Book of the Week: Coal Black Mornings

12 Nov|Brett Anderson

Suede live in Belgium 2012 by Ed Webster (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Suede frontman Brett Anderson discovers Crass and punk rock.

I never bought bondage trousers or dyed my hair but fell in love with punk rock music quite early on. My father’s classical obsession seemed somehow provoking and confrontational and non-inclusive, and led me to embrace punk’s starkness and primitive, vital energy with the added sense that instead of being part of an irrelevant, faded, bygone age, this was an expression of my life and the world I saw around me: the white dog shit on the pavements, the vandalised, piss-stained phone boxes and the constant miasma of threat and fear and that somehow, through its expression of truth, it contained its own equally valuable nobility. Never Mind The Bollocks was, I’m still proud to say, the first album I ever bought and it heralded a lifelong love affair with alternative music. I scraped the money together doing odd jobs and paper rounds, and marched down to Haywards Heath market one Sunday to buy it, scurrying back home with my prize where it sat semi-permanently on the turntable of my record player for months like some sort of undefeated champion. Of course, living in the outer suburbs you acquired trends and fashions literally years after they had been and gone in London, so the Pistols’ career arc, like the light from a distant star, had already passed by the time I bought the record. Nevertheless, it seemed utterly, utterly vital and I fell into its grooves, learning every moment of its beautiful insurrection. Still today, I often use ‘Bodies’ as intro music, its carnal, primitive scream never failing to create the same Pavlovian response it created in me all those years ago sitting there in my little bedroom staring out over Newton Road. From there I started listening to what was more contemporary stuff – the post-punk early eighties netherworld of bands like Crass and Discharge – music that politicised punk’s restless disorder. I would be upstairs in my room playing The Feeding Of The 5,000 as loud as my cheap sound system would allow while downstairs my dad would be blasting out the Enigma Variations. If you stood somewhere on the stairs you would be able to experience a bizarre Eno-esque hybrid. Crass fascinated me. Gee Vaucher’s nightmarish, surreal and highly politicised sleeves were somehow both beautiful and intimidating; timelessly elegant but acerbic, relevant and taut with threat. The songs dealt with the kind of themes I’d previously thought alien to pop: warfare, domestic abuse, religion, indoctrination, and everywhere a restless, questioning, dissenting voice dissecting and criticising social mores and accepted political structures. I always played the albums at 33 rpm, not realising they were intended to be played at 45, and I fell in love with the slowed down, hellish yowl that seemed so in keeping with the content. One day, though, someone told me of my mistake and when I heard the music for the first time at the intended speed somehow the magic was lost.

My paper round was pretty much my only source of income and so became essential in order that I could buy records. I would haul myself out of bed at five-thirty some mornings, and blindly stagger and wobble around the sleepy cul-de-sacs of Haywards Heath on my bike pushing copies of the Mid-Sussex Times through aluminium letterboxes. For this I was paid £3.25 a week – slave labour by today’s standards but a princely sum in 1981. With an extra £1.25 from my Sunday paper round, I had enough to feed myself with a steady drip of vinyl: Brand New Age, The Stations Of The Crass, Sid Sings and many other such hallowed minor gems found their way back to my bedroom and on to the altar of my turntable. It was an old, third-hand Boots Audio thing that my sister had given me when she left home. The potentiometers were ancient so one of the speakers would often splutter and crackle like it was clearing its throat, and the sound was scratchy and utterly lacking any real body or heft. But I’ve always wondered if its lack of precision and clarity didn’t somehow inform the way I began to listen to music. Because the stereo was so thin-sounding I guess I learned to not listen to the bottom end in music, and I didn’t really get the point of the bass guitar until I was well into my twenties. For me it was all about the top-line and the song, and in the same sort of way that Pete Townshend wrote versions of pop hits that he’d apparently misheard, so I began to hear music through the distorting prism of my broken hi-fi and sieve out the bits that didn’t seem important. I became oblivious to any subtlety in music, and fell in love with songs that spoke to me clearly and simply, just following the power of the chord sequences and the words and the melodies. This eventually fed into how I started to write – forever stumbling around searching for the big, billowing chorus and the coup de grâce of the simple, killer hook.

This is an extract from Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy here. Brett Anderson will be speaking and signing copies of the book at the Idler Dinner in November, alongside multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney and songwriter and campaigner Crispin Hunt. Read more here. Sign up to the Idler newsletter for more articles like this.