Take Three Songs … on Suburbia

The first in what I hope will become an occasional series bringing together songs sharing a common theme, starting with… suburbia.

(Something About) Suburbia

Vocal by Tim Andrews
Written by Rod Thomas
Parlophone B-Side, April 1968
Available: Something About Suburbia: The Sixties Sounds of Tim Andrews RPM 2013

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A bright and breezy standout on 1980s’ vinyl compilation Sixties Lost and Found, (Something About) Suburbia is a jaunty music hall-style escapade complete with banjo, brass, tambourine, teasing hi-hat and Tim Andrews’ unabashed vocal – all of which is just as much fun as it sounds.

Tim Andrews was born and bred in Battersea.  He played The Artful Dodger in Oliver for several years and there’s an endearing cheekiness to many of his vocals, Suburbia, in particular.  Cy Payne supplies a joyfully strutting accompaniment.

Suburbia was originally the flip to Your Tea is Strong but was better liked than the A-side so DJs wisely played it in preference.  It wasn’t a hit but surely deserved to be.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to exchange emails with Suburbia’s writer Rod Thomas.  Rod confirms that although the song had a huge amount of air play “they couldn’t get any TV because they’d used up their contacts on Tim’s previous record which also had not lived up to expectations”.

Unusually for the ‘60s, here the suburbs are regarded as a treasured place of familiar comforts and even care-free abandon, always there for you when the big city lets you down.  Rod Thomas:  “When the song was about to be released (however), the record company got cold feet. They thought the idea of going home to suburbia was ‘uncool’ and that kids would rather have been leaving it for the bright lights of the city”.

Rod wrote the song as a young man working in a steel works in Cardiff while living some eight miles away in a quiet village –  my suburbia.  Ironically almost at the time of writing it, 1968, it began to change and is now almost a suburb of Cardiff”.

Suburbia has a habit of cropping up in some unexpected places.  1968 children’s serial The Tyrant King (Thames Television’s soundtrack-rich kaleidoscopic tour of swinging London) features an ice-skating scene in which Suburbia plays across the loudspeakers.   It brought a smile to my face hearing that.

DJ Mike Read picked up on Suburbia on his late ‘80s Radio 1 show along with other Sixties Lost and Found gems like David McWilliams’s ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’.   The song’s themes probably chimed with Read’s fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman.  His intention was to write a musical based around these but I don’t know if one ever emerged.

(Something About) Suburbia lends its name to last year’s Tim Andrews compilation (I’ll be reviewing this next week).  The Tyrant King is available on DVD and in glorious colour too.  Well worth seeking out.

With many thanks to Rod Thomas.

The Occasional Songwriters Official Website of Rod Thomas and Jeremy Thomas
Tim Andrews CD review

The Town I Live In
Vocal by Jackie Lee
Written by Geoff Stephens
Columbia A-side November 1966
Available on Am I Dreaming? Dream Babes Vol  1, RPM 1999

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Harlow New Town, 1960

For a long time, hearing Malvina Reynolds’ 1967-recorded folk-protest staple Little Boxes made me think of Milton Keynes.  I blame a mid ‘70s ‘Nationwide’ report which has lodged in my mind ever since.  A safari-suited Bob Wellings is crouching amidst the regulation gardens of alleged ‘ticky-tacky houses’ like a sort of suburban David Attenborough or a more benevolent Jeremy Beadle.   ‘Little Boxes’ was the unflattering soundtrack.

It was a predictable choice but then ‘Nationwide’ was a quintessentially suburban programme, a one nation conservatism palliative for a distressed decade before much of what remained of ‘60s utopianism was swept away.  Unlike the tower blocks, the ticky-tacky boxes mostly weren’t swept away.  But they did begin to grow English vernacular porches and Victorian conservatories.

I prefer to think of them in their pristine ‘60s heyday, as they are in The Town I Live In.  I don’t know if Milton Keynes has twenty seven churches or ‘avenues lined with silver birches.’  This slice of social satire could just as well be about any number of new towns with ‘lots of houses spick and span, lots of little people too’.  Jackie Lee’s large lunged cri de coeur positively echoes across the municipal flagstones.

There’s a brisk, flicked-back stylishness to the song even from the word go – that elegant woodwind and tom-tom pattern in the introduction, for example.   Later, bass piano, resounding percussion and tubular bells (twenty-seven of them?) add to the air of classiness.

And just listen to that sign off:   “There’s several hundred brand new houses and lots of brand new primary schools etc etc etc etc la la la la la…”   Just where was Geoff Stephens living in 1966?

Funny thing about the silver birches is that they’ve become a symbol of urban cool – Tate Modern is a case in point.  I doubt the debt has ever been acknowledged though.

Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James

Performed by Manfred Mann
Written by Geoff Stephens and John Carter
Fontana A-side, October 1966
Available on any self-respecting d’Abo-era ‘Manfred Mann Greatest Hits’

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It’s that Geoff Stephens again!   Despite its sing-along breeziness this Manfred Mann hit is actually quite a cutting song when you pick apart the lyrics.

Written by Geoff and John Carter (during his brief socially relevant period – White Collar Worker, Time and Motion Man), Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James sees a spurned lover taking a swipe at his ex-girlfriend’s choice of bride-to-be by condemning the suburban life the couple will lead, with its rituals of ‘buttering the toast,’ ‘taking doggie for a walk’ and ‘hanging clothes upon the line.’  I wonder what kind of life she might have led with him, though?

It feels as if there is a bit of history between these three characters.   The song might be sung by a Terry (Likely Lads)-like chap  – a little sour, dismissive of upward social mobility – ‘so you’ve finally made the grade’.  The bride-groom would be aspirational Bob.  It doesn’t work in the context of the series but I hope you get my drift.

This wonderfully engaging song boasts a great melody (what else would you expect from John Carter?), tasty mellotron, those Manfred harmonies and some lovely touches like the sudden name change to ‘Mr Most’ to rhyme with ‘toast’, a potentially disastrous move which is so well placed within the song as to inject just the right grain of humour.  I also like the slightly grinding slow-down and then faster lead-off to repeated mocking chants of ‘Semi-detached Suburban Mr…’

Probably their best single.

Mighty Garvey by Manfred Mann
Stranger on the Shore and sleepy suburbia

More Take Three Songs

Take Three Songs… Lynsey de Paul – No Honestly!
Take Three Songs… or early 60s instrumentals
Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… by David Bowie
Take Three Songs… on Blackpool