POP MUSIC : Seduced by Suede : With shimmering guitars and an alluring androgyny, the London upstarts have taken England by storm. Can they capture America like Ziggy Stardust?

Lorraine Ali writes about pop music for Calendar

Not since Morrissey and the Smiths emerged from Manchester in the early '80s has England produced such an alluring and unabashedly pop band as Suede.

The London-based quartet not only reinstated pop--with all its tuneful glory and romantic lyrics--onto alternative charts ruled by grungy hard rock, but also resurrected the grand and decadent side of '70s rock 'n' roll (think Bowie and more Bowie).

"We're very much fans of mainstream music, which is an unfashionable thing to be now," explains Suede's 25-year-old singer Brett Anderson. "The more lush and plush or ambitious the sound, the more we like it."

The band's not alone in loving that sound. Suede's enchanting music--combined with the seductive charisma of Anderson--has made it the hottest newcomer in England in years.

The group's debut album, "Suede," has sold more than 500,000 copies in Europe, where their photos grace the cover of every magazine that caters to a pop-rock audience.

The group now has its sights set on the United States, where sales so far are just modest (only about 35,000 copies) but a strong cult audience is beginning to form.

Dozens of those fans were wandering the halls of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel recently, hoping to catch a glimpse of the quartet, which was in town for its first Southern California concerts.

When some fans, who had been waiting since the previous night, finally spotted Anderson and bassist Mat Osman in the lobby, they screamed.

Anderson waved politely but kept moving. He didn't want to be rude, but he's been so bombarded by fans and by the rock press in Europe that he prizes moments of privacy.

"I had a dream last night that someone was taking photographs of me while I was in bed," he said later. "I smashed their camera. It gets to you sometimes. You start turning into a neurotic freak. I'd love for us to be like U2 or R.E.M., who don't have to do any press if they don't want to.

"My ultimate goal for Suede would be to lock ourselves in a studio for the rest of our lives and make records. When the day comes that I never have to speak to anyone again or have my photograph taken I will be completely willing to do so. I can't wait."

Anderson's strong pop sensibility isn't the only reason the singer-songwriter is often compared to "Ziggy Stardust"-era David Bowie, who was clearly a major influence on him.

Like Bowie, Anderson is a natural-born performer who moves around on stage in a flashy, energetic manner. An even more obvious Bowie trait is Anderson's teasingly androgynous persona. In one song on the album, he croons: We kissed in his room/To a popular tune.

The slender singer, who often wears his jet-black hair slicked down over one eye, hasn't donned a dress for an album cover photo a la early Bowie.

But he and the band have raised some eyebrows with the cover photo of their Columbia album: a close-up of what looks like two boys kissing--or is it, after closer inspection, two young girls . . . or a boy and a girl?

A video of their song "Animal Nitrate" did more than raise eyebrows. A British pop television show refused to air it earlier this year, claiming that the sexual ambiguity was offensive.

"They said they weren't going to show it because it had scenes of two men kissing," explained Osman, who is more laid-back than the high-strung Anderson.

"That's a horrific statement in 1993. We never wanted controversy for the simple reason that it's much too easy. Everyone wants it. We want to be truthful, and if that causes trouble, then fine."

While the band has been hailed by music critics for breaking gender barriers by jumbling traditional sex roles (the album cover kissers are actually two women), Anderson doesn't like to dwell on the topic because he feels it distracts from the music.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about the band is that we are in some way trying to spearhead a sexual revolution via androgyny," says Anderson.

Osman agrees: "I get the feeling there's a lot of people out there waiting for a huge gay rock band to emerge--but it's not us."

And what about the "We kissed in his room" line?

Anderson, clearly impatient with the issue, snapped at the question.

"Are people so stupid that (they think) everything I say has to come from my mouth? The line's from another point of view. I've got enough insight to imagine what other people might think. Why does everything have to be taken one way?

"You can experience someone else's feelings in a secondhand way. But people decide to fit you into a particular shape they've drawn beforehand. They want to see us as a gang of guitar-waving homosexuals. I write much more spiritually than physically and maybe that's where the confusion comes from."

Osman understands why there's confusion about Suede's music, and he's more willing to tackle the questions.

"Things like love, lust and loss exist before there's an object, and they're more important than whatever is being loved, lusted after or lost," he said, trying to interpret Anderson's writing approach.

"So if you're writing about love, you don't need to write about the person it's geared toward . . . it's the experience. It's not hetero or homo, but rather a flow of human emotions. Besides, Brett could be singing from the point of view of a girl lusting after him, which is something all singers like to write about."

Anderson and Osman grew up near each other in Haywards Heath, a commuter belt town about 45 miles south of London. "It's a pretty faceless place," Osman offered good-naturedly. "It's a ghost town with nothing to do unless you're over 70. People go there to retire. There's brilliant secondhand shops there though 'cause everyone's always dying."

The working-class, conservative town has no movie theater, let alone a music scene. Anderson, who grew up in the only pocket of poverty in town, got his early musical education from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

"My dad usually listened to classical, so the Beatles was the only pop record in the house. I know it inside and out, probably even backwards," the singer said, speaking much more easily than when talking about his own music.

After moving to London in the late '80s to form a band, Osman and Anderson met guitarist Bernard Butler through an advertisement they put in NME, one of the British rock weeklies that now regularly puts them on the cover. They point to it as a key moment in the history of Suede.

"Up until that point, Brett and I were more concerned with what to call ourselves than actually starting anything," recalled Osman. "We used to spend hours sitting in our parents' bedrooms toying around with the idea of being in a band. But Bernard was so good that it was really embarrassing. From that point on we took our music seriously."

The three found drummer Simon Gilbert through another ad and began gigging around London in 1989.

"We spent a lot of time as a completely unfashionable, disliked little indie band," Osman recalled. "In the States, a lot of people don't realize that. It must seem like we dropped out of the sky. It's annoying, they assume you're constructed or fabricated. We spent at least two years opening up for other bands that got good press and (we) were considered laughingstocks. We were the bridesmaids and never the bride."

But Osman wasn't looking for sympathy. He believes those years toughened the band. "If nothing else," he said with a disarming smile, "it gave us ambition fueled by revenge."

Suede was signed in early 1992 by Nude Records, a small independent label that subsequently hooked up with Sony/Columbia in Britain and the United States. By the time the debut album was released in spring, the group was already a critics' darling in England.

"Suede are only the most audacious, androgynous, mysterious, sexy, ironic, absurd, perverse, glamorous, hilarious, honest, cocky, melodramatic and mesmerizing band you're ever likely to fall in love with," raved the English rock weekly Melody Maker in an April, 1992, review of the band, though Suede had only released one single at the time.

U.S. critics are also generally enthralled. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars, with reviewer David Fricke writing, "Suede is everything that great British pop stars used to be--compelling, confounding, infuriating."

The group's musical influences are evenly divided between noisy punk and melodic pop.

"Brett and Simon listened to real abrasive, annoy-your-parents type stuff, while Bernard and I got into the Jam and the Specials," said Osman, referring to some more pop-oriented, new-wave groups.

In its most affecting moments, Suede's music recalls the grand emotion of the Bowie/Roxy Music/ T. Rex style of rock 'n' roll. But Anderson is sensitive about suggestions that the group's sound is simply a rehash of '70s glam-rock.

"I have no interest in glam," he said sharply. "It was a tedious movement in rock music. The only good thing that came out of it was 'Ziggy Stardust,' and the only reason was that Bowie had brilliant songs. Maybe because we both have aggressive and romantic qualities, people align us with that period in music."

Aside from Bowie, each member cites the Smiths as a huge influence. "The biggest thing I got from the Smiths was that people like me could make brilliant records, not just the kind of people who seem to have been born on television," Osman said.

Suede is currently writing songs for a new album and preparing for an extensive U.S. tour at the end of summer. Meanwhile, they plan to focus on the music. Anderson said the group is constantly rehearsing or working on new material.

If the quartet is half as moody as its music, all that time spent together must make for a turbulent ride.

"You should be sitting in the rehearsal room with us," Anderson said, seeming almost amused himself as he considers the intensity of the group's musical sessions.

"There's black clouds everywhere. That's how we make music. We don't take anything lightly really. We take it quite seriously. We're not into getting (drunk) and downing beers in the studio.

"I feel incredibly romantic about life," Anderson said, summing up. "I feel very cinematic about things. I wake up in the morning and feel as though everything's part of a film. Sometimes that's the only way to get through bad situations. I suppose it's escapist, but why not? I think that's what people like about Suede."

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