“Coming Up” by Suede is an album that soundtracked a period of huge transformation in my life. When it was released in September 1996, I was still a university student in Western Australia, dreaming of escape to London – the city that Suede evoke so uniquely in so many of their songs. And less than a year later in June 1997, I was screaming away at the video shoot for its final single “Filmstar”, six months into my new London life.
So it was with great excitement that I trekked up the steep hill to Alexandra Palace this mild November evening to see that album played in full. This was my first gig at the venue since seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds there in 2005, and I had little memory of what it was like inside. I must admit to something of a sinking feeling as I stepped into the tackily pulsating inner courtyard full of food stalls, and even moreso upon entering the main arena. The flat, dull expanse of this room was so atmosphere-draining it made the O2 seem like the Astoria.
Still, if any band can slice through a drab gig space with their unstoppable energy, it’s Suede. First though came an impressive support slot from Nadine Shah, who blasted through a selection of darkly tuneful tracks to great appreciation from the Suede faithful.
Suede came on stage to the dramatic orchestral flourish of the instrumental version of “She” and plunged headlong into the run-through of the album. With an opening trio of “Trash”, “Filmstar” and “Lazy” it was impossible to do anything other than holler along with arms aloft, and the band were clearly in as stunning live form as ever I have seen them, with Brett his usual whirlwind of sweat and emotion, throwing himself from one side of the stage to the other with seemingly boundless energy.
However, with a band like Suede, one of the thrills of their gigs is the absolute uncertainty of what might be on the setlist. They are unique amongst my favourite bands in being willing and eager to shake things up night after night on tour, throwing out unexpected treasures at any given moment. So it felt a little strange, in the first half of the gig, to know exactly what to expect from one song to the next. I’ve been to numerous brilliant album anniversary shows over the past five years, from bands like the Manics, Kula Shaker and Super Furry Animals, but somehow with Suede, it detracted from the usual excitement just a little.
That’s not to say that the performance of the album was anything less than stellar. In particular, “Picnic By The Motorway” was completely stunning, with the otherworldly melancholy of the verses building into a stunning emotional peak in the choruses, as Brett hollered “hey! such a lovely day!” from atop the speakers.
But it was in the second half of the gig, when the setlist had more surprises to offer, that things really took off into overdrive. For a few songs, I felt like I was being catapulted through a selection of my greatest Suede gigs memories. First came the punky mayhem of new song “White Boy On A Stage”, which was premiered at my last Suede gig two years ago. “It Starts And Ends With You” took me back to the Rough Trade East gig of 2018, and “Can’t Get Enough” was a raucous and thrilling throwback to my amazing season of 1999 Suede shows such as the fanclub gig at the Astoria.
Best by far was “This Time”, a B-side from the “Coming Up” era. This is arguably the first Suede song I ever heard live, as the sound of them soundchecking that song emanated through the walls of the Kentish Town Forum as I was waiting to get inside for my first ever Suede gig in April 1997. It’s one of my absolute favourite Suede songs, evocative of that most thrilling time when I was exploring my new London life, and its majestic refrain of “this time is yours and mine!” felt as completely apt here in 2021 as it did in 1997.
It only got better, however, as Nadine Shah returned to the stage to sing an acoustic duet of “The Wild Ones” with Brett. The combination of their two equally distinctive but very different voices on this most beautiful of tunes was truly breathtaking. And then we were on the home stretch, blasting through a final run of classics: “So Young”, “Metal Mickey” and “Animal Nitrate” before a rousing “Life Is Golden” brought the evening to a close.
With all of these delights, it would be unfair to say that this gig was a substandard Suede experience, but the starkly un-rock’n’roll surroundings made it difficult to become completely immersed in the spectacle on stage. The most frustrating thing about this gig is that, if it had been at a decent venue – Brixton Academy, Roundhouse, Hammersmith Apollo, hell, even the damn O2 – it could have been one of the most incredible Suede gigs I’ve ever experienced. And given how thrilling Suede are capable of being live, that is saying a lot.
But despite the slight disappointment, I’m still glad I went. Given the many wonderful memories I have associated with “Coming Up”, there was no way I could miss this unique chance to hear the entire album played in full. And as for Alexandra Palace, I now know that while I’ll happily visit again to roam the grounds and enjoy the stunning views over London, it’s probably not worth trekking there again for future gigs.