I would rather be sorry than safe. But the price is going up, up, up, up.
Lost pioneers. Consuming new frontiers.
The fields of punk and its equally wild little step-brother, post-punk, were rich and woolly for a short period of time. London, Paris, Munich and the twin coasts of America, just to name a few key places. California was particularly ripe and out of the sun-soaked section known as Long Beach hailed a band both so quintessentially American and beautifully weird that their sonic imprint remains virtually untouched thirty plus years later. Formed by two Cal-Arts students, Su Tissue and Vix Billingsgate, Suburban Lawns were an outfit that seemed to be spawned out of the awkwardness of human relations, 70’s static-laden pop culture via a dodgy, foil-covered TV antenna and a keen knowing of how absurd such an existence truly is.
With members Frankie Ennui, Chuck Roast and John McBurney filling out the ranks, Suburban Lawns made their first impression with their 1979 song, “Gidget Goes to Hell,” which was used by now famed director Jonathan Demme for a suitably demented short film of the same name for Saturday Night Live. Couple that with a classic appearance on Peter Ivers’ groundbreaking New Wave Theater and the band already had insta-built cult status.
Flashing white teeth snap
Ohhhhhhh, Gidget goes to hell! Ohhh!
Luckily for us, the band didn’t rest on their quirky single laurels for too long and in 1981, released their self titled debut in 1981 via IRS Records. The album begins with the opening track, “Flying Saucer Safari.” There is no track stronger than this to fire off the proceedings, between Billingsgate’s galloping bass, Su’s otherworldly voice and lyrics like “Taco Bell and filter kings, Correctol and onion rings,” which reek of pure Americana-pop-culture-trash. If you’re making the modern day equivalent of a road trip playlist, then it is a near moral-imperative to have “Flying Saucer Safari” on it. (It would be roadtrip heresy otherwise.)
“Pioneers” follows, featuring some good and jagged-with-a-purpose guitar work that borders on funky and the sentiment, “I would rather be sorry than safe.” Indeed. Things get progressively more strange with the valium-drowned vocals of “Not Allowed” and then Su’s languid-languor intonations with “Gossip.” As the album progresses, her vocals take on a form of a mutated Zarah Leander, the Nazis-era chanteuse. This is a good thing. Tonally, the album switches gears to the paranoid with the moody “Protection.”
There’s a bad boy in the parking lot
And he’s waiting for you
I’ve got pieces of paper for protection
The best known track on the album, “Janitor,” is classic and classically the best song to have ever used the words, “Oh my janitor, oh my genitals” in the actual chorus. There was even an official music video, directed by award-winning video artist Denise Gallant, made for it, featuring lots of vibrant color filters, solarization effects and the band all dressed up like lean pseudopods.
Other songs on their debut range from the haunting “Green Eyes” to the ska-flavored-out-of-nowhere song, “Mom & Dad & God.” The one thing you could never accuse the Suburban Lawns of being was boring.
Two years after this monumental album, the band returned with the Baby EP. Produced by Richard Mazda (who also produced many top IRS-signed acts, including Wall of Voodoo and Yello), “Baby” possessed more of a sonic sheen than its predecessor but featured some strong tracks. Chops that were in raw display before had grown more finely honed, resulting in the jaunty “Flavor Crystals” and the ethereally hypnotic “Cowboy.” Sadly, guitarist McBurney left during the EP’s recording, with the rest of the group disbanding shortly after its release. (In fact, Baby was originally planned to be a full length album, but was obviously never to be.) Vix and Ennui briefly formed a band just called The Lawns. Su released an obscure and, judging by current Internet prices, somewhat rare album of piano music in 1984 (a year after Baby though it was actually recorded back in 1982) entitled Salon de Musique. After a brief appearance in the Jonathan Demme-directed 1986 film, Something Wild, Tissue disappeared from the public eye altogether. IRS Records? Long gone.
Suburban Lawns’ short musical career is the sonic equivalent of the strange crossroads and backstreets of America. While both the first album and Baby languished in dusty record bins in a lengthy out-of-print stasis, they have garnered a fitting re-release via Futurismo Inc. Available both on CD as well as limited edition 180 gram vinyl, this redux version is the entire debut album as well as the Baby EP. Having both works back in print after being in limbo for so long is a wrong made gloriously right. Suburban Lawns are lost pioneers no more.