The Suburban Lawns made a definite impact on the L.A. punk/New Wave scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s with frenetic, energetic and muscular New Wave music ably informed by a sense of subversion, oddness and humor. Launched from Long Beach, California, they received essential airplay on Los Angeles’ KROQ, and the Suburban Lawsn’ first single sold out on the first pressing.
No one looked and sounded like them. Fronted by singer Su Tissue (aka Sue McLane), bassist/singer Vex Billingsgate (Billy Ranson), lead guitarist John Gleur (John McBurney), rhythm guitarist/singer Frankie Ennui (Rick Whitney) and drummer Chuck Roast (Chas Rodriguez), the Suburban Lawns created unique music that has stood the rest of time. The proof is in a new first-time reissue of their self-titled 1981 debut and of their final release, the 1983 EP Baby – both of which are available on compact disc or vinyl.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Frankie Ennui, Chuck Roast and producer EJ Emmons for a Something Else! Sitdown that touched on the history of this often-overlooked band and this long-overdue reissue of the original IRS Records music on Futurismo …
STEVE ELLIOTT: We’re finally seeing your debut album and EP reissued for the first time How cool is that? Futurismo Records has shown a lot of courage in doing this.
CHUCK ROAST: I knew in some millennia it would happen. I was always puzzled why IRS never released it in any of their anthologies over the years. When we first found out that it was going to be released, we ourselves were trying to get the rights back. After receiving my copy and seeing the package, Futurismo has done a fantastic job. It sounds and looks great! I am certain it will do well.
EJ EMMONS:Futurismo should get a medal for not only that, but the incredible quality and attention to detail they have shown in the preparation of this package — and no, this is not hype.
STEVE ELLIOTT: After all of these years, do you think that we’ll ever see your fantastic debut 7-inch, the non-album 1979 single “Gidget Goes To Hell”?
CHUCK ROAST: I would love to see this single reissued, absolutely. It’s what put us on the map — our first song played on the radio, thanks to Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ. “My Boyfriend” [the B-side to “Gidget Goes to Hell”] was on Thurston Moore’s Top 10 List in Rolling Stone. Not sure if the Kohner family (creator of Gidget) would dig it, or if they realize it is parody.
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, we are working on that, but it is a little complicated.
EJ EMMONS: There still exists an animus from the Kohner camp, as I understand it; they would sue the songwriters should “Gidget” be released.
STEVE ELLIOTT: What bands did the Suburban Lawns play with in the clubs that sound our in your minds?
FRANKIE ENNUI: We opened for U2, at the Santa Monica Civic, on their first tour of the U.S. and, also opened for the Clash at the Sacramento Auditorium. Those are the gigs that I remember best.
CHUCK ROAST: Those were great days on the scene. From the early days at the Masque, you had the Germs, the Go-Go’s, the Plugz. You had a lot of clubs in Hollywood in those days: The Whiskey a-Go-Go, the Roxy, the Starwood, the Anti-Club, Club 88, Club Lingerie — just to name a few. We opened for Siouxsie and the Banshees, Oingo Boingo, Ultravox, U2, the Clash. Those gigs exposed us to new fans which expanded our fan base which, and led to our own headlining shows at those venues.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Would you say that Devo, Talking Heads, and the B-52’s were an influence on the band? I think some of the mutual qualities that you all share with these bands were a sense of humor, subversion and UFO’s. How essential was humor and subversion to your music?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Speaking for myself, I was definitely influenced by Devo, the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and Voidoids, Television, and bands of that ilk. But, there was some surf influence in there also, and I now think I was inspired by and simultaneously rebelling against bands like the Beach Boys.
CHUCK ROAST: While we all liked those bands, especially Devo and Talking Heads and their frenetic sounds, we always strived to be original. We were a terrible cover band. We were always lampooning something. We could get pretty silly and laugh a lot at rehearsals. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Film director Jonathan Demme directed your music video for “Gidget Goes to Hell,” which was aired on Saturday Night Live. How was he to work with?
CHUCK ROAST: That was a great experience for us. Jonathan was a cool cat, very funny. That was shot at Malibu, right where Gidget and Moondoggie met. He came to one of our shows at Madame Wong’s West and brought a couple his stars. He was shooting Swing Shift, with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. When we were on tour, he came to see us at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. Frankie and I went to breakfast with him. He had some thoughts and suggestions on the show, and what he thought could make it a better.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Your self-titled debut album was a full-on frenetic, aggressive record that didn’t let up. Was it representative of your live shows? Were all of these songs already in your live set, and was it just a matter of capturing how you were live in the studio?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, the album was somewhat representative of our live shows, but you had to see Su do her thing live and in person, in front of a crowd, to really get the full, mind-blowing impact. So many contrasting ideas and emotions were being transmitted. What Su did was real. She really put herself out there, exposed and vulnerable, but aggressively sarcastic and in your face at the same time. Brave. Amazing. Disturbing. Yes, we had already been playing all of the songs for quite a while, I think, at the time we recorded the first record. We got to be very tight.
CHUCK ROAST: While we were not a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust band per se, we did play pretty fast. Faster live than on the album. We rehearsed a lot to get our set as tight as we could from start to finish with minimal breaks. I remember when we first went into the studio to start recording, EJ was always so calm. He would say, “You’re in a recording studio, it’s not live.” I think he captured our sound very well.
EJ EMMONS: It was a matter of faithfully rendering the live entity to record, making only the slightest changes for the medium — such as rewriting bass parts for “Gidget” and “Janitor,” and adding a few negligible synth bits for the record, to get closer to the excitement of a live show.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Do you think, in a way, your song “Computer Date” kind of prefigured online dating web sites?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, I suppose it did. Sex, love, commercialism and technology all wrapped up into a chirpy little ditty. It was fun.
STEVE ELLIOTT: “Janitor” is my personal favorite song of yours. Much of the story told over the years has been wrong about the origins of the funny lyrics derived from Su Tissue’s conversion with her friend. What really happened?
FRANKIE ENNUI: “Janitor” is one of my favorites of ours too, but I also love “Protection” and “Green Eyes.” Heck, I like all of them — even mine. As Wikipedia now correctly provides, the words and music to “Janitor” were pretty much done when Su added the janitor/genitals lyrics. Up to that point, the lyrics were just another one of my raves about the dangers of technology potentially running amok. Su gave it that poetic twist that really made it interesting. Our best stuff, in my opinion, resulted from collaborations like that.
CHUCK ROAST: The story over the years has been that a fan/friend — an actual janitor — was misunderstood during conversation at a party or show. It was probably a combination of that, and Su’s and the band’s wicked humor. I was thinking about that, an awful long time ago she had an off-handed saying, “don’t forget to wipe” that probably played into it. In any event, it is/was hilarious.
EJ EMMONS: I wish I knew. I heard “hit!,” and went from there — insisting it be the second single.
STEVE ELLIOTT: You all made two TV appearances on the late-night cable TV show New Wave Theater hosted by Peter Ivers, performing some very exciting live versions of “Gidget” and “Janitor.” Were there other songs performed and videotaped for the show? I think this live version of “Janitor,” in particular, is the definitive performance.
FRANKIE ENNUI: I don’t recall there being other songs taped. Su was generally reluctant to have the band’s performances recorded. The performance of “Janitor” is pretty good, but I think there were a lot better performances (not recorded) in front of large, live audiences. Nothing inspires a performance like a large, enthusiastic audience.
CHUCK ROAST: Peter Ivers was a very goofy and very astute guy. He could be so silly one second, and then hit you with a very serious question. It was a lot of fun.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Speaking of “Janitor,” you also created an unusual but fun music video for that track and wore some wild outfits for it. Who did you work with for that video, and was there any concept in mind for the outfits?
CHUCK ROAST: Denise Gallant put that video together; it was shot at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Hollywood.That was all Su on those costumes. It turned out well. That was all pre-MTV.
STEVE ELLIOTT: You released your first two seven-inch singles independently on your Suburban Industrial Records label, both in 1979 and 1980. You guys were ahead of the curve in the DIY approach in releasing these records on your own label. I understand that they sold out pretty fast.
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, they sold very well, but I might still have a few copies of the “Janitor” 45 somewhere.
CHUCK ROAST: That’s what was so cool about the whole movement at that time. Before punk came around, it seemed so farfetched to put your own record out. We would record our demos on a cheesy cassette player. That evolved to four-track sessions in Frankie’s apartment and, eventually, we hooked up with EJ Emmons and recorded “Gidget Goes to Hell” and “My Boyfriend.” They did sell pretty fast after Rodney played it on KROQ. It was great exposure.
EJ EMMONS: Yes, I think they sold some 20-30,000 that way, ultimately distributed by IRS while every label in town shouted “We don’t hear a hit.” What the hell was all that airplay then?
STEVE ELLIOTT: How was EJ to work with on your album and first two singles? Also, EJ if you want to jump in here: What was it like to work with the band?
FRANKIE ENNUI: EJ was, and is awesome and a real sweetheart. Lately, I have been trying to do some recording, engineering and producing myself — and as a result, I have a whole new level of respect for Mr. EJ.
CHUCK ROAST: EJ was very cool to work with. We were going from rehearsing in my garage and recording in Frankie’s apartment to a real Hollywood studio at Paramount. A completely different concept.
EJ EMMONS: The band came to me as a result of their knowledge of and, in some cases, their collaboration with Smokey on that project. They were very, very easy to work with, and we still occasionally do records together. (We) never really stopped doing projects together in various configurations from that day to this.
STEVE ELLIOTT: What brought about the change in producers for the Baby EP in 1983 from EJ Emmons to Richard Mazda? Was this I.R.S. Records’ idea?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, it was IRS’ idea. Richard was also great to work with and very creative. Considering that the band was already beginning to fall apart at that point, he did a really great job getting the EP finished. The production was more involved than what we did with EJ. Less of a live feel and more of a studio thing. It was different, but I think both EJ and Richard did great jobs. We had high hopes for “Flavor Crystals,” but it didn’t catch on like “Gidget” and “Janitor” did.
CHUCK ROAST: You know that was a real bummer? I’m sure IRS wanted the change. It was like, “EJ isn’t going to record us?” Richard was cool, knew his way around the studio. He was pulling double duty. He was also recording Wall of Voodoo (of “Mexican Radio” fame) at the same time. “Flavor Crystals” was going to be the single; it did get some air play. It was remixed in New York with Miles Copeland.
EJ EMMONS: The label, in their infinite wisdom, dumped me for their current fair-haired boy. Very painful, as we’d kinda all grown up together in the studio under my aegis. I was learning my craft as they learned theirs. I was sure we had the big one, but Su refused repeatedly to record it on the grounds “it wasn’t ready.” It was ready, and the vision I had for the song, which was very close to as it was performed was solid. What happened, to my mind, is unlistenable — and is not the band I knew, but rather a hurried synthesis due to the four-day recording window they were given.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Why was there a two-year gap between the album and the EP? Was Baby originally supposed to form the basis of a second album?
FRANKIE ENNUI: I don’t recall why there was a gap. I know we did some touring in there, so that was probably part of the reason. Yes, Baby started as a second full length album.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Also, what happened that led to guitarist John Gleur leaving prior to the EP’s release? Why did the band, now down to a four piece, break up later on in 1983?
FRANKIE ENNUI: John is one of the kindest and most patient people I have ever met. He ended up smack dab in the middle of a lot of business vs. art disputes, and other disputes among factions in the band, as a kind of de facto mediator. I think it wore him out.
CHUCK ROAST: Like any relationship, being in a band has its good days and its bad days. Internal strife, different ideas, (and) being together for so long. Before the band, John, Billy and I jammed in high school. I’ve known these guys for a long time. When you work so hard and put everything you have into something and see it disintegrate before your eyes, it is a bit of bummer. It was a shocker when John departed. He is such a great guitar player. He couldn’t be replaced. We did have auditions, and did get a new player, did a few shows. The band dynamic had changed; it ran its course.
STEVE ELLIOTT: People like me thought Su Tissue’s blow-up pants should’ve been the new fashion statement for the ’80s. [Laughs.] I loved them ! They really were fun.
FRANKIE ENNUI: Yes, among other things, Su had a unique fashion sense.
CHUCK ROAST: Su had a really cool sense of style, unconventionally speaking — like those blow-up pants or a nice three-piece suit with some pumps, with nails driven into the soles.
EJ EMMONS: I thought so, too. Had to photograph them!
STEVE ELLIOTT: Are there any unreleased Suburban Lawns studio tracks and live concert recordings?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Sort of. There are some demo tracks and the like — some of which, I think, are really good. One of those is a song sung by Billy called “Sugar Lovin.'” I’d like to see that fixed up and released somehow.
CHUCK ROAST: There are some pretty decent early four-track recordings. Whenever we would come off tour, EJ would get us immediately into the studio to record. I’ve heard them and they are quite good. There are some unreleased gems out there.
EJ EMMONS: Yes, a bit, all in my possession; — as are the original master 24 tracks.
STEVE ELLIOTT: An abstract music video for “Baby” has shown up on YouTube. What did you want to convey in that clip?
CHUCK ROAST: That video was Su’s top-secret project. We didn’t participate in it at all, except for one scene where the band — sans John — is in it.
STEVE ELLIOTT: The Suburban Lawns once made a brief, very cool appearance performing “Gidget Goes To Hell” in a segment on the L.A. punk scene from Showtime’s What’s Up America. What do you remember about it?
FRANKIE ENNUI: Nothing.
STEVE ELLIOTT: What did everyone do after the band split up in 1983? Su Tissue released Salon de Musique, a solo album, in 1984 and had a cameo in the film Something Wild in 1986. But now no one seems to know what happened to her.
CHUCK ROAST: After the band split up, Frankie and I regrouped with John and formed the Lawns. We recruited the bass player from the Fibonacci’s, Tom Corey. We did a few shows recorded some demos with EJ, and that lasted about a year. From there, I rejoined Billy and these two cats from Memphis in a band called the Modifiers — which had a very talented bluesy punky sound. Did a few shows, recorded a demo again with EJ Emmons. The band broke up during those sessions. I myself have not seen nor heard from Su since the Suburban Lawns split. I thought the stuff she was doing afterwards was very cool.
FRANKIE ENNUI: I started a band with a friend of mine Tom Corey, now deceased, called Electric Sheep. The great David Kendrick was our drummer, and we had a really fabulous singer named Gloria Dawson and other great folks. Currently, I play in a band called Johnny Mark and the Ricks, with a group of old friends. We have one album, called By the Lights of The Pike available on iTunes, CD Baby, etc. We are working on second album which we hope to release by Christmas. So far, it sounds great.
STEVE ELLIOTT: Lastly, is there any possibility that the Suburban Lawns could do a one-off concert and/or a new recording? I’m sure fans like myself would love to see this happen.
CHUCK ROAST: I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind. Who knows what the future brings? Any kind of reunion would not involve Su, I’m sure.
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