ Ken and I wouldn’t have ended The Pill indie dance night here in Boston after 16 years of weekly parties back in December if we knew everyone would be mad fer it once again.]
But while most of the media coverage has centered on the 20th anniversary of Blur’s Parklife, the feud they had with Oasis, and the cheeky songwriting brilliance of the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, and Brett Anderson, today marks a significantly darker anniversary in Britpop’s eternal struggle with magic America: 17 years ago this weekend, Suede had their gear stolen outside the Paradise Rock Club on Commonwealth Avenue, sometime after a sold-out show on Saturday, May 17.
The theft forced the band to play the second of their two shows, on May 18, acoustically, and the result was magic: a 13-song performance of at-the-time current hits, b-sides (“My Dark Star,” “Sound Of The Streets,” “Another No One”) and album cuts (“The 2 Of Us”), all stripped down and more intimate as ever.
Suede had released third LP Coming Up the prior September, and a United States tour was met by us here in this country with great applause. But for Suede it meant returning to a dubious land — shortly after the release of their self-titled 1993 debut LP, they had to change their name to “The London Suede” for any releases or shows here in the States after being sued by an obscure lounge singer, and on their debut tour here were upstaged by the support act Cranberries, who were all over MTV and alt-rock radio at the time. Sophomore album Dog Man Star achieved cult status upon its 1994 release, but not the widespread acclaim many thought Suede had seemed destined for in the early-’90s. They were passed in the Britpop game by Blur, Oasis, and Pulp.
But Coming Up brought new life to the band, and a rejuvenated purpose for Anderson, hellbent on proving he could succeed without founding guitarist Bernard Butler, who played a heavy role in their first to records. Guitar prodigy Richard Oakes, 17 at the time, had joined Suede two weeks before the UK’s October 1994 release of Dog Man Star, a theatrical, consuming album forever tied to Butler and his struggles with the band.
But 1996’s Coming Up was lighter, cheerier, poppier than Dog Man Star or the glam rock-indebted eponymous debut, and now keyboardist Neil Codling has followed Oakes in rounding out the band. It was a new band pretty much entirely, but I’ve always maintained that the first four Suede albums corresponded perfectly to seasons: the gritty debut was autumn, the grand Dog Man Star was winter, the colorful Coming Up was spring, and the experimental, bizarre Head Music, released in 1999 with its subway-heat sound, was summer. Seeing Suede on the Coming Up tour in May of that year was perfect.
After performing two nights at New York’s Supper Club on May 14 and 15, Suede came up to Boston for two dates at the ‘Dise, May 17 and 18. Between those two latter shows, someone stole their gear. According to the t-shirt I bought and still have (and that I am currently using as a source for these dates, see it in all its ratty, worn-in glory below), the nine-date North America Coming Up tour concluded with two shows in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco, and one in Seattle — and Suede didn’t come back until a one-off at Coachella in 2011, a decade-and-a-half later. The band’s excellent 2013 comeback album, Bloodsports, was merely a blip on US radars when it dropped last year. I’m frankly not even sure it got a US release.
So after legal issues, the name change, and a chilly mainstream reception — that stolen gear incident was very likely the end of Suede’s interest in America.
“The whole name thing, that’s always been the problem for us,” Anderson told me in a Boston Phoenix interview (my last for the alt-weekly) last year. “You know the whole ‘London Suede’ thing. I just took my eye off the ball at the wrong moment, woke up and realized we had really messed up. And that’s a problem, that name, I just can’t be known under that name.”
Though in that same interview Anderson told me he’s “always loved coming to the States,” it seems he was just playing nice for a Yank reporter. In an off-camera talk at Coachella two years prior he mentioned that a Suede guitar had been recovered at a second-hand music shop somewhere around the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, and there was a bit of venom in his voice as he talked about the whole ordeal. Codling, in fact, tweeted on Thursday that only one piece of gear was ever recovered.
.@edd_donnely We got the 335 back just b4 Reading. The first Richard held it again was to debut He’s Gone. “Hence the ebow fuckups” he says.
Whether or not Suede ever return for a string of United States club shows, which don’t come with the quick, easy and significant payday of a Coachella one-off, is anyone’s guess at this point. But those May 17 and 18 shows at the Paradise still stand out for a band who couldn’t seem to catch a god damn break in America.
What’s ironic, however, is that Suede’s second Boston show back in 1997 stands out as one of the band’s most memorable, in the eyes of fans. We reached out to Sean Drinkwater of Freezepop and Lifestyle, a noted Suede fan who performed last year at the Pill’s 20th anniversary party for Suede, delivering a set of synthpop covers.
I lived in New York at the time (I attended both Supper Club gigs), and remember being jealous of the Boston crowd who got to hear “My Dark Star.” Here is Drinkwater’s account of the show, 17 years ago this weekend:
So, I was really into Coming Up when it came out. I was really into the new lineup and was psyched that they had the most Suede person of all time, Neil Codling, in the band. I liked the tasteful synth/atmosphere stuff on the third record and was really looking forward to seeing the band at what I would have called “full power.”
I had seen the Dog Man Star show at Axis a couple years earlier, and while it was a good show (very crazy energy), as a musician I was strangely nervous as they had a new guitarist and hadn’t been together that long. Plus Brett was injured which made it a little weird too. Plus, much jostling.
Anyhow, I was really looking forward to the Coming Up tour as I thought it would be a real triumph as I loved that record and knew they’d be prepared. The first show was on a Saturday and the audience seemed a little off to me. I actually got to speak with Richard Oakes for a bit during the Longpigs set, which was a treat, obviously (he’s a badass guitarist, if anyone is unsure about that). He seemed in good/polite spirits, but when the band took the stage their energy was odd and the crowd kind of reflected that. I don’t know if there was internal weirdness or what. It was a good setlist, not super-long, maybe a little light on the first record, and afterwards I was glad we were going to go the next night because I had hoped it would somehow be a little bit better.
When we arrived at the Paradise on Sunday everyone seemed to already know about the gear. I don’t remember who told me, but it was a bummer, obviously. At least they didn’t cancel. Maybe there was a sign?
I don’t remember seeing the Longpigs on the second night but I think they played (I guess they lost their gear too?). Suede came out to a different set order than the night before with borrowed instruments, most of them acoustic. They seemed apologetic and bummed as well, but then they got on with it and it became great very quickly. Three or four b-sides, and they chose the rest of the set very carefully given the format (they’d only been able to rehearse briefly, I think Brett mentioned).
The mood was a lot better. They sounded pretty damn rehearsed to the point where I wondered for a second if it was all a big scam/joke. They did “My Dark Star” which is a favorite and “Sound of the Streets” and a couple other more obscure tunes and the feeling of it was just incredible. It was also a bit short, but they were forgiven this time as it wasn’t exactly in their control.
It was just a perfect 75-ish minutes of music.
Here’s my old Suede tour shirt with the dates printed on the back, by the way…