Coal Black Mornings – April Book Club
by Brett Anderson
Reviewed by: Jaki McCarrick
April Book Club on line here at Roe River Books is Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson. The first volume of a memoir by the lead singer of Suede, it’s been described as “fascinating . . . gorgeously written” and, ” most certainly not just for the fan club” (Guardian). Coal Black Mornings is as much about Anderson the man, as it is about the Anderson the musician. It will be followed later this year by the second volume in the memoir Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn. To kick us off we’re joined by Jaki McCarrick to give us her review. Jaki is a regular contributor and reviewer for the Irish Times and lead singer of Dundalk band Choice. She’s also a prize winning author and playwright who’s play Belfast Girls is currently playing to sold out shows in the US, Australia and the UK.
COAL BLACK MORNINGS
208pp. Abacus. Paperback. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 4087 1048 7
In the late 1980s and early 90s I was living in London, which at the time, in terms of popular music, was arguably the centre of the universe. And when I heard Suede’s eponymous first album, I became an immediate fan of the band’s dark, moody tunes, noting in their sound the influence of many of my own favourite artists such as Marc Bolan, Bowie, Wire and The Banshees. I always preferred Suede to Blur. Even though the latter undoubtedly wrote some great songs, the arty Romanticism of Suede had me hooked from the off. Reading Brett Anderson’s new memoir brought all of those heady London days back; my Suede albums had been on vinyl, which I’ve long since dispensed with, so I went looking for the music on You Tube; ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Wild Ones’, ‘The Drowners’, ‘Metal Mickey’ etc – all of which are great tracks, if a little poppier than I’d remembered. In his Foreward, Anderson describes Coal Black Mornings as ‘a book about failure’. But it’s not a reveal-all, ‘drugs and rock and roll’, rise and fall account; Anderson wanted to avoid that clichéd model (though apparently there is a follow-up memoir which is more in this vein …), and so his first literary outing focuses on the years before the success of Suede, specifically his upbringing in Haywards Heath (a small town in Sussex), in a ‘cheap little chipboard house’, his subsequent years in school and college, his move to London and finally his relationship with Justine Frischman with whom he formed Suede.
It’s a remarkable memoir. Simply written, it has a poet’s sensibility and a keen, storyteller’s eye for plot, atmosphere and tension. The first few chapters are devoted to Anderson’s aforementioned upbringing in a ‘scruffy estate’, in a house shared with his art school-trained mother, his sister Blandine and a father who held a variety of jobs (settling eventually on taxi-driver) who was also a passionate fan of Franz List and something of a character (to say the least). Despite Anderson’s claim that his early life was ‘dirt poor’, while having ‘the trappings more akin to the lives of upper-middle-class Hampstead intellectuals’, the singer/songwriter’s background is utterly relatable and speaks to the backgrounds of many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, whether in Britain or elsewhere. We of this era all seem to have been raised in homes with some kind of chipboard, and with parents whose own backgrounds were much more Spartan than our own, hence the inevitable clashes, particularly when it came to music. The difference in the lives of our parents’ generation, the generation born before or just after World War Two, and that which came to be known loosely as Generation X, is huge, and Anderson has an uncanny knack of depicting, in his own home, the everyday reality of this clash of cultures – and he does so without sentiment. (The generational differences have, I think, a lot to do with post-war consumerism and free education.) Likewise, the book’s depiction of London brought me right back to my own time in that city, when places like Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove were artistic hubs, full of aspiring musicians and artists, unlike the hyper-expensive near-parodies of ‘alternative’ areas they have since become.
The book is also extremely moving, especially when Anderson writes about his parents and the family tragedy that caused his depression in London and prevented his getting out of bed for weeks. His breakup with Frischmann is also beautifully intimated. Damon Albarn is never named, but anyone who knows their Suede/Blur history knows who Anderson means when he writes that Frischmann had ‘met someone else’. (I also interpreted Anderson’s comment, with which I completely agree, that he ‘always hated irony in music … [it’s] for those who don’t have the bravery or conviction to really expose themselves’ – as a reference to Blur, and to that band’s now outmoded laddishness.) About his break-up with Frischmann, Anderson is never bitter or unkind, though he does describe her leaving him and the band as ‘a motor’, the catalyst necessary for the faltering Suede to consolidate their sound and move on to the next stage (which he, Mat Osman, Bernard Butler and Simon Gilbert set about doing immediately after her departure). Not too much is said about the events that led to Butler’s departure during the making of the second album, ‘Dog Man Star’, but no doubt this will be discussed in Anderson’s eagerly awaited next memoir.
Anderson’s prose style is beautiful. Each sentence is measured and rings true and is never general, is always specific etc, the overall effect of which is that you can’t help but hear the songs of those early albums as they pleasurably haunt the pages. I had to stop reading regularly in order to listen to ‘Suede’ and ‘Dog Man Star’ just to reacquaint myself with them, as the genesis of the songs on these albums is regularly referred to in the book. What brilliant, entrancing music it was, and is.A lot has been written about Brit-pop, mostly in derogatory terms, and Anderson is no different in his assessment of this horribly brash ‘movement’. But looking back on the bands that came out of this essentially pre-digital era – well, they weren’t too shabby at all: Pulp, Suede, Elastica, Blur, Oasis, The Verve, even Radiohead (who have distanced themselves from the term – but who emerged at this time nonetheless) to name but a few. It might be that in time, despite the crassness of the term and what it stood for, this era will be viewed differently, as a golden age of pop music perhaps, and while Anderson claims that in Suede he never celebrated Britishness but was ‘documenting it’, the band is nonetheless integral to this era. (It’s worth noting, too, that the first two Suede albums are possibly the last albums I ever bought on vinyl, and that towards the end of the 1990s things in music were about to change radically.) Coal Black Mornings is not only a gorgeous book, it does a lot to confirm the intelligence and artistic integrity of Suede, one of the last great rock bands, and of Anderson himself.