English suburbs and small towns have a hard time of it in pop: their main contribution is as places to leave, bleak regions which the likes of Siouxsie or Brett Anderson must break free of in order to fulfil their pop destiny. English pop shows its American roots and leanings in its desire to paint the suburbs as desperately boring, boring to the point of psychosis: the Pet Shop Boys’ gangs of wild suburban children plead boredom as their defense – “I only wanted something else to do but hang around” – and at the individual level you can summon up a grey host of sneered-at suburban types, crippled by their tedious obsessions, from Peter Wyngarde’s pitiable cuckold Neville Thumbcatch to Blur’s hopeless commuter-grotesque Ernold Same. The sub-Martin-Amis names give the game away immediately: suburbanites are stunted freaks who can stand out only by being even sadder than their fellows. English pop quickly took on board modernist imagery and trappings, and it also inherited high modernism’s hatred for the “clerks”, the middle- and lower-middle-class ‘masses’ who worked a steady job and liked things neat and decent.
The pursuit of decency is suburbia’s great crime, gently mocked by Ray Davies’ in his witty “Village Green Preservation Society” and carped at in XTC’s spiky “Respectable Street”. The pop mind is unable or unwilling to take this decency at face value – in XTC’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a suburban family closes ranks to deny its son’s involvement in a racist attack: “No thugs in our house, are there dear? / We made that clear”. In Blur’s “Stereotypes” (which might as well be by XTC), the suburbs are a hotbed of wife-swapping and net-curtain sleaze. And Luke Haines, in the Auteurs and now in Black Box Recorder, has set about unpicking with unsentimental ruthlessness every aspect of the English dream: his baleful eye falls on urban hipsters too, but it’s hard not to hear England Made Me or How I Learned To Love The Bootboys without thinking of the suburban landscape at its most claustrophobic: rows of semi-detatched houses, with the odd rec ground, parade of shops, Church Hall or common to break the apparent monotony.
‘The English dream’ – this is really why the suburban and small-town is so despised in the English pop tradition: the suburbs bring together every part of the middle-class English stereotype which pop – liberal, cosmopolitan, dynamic pop – would wriggle free of. This stereotype is two-faced: for every value the Daily Mail might fulminate in favour of, it’s easy to locate darker consequences. So decency and tidiness lead to an anal obsession with propriety and tradition; a mustn’t-grumble stoicism tends to result in a knee-jerk suspicion of anyone who ‘rocks the boat’; the pursuit of comfort creates a deep distrust of risk or fun; and a healthy sense of community ends up as spittle-flecked hatred of gypsies and latterly asylum seekers.
So it’s no wonder pop turns against the suburbs. But decency, stoicism, comfort and community aren’t in themselves bad things, and sometimes you wonder if pop music throws the baby out with the bathwater. Growing up listening to pop in the Home Counties, I was deeply aware of how much the music was speaking to the part of me that hated where I lived and came from, and how little of it was speaking to the (deep-buried-and-getting-deeper) part that loved it. The hating part has generally had the upper hand, but reading Michael Bracewell’s flawed-but-fascinating England Is Mine, with its intensely evocative descriptions of an progressive Arcadian ‘Albion’, brought my awareness of my roots roaring – or politely jostling – back to the surface.
Bracewell’s book is an attempt to trace a skein of ‘Englishness’ through high and popular culture, and he tends to identify with wildly romantic outsider figures: ultimately you’re left with very strong ideas about what singers and writers Michael Bracewell digs, and a rather less firm grip on whatever idea of Englishness he was trying to propagate. But still the book resonated: in figures like the filmmakers Pressburger and Powell, Bracewell found individuals who could passionately believe in England without wanting to mummify it. These could serve as models for any artistically inclined English suburbanite who didn’t want to slide into conservatism or self-loathing or America-worship.
Unfortunately, musically you were still left with the distinct impression that the urban was where everything was at. Short of pointing me towards Virginia Astley, a woman frighteningly prone to singing duets with her infant children, Bracewell had no suggestions as to what pop music could do to paint small-town England in a positive light. The realisation set me off on a hunt for this missing music, this Betjeman Beat, if you like, which would hymn the joys and despairs or suburban life in uncompromising, celebratory tones! Of course such music would hardly thrust itself into the spotlight – it would be more likely to haunt the politer margins of British independent pop, quietly going about its business while its gaudy city cousins stole the glory.
Before I had a sound for this music, I had a look. Pressburger and Powell got it right, as usual – Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life And Death and Deborah Kerr in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp have suburban beauty down pat: looks grounded in seriousness grounded in intelligence, the very dream of niceness, but never simpering or demure. They showed the ‘English Rose’ as something other than a passive caricature (even if Kim Hunter’s character is American!). In pop, their analogue was The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler, and there’s no point my denying that Harriet Wheeler was in many ways my ideal of womanhood: dark hair, curls and bangs, a sober expression, floral print dresses, impeccable indie credentials – and absolutely unavailable.
The Sundays are Betjeman Beat, if anybody is: their kind of bourgeois pop prefers subtlety to complexity, nuance to ideology, is desperate not to find itself the centre of attention. Little is ever stated directly: every phrase is somehow unrequited, appropriately since love, in its politest form, is the entire subject under investigation. The Sundays’ songs centre on a kind of yearning that has been long since absorbed into the neat patchwork of everyday life, but still shudders into wakefulness every now and then. “Desire’s a terrible thing”, Harriet trills in the ravishing “Can’t Be Sure”, and sure enough there’s never anything lustful or wracked about her voice, but her singing is still inflected with a something – a knowledge maybe that desire is going to be the one thing that gives her contented life meaning, and so the one thing which can rip it in pieces.
Betjeman Beat grows up, not rich and beautiful, but pretty and well-off. The notion of physical rupture – violence, social upheaval, serious crime – is foreign to it, and so not addressed. This lack of discontinuity leaves its protagonists with time on their hands, and what else to do with it but fall in and out of love? So love is all The Sundays sing about, in their world of sheds and finding pounds and hideous towns (their one tiny hint of anti-suburban rebellion). On Blind, their darker, driftier second album, Wheeler sounds hurt and exhausted: she sings songs like “Medicine” and “Blood On My Hands” with the bottomless distress of somebody to whom nothing worse than a failed relationship is ever likely to happen.
The band that entwined love and suburban aspirationalism more closely and amusingly than anyone were Frazier Chorus. The music press never knew what to make of Frazier Chorus, whose music was un-rock to an almost surreal degree (sheenful keyboards, pattering drums, flutes and – Saints preserve us! – oboes) and whose singer, Tim Freeman, would turn his voice down to a breathy whisper, as if it was wearing carpet slippers. Their kind of fragility turned out to be desperately vulnerable to bad marketing and to clodhopping remixology, and only their first album, Sue, is worth hearing. In fact, only their singles are really worth hearing, but two of those singles – “Dream Kitchen” and “Living Room” are the most perfect suburban pop records yet made.
The titles almost speak for themselves: the Ideal Home dream of sparkling surfaces and tasteful carpetry – and what Frazier Chorus are about is the desperate (and ultimately doomed attempt) to design interiors in which nothing bad could possibly happen. “And you said / Your life’s too good to be true / I think I’ll ruin it for you” runs one of “Dream Kitchen”‘s many hooks: the most beautiful house is still vulnerable to bad love. Throughout these two marvellous singles (which are primarily marvellous not for any conceptual reason but because they have wonderful tunes and choruses), consumer behaviour and romantic disappointment are slyly entwined: “This stuff’s so kind to my hands / I’m never going to change to a different brand”; “A busy day with the Shake’n’Vac / That’s where you sat and you won’t come back”. (It’s not much of a surprise, perhaps, that the only other Frazier Chorus fan I know is also a market researcher.)
Between the quiet bliss of the Sundays, and Frazier Chorus’ worldweary delineations of suburban heartbreak, we can begin to map the territory of small-town pop. Other, bigger, names creep in. Morrissey lamented the life-crushing dullness of small-town living in several Smiths songs, but his finest contribution to Betjeman Beat is the 1991 single “Our Frank”, a vituperative attack on a suburban bore in which Moz threatens to vomit on his antagonist’s “frankly vulgar red pullover“. The music, as ever, is efficient and inobtrusive. Prefab Sprout generally plump their songs up into a dreamy lushness somewhat alien to BB, but the subject of “Nancy, Let Your Hair Down For Me”, a commuter whose lover is also his boss, is pure suburban pop fantasia. The Field Mice, too extreme in their introspection to fit the style absolutely, would still find a place on any putative Betjeman Beat compilation: concentrating on comfort, loyalty, and patience (the unrock virtues which suburban pop embraces), many of their love songs could be sung by Pooh Bear to Christopher Robin or vice versa. XTC, who at the start of the 80s were implacable suburban critics, ended the 90s with Colin Moulding’s delightful “Frivolous Tonight”, a celebration of middle-aged men talking nonsense in village snugs and small-town sitting rooms. Even Public Image Limited weigh in: their “Radio 4”, named after Little England’s favourite wireless station, can be taken as a sarcastic gob in the face of muzakified suburban dullness. But at the end of Metal Box‘s death-trip travelogue, it works just as well as an unironic balm.
That’s the secret of suburban pop: polite and concerned (rather than eager) to please, it is happy to come to terms with the main current of rock music and its loathing of suburban, English values. So the cynical city listener can find themselves confused by a band such as Frazier Chorus, convinced that behind the unapologetic choice of a suburban setting lies subverive intent or an unspeakable angst. Let them enjoy their delusions, before the suburbs eventually claim them. I spent most of my youth there and am very happy to not be there now, but there’s a big part of me which still loves the pragmatism, sensibility and quiet of the English suburb, and I’m glad that, looking hard enough, I can find pop to reflect that. “England’s as happy as England can be / Why cry?”.