‘I wanted to evoke a violent, sexual world’: how Suede made Animal Nitrate

‘When it went Top 10, the Radio 1 bigwigs got in touch and asked us what the song was about. They didn’t want another Frankie Goes to Hollywood moment’

Brett Anderson, singer, songwriter

We did our first gig in 1989 around the time of baggy and shoegaze. When you’re young and impressionable, you want to sound like whatever’s fashionable, but we weren’t musically competent enough to be one of those bands. We carried on rehearsing three times a week and playing to three people, and slowly we got really good at being Suede, something with its own identity.

We had songs like The Drowners, Metal Mickey and My Insatiable One in the set when we were still playing to three people. Then suddenly the media were looking for something new and descended on us. Melody Maker put us on their front cover declaring us “the best new band in Britain” before we’d released a single. The Drowners went to No 49 and Metal Mickey reached No 17. I’d never liked that indie attitude of “stay in your lane” – I wanted us to be like the Pretenders or the Smiths, who made intelligent music but were most definitely in the pop world.

Bernard [Butler, guitarist] came up with the chords for Animal Nitrate and gave me a cassette of them with a drum machine on. The working title was Dixon, because it sounded like the theme for Dixon of Dock Green. I took it away but I just couldn’t write anything that I thought was any good. One night I was at a gig at the Powerhaus in Islington and overheard what I thought was “animal nitrate” in a drunken conversation. I wrote it down, forgot about it, opened my notebook the next day and there it was. It unlocked the song for me. All of a sudden I had the lyrics.

I’d always liked the idea of writing a pop song with darker themes, so with Animal Nitrate I wanted to evoke this violent, sexual, underprivileged world. I’d grown up in a council house and was trying to talk about the failures and frustrations and the darkness of that background.

We showcased the song at the Brit awards. We were such a phenomenon by then they couldn’t ignore us, but it felt like we’d crashed the party. After it went Top 10 there was a moment when the BBC Radio 1 bigwigs got in touch and asked us what the song was about. I think they’d sussed us and didn’t want a Frankie Goes to Hollywood moment. I love the idea that people would be humming along to a nice little tune, but underneath the lyrics are barbed and uncomfortable, as if we had smuggled a dangerous animal into their house.

Mat Osman, bass

I first heard Animal Nitrate on a tape at the Premises in Hackney where we rehearsed. The music was completely formed. Bernard – when he wants – can do really interesting jazzy chords but this is much more straightforward and direct. He was listening to a lot of Nirvana at the time and you can hear that in the spiciness of the guitar line. The rhythm of the middle eight is very Smells Like Teen Spirit. I think we all knew it was a big song, almost a distillation of what we’d been doing to that point. It was the first song we wrote with an audience in mind – we knew people were listening. I don’t know if that’s why it has an element of call and response in the chorus, but when we played it at the 1992 Reading festival you could see the audience responding.

It was straightforward to record. I think we fought about the tempo. [Producer] Ed Buller wanted it faster and we wanted it more grinding. Bernard played rhythm and lead, like Johnny Marr would. Simon [Gilbert, drums] and I just followed what he was playing.

It’s not our biggest hit, but it’s probably the song that’s most synonymous with Suede – the way we looked and the seedy glamour. The first three videos were all done cheaply in pubs and housing estates in north London, which looked like the places we’d grown up in. For Animal Nitrate we turned up in what we’d been wearing the day before, but with a papier-mache pig’s head and women with painted on costumes. Nobody knocked on the door the whole time. I think people must have seen all these strange characters going in and thought, “I wonder what kind of weird sex party is happening in there?” but didn’t want to know what they might find. The thing that makes me laugh is that if people could have seen where Brett was living at the time, it was much seedier.

• Suede30, a remastered 30th-anniversary edition of the band’s debut album, is out on 7 July.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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