From Boy George to Bowie – rock ‘n’ roll was born in the suburbs

The Culture Club frontman says in his new BBC2 documentary, Save Me from Suburbia, that life on the outskirts stifles creativity. Stuart Maconie disagrees...

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The suburbs are the subject of what might just be the most irritating pop hit of all time. 1963’s Little Boxes sung by Pete Seeger. It was a smug, prissy sneer at ordinary working Americans’ lives and the drab, conformist estates, and satirist Tom Lehrer was quite right to call it “the most sanctimonious song ever written.”

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Such snobbery is rife in pop; from the Kinks’ Shangri-La and Cat Stevens’ Matthew and Son to the Jam’s Smithers-Jones, the servile drone and his frowsy wife from the “boring” suburbs is pitied and mocked in many a haughty pop song. 

Ironic, since the suburbs are the real home of rock ‘n’ roll. A desire to escape the twitching curtains and stifled respectability has been the grit in the oyster, the restless turbine that’s driven brilliance and innovation in pop music for generations. 

Sometimes this has been fuelled by genuine rage, sometimes with rueful melancholy of Reggie Perrin, as it was in the Members’ Sound of the Suburbs: “Same old boring Sunday morning/Old man’s out washing his car… This is the sound/This is the sound of the suburbs… Youth club group used to want to be free/Now they want ANARCHY…”

Charlie Gillett’s celebrated 1970 history of pop may have been called The Sound of the City, but that bought into what is essentially a romantic myth about popular music, especially of the era of the groups.

It doesn’t originate from the greasy alleys and underpasses in the heart of the city; by and large it comes from dormitory and market towns, the commuter belt, the big estates on the edge of industrial centres.

Manic Street Preachers T-shirts claimed “All rock ’n’ roll is homosexual”. I’d argue that all rock ’n’ roll is suburban. As part of BBC Music’s year-long My Generation strand, Boy George presents the BBC2 documentary Save Me from Suburbia.

The title has the right tone of small-town desperation as befits a programme that looks at how a 70s suburban upbringing shaped thousands of kids like George O’Dowd (as he was known then) and filled them with a zeal for the forbidden and the hedonistic. 

The Culture Club frontman became an 80s pop icon, but it was the previous decade that made him the man he is. “I think of the 70s as being this glorious decade,” says Boy George, “where I discovered who I was and discovered all these amazing things… punk rock, electro music, fashion, all of that.

“And yeah, of course there was that dark side… the rubbish, the strikes, the poverty, and I’d get confronted for the way I looked.”

But that constant, throbbing bottom note of suburban chaos and violence is mentioned by many contributors to the show. Jon Savage describes “the atmosphere of almost constant violence”, and Caryn Franklin remembers the Millwall Brick, a block of folded paper charmingly used to hit people in the throat.

Later in Save Me from Suburbia, Boy George laughingly recalls, “Everyone wanted to punch me… little old ladies would hit you with their handbags.”

As the programme shows, though, all these strictures, this seething in suburbia, have made for some great music.

Suede were steeped in the suburban angst and restlessness of growing up in Haywards Heath looking longingly down the A22 or M23 to London. Blur grew up amid squaddies and ska in Colchester and Bournemouth.

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Before them, the Sex Pistols may have been hatched by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on London’s Kings Road, but they were nurtured, in a spittle-flecked sort of way, by the Bromley Contingent, the commuter-belt kids (including Siouxsie Sioux), who were the foot soldiers of the punk army.

It was ever thus. The first teenage pop fans emerged from the first suburbs. In the years after the Second World War, when thousands of US soldiers returned from overseas, they were helped by the GI Bill to find homes on huge estates of one-family dwellings, putting the “American Dream” of a home with a yard and a driveway within their reach.

For their kids, that meant a space of their own, a bedroom, a den, garage or basement where they could indulge their love of rock ’n’ roll. Thus from the ’burbs came the Beach Boys, Iggy Pop, Springsteen and a generation of American rock.

Over here, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had the most suburban meeting imaginable, the Sidcup-bound Richards eyeing Jagger’s blues albums on platform two of Dartford Station in October 1961.

And David Bowie was born in inner-city Brixton, but he was nurtured by the arts scene of suburban Beckenham. After Bowie recently lost out to Skepta in the Mercury Music prize, Boy George tweeted to the effect that Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, hadn’t received the airplay it deserved.

This rather amused me and my 6Music colleagues, who at one point this year seemed to play little else. Perhaps George should retune that dial from Heart when he’s washing the car or sitting like the Beatles banker waiting for a trim, or cooking the roast on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

From Penny Lane to Pleasant Valley Sunday, pop music starts and ends in suburbia.

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Boy George’s 1970s: Save Me from Suburbia is on 9.30pm tonight, BBC2