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“A Wave of Euphoria”: Bernard Butler on Favorite Songs by Bowie and Others

Jul 12, 2016

The founding Suede member shares 6 key songs by his favorite artists and from his own career. Hear his playlist and read how David Bowie and other luminaries helped shape his own music.

Bernard Butler has made some of the most beautiful and fascinating music coming out of the UK in recent decades. Gaining notoriety in the early 1990s as guitarist and songwriter for Suede, Butler has also been a member of The Tears (with Suede vocalist Brett Anderson) and of improv project Trans. As a guitarist, he has lent his talents to Robert Plant, Roy Orbison, Bryan Ferry and Bert Jansch. He is also a sought-after producer, having worked, among others, with Duffy, the Libertines, Tricky, Kate Nash and Texas. Here is Bernard’s very personal playlist, a mix of songs that inspired him and some of his own works that have been especially important to him.

1. Smiths, “How Soon Is Now”

“I was already a Smiths fan in 1984. I bought the 12” of ‘William It Was Really Nothing’ and found ‘How Soon Is Now’ and ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ on the flip side. These three songs, in varying modes, were perfect to me together. But this song was an enigma. Listening to the tremolo guitar intro on headphones blew me away. There were consecutive guitar parts within the first minute which were like nothing I had ever heard before. They made me realize that anything I had thought I could do I should now throw away and start again. The guitar sounds are visual and animated, like individual characters in a film. They all speak to me with different voices. Being able to create those characters within a song was the most inspiring part for me as a young musician. Johnny Marr has always had a huge influence on my playing, not necessarily for the specific sound, but in what he tried to achieve. He sets the bar higher and never looks back.”

2. New Order, “Temptation”

“New Order make emotional, colorful, euphoric music with cold machines. The hypnotic effect of sequencers is often spoilt in pop music by the hard song structures. But New Order allowed the sequencers to travel and unfold. There are several re-recordings of this song, but the original 1982 7” version is the only one I hark back to. The pulse of the simple two-chord melody is exhilarating. The electric guitars are fantastically simple: a barred C chord with the barre taken on and off. Bernard is a massively underrated player. I learnt to play the guitar by listening and learning his parts at the same time as Johnny Marr’s.”

3. David Bowie, “Quicksand”

“I have memories of the early days of being in a group listening to this over and over and dreaming. The ideal was ‘Is it possible to be in a simple group and make music this sophisticated?’ The lyric read to me like a call to action, to try and reach the impossible. Like the other choices the music is melodically rich, emotionally powerful, but full of character. There is so much to be taken from Bowie and from different eras, but this holds a specific time and place for me.”

4. Suede, “The Drowners”

“The first record you make is always going to be a surreal moment. I remember leaving the studio in the middle of the night in a taxi along Holloway Road and forcing the taxi driver to let me play my cassette of the rough mix, then crouching around the radio with the band when it had its first play. Now I hear an odd pop record, very distinctive in its cast of characters, from the voice to the guitar sounds. I hear a lot of tongue-in-cheek eccentricities in the playing and in the words. No one gave us any credit for that side of Suede! We were young and we were playful. We loved what we did. We’d heard Bowie and the Smiths and were consumed by the idea that your first record should be an emphatic, flawless statement. Haha!”

5. McAlmont & Butler, “Yes”

“I wrote the piece of music that became this song one afternoon in the summer of 1994. I was entertaining myself, not writing with a group in mind, and therefore free to explore. I had been listening to Dusty Springfield and the Walker Brothers and was curious to try and pin together key changes and a peculiar structure. David McAlmont was the fourth person to attempt to work on the lyrics of this song, and he had it nailed within a day. Everything he sang in his first draft was perfect. Even the chorus line suggested such a positive title. It was a big beautiful ‘fuck you.’ Many people tried to hang that on my fallout from Suede which is something I find very trite. David wrote those words when he hardly knew me, and in any case I wasn’t stupid enough at the time to try and shoehorn personal gripes into a song. I was emphatic that the music should be put ahead of everything else. It was intended to live outside the fanfare of the media at the time, videos, press, t-shirts etc. That was very difficult to accomplish in an age which begged for all music to be overexposed, but after 20 years it feels like that worked to a tee. It is the one record I have made which genuinely feels like it hits people like a wave of euphoria. It was also my first production, a co-production with Mike Hedges. I remember Mike just saying to me, ‘You know what you’re doing,’ and letting me run riot.”

6. Duffy, “Rockferry”

“I heard a demo Duffy had recorded before we met which didn’t impress me musically but there was something about her voice. It seemed to sit in one register and I wondered what would happen if she sang outside of that register. I had a piece of music based around a bluesy piano riff and a mid-tempo drum pattern. It had no chorus and I wanted someone who would change register at every stop shifting up a gear until finally it reaches the octave. I met Duffy and we were recording this within an hour. We talked about the typical song journey stuff and how the melody and the words could do the same. We recorded her singing each verse once, pausing to establish the next melody before restarting. She never sang any line more than once. It was along to a click track and a midi piano riff. When she hit the high notes I knew I had something. I took it home and with the drums and strings in my head I started throwing huge sounds at this vocal and click track. I love the way it has no chorus. Duffy gave me an amazing sense of trust – something she still does now – allowing me to play even when she was unsure where we were heading. I feel the song and the way she sang established a template, and although it wasn’t a hit in its own right, the title track of her debut set the bar for how great she can be. As a producer I feel my role in this was just to have a good idea, a song with an unorthodox structure. It was also out of time, which I think is why it connects with people.”

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