The Genius Of… Coming Up by Suede
Suede’s Coming Up catapulted the Britpop instigators right back into the public consciousness, thanks in no small part to a teenage guitar wunderkind.
Image: Paul Bergen / Redferns
“It doesn’t matter how many times they grind us down. It doesn’t matter how many times they stamp us into the ground, because we always come back.” Regularly proclaimed Suede’s frontman Brett Anderson throughout the band’s 2019 tour, usually in prologue to the explosive opening of one of the band’s signature songs: Trash. This crucial track, released in 1996 as the lead single from the band’s effervescent third record Coming Up was more than just a rallying call to the many dispossessed outsiders who identified with them, Trash was a statement of intent – and the battle cry of an all-new formidable line-up.
With former inventive guitarist Bernard Butler no longer in play after the fractious recording of 1994’s Dog Man Star, the vultures had been circling ominously overhead. Many assumed that, without Butler at the band’s musical helm, Suede were fated to sink beneath the waters of public disinterest. Meanwhile, the Britpop movement the band had fomented consumed the airwaves – albeit in a form near-unrecognisable to Suede’s original vision.
A delicious victory then, when their next move, the musically rich yet widely accessible Coming Up, became the band’s biggest ever commercial success. Spawning a staggering five UK top ten singles, the album revitalised the band’s fanbase and established a new variation of Suede’s sound. But, as Brett Anderson remembered in his second autobiography, Afternoon With The Blinds Drawn, “Coming Up was an album snatched against the odds from the savage jaws of failure.”
Young and not tired of it
Central to the re-tooled Suede sound was the addition of two new members. Firstly, there was Neil Codling on keyboards. The cousin of Suede’s drummer Simon Gilbert, Codling became something of a second frontman during the Coming Up era, with his natural good looks perfect for magazine photoshoots, and for taking a prominent role in the band’s videos.
The second, was the man tasked with the mountainous duty of filling that pivotal guitarist role. Rather than opting for an established session player or a high-profile guest from another band, Suede took a monumental gamble on a 17-year old fan. Responding to a low-key box ad that the Mercury Award-winners had placed in the Melody Maker, the young A-level student had posted in a four-track tape of his renditions of various Suede songs. “I put the cassette in, expecting to be underwhelmed, and I wasn’t,” Anderson recalled in The Insatiable Ones documentary, “I heard this very eloquent, powerful, technically proficient guitar playing. It was the first time I’d heard someone play something of ours and really do the guitar part justice.”
Hailing from Poole, Dorset, the teenage Richard Oakes wowed the band further during his live audition “It was very much a case of keep your head down, play the songs.” Richard remembered in David Barnett’s Love and Poison “At the end of Metal Mickey, Brett kicked over his mic stand because he was so excited. But I still didn’t really think they’d ask me to join.”
Putting his studies and the prospect of uni to one side, Oakes promptly signed up to be the guitarist in one of the UK’s then-most important bands, going out on tour to promote the recently released Dog Man Star. “It was kind of like being eased into it – if the first thing I’d had to do was write an album it would have been a lot more difficult” Admitted Oakes in a DVD interview on a Coming Up reissue.
But the band’s longevity was dependent on being a healthy creative unit too. Producer Ed Buller, who had shepherded all of Suede’s albums to date, tells us that “The moment it really clicked with me that Richard could come up with the goods was working on the B-sides for a later Dog Man Star single. He wrote a song called Together. I remember while we were doing it, thinking that this was too good to use as a B-side. It was a fucking great song. It’s got a huge chorus, and Richard pulled out all the stops.”
Play the game again
With a protracted period of time to shape the third album, Anderson and Oakes set to writing a batch of new songs that fit into a new paradigm. “The only way to confront the scale of the challenge was to ignore it and go in the opposite direction. It was vital, given that Suede was effectively now a new band, that we harnessed something of that vitality and irreverent freshness” said Anderson in Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn. Anderson veered away from the more esoteric lyrical themes explored on the autumnal Dog Man Star, focusing instead on conjuring a glamorous but decadent vision of mid 90s’ London, while Richard’s demos showcased his impressive musical range. Even in prototype stage, the core ingredients of the songs that would evolve into Coming Up’s primary cuts surged through his ideas, such as the mighty power chords of the behemoth Filmstar, the graceful arpeggiation of Saturday Night and the high-spirited joie de vivre that rippled through Beautiful Ones. Oakes was on a mission to prove his mettle.
With more time to make the record, producer Ed Buller had the chance to breathe, develop a deeper understanding of both the new personnel in Suede, and the batch of new songs. Following initial rehearsals at Crouch End’s The Church Studios, Buller tells us that; “We broke ground in The Townhouse Studios in December, it was very cold and we were in a completely new studio. We basically laid down a click track, had Richard playing acoustic guitar for every song, then we added a 12-string guitar, we had Simon Gilbert playing bongos and maracas and various bits of percussion on each track and then a guide vocal. This was based on Tony Visconti’s approach to making T-Rex records, and I thought it was a good place to start.”
While initial recording took place at The Townhouse, the album recording proper spanned a range of studios “In the new year we went to Mayfair Studios for six weeks, then we did Westside, then to Master Rock then I think we went back to Mayfair for a bit.” Buller tells us, “We knew it would take months to do it. It was the most luxurious record I’d ever made.”
Envisioned as being an album chock full of instantly-grabbing potential singles, Buller and the band carved the initial ideas to emphasise their hooks, while the young Oakes sought further guidance on shaping his tone in the studio. “As Richard had written all the parts, it was a case of finding a guitar sound that he liked.” Ed tells us, “If I’m honest that was the hardest thing about the record from a guitar point of view, making it sound different to the previous two. A lot of the time we didn’t use any amps, we used a device borrowed from Flood called an ADA Ampulator. It’s a 19-inch single unit rack miniature tube power amp and speaker cab emulator. At the time this was a very advanced piece of technology because you could change the internal components.” This was used in tandem with a Marshall JMP-1 preamp, while most effects were wrought from a Yamaha FX-900 unit, such as the opiated tremolo shimmer that opens Picnic By The Motorway.
It’s gonna be alright
Largely dispensing with the Gibson 355 that he’d sported throughout the tour, Oakes relied on his brand-new lipstick red 1965 Fender Jaguar in the studio, along with a Les Paul Goldtop (for the heavy-metal aping Filmstar) a hired vintage blonde Telecaster and even a Fender Strat at one stage, which Ed Buller remembers, was eventually vetoed. “What me and Gary (engineer) had to do was work with him, because he had such a big role to play on the record. Just looking at the track sheets and you’ll see drums, bass and then eight guitars! The amount of legwork was huge.”
Richard rose to the challenge, developing his guitar melodies and strengthening his chord sequences. While a proficient player, Oakes was determined to focus on what was right for the song in question above all, flexibly working with Ed and the band to shape parts that worked to amplify their themes, such as the fizzing riff that navigates the chord sequence of Lazy, the spidery assault of the jagged punk of Starcrazy and the glorious uplift of the bright guitar motif that punctuates the halcyon The Chemistry Between Us.
The vital Beautiful Ones was centred around a seductive circular guitar hook that Oakes wrote over a jubilant C, D7, F, E chord sequence. Initially titled ‘Dead Leg’, the song was an obvious standout. “It was a very hard guitar part to get right.” Ed Buller explains, “it’s a composite riff, there’s different guitars playing elements of it. There’s the top-line then the pedal underneath. Richard wrote it as an individual part, but I said ‘look, we need to orchestrate this to make it sonically work’. We needed to pull it apart and put it together again in bits. I’m really proud of Beautiful Ones because it took so long to get right – and it is right, it’s a great sound.” Included in its warm sonic stew was Richard’s Jag, the red 355, the Telecaster and a steel-bodied Dobro resonator. Topped off with a fragmented lyric that Anderson described as a “sketch of chaos” and a ‘twisted anthem for the anti-hero’, underpinned by Mat Osman’s pulsing bass and Simon’s indomitable beat, the catchy Beautiful Ones would go on to be perhaps Suede’s best-known song.
It’s a similar tale of relentless hard work that led to the equally monumental Trash. The song came late in the sessions and originated as a winning chorus idea, though it lacked a suitable verse. Ed Buller picks up the story of a song he describes as ‘an albatross’; “For a long time it was just this chorus. Eventually Brett bowed to pressure to make a stronger verse part for it, one afternoon at Westside, Brett picked up an acoustic guitar and played through a new verse idea (built around a C, Em, F, D, G sequence). It worked! We changed one chord at the end and it was done. Trash just felt ordained when they came up with the verse.”
Getting his inaugural spotlight solo laid down proved to be a challenge for Oakes. After trying a few runs at some melodic ideas, Buller fused these performances together to build a rough version of the final Trash lead break. Oakes augmented it further and delivered the final dazzling part. “The tone was Ampulator and DI’d fuzz” Ed recalls, “We were at Master Rock who had the world’s first Focusrite console, they had great transformers and preamps, so we just overloaded it. It’s the same process that made the guitar sound for Revolution back in 1968 – overloading the preamp and essentially turning the mixing desk into a massive fuzz box.”
With Trash perfected, Suede had a song that bottled the essence of Coming Up into four irresistible minutes. A perfect choice to lead the charge as the record’s opening single. “The first single off the album had to say something fundamental about the band, and for me Trash is THE Suede anthem in a sense. It was a very exciting time.” Anderson said in Love and Poison.
The litter on the breeze
Swiftly soaring to number 3 in the UK singles charts upon release in late July 1996 Trash was rapturously received by both devotees and the general public. This was no fluke however. Upon release on 2 September, Coming Up itself barnstormed its way to the very top of the album charts, and – realising the band’s pop-focused ambitions – spawned a further four top ten singles. “Coming Up serves as concrete proof that Suede are back from their self-imposed exile as big and brash as ever and thank Christ for that. We’ve missed them terribly.” said a giddy NME, while Select judged the album to be, “A wondrous pop record, simultaneously immediate and full of scope.”
Suede had pulled themselves back from the brink, by quite literally re-grouping and hitting back with their most prosperous record yet – its celebratory tone matching the mood within the (now leather-uniformed) band. Taking a gamble on the skills of a teenager had paid off, and the man with whom they’d entrusted their guitar sound would continue to be a vital creative cog in Suede’s future. Following the band’s 2003 separation, Oakes reconvened with Suede in 2010 to embark on a new phase of their career, and has since been central to the making of a trilogy of new records across the last decade, with a ninth studio album releasing soon. “Richard is the most naturally gifted musician I’ve ever worked with.” Anderson wrote in Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn, “He has an eerie ability to pick things out in music of which I’m simply not aware, let alone able to play.”
“Richard was very needed in a way.” Ed Buller tells us, “It wasn’t until the success of Coming Up that the rest of the band thought, ‘Fuck me, we lucked out here’. ”
Suede, Coming Up (Nude, 1996)
- Brett Anderson – Vocals
- Richard Oakes – Guitars
- Mat Osman – Bass
- Simon Gilbert – Drums
- Neil Codling – Keyboards and synth
- Ed Buller – Production and engineering
- Gary Stout – Engineering
- David Bascombe – Mixing
Standout guitar moment
The Chemistry Between Us
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