The Suburbs: A Retrospective
By Mark Wheat
Originally published in the Local Current BlogPioneers in their heyday in the ‘80s and revitalized today with a new album on the way financed by Kickstarter, The Suburbs are one of the cornerstones of the local indie-rock music scene. They released their first record on the now legendary Twin/Tone label that went on to foster the careers of many more celebrated Minnesota bands—the Replacements perhaps being the most notable. That group—also returning to the stage this year—were initially discovered and developed by some of the same people who came together around the effort to leverage the local success of The Suburbs.
Strangely enough, the band were also a part of the birth of The Current. Chris Osgood of Suicide Commandoes was my first live guest the very first night we were on air in 2005, and he’s credited with introducing The Suburbs to each other. And their drummer Hugo Klaers was part of a contracted technical crew that helped put the studio together so The Current could go on the air!
The Suburbs put out three albums between ’80 and ‘87. Their debut, In Combo, was looking for a foothold in the punk and new wave-inspired landscape, yet features the now iconic logo: five stick men in a circle, perfectly fitting the period and timeless enough for today.
Their second album, Credit In Heaven, is a double, which MIGHT have been over-extending themselves. Back then, everything was extended! Although their sound was anchored in the timeless tradition of barroom bands who love to generate a good time sing-a-long for all, it easily lent itself to the dance floor via the 12″ single popular at the time.
Their biggest hit is the title track of their third album Love Is The Law. Read Andrea’s recent interview with Chan, as he tells of being inspired by graffiti on a bridge over Lyndale Ave and how it has been re-vitalized this year as a theme song for the same sex marriage debate.
Although this body of work did extend their reach beyond Minnesota a little, with much heralded support slots on tours with Iggy Pop and the B52′s, they never quite set the rest of the country on fire. Our own Jim McGuinn remembers:
“I grew up outside Chicago, and really got into what was then called “College Rock” around 1983 when I started DJing at WDGC, our high school radio station. I quickly discovered The Replacements and Husker Du, and about the same time, The Suburbs, via Love Is The Law. I figured they were kind of like a Midwestern Psychedelic Furs. I had no idea of the history, their influence and their varied sounds.”
The major labels who had signed the band—first Mercury and then A&M during their quick progression—started to lose interest, causing the band to go on an extended hiatus at the end of 1987. In 1992, Twin/Tone released Ladies and Gentlemen, The Suburbs Have Left the Building, a best-of compilation, and a live record Viva! Suburbs! in 1994. This encouraged them to regroup, including opening once more for the B-52′s. Summer of 2002 saw the re-issues of the albums on the band’s own Beejtar Records. In late 2003, the band issued Chemistry Set: The Songs Of The Suburbs 1977 – 1987, a best-of album with bonus tracks and a DVD of performances at Minneapolis’s First Avenue.
Only having arrived in ’93, I missed seeing them in their prime, but have often been told that their greatest strength was the live show. Martin Keller, former editor, columnist, and writer for City Pages, Twin Cities Reader and a contributor to Billboard, Rolling Stone and other publications, is today a writer, publicist and author of Music Legends: A Rewind on the Minnesota Music Scene, Vol. He does remember them well…
“The Suburbs blew into the Longhorn scene from the western ‘burbs like a bunch of randy F. Scotty Fitzgeralds, well coifed, with hot females on their arms, and smartly dressed in vintage suits at a time when safety pins and ripped jeans were fashion statements. But they got onstage and let rip with a deft bag of undeniably cool original material—a must-have for the pioneering punk and new wave bar and its jaundiced patrons. In their early output, Chan Poling’s (keyboards) edgy romanticism was symmetrically (un)balanced by the ticking time bomb that was Beej Chaney on guitar. Often you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Witty lyrics and a commanding live show, replete with a good sense of humor, translated well to the first Twin/Tone Records. But if the crowd didn’t hear ‘Cows’ or ‘Chemistry Set’ sometime during their live sets—after the ‘Burbs quickly made the inner-city hang their place, too—it could really rattle their bones. ‘Love Is the Law’ may end up as their Chris Kluwe-like epitaph three decades later. But it’s their pre-major-record label material that made real believers of scenesters and sealed the band’s checkered fate as one of the most memorable rock combos to shape the early ’80s and beyond.”
In 2004, Chan formed The New Standards with John Munson and Steve Roehm, serving to keep the Suburbs flame alive by including versions of their hits in their repertoire. This also continued the band’s connection to The Current as we helped develop The New Standards Holiday Show at The Fitzgerald Theater, which has grown immensely popular and is a perfect example of a very important characteristic of the Minnesota music scene: the convergence of different generations of musicians. Many younger artists—Jeremy Messersmith, Aby Wolf and Chris Koza to name a few—get a chance to collaborate with the seasoned professionals that surround Chan. He and John Munson have also recently helped Lucy Michelle on her new album. And that’s not the only way he manages to give back to his community. The aforementioned Chris Osgood is now VP of Community Relations, as well as Executive Director of The McNally Smith College of Music Foundation.
“Chan and I still teach our Pop Songwriting #101 class at MacPhail,” says Osgood. “We started back in 1995 and do the eight-week class once or twice a year to this day! We walk the students through the creative process of writing the lyrics and music of a song, then the pre-production, instrumentation, recording performance, production and mixing, and Voila! Students leave with a song of their own, or one they performed on with another student. It’s very fun.”
Chan is a fun gentleman to be around, and I use the word ‘gentleman’ in the olde English sense of the word. Well-mannered and dapper, yet always slightly disheveled, he has excellent taste for the fine things in life. In June 2005, he married Eleanor Mondale, daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale and they enjoyed a wonderful life together on their small horse farm in Prior Lake. Unfortunately in the last few years, tragedy has also affected the band. On December 7, 2009, guitarist Bruce Allen died at age 54. Playing several shows and setting up a scholarship in his honor seemed to provide momentum for this year’s new album. Then in September of 2011, Eleanor tragically lost her long battle with cancer. Several of the songs on Si Sauvage (named after Savage which is on the way to Prior Lake) are directly inspired by Eleanor, including the first hit “Turn The Radio On.”
Fittingly, one feels, the community of fans and friends that The Suburbs have touched over the years have been able to enhance their return to recording with over $73K in pledges on Kickstarter (as of July 30). It’s good to have them back, but they never really went away and they’re still building the legacy!