“Do you know the road I live in—Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it. You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses—the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191—as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.”
Coming Up For Air (1939)
Most of my family originally come from London but I have aunties and uncles who long ago moved out to the leafy suburban outskirts of the city to places like Purley and Crawley where they had children, played golf, drank sherry and led nice middle-class lives. When I visited them as a kid I think I felt a little jealous of my cousins living in these large semi-detached houses with big back gardens only a short bike ride away from actual countryside (this was in the 1970s, I imagine the “countryside” is a lot further away now). Compared to our poky little council flat it seemed that they led an idyllic life like something out of a Ladybird book, where it was always sunny, there was a new car in the driveway and two parents at home, a cheery mum who baked pies and a solid, cardigan-wearing dad who did something in accounting.
But this feeling probably had more to do with my personal family circumstances than any actual reality, after all I was the one who lived in London and inevitably my sense of city superiority took hold so by my late teens I regarded my suburban cousins as rather boring and backward people whose lives I wouldn’t swap with for all the tea in Croydon.
Being a city boy who has an existential crisis if he lives too far from tall concrete buildings I obviously have my prejudices, but that’s nothing compared to the good kicking the suburbs have always gotten in popular culture over the years; the list of novels, movies, plays and television shows damning them as awful, soul-crushing dead zones is as long as Orwell’s Ellesmere Road. This is true in every country that has suburbs but it’s in pop music that the English have really staked a claim to the subject. I’ve not done an in-depth survey or anything but there could be more English pop songs about suburbs and suburbanites than there are about almost any other subject (apart from L.O.V.E of course), and with few exceptions these songs portray the suburbs as the dull home to either angry, uptight reactionaries or sad, downtrodden cogs in the capitalist machine — usually with both hiding all sorts of sordid and kinky goings-on behind their net curtains of their mock-Tudor homes.
So why the fixation with these places? It’s not the garden gnomes and shag carpets they’re objecting to, the suburbs stand for bourgeois conformity and all the conservative values of tradition and respectability that rebellious, modern, pink-haired pop music is supposed to be against. And it’s often in the suburbs that these values, for lack of anything better to do, curdle and turn sour into reactionary xenophobia, empty materialism and dull philistinism which makes them a nice easy target for any aspiring pop poet who thinks he has something to say about England and the English. Plus, the essential fact about the suburbs is that they’re boring and what says more about England than the bleak nothingness of a rainy Sunday afternoon in a town where the major cultural attraction is the local concrete shopping precinct? That’s half of Morrissey’s songbook right there.
Download: 7:10 From Suburbia – Jackie Trent (mp3)
Download: The Sound of The Suburbs – The Members (mp3)
Download: Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James – Manfred Mann (mp3)
Download: Smithers-Jones (orchestra version) – The Jam (mp3)
Download: 10:15 Saturday Night – The Cure (mp3)
Download: Respectable Street – XTC (mp3)
Of all these songs only “7:10 From Suburbia” has what I would call a sunny disposition, the rest tell rather miserable stories, and while “10:15 Saturday Night” isn’t directly about the suburbs the song just reeks of whiny suburban ennui. Where else would Saturday night be thought of as boring but the suburbs? Robert Smith, of course, comes from Crawley — the same place as my Auntie Molly — so he would know.