The starry-eyed teenager who saved Suede from oblivion
- Credit: Archant
Richard Oakes, the seventeen-year-old called on to fill the boots of an icon talks about the group’s re-emergence and upcoming Kenwood gig
When guitarist Bernard Butler left Suede in 1994, it was in many ways the equivalent of Marr leaving Morrissey, of Gallagher leaving, well, Gallagher.
Alongside singer Brett Anderson, Butler had masterminded two of the most iconic records in modern British rock ’n’ roll, with their freshly released second album, Dog Man Star, now widely regarded as Butler’s magnum opus.
Suede, it seemed, were out for the count. Until that is, they turned to a 17-year-old.
“I was told to learn the parts and dissect the album,” says Richard Oakes, now the band’s 36-year-old guitarist. “Looking back at it, though, how can you dissect something like Dog Man Star? I’ve spoken to the producer Ed Buller about it on many occasions and even he doesn’t know what’s going on, some of the songs were real kitchen sink affairs.”
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Anderson, nonetheless, had faith. “He can play like the devil, he’s going to blow our heads off” were the words that accompanied a picture of the new partnership on a 1994 cover of Melody Maker.
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His conviction was rewarded two years later with Suede’s aptly named third album, Coming Up. Not only was it the band’s most commercially successful record to date, spawning a plethora of hit singles, but crucially, it was very much an Oakes original.
Mixing rhythm and lead in a style still quintessentially Suede, the guitarist’s pop-tinged melodies gave Suede a previously untapped accessibility. In songs like Beautiful Ones and Trash, the five-piece had even found hooks that stood up to Butler’s Animal Nitrate.
“I guess people might think of it as my record – I definitely stamped my mark on it.
“I mean I was encouraged to,” Oakes quickly qualifies, “it wasn’t an ego thing. I’d go round to Brett’s house with all these pieces of music and push them through the letterbox if he wasn’t at home. Other times he’d come over to my house with a lyric or even just a drum part.
“That was how She came about actually – it was the same for Filmstar. Early versions of Killing of a Flashboy had Brett singing Filmstar over the top, but it didn’t really work, so I wrote some new music for it.”
Now, as they prepare for next month’s Live by the Lake headline show at Kenwood House, the Anderson-Oakes axis has blossomed once again with new album Bloodsports. Mature, operatic and more assured than their last two records, it has the same “distilled” directness as Coming Up, but packs a more considered, emotional punch.
“If you look at something like Dog Man Star, it’s about this hazy drugs vision that Brett had. Coming Up similarly has this incredibly woozy, hedonistic thing going on.
Everyone was young and didn’t have any responsibilities, but now we do. We can’t abuse ourselves in the same way so, of course, the core of the record was going to be different. This is more about the way love works, the good, the horribly bad, the things that happen without you realising.”
A lot, apparently, happened to Oakes without him realising. Pressure to him seems to be a retrospective phenomenon, which is just as well, because few would have been able to step into Butler’s shoes with dry feet.
Oakes famously won the role after sending a demo tape to the Suede Fan Club, accompanied by a note saying “take me or leave me”. The band, initially mistaking the tape for an early Suede demo, picked him over hundreds of applicants.
“Why did I do it? Well it was either that or a second year of A-levels,” laughs Oakes. “I suppose my entry did divide the fan base at that time, because there were people who were huge disciples of the first line-up. There still are now, you see them at shows and on the internet. They moan a lot.
“I didn’t feel like I was under an enormous shadow though, that came later when we started releasing albums that I’d written on and I realised there was a lot of comparison going on. Initially, I was just standing at the back with these big, wide eyes, thinking ‘this is great’.”
Considering the first gig Oakes ever saw was, in fact, Suede, fans might have considered that he was actually one of their own.
However, while many were swept away by Suede’s hurricane of androgyny and feedback, Oakes preferred to keep his feet on the ground.
“Suede were admittedly my first gig, May ’93, I think, but what’s never printed is that a week later I went to see Blur and loved that too.
“Musically, I was very suited to Suede, but a lot of fandom is about having that tunnel vision and being unable to accept any criticism about them. I wasn’t really like that, which probably helped when making that step up.”
Suede, like Blur, recently reformed to much excitement. Unlike most reunited bands though, the former not only took the brave decision to make a new record, but avoided the usual inevitability of sounding outdated.
In the wake of Bloodsports, Oakes says Suede are now in their creative stride and ready to capitalise as they move forward.
“We’ve always loved to write and there’s only a certain amount of time you can be a nostalgia act, unless you want to turn into a band like the Pixies.
“And it’s a shame, because I love the Pixies. I saw them when they reformed, but I wouldn’t go again unless they released a new record and it’s the same with a lot of others.”
Kenwood House promises to be a celebration of Suede’s re-emergence and Oakes hints at the possibility of a few fan favourites getting airtime alongside the hits.
“We’re going to dust off a few old gems that rarely, if ever, get played live, because that’s what these shows are all about. Kenwood House is something different, we’ve never played there before and it’s not the standard Brixton Academy rock gig.”
Fitting then, because Suede are far from your standard Brixton Academy rock band. They defied the odds in 1996 and now they have defied it again. Sometimes, all it takes is a starry-eyed teenager.
Suede play Live by the Lake at Kenwood House on Friday August 23, with support by British Sea Power. For more information, visit livebythelake.co.uk.