Keeley Moss with the deepest of dives into the darkness surrounding the follow up to Suede's debut.
Prior to Suede commencing the recording of their second album Dog Man Star in the Spring of 1994, there was fevered anticipation it would be the record with which they would break America. Instead, it would be the record that would break up their songwriting team and almost break up the band.
The mother of all “difficult second albums”, the making of Dog Man Star would involve the acrimonious departure of Suede's mercurial axeman Bernard Butler before the record had even been completed. It would topple Suede from the eminent perch they had been allotted by the music press in 1992 upon the publication of Melody Maker's infamous front-page headline “The best new band in Britain” - before the band had even released a note of music. Upon its eventual release in September 1994, Dog Man Star would initially chart at No.3 before very quickly falling off the UK album charts, dropping out of the Top 75 altogether after just three weeks. A stark contrast to Suede which in the process of reaching no.1 and winning the coveted Mercury Music Prize, became the fastest-selling debut album in the UK since Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome. In America, Dog Man Star would be greeted with negligible sales and scathing reviews, Rolling Stone deeming it “One of the most pretentious albums ever released by a major label”. Even Suede singer Brett Anderson put the boot in, referring to Dog Man Star in concert as “The shit album” when the band would play one of its most maligned songs, The Power.
It's my favourite album of all-time.
Time has also been kind to Dog Man Star, with a critical reappraisal overhauling its reputation to such an extent it is now generally regarded as one the greatest albums of the 1990s, and Suede's undisputed masterpiece. I believe it is one of the greatest albums ever made.
While promoting Dog Man Star in the run-up to its release, Brett Anderson would say of the album, “It's about what you are, it's about the best you can be...and the worst you could become”. How remarkably fitting then that a record that dissects the nature of polar opposites and probes the essence of extremity, would be made amidst an atmosphere of such toxic trauma. It would witness at its most unnerving apogee the sound of a knife being sharpened in a sinister message left on producer Ed Buller's answerphone and whispered threats in sound files sent from the separate studio that guitarist and composer Bernard Butler had insisted on recording his remaining parts of the record in. Such was the animosity he felt towards his Suede bandmates and their producer, that he could no longer tolerate even the possibility of meeting in the same building, as confirmed by Anderson to Suede biographer David Barnett in the latter's indispensable history of the band, the aptly-titled Love and Poison.
But why is Dog Man Star, of all albums, my favourite? More than any other record I've heard, it's a record saturated in every human emotion possible - desire, despair, loving, loathing, devotion, detachment, derangement. The head, the heart, the soul, the whole. An album is generally regarded as a success if it can impact just one of those – Dog Man Star however takes on all four, and wins. A record made by people who sound like they'll die if they don't make the greatest record ever made, who are pushing themselves physically and mentally to the absolute limit at every poisonous point – and pushing everyone around them too. It's an aural Icarus flight, a sonic bare-knuckle fight, equal parts seething and soothing. A musical shooting star, a delirious duel between beauty and brutality over the course of 57 majestic minutes.
It's an epic record, sweeping in scope, one that doesn't so much walk as teeter on a tightrope at all times, one that pushes the boundaries of human endurance as it ponders the purpose of human existence. When I hear Dog Man Star I hear life itself - all its thrills and torments, all its misery and mysteries. And I hear death. But above all, I hear truth. At no point does Dog Man Star depict anything other than brutal, truthful, frightening reality – reality in all of its rawness, sadness and sordidness.
And yet, as if all that were not enough, there's more to it. It's a record suffused in otherness, borne out of the misfit existence that dogs all artists. While Brett Anderson was writing the lyrics for the album he was living a vampiric existence in brooding seclusion in a darkly gothic flat in Highgate, North London, next door to a gang of Benedictine monks whose constant morose chanting would penetrate Anderson's living space, and ultimately, his head space, providing a strange and suitably-hallucinatory soundtrack from which the singer had no escape. It bled into the weird, warped world he was conjuring in his notebooks, all nail-biting nightmares and creeping terror.
And yet for all Dog Man Star's rancour and squalor in terms of its making and content, paradoxically it is a very beautiful record. By turns opulent and ornate, romantic and idealistic. I'm a Gemini, a creature of vast contrasts, and within that swirling circus of mental morass I find the equilibrium that acts as my life's compass. Other than my own band's forthcoming albums, Dog Man Star is the record that most closely resembles the emotional terrain I walk within, the tumultuous surges that plague my brain as I strive to leave a musical menu of lasting value before I exit this life's launchpad for parts unknown.
Dog Man Star sees the contrasts at the core of the Anderson/Butler axis that made and almost broke Suede on full display, with their artistry in the ascendency just as internal issues threatened to careen out of control and torpedo all that made them great. But that's precisely what made them great, that tightrope-teetering tension that marks out all legendary duopolies, the tug-of-war between two polar forces. You can hear Brett and Bernard audibly grappling for supremacy on the record, something very much reflected in their live shows at the time where the two were engaged in such blatant acts of one-upmanship it made it all the more a thrilling, dizzying sonic spectacle.
This was at a point when Bernard hadn't yet let his simmering frustrations spill over into outright direct hostility towards Brett and his bandmates. The extent of Bernard's emotional turbulence at this time was considerable – a young man in his early 20s dealing with the impact of the death of his father and still processing Suede's intense rise to fame and the resulting flood of all manner of temptations. While in the midst of coping with the pressure to deliver the band's second album that had to follow a chart-topping debut that had swept all before it just months previously.
In the spring of 1994, hot on the heels of the band winning the Mercury Music Prize for the previous year's debut album, the magnificent stop-gap single Stay Together hit no. 3 in the UK hit parade, Suede's highest-ever singles chart position. The quality of the B-sides was typically-absurd – two astonishing songs, The Living Dead and My Dark Star - tracks that would have graced any other band's studio album but which along with Stay Together would not be included on their forthcoming second album. By now, Brett and Bernard were operating in a rarefied realm, a songwriting team of almost supernatural brilliance.
However, this team, much like their friendship, was fast running out of road. Suede were a band living, working and partying at a ferocious pace. It was becoming apparent that all was not well in the court of the fringe-some Kings. Bernard had grown resentful of press intrusion and what he felt was the media's excessive focus on his songwriting partner, in addition to developing a profound unease about the very music-biz machinations that had ironically aided Suede's vertiginous ascent.
His isolation from his bandmates had worsened on Suede's first American tour, an ill-fated jaunt that featured the indignity of being literally upstaged by their own support act, The Cranberries, when the Irish quartet's lilting classic Linger began receiving heavy rotation on the then all-powerful MTV. The tour would be interrupted when Bernard's father passed away, necessitating him flying back to the UK to attend the funeral. His psychological state upon having to return to the USA to continue a disastrous tour amid an increasingly strained atmosphere, when what he most needed was to have sufficient space and time to grieve the death of his father, can be imagined. Bernard's increasing revulsion of the press, his annoyance at Brett's public image and his distaste for the non-stop partying antics of his bandmates were sowing further discord on the road in the USA and further fuelling the vortex of venom brewing within his lithe frame. He started travelling on The Cranberries' tour bus instead of his own band's, his detachment from his bandmates deepening by the day.
Bernard's tension and dissent are audible throughout Dog Man Star. His guitar-playing, swaggering and aggressive on Suede, sounds murderous this time round. Lead single We Are the Pigs and second-side opener This Hollywood Life showcase his playing is at its most frenzied and frenetic, billowing bile in a raging rush of acid fury. Precisely for these reasons, it is my favourite guitar-playing ever committed to tape. It's more than intense – it is unsettling and threatening. It sounds physically violent. And the album is all the better for it.
But Bernard wasn't the only one committing the musical equivalent of GBH across four sides of vinyl. It has long been overlooked that in the savagery stakes, his increasingly-estranged partner Anderson was more than matching his bile on a lyrical level. The album's extraordinary opener Introducing the Band launches itself at the listener with the following lines:
Dog man star took a suck on a pill and stabbed a cerebellum with a curious quill...
Chic thug stuttered through a stereo dream, a fifty-knuckle-shuffle heavy metal machine.
The tears of suburbia drowned the land...
So steal me a savage, subservient son.
Get him shacked-up, bloodied-up and sucking on a gun...
See them whipping all the women, cracked governments killed.
Oh let the century die to violent hands...
A stabbing, a drowning, a thug, a savage, a bloodied man with a gun thrust into his mouth, women being whipped, the death of governments and a call for the century to be violently overthrown and brought to an end altogether, all in the space of just three stanzas. And that's the opening track. Girls & Boys and Rock N' Roll Star this is not.
Brett Anderson's lyrics go toe-to-toe with the quality and intensity of Bernard Butler's music every step of the way. Each of the album's dozen songs is a poetic tour de force, displaying a deft gift for word-smithery Anderson would never again equal. It is lyrically my favourite album ever, where each of its songs can be read as a stand-alone piece of prose. Not a word is wasted. Anderson's singing, running the gamut from quasi-operatic choirboy to rabble-rousing ruffian, displays a diversity, a depth and maturity throughout. At every point Anderson is in full command of his craft, striving to give the performance of a lifetime. And succeeding.
One of the most persistent criticisms of the album concerns Ed Buller's production, something many find overly murky. I personally don't share this view, I love the production which lends it so much of the nocturnal ambience that's a central element of the record's personality. A lyrical landscape and suburban soundscape, that it is soaked in reverb only enhances the cinematic feel of each of its songs and gives the record a lysergic luminosity. New Generation aside, an otherwise brilliant song that suffers from a strangely muted mix that sounds like it's missing half its guitar parts, for me the album's only significant flaw is the absence of Killing of a Flash Boy, one of the very best songs of the period that in a moment of madness was relegated to the B-side of lead single We Are the Pigs, something Anderson in particular nurses a deep regret over to this day, revealing to Vice in 2016, “Why didn't we put Killing of a Flash Boy on Dog Man Star? It's one of those things that keeps me up at night.”
The addition of the mind-blowing Killing of a Flash Boy to the album, ideally positioned directly after its sister song We are the Pigs on the tracklisting, would have given the album an appropriate 13 songs, reflecting the unluckiness that seemed to be synonymous with the record from its inception. Such a move would have also increased its ratio of rockers, something that would have benefited the album yet further. Above all the stomping savagery of Killing of a Flash Boy and its lyrical depiction of the depths of depravity are utterly in keeping with the record's central tenet:
All the white kids shuffle to the heavy metal stutter And go shaking on the scene like killing machines And they know that when she's stacked up top She's a sucker for the shotgun show Shaking obscene like killing machines here we go
It's the same old show
He's a killer, he's a flash boy oh He's a killer, he's a flash boy, oh oh oh oh oh oh Shake your fake tan through aerosol land and you'll know That you'll suffer for your sex by the caravanettes, oh no And that shitter with the pout won't be putting it about no more Oh shaking obscene like a killing machine here we go
...So think of the sea my baby Think of the sea as you murder me
Think of the sea my baby Think of the sea as you murder me
Murder me, murder me, murder me, murder me, murder me Same old show, he's a killer, he's a flash boy oh This is the killing of a flash boy oh...
Even by Suede's traditions of writing B-sides that could have, should have, been A-sides and key album tracks, Killing of a Flash Boy is a song of the highest standard. It's also possibly the oddest and scariest track they would ever record. It sounds dangerous and sleazy. A prurient portal to the underworld at its most shady and seedy. It ought to have been a criminal offence for it not to have been included on the album. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, Killing of a Flash Boy is its true heart of darkness. And the fucking thing isn't even on the record.
The much-maligned We Are the Pigs is on the record, however. And having been belatedly lambasted as the choice of its first single by everyone from bassist Mat Osman and former member Justine Frischmann to the record company, it deserves to be recognised for what it is. A pulverising affront, an assault on the pop charts, a hollering clarion call, an exhilarating call-to-arms of revolutionary intent armed with acid-rock arpeggios, rampaging riffs, a swaggering solo, thundering horns, pulsing bass, dramatic drums courtesy of Suede's ever-dependable sticksman Simon Gilbert; and boasting an exultant lead vocal that gives way at its end to a chorus of “We will watch them burn!” from a gang of children, members of The Tricycle Theatre Workshop, recorded in front of an actual burning bonfire! With Dog Man Star, Suede would bring the meaning of the phrase “The devil's in the detail” a step further than any other band had hitherto dared.
A gloriously ominous, supremely dramatic choice of lead single, We are the Pigs ought to have catapulted Suede right back into the UK top 5 that Stay Together had not long vacated. Alas, it was not to be. With Blur and Oasis having wrestled the zeitgeist from Suede's clammy palms, the raucous and demonic We Are the Pigs would limp to no. 18 before swiftly and unjustly falling down the charts. The album's stunning second single The Wild Ones, the most overt pop song on the record and one of the band's greatest-ever songs, would fare no better, reaching the same no. 18 position as We Are the Pigs. The third and final single off the record, New Generation, would peak at no. 21 in January 1995, quite some achievement given it had been available on the album for four months at that point, and adding weight to the record company's assertion that this song would have given the band a guaranteed top 10 single had it been released as the lead single instead.
The songs that did not see release as singles were, if anything, arguably even better than those that did. Introducing the Band, trailed before the album's release by the band's publicist as “Sounding like nothing Suede or anyone else has ever recorded” was precisely that. A perfectly-judged opener, a pre-cyber cipher, a coal-black Dystopian tone-poem dripping with demented demagogue intent.
Heroine is another gem, boasting some of Bernard's most florid fretwork and witnessing the most darkly romantic lines to spill from Brett's quill. Capturing all the allure of a woman wielding sensual spells, but grounded in the grime of the singer's formerly poverty-stricken surroundings:
She walks in beauty like the night Hypnotising the silence with her powers Armageddon is bedding this picture alright My Marilyn come to my slum for an hour
Daddy's Speeding is as otherworldly as it is extraordinary. Occupying a barren acoustic terrain to begin with, the song slowly, gradually builds to a most intense crescendo, sounding like the end of the world. Bernard Butler's guitar playing is at its incendiary best, culminating in a crossfire hurricane awash with the wildest white noise possible. Few songs that start in such a stark state end up sounding so colossal. A paean to James Dean and the live-fast, die-young fatalism so associated with 1950s stars of the silver screen, and set to a lyric that must rank as one of Brett Anderson's finest:
Whiplash caught the silver son Took the film to number 1 Crashed the car and left us here
Broken glass for teenage boys trapped in steel and celluloid Crashed the car and left us here
And daddy burned a million eyes Dared the dogs to criticize He crashed the car
And I was born
The Power is a beautiful sweeping ballad, a pure-pop panacea and a necessary stepping back from the edge of the sonic apocalypse that threatens to engulf the listener as Daddy's Speeding staggers to its stupefying conclusion. It features my single favourite lines on the album:
You might live in a screen kiss, it's a glamorous dream
Or belong to a world that's gone, it's the English disease
After the blistering pop fizz of New Generation closes side one with more of Bernard's dazzling axemanship, side two opens with the sound of what can only be described as the death of a saxophonist. It's a bizarre and daring introduction that no other band would have attempted, and the song it ushers in, This Hollywood Life, is the record's raunchiest moment, blazing a wild trail of Bernard's ferocious guitars and Brett's rabidly passionate pleas. Turning the intensity of “We Are the Pigs” and “New Generation” up a notch and then some, the strident “This Hollywood Life” also provides one of the sharpest dissections of the destructive nature of fame on record:
She-rocker hear the audience scream for the death of the King But a hand-job is all the butchery brings 'Cos fame ain't as easy as him (how sad)
Come rescue, rescue me from this Hollywood life...
The transition from the end of This Hollywood Life to the onset of The 2 of Us is as jarring as it is seductive. One of the saddest and most sombre songs Suede ever recorded (and featuring the single strangest cameo performance in Suede's discography – the sound of a tap dancer! Believe it or not, it's in there, albeit low in the mix), The 2 of Us is a gorgeously poignant parable that tells of the loneliness and emptiness awash in the modern world. Boasting another stunning Anderson lyric with lines that testify to the sheer power of pop music and its role in uniting souls lost in the supermarket, flailing against the crushing commercial circus all around us, its sense of lovelorn resignation amongst the ruins is beautifully, powerfully detailed:
Lying in my bed, I think of you That song goes through my head, the one we both knew In each line lies another line full of sacred sound But you're outside where the companies dream and the money goes 'round
Lying in my bed Watching my mistakes I listen to the band, they said that it could be the 2 of us
Black or Blue is a gentle elegy and one of Dog Man Star's hidden treasures, tucked away towards the end of the album sequence. With Brett's most soaring falsetto on record, and the multi-talented Bernard tackling a phalanx of guitars, piano, harmonium and all manner of other “things” in the words of the biting sleevenotes issued in the wake of his fractious departure. This string-laden ballad of aching adoration, with its heavenly harmonies in the outro, a spellbinding tapestry of parts played on harp and lashings of ghostly reverb rising steadily towards a beautifully bruised conclusion, Black or Blue shines as the record's most underrated moment, featuring the most darkly romantic lyrics on the album:
There was a girl who flew the world from a lonely shore Through southern snow to Heathrow, to understand the law There was a boy who loved noise of the underground He left the coast and overdosed on that London sound
And then there's The Asphalt World. On a record of immense scope, it's the most ambitious, most extreme – and at more than 9 minutes, the longest - track of the lot. The hedonistic, histrionic highpoint of Dog Man Star, more than any other song it chronicles the messiness and the madness of Brett Anderson's circus-like personal life at that time. Describing in incredibly-candid detail the singer's considerably younger girlfriend's bisexual ménage à trois and his complicated emotions regarding sharing his lover with her girlfriend as she alternated between her and Anderson on a nightly basis, it makes for a deeply compelling listen. Riding on waves of Bernard Butler's wild wah-wah guitars and buzz-sawing organs, The Asphalt World lures the listener ever deeper into the complex sexual, psychological and emotional entanglements that Brett Anderson, his girlfriend and her girlfriend are inhabiting while they simultaneously succumb to ever-expanding drug-crazed depths. A catalogue of betrayal, a diary of the power struggles at the root of all relationships, The Asphalt World is a tormenting, tantalising head-trip fuelled by jealousy, betrayal and primal, sexual energy. An unprecedented confessional that stands alone in the pantheon of pop music, it is the ultimate musical melting pot where the chaotic intensity, sexual duplicity and self-destructive drug-fuelled vortex of various band members' lives at that time would alchemise into the very finest art. But one that would exert a considerable cost on all involved in a myriad of ways, something the lyrics outline with courageous candour:
I know a girl, she walks the asphalt world She comes to me, I supply her with Ecstasy
But where does she go? And what does she do? And how does she feel when she's next to you?
And who does she love in her time-honoured fur? Is it me or her?
With ice in her blood And a Dove in her head Well, how does she feel when she's in your bed? When you're there in her arms And there in her legs Well I'll be in her head
'Cos that's where I go And that's what I do And that's how it feels when the sex turns cruel Yes both of us need her, this is the asphalt world
After the murkiness and madness of The Asphalt World shudders to a cataclysmic close after more than nine noxious minutes, it's a relief to experience a respite from the enormity and extremity of all that went before it. That respite comes in the form of the idyllic-sounding olde worlde intro of the album's final track, Still Life. Sparkling into life like a dew-dappled sunrise, it offers a moment of relaxed reflection with Brett crooning from the deepest recesses of his lowest vocal register as Bernard fingerpicks sweet and subtle arpeggios and just for once, it appears that all is suddenly well with the worrisome world within Dog Man Star. Set to the simplest and most straightforward lyrics on the album, it's a curious anomaly yet perhaps all the more mysterious for it.
However, it wouldn't be the dark, deranged domain of Dog Man Star if even the record's sweetest song didn't detail a murder in its opening line before suddenly veering off on a Kafka-esque tangent in which the protagonist compares his life to that of an insect:
This still life is all I ever do there by the window, quietly killed for you In this glass house, my insect life Crawling the walls under electric lights
However, it is its next lines that return to the abiding core setting of Dog Man Star – night time. A nocturnal record in every sense, it would be to the 1990s what Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures were to the late 1970s:
I'll go into the night, into the night She and I, into the night
Soon after, the dam bursts and the most dramatic, theatrical and orchestral flourish erupts, with a 90-piece orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, conducted by Brian Gascoigne (Bamber's brother!) on hand to hurtle the record towards the most epic conclusion of arguably any rock record in history, its symphonic scope eclipsing even the daddy of them all, A Day in the Life on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
A truly towering and entirely-fitting end to this most mind-bogglingly colossal of albums, Still Life provides the perfect send-off to a record that I believe will stand as one of the 20th century's foremost creative achievements. Its impact ever-growing year-on-year, the magnificent monument to boundary-burning artistic ambition and excess-all-areas that is Dog Man Star has outlived the messy trials and tribulations of its agonising gestation to represent one of the most accurate examples of the expression, “The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”.
For all the personal discord, dissolution and commercial disappointment it left in its wake, Dog Man Star's blazing flame remains untamed.
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