Those of us growing up in Southern California during 1978-1983 may remember the Long Beach-based Suburban Lawns. Their rise accelerated and gained certain acutity when Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) directed their first video Gidget Goes to Hell. A happenstance that no doubt had everything to do with it being aired on Saturday Night Live. Local radio airplay and print attention followed (their Slash cover at right) leading to a respectably successful album (by local band standards). The Lawns are also one of the few bands of the period that in retrospect don't come off as hopelessly dated. (Or, like all of 80s music, for that matter.) To prove the point, check the local bounty of material available at this site.
sound eschewed the trendy posturings of digital synths and de riguer flanged guitars. making the sound practically classic rock by today's standards. And singer/keyboardist Su Tissue herself (nee Sue McLane), with all her quirks, conceits, vocal sound effects and coloratura—a kind of bottled-up Yoko Ono—still sounds innovative. Features that keep the band's sound as perky and collagen fresh as it was when it was recorded. You might think Tissue's vocal stylings were a mirror to her soul as her onstage persona radiated both an extremity of adorableness and a nerd-like unsocialized quality. Clearly, the band was far less interesting when she wasn't behind the mic. (She was a good piano player too.) Her personal style had its adherents: One fan described her as able "to pull off of a remarkable mix of Little House on the Prairie meets the Manson Girls, beautifully." (I don't agree with the sinister angle of the Manson family, but okay.) Google the band now and find a robust amount of ongoing interwebs activity: Their cult is still very much alive. A legacy that's owed all to her.
The band's complete canon included a couple of singles, an album, and a five song EP before the internal momentum fizzled out. The final recordings pointed toward interesting new possibilities, a kind of Cocteau Twins cum slightly funkier Bowie-Eno trilogy direction, but with more humor. Post-Lawns, Tissue continued studying at the Berklee College of Music (after earlier attending Calarts—poor little rich girl) and recorded a short album of ambient instrumental music—30 minutes of slight variations on a groovey piano figure with added layers of ambiance (done in the days before digital loops). It would've made an arresting soundtrack to a wistful French film at a seaside. All of this would've had us hoping for bigger things to come from her. Alas, it was not to be.
A recent interview with former member Frankie Ennui offers some insight. Find it here.
An original pic sleeve of Gidget Goes to Hell is on eBay for $55.
All of these should be long out of print now.
Suburban Lawns: Gidget Goes to Hell self-issued 7" inch single (1979)
Suburnan Lawns: Baby from Baby EP (1983)Su Tissue: 2nd Movement from Salon de Musique (1982)
A personal note: Once, I was in a band. We had the opportunity to open for Suburban Lawns at the Cuckoos Nest in Costa Mesa, CA ca. 1981. The Lawns at the time were getting loads of local air play. As was often the case, I'd have school and work the next day (community college, no Calarts for me) so I'd gather up my equipment (an organ and electric piano/harpsichord [pre-digital], a guitar, an amp, cords and sundry other crap that'd require five trips to the car to load) and leave early as was my habit. (During my time we'd play with Jonathon Richman, Violent Femmes, X, The Go-Gos, and other bands long gone from memory. I'd leave before they all went on too. Yeah, I was a fool.) The club was quite packed that night (we didn't often get to play to full houses so it was very exciting—it was the peak of my very, very short musical career). We did very well that night. The audience was loud and enthusiastic and we were beside ourselves. (Our band was also co-ed: two girls and three boys.) Our success had apparently unraveled Ms. Tissue. She paced around the "backstage" loft before going on and talked to herself unconsolably in a kind of repetitive Rain Man way. (This was a secondhand account told to me by another band member.) I could only attribute her reaction to her highly creative and requisitely insecure artistic nature. I never got the chance to see her live but from what I've seen on YouTube, while the band was certainly interesting they could appear a little stiff on stage. As a young man admiring Tissue from afar, she was a nerd's lust fetish of a girl: Cute, physically awkward, unpretentiously brilliant (I'm guessing), socially clumsy, and just diffident enough in ways that young men can ruthlessly exploit (again, I'm guessing). I'm sure I would've loved her. Even now, imagining her in her overripe suburban middle-age with pictures of the kids covering the dust-covered piano she's still the thinking older man's bohemian heartthrob.