Tate Publishing in association with the House of Illustration, 2018
While the autobiography of Suede vocalist Brett Anderson has been warmly received – and justly, for this is a disarmingly lyrical and singular book – a recurring frustration or criticism is that the story comes to an end “just when things are getting interesting.” Anderson, Matt Osman, Bernard Butler and Simon Gilbert have signed a record contract, extricating themselves from the deadly pub circuit and its plains of visible carpet, barely engaged audiences, and relentless churn of the same band names on photocopied A3 posters. The road to success and fame (and the unforeseen darkness that it can entail) is but a short way ahead, but in Coal Black Mornings it is a road untravelled.
In terms of mainstream pop, the years around the mid-1990s were an uninspiring period for new music in England. Sandwiched between the dying embers of Madchester and the impending state-approved Britpop, The Stone Roses had failed to bring back the vibe with a disappointing and drawn-out album, The Second Coming. Such were the times that the ascending Suede, meanwhile, after being championed by the music press as “the best new band in Britain,” were found guilty of taking themselves too seriously – something that Anderson describes here as “a massive compliment.” The songs did stand apart, defiantly grand in nature, concerned with the elevation of the soul from within the banality of everyday life. In Anderson’s memoir we see where this comes from very clearly.
Anderson was raised in relative poverty on a council estate located in the edgelands of Hayward's Heath, a town remorselessly somewhere between London and Brighton; near enough both places to be defined more by what it isn’t than what it is. It’s the kind of commuter belt hinterland of outer London mostly seen from the windows of speeding trains, and is brilliantly conveyed here. A local rubbish tip abuts, on the one side, functional housing and on the other, woodland. Children innocuously roam paved warrens and angular patches of grass. Hayward’s Heath, for Anderson, was a town from which to plan an escape: it was not simply a lack of parental money that made the environment difficult. He relates very well, from a child’s-eye-view, the unwelcome brand of council estate uniqueness achieved by having a domineering, Liszt-obsessed father, prone to swooping through the house dressed as Lawrence of Arabia and conducting illusory musicians, and a (seemingly wonderful) art school graduate for a mother, who would make clothes, paint landscapes, and sunbathe undressed in the garden. In one of the book’s memorable vignettes, Anderson describes a staircase interzone in their small home, a sweet spot where one could hear a peculiar mash-up of classical music from below and late-period punk from above. One of those punk records is a Crass album, which the young Anderson eventually realises has always been played at the wrong, much slower speed on his turntable. It’s absorbing to collect these early pointers to the Suede sound, such as Anderson’s love of treble over bass being attributable to his cheap record player, or the derivation of his leaning towards the grandiose from his father’s ceaseless classical fixation. As Anderson's musical tastes change, Crass are replaced by the ethereal Felt and Cocteau Twins, “relegating the former to the dusty forgotten corners of my collection, where they languished, exiled and deposed like medieval kings.”
The Andersons are “that lot with the piano in their kitchen,” which tells us a lot about the conspicuous points of difference between Anderson’s home life and that of his peers. Blandine Anderson, his sister, was named after Liszt's daughter. Anderson himself, it seems, narrowly avoided being christened Horatio after another of his father’s approved heroes, and was instead named by his mother after either the actor Jeremy Brett or the fictional Brett Sinclair character from the TV series The Persuaders.
When Anderson does escape from Hayward’s Heath, it is to an early-1990s London reaching the end of its period as an affordable option for artistic dreamers. Enter Justine Frischmann –with whom he forms Suede and is besotted— dressed in her shabby, odd attire which only accentuates a moneyed background. She and Bernard Butler are, unsurprisingly considering the full Suede story, the most contentious characters in the book, yet by and large Anderson has nothing but the most fulsome praise for either, and this is probably the one aspect of his account with the potential to raise doubts. If things are not being said, it’s entirely the author’s prerogative; readers, however, may feel excluded. (While we’re levelling minor gripes, one wonders, as with Morrissey’s autobiography, how much of an editorial presence was involved. Lines such as “salad cream and milky tea and cheap meat,” though evocative, veer towards Alan Bennett parody; also, the book’s title is casually deployed in the narrative at least five times.)
London plainly beguiled Anderson, its everyday theatre of humanity ever more inspirational, and yet a great many of Suede’s future songs would remain staunchly in the Hayward’s Heaths of this world. Witness the kids in Jumble Sale Mums, hanging around the street, wearing someone else’s clothes. Anderson says: “I was trying to infuse my family’s humble origins with some sense of grace and dignity. I always felt sad that my parents and their parents before them had lived and died within the four grey walls of poverty, and I was desperate to give meaning to our shabby world of second-hand clothes and free school meals and meaningless dead-end jobs.”
Anderson calls this “a book about failure,” which could be a touch glib coming from a successful pop star, but not in this case. One of the memoir’s joys is the absence of false self-deprecation and posturing. Nothing feels ersatz. Part of the point, of course, is that failure is the foundation of success. The band’s nascent attempts at song writing are harshly critiqued, largely dismissed as soulless, trite and vapid. The moment greater substance is found – for example, when Suede’s early classic The Drowners is mentioned – you can almost hear the click. “Suddenly,” he writes, “it was all beginning to make sense; the failure and the bitter gnawing jealousy was pouring itself into the songs.”
The deal is signed and the book concludes. It’s not terribly difficult to source accounts of the rifts and descents that followed. “Right now,” says Anderson in the foreword, “I have no desire to rake over those days again.” Only he can know why the tale ends here. Perhaps the later acts –the “coke and gold discs” years, as Anderson himself deftly puts it– are too uncomfortable to relate, although a sense does persist that a future instalment will appear. If one does come about, in some ways it would be to the detriment of Coal Black Mornings and its valiant approach. It’s an enchanting read: Anderson has a wonderful desire to give colour to the commonplace. —Neil Jackson