Dog Man Star, twenty years on
‘We’ll be the wild ones … running with the dogs today.’
The best albums of the Nineties appeared within two months of each other. In the autumn of 1994, The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers and Suede’s Dog Man Star were released to critical acclaim, yet they met with a mostly indifferent response from the general public: fans loved them, but few others did. The mass appeal crossover for both bands came two years later, after each had lost a critical component and refined their output for the mainstream.
For the Manics, the loss of Richey Edwards meant a broadening of outlook and easing of the relentless gothic misanthropy that characterised The Holy Bible; for Suede, Bernard Butler’s departure prompted a return to poppier climes after this uncharted voyage into progressive space rock, strung-out symphonic codas and protracted fretboard experimentation. Despite their subsequent chart success, neither band was ever quite this good again.
Twenty years on, it’s time to crank up the fifty-knuckle-shuffle heavy metal machine and revisit the drugged-out decadence, obsession and despair of Dog Man Star, track by track….
Introducing the Band
Gliding into existence on a subaqueous bassline of supreme menace and exploding to life with guitar work that sounds as if it was recorded in outer space, ‘Introducing the Band’ is an eerie, unsettling album opener, a microdot mixture of ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ and David Bowie reading aloud from an Allan Ginsberg anthology. Lyrically, it lays out Dog Man Star’s credo of sex and isolation like a porn channel’s five minute preview, but the music gives no hint of the sweeping, widescreen ballads to come. The cleverest double bluff in pop history.
Key line: ‘Steal me a savage, subservient son / Get him shacked-up, bloodied-up and sucking on a gun’
We Are the Pigs
While the dichotomy between Bernard Butler and Brett Anderson was sometimes the alchemy for their most memorable moments, the clash of ideas and idealism also led to the partnership’s eventual breakup. Musically, this song is Suede as impeccable pop rather than proto-prog: swaggering, ominous and dementedly tuneful. It could have been the greatest 45 of all time … only Brett chose to call it ‘We Are the Pigs’. His co-songwriter was horrified at what he felt was a desecration (Johnny Marr, who had suffered similar misery when one of his exquisite sonic masterpieces was encumbered with the title ‘Some Girls Are Bigger than Others’, probably sympathised) but the call-to-arms lyrics seemed to have some deep meaning at the time. Two decades later, they’re merely amusing.
Key line: ‘Let the nuclear wind blow away my sins / And I’ll stay at home in my house’
Kicking off with what sounds like Bernard attacking his Gibson ES-335 with a lump hammer, ‘Heroine’ is a quintessentially Suede mix of half-inched Byron, spunk-stained sheets and impossible bedsit dreams. Futile wanking has never sounded so attractive.
Key line: ‘Pornographic and tragic in black-and-white / My Marilyn come to my slum for an hour’
The Wild Ones
1994 was a golden year for British guitar pop singles – ‘Faster’, ‘Jailbird’, ‘End of a Century’, ‘Line Up’, ‘Merched Yn Neud Gwallt Eu Gilydd’, ‘Sleep Well Tonight’, ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’, ‘Live Forever’ – but none were more glorious than this. A soaring, bulletproof anthem of suburban heartbreak that builds from a fragile acoustic guitar intro to an all-strings-blazing epic of desperate, hopeless defiance, ‘The Wild Ones’ is simply gorgeous: as close to pop perfection as is humanly possible.
Key line: ‘There’s a lifeline slipping as the record plays’
The apogee of the album’s narcotic neurosis is ‘Daddy’s Speeding’, in which Brett Anderson – presumably more than a little off his tits – relives the car crash death of James Dean. Claustrophobic, disturbing and unearthly, you’d need a spaceship to get any further away from the lagered-up oompah geezerdom of Britpop. When the modern Suede incarnation played the whole of Dog Man Star at the Royal Albert Hall in March 2014, this was unexpectedly one of the highlights.
Key line: ‘Whiplash caught the silver son / Took the film to Number One’
Subsequently condemned by the band for its controversial conception (Bernard quit before the recording was complete; his parts were completed by an anonymous session musician and possibly Brett, who later admitted they should have ditched it in favour of ‘Killing of a Flashboy’ or ‘The Living Dead’), ‘The Power’ is both timely and timeless: profoundly redolent of late 1994 without losing any of its … um … power 20 years later. Perhaps it would have been better with Bernard’s full participation, but it’s difficult to see how.
Key line: ‘If you’re down in some satellite town / And there’s nothing you can do’
Although its propulsive, irresistibly fruggable rhythm and young-outsiders-take-drugs-to-escape-the-boredom-of-life-in-a-nowhere-town lyrics provide a template that Suede would flog to death during the post-Butler era, ‘New Generation’ makes a pleasing change of pace to the stately languor of Dog Man Star’s skag ballads.
Key line: ‘Like all the boys, in all the cities / I take the poison, take the pity’
This Hollywood Life
Nothing truly great is immaculate; beauty is defined by contrast; the combination of flaws and faultlessness create wonder. In other words, even the finest albums have a shit song – and on Dog Man Star, this is it. Built around a mid-paced glam riff that tries vainly to join the dots between the ragged, sex-with-a-glue-sniffer glamour of the first Suede record and the more expansive desolation of the second, ‘This Hollywood Life’ crawls aimlessly along like a bulldozer with chiffon caught in its gears before juddering to a merciful halt. Brett’s shrieking is particularly tiresome.
Key line: ‘A hand job is all the butchery brings / Because fame ain’t as easy as him’
The 2 of Us
If Dog Man Star is an album conceived, recorded and best experienced in a state of advanced refreshment, this song is the comedown after a lengthy period of chemical excess: paranoid, skint and alone. Stripped of symphonic bombast and axe derangement to leave just a piano and a voice, ‘The 2 of Us’ is a naked plea for comfort, forgiveness, even acceptance – and what makes it doubly affecting is the utter lack of hope. The song’s late switch from funereal dirge to major key finale is brought about not by redemption or love but the arrival of a dealer with a fresh fix: ‘Alone, but loaded …’
Key line: ‘I heard you call from across the city through the stereo sound’
Black or Blue
‘Black or Blue’ is Dog Man Star’s moral compass: a straightforward, autobiographical love story about a foreign girl studying in London and a British boy enraged by the racial prejudice she suffers – or perhaps by the way he is condemned for having a relationship with her. Although the song meanders to a conclusion along with the affair it describes, its heart remains in the right place to the end. Virtuous social anger with a specific, identifiable target isn’t something one ordinarily associates with Suede, but there’s no denying the strength of feeling on display.
Key line: ‘I don’t care if it’s wrong or right / And I don’t care for the UK tonight’
The Asphalt World
Despite it representing the apotheosis of Bernard’s insular prog extravagance – Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes’ played by Mick Ronson, basically – ‘The Asphalt World’ is also the song that most encapsulates Brett’s lyrical obsessions: shagging, drugs, London, alienation, betrayal … the full gamut of Andersonisms. Although their artistic visions were clearly veering off in different directions, they weren’t always incompatible – and the synthesis is never more potent than here. In fact, the whole band is in seamless harmony: Simon Gilbert’s drums and Matt Osman’s bass provide a textbook backdrop for Bernard’s multiple-guitar melting pot and Brett’s heartfelt psychedelic angst.
Key line: ‘That’s how it feels when the sex turns cruel’
‘The Asphalt World’ is such a monster that it’s difficult to imagine anything following it. Certainly, the idea of it being succeeded by a song of even more opulent ambition is laughable – yet that’s precisely what Suede do here. ‘Still Life’ is a different kettle of Rumblefish to its immediate predecessor, a cleaner, more elegant tale of doomed grand passion with a cinematic orchestral showiness worthy of Dean, Monroe, Brando, Bacall and all the album’s other Hollywood references and allusions. If Dog Man Star is a soundtrack looking for a film, ‘Still Life’ represents the closing image, the final flash of emotion before the screen fades to black and the credits roll.
Key line: ‘This still life is all I ever do / There by the window, quietly killed for you’