Brett Anderson, lead singer of Suede, has been thinking about his band’s backstory for a long time. In 1994, less than a year after their self-titled LP had become the UK’s fastest-selling debut since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, he told a journalist from New Musical Express: “The history of this fucking band is ridiculous. It’s like Machiavelli rewriting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It involves a cast of thousands. It’s always been fiery and tempestuous and really on the edge and it never stops. I don’t think it ever will. It would make a fucking good book.”
Coal Black Mornings is not that book. That’s to say it’s not, in his phrase, “the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir”. Rather it’s a pre-history, a ruminative and often gorgeously written meditation on his early life: before Suede released their first single; before, without having released a note of music, they appeared on the cover of Melody Maker hailed as “The Best New Band in Britain”; before they were yoked into a still violently argued debate about national identity and guitar music. Anderson, who describes himself as “hunched over the fossils of my past”, claims early on that he’s writing “a book about failure”.
This autumnal tone may surprise those who remember the singer’s devil-may-care dandyism and fondness for spanking his pert arse with a microphone. If the book’s title evokes the world of Stan Barstow and John Braine, of kitchen-sink dramas and the working-class bildungsroman, that’s entirely intentional. Anderson may have come across as a fop, but he grew up in a council house outside Haywards Heath, breathing in the aroma of paraffin heaters and his mother’s cheap hairspray, poor enough to be eligible for free school meals. He was, he says, “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy raised on salad cream and milky tea and cheap meat”.
Anderson’s mother, Sandra, was an art school graduate who decorated their house with Beardsley prints and William Morris wallpapers. She sunbathed nude in the back garden. Anderson’s father Peter had been a postman, swimming pool attendant, ice-cream seller, window cleaner and taxi driver; he was also a classical music obsessive who, while on jury service, refused to swear on the Bible and asked for a biography of Liszt instead. Later he acquired a set of Arab robes and roamed around the family home dressed up as TE Lawrence.
Suede’s music, like that of Pulp, would later reflect this merging of grot and glamour, of shabbiness and sensuality. Its swaggering, self-consciously arty intensity was especially seductive to a generation of misfits and dreamers turned off by lager and laddism. For those to whom that translates as pretentiousness, it’s useful to be reminded of Brian Eno’s defence of the category: “Used as an insult, ‘pretentiousness’ is an informal tool of class surveillance. It’s actually the way we make out thought experiments, find out what it would be like to be otherwise.”
Anderson is fascinating when he talks about the wellsprings of his band’s sound, attributing his love of internal rhyme and surreal imagery to his childhood fondness for Edward Lear’s Jumblies, his preference for treble over bass to the tinny Boots Audio turntable on which he was weaned, and his taste for melodrama to the “dark brooding musical landscapes and towering epic melodies of Wagner, Berlioz and Elgar” that he absorbed through his father. In a wonderful passage he describes how, as a teenager, he turned from early favourites such as Cockney Rejects to Felt and the Cocteau Twins, “relegating the former to the dusty forgotten corners of my collection, where they languished, exiled and deposed like medieval kings”.
In their heyday Suede were often sent up as humourless pseuds. Although Anderson defends earnestness in Coal Black Mornings (“Why shouldn’t something as transforming and life-affirming and celestial as music have a heft and a gravity that transcends the trivial and the everyday?”), he’s happy to recall the bathos of his youth. In his teens he was in a shambling early version of the band named Geoff, described by the local newspaper as “bedroom rock”; and he remembers hiding in a bin full of bananas and yoghurt pots after being chased from a cheesy nightclub for the crime of spinning reggae tunes.
The book ends before Britpop, before the split with guitarist Bernard Butler, before the excesses of ecstasy/crystal meth/heroin. All those are detailed in David Barnett’s excellent 2003 band biography Suede: Love & Poison. With its evocation of early 1990s London, its references to the novelist Patrick Hamilton, its almost arcadian descriptions of the early days of his relationship with Justine Frischmann, with whom he formed Suede and who left the band in 1991, its exploration of how the loss of his mother while he was at college shaped his performance of gender, Coal Black Mornings is an infinitely richer book. On more than one occasion, as in a description of his troubled father – “There was a sense that through kindness to me he was passing on kindness to a childhood spectre of himself” – he made me well up. This is most certainly a memoir not just for the fan club.
• Coal Black Mornings is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.