Friday, November 19, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #100

[All throughout the month of November, all NW4NW entries are based on requests made by you, dear readers. Because of the amount of requests received, there will often be more than one entry per week during this month - I recommend signing up for email alerts on the left-hand side of the screen so that you don't miss any of the fun! I cannot take anymore requests for this month, but please always feel free to suggest bands you might like to see featured in future NW4NW posts. You may do so either in the comments section of this post, on Twitter, or on the Facebook Fanpage.]


When I started the NW4NW series, it never even crossed my mind that I would reach the century mark, but the pleasantly surprising popularity of these posts has kept the series alive this long, and the end is not yet in sight thanks to the suggestions you guys have sent my way - not only during this month's All Request stretch, but throughout the life of this series.  I thank you all!  Once it became apparent to me that 100 was within reach, I started to think about what band would be an appropriate subject for such a milestone.  As it turns out, I didn't have to make the decision: the rules for All Request Month are unbending, and state that the requests must be filled in the order I received them.  And, as it turns out, I couldn't have scripted it better!

My life would be very different, and far less rich, were it not for the many years of friendship I have enjoyed with Philadelphia-based artist Sue White.  We have been great friends since high school, even though there have been stretches (some far too long) where we fell out of touch.  It came as no surprise to me that Sue came up with one of my favorite requests of the batch this year, nor did it surprise me that the Universe saw fit to have it land in the 100 slot.

Born in Long Beach, CA, and the California Institute of the Arts, Suburban Lawns were the epitome of the New Wave sound: herky-jerky robotic rhythms; detached, emotionless female vocals; futuristic themes; sarcastic, sometimes goofy, lyrics.  Their music lurched and twisted as they sang about eating Doritos with aliens, bloody shark attacks, or - in their most (in)famous lyrical pun - a misunderstanding about someone's profession and reproductive organs...but  more about that in a moment.

Su Tissue was the perfect lead vocalist for such a band.  Managing to appear at once adorable and psychotic, she was an onstage presence that demanded attention. Her counterpart, guitarist and occasional vocalist Vex Billingsgate, wrote or co-wrote most of the band's material.  Together with Frankie Ennui, Chuck Roast and John Gleur, they debuted in 1979 with the self-released single "Gidget Goes To Hell."  The record quickly became an underground favorite, and director Jonathan Demme made a short-subject film to accompany the song, which aired on the November 15, 1980, episode of Saturday Night Live. (I'm still waiting for that season to come out on DVD, to see that clip again, along with Captain Beefheart's legendary live appearance and Charles Rocket sinking his career with one misplaced F-word!)

That exposure helped them get signed with I.R.S. Records, who released their eponymous debut album in 1981. Suburban Lawns may be the ultimate New Wave record. From the machine-gun delivery of pop-culture touchstones in the opener, "Flying Saucer Safari," to the unsettling "Green Eyes," to the insidiously catchy "Unable," Su Tissue yips and yelps and skitters over her band's angular musical landscape.  Billingsgate's vocal turns aren't quite as disorienting ("Protection," "Mom And Dad And God"), but his comparative normalcy feels out of place in this environment. 

And then, there is "Janitor."  "Janitor" was issued first as a single, before the album's release, and immediately caused a stir over its lyrics.  It's chorus is supposedly based on a conversation Su had with someone at a very loud party one night.  She asked this person what he did for a living, and he replied "I'm a janitor;" straining to hear him over the party din, Su thought he had said, "Oh, my genitals," and so the chorus of the song was created.

Reduced to a foursome after John Gleur left the band, Suburban Lawns re-emerged in 1983 with the five-song Baby EP.  The more out-there aspects of their personality were reigned in for this record, but while the overall result lacks some of the punch of the album, the lead single, "Flavor Crystals," ranks among Suburban Lawns' best songs. 

Soon after, the Suburban Lawns went their separate ways.  Jonathan Demme. who had remained a fan, cast Su Tissue in his film Something Wild (she played the role of Peggy Dillman) in 1986.  In 1982, between Suburban Lawns records, Su released a solo record, Salon de Musique, which explored variations on a repeated piano loop across three lengthy, though fascinating, tracks.  She would go on to study classical piano at Berkley College of Music after the Lawns disbanded.

All of the Suburban Lawns material (as well as Su Tissue's solo record) is out of print; a CD reissue of their catalog is long overdue. It is well worth taking the time to search out their records, though - and don't be put off when you occasionally see high dollar figures attached to them. Keep looking; they can be had for budget prices. 

In the meantime, here is some Suburban Lawns music for you to enjoy: First up, a brief clip of the band introducing themselves and performing a snippet of "Gidget Goes To Hell" (not the entire song, unfortunately); next, the video for the lyrically legendary "Janitor;" and finally, and audio-only clip of "Flavor Crystals."  My great thanks to Sue White for this request, and for (without realizing it) helping to choose the perfect band for entry number 100!

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