The Members: how we made Sound of the Suburbs

‘At gigs we’d see all these punk kids from small towns who weren’t part of the metropolitan elite. I thought: “These people need a song”’

Jean-Marie “JC” Carroll, songwriter, guitarist

I was 19 and living a double life. Night-time punk rocker, then I’d flatten my hair down with water and go to work in the bank in the daytime. The original punk scene was about 200 to 300 people in London and Manchester, but once we started doing gigs we saw all these kids from small towns who weren’t part of the metropolitan elite and wanted to be part of it. I thought: “These people need a song.”

We were kids from Surrey, so we knew all about being seen as oiks from the suburbs. We had cheap guitars with a scratchy, twangy sound. I started playing the riff and once I had the best part of a song I took it to the band. I wanted something at the beginning to announce its arrival, so played this twangy intro. It is actually the reveille, the bugle call you hear when the cavalry charges on old films.

When I wrote “the youth club group used to wanna be free, now they want anarchy”, I was referring to the group Free, who sang Alright Now. The idea was that the youth club group had been a bit heavy metal but they’d cut their hair and gone punk. The line “annoying the neighbours with his punk rock electric guitar” came from something my mum used to say to me when I played mine: “Stop that bloody racket! You’re annoying the neighbours.”

The Sound of the Suburbs was one of Steve Lillywhite’s first productions. He was our drummer Adrian’s brother. Steve had us doing handclaps, which he’d done on Do Anything You Wanna Do by Eddie and the Hot Rods. Then he took his tape recorder down to Staines railway station and recorded the British Rail announcer calling out the towns we came from “Camberley, Bagshot, Lightwater … This is Staines.” You can hear that on the record during the instrumental breakdown.

We played the song for the first time when we supported the Vibrators at the Marquee in London on 13 August 1978, and the crowd went crazy. We knew it was going to be a big record because it was like they already knew it. It wasn’t our song – it was their song.

Nicky Tesco, singer, songwriter

When we started getting interviewed by the press, I used to joke about being from the suburbs and coming up to London to find a grimy alley to take our picture in but they were full up with other bands queueing to take theirs. That’s the way we played it, but our following was full of kids from out-of-town places such as Staines, Finchley or Woking. Phill Jupitus was from Essex – we’re still really good friends – and he slept on the floor of my bedsit with another kid while my then girlfriend and I were in the bed. England footballer Stuart Pearce was in the Fulham crew and went to all the punk gigs.

We were supporting someone at, I think, Aylesbury Friars, and JC said: “We need an anthem.” He came up with a couple of verses, the chorus and the middle eight. I came up with the third verse, starting “Saturday shoppers crowding out the centre of town / Young blokes sitting on the benches shouting at the young girls walking around / Johnny stands there at his window looking at the night …” Once we got in the rehearsal room it became a band effort. Nigel Bennett played the “punk-rock electric guitar”.

It was an obvious single. Malcolm Garrett, who’d done all the Buzzcocks sleeves, made a great sleeve with a big square hole in it. He wanted the record in clear vinyl, so it looked like a TV set.

We were playing in Great Yarmouth when we got a very excited phone call from our manager going: “Guys, Suburbs is in the Top 40! We’ve got to get you back to London to do Top of the Pops!” We mimed to a BBC playback that sounded like it was coming out of someone’s home stereo, but the record shot up the charts. The demand caught the label by surprise. The production manager told me he had people working until 10 at night finding pressing plants to print enough copies to sell. I still love the song. It encapsulates that moment when you’re still too young to get in pubs and stuck in suburbia. It was the soundtrack of our youth.

The Members’ seventh album is Bedsitland (not featuring Nicky Tesco). JC Carroll’s autobiography, (Still) Annoying the Neighbours, is out now.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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