Suede - Sci-fi Lullabies

GIG OF The Year, some said. Still they talk of it in bedsits after a hard night's shaking their meats to less sordid beats - stacked up, shacked up and shivering at the memory. London's Kentish Town Forum (1997) awash with a sea of riotous Terylene and nostalgic reverie. Remember Brett's spine-melting solo spot? The most uplifting encore since Jesus claimed he could do more than just the loaves trick? How about the moment when Neil Codling realised that he had to do precisely arse all for the entire gig? Better than Radiohead at Glasters, they conclude. Better than Spiritualized at Phoenix. Better than... well, Suede at Reading, for f??'s sake.

And every squirm, wriggle and howl that night was to B-sides: dozens of Hits That Never Were, brushed off and sparkling with forgotten genius. That was just the gig. Now there's the B-sides album - a whole two CDs' worth of them.

As we all know, Suede don't just knock out 'B-sides', they forge Additional Tracks. This is a band of such impeccable self-esteem that they wouldn't dare insult their fanbase with insipid live cuts, 'hilarious' studio banter or remixes by DJ Will Thisdo.

Consider: it wasn't 'The Drowners'' Bowie cock-strut that made Suede's debut single such a milestone of '90s pop, it was the fact that B-side 'To The Birds' marked the epochal moment when shoegazing choked on its own sonic cathedral and British music decided that it'd better shake off its dope doze and get majestic again, sharpish. It wasn't 'We Are The Pigs' that made their pre-'Dog Man Star' comeback so startling, it was the fact that the thrilling B-side 'Killing Of A Flash Boy' was so nonchalantly tossed into obscurity on the flip. And no-one bought 'New Generation' for the single, they bought it to hear Richard Oakes entering the fray with modest magnificence on B-side 'Together'. Not since the heyday of - oh yes - The Smiths had we seen a band so determined to make their merest run-out groove slither with brilliance.

All of these moments leap from CD1 - which pointedly covers the Butler Years - screaming, "I COULDA BEEN A CONTENDAHH!!" And more besides. For while the 'proper' albums ballooned with bombast, Suede's B-sides increasingly became their chance to chill out, grope through their sleaziest baggage and indulge the seedy side of their muse. Hence we have 'My Insatiable One' and its legendary tales of retarded high-wire acts, blow-up partners and nasty trouser accidents on escalators. We have 'The Big Time'; like Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding', but for the victims of success rather than the Falklands War. And we have the ode against heroin that is 'The Living Dead', which is, frankly, as beautiful as music gets.

In fact, CD1 stakes a formidable claim as the fourth Suede album in its own right. Better than 'OK Computer'. Better than 'Ladies And Gentlemen...' Better than... well, 'Coming Up'. Arguably.

Flip the beast on its back, however, and CD2, the post-Butler years, sounds like, er, a B-sides compilation actually. They're almost apologetic, these blushing Oaksian cast-offs, meandering through the cod-epics 'Every Monday Morning' and 'Have You Ever Been This Low' before making a rollicking comeback with the triptych of 'Sound Of The Streets', 'Young Men' and the smacked-out 'Saturday Night' vibe of 'Another No-One'. Ultimately though, it trips over a few stray electro-funk experiments and windmills into a puddle of identikit 'Wild Ones'-lites. The nadir comes when 'These Are The Sad Songs' namechecks 'Venus In Furs' while sounding not unlike Madness. Oops.

You're left with the nagging impression that a post-Butler Suede won't be chucking away another '...Flash Boy' in a hurry. But no matter, because 'Sci-Fi Lullabies' has already struck its blow. It has sworn a fair bit. It has exposed Ocean Colour Scene's 'Bollocks And Stuff We Couldn't Be Bothered To Finish' (or whatever their B-sides opus was called) as the exercise in kid-fleecing it was. And it has finally given The Suede Story the widescreen, Technicolor Director's Cut release it always deserved. No longer drug songs for underdogs, at last.

9/10 for CD1.

7/10 for, um, the bonus tracks.

Mark Beaumont