BY Klaus Walter in Frieze | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Close to the hedge

The sound of the suburbs

BY Klaus Walter in Frieze | 05 MAY 02

'I grew up in a housing development, here in New York, out in Long Island. This was in the early 1960s, when a roof was just the top of a house and a boardwalk was just a long stretch of wood. Broadway was this street in New York City where people with blue hair went to see plays. Saturday night, you went to the movies to see the movie. The last dance was somethin' you never hung around for. The Drifters changed all that for my gang. They gave us the word. The word was this: don't just stay in the house and stare at the ceiling. Go up on the roof and look at the stars. And even Levittown looked good from up there.'

So Billy Joel ('Uptown Girl', 1983) paid tribute to the Drifters ('Up on the Roof', 1962, 'Under the Boardwalk', 1964, 'Saturday Night at the Movies', 1964) in 1988, when they were enrolled in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. You don't need to go up on the roof to look at the stars any more. On its website ( even Levittown looks good. But in Pop, from The Beatles's 'Penny Lane' (1967) to Manfred Mann's 'Semi-detached Suburban Mr Jones' (1966), from the release of Jimmy Somerville's 'Smalltown Boy' (1984) to the Pet Shop Boys' 'Suburbia' (1986), suburbia has always been a place you escape from but can never really leave behind. It has the same symbolic significance as the ghetto in African-American folklore: you can take the kid out of the suburb, but you can't take the suburb out of the kid.

In his book England's Dreaming (1992) Jon Savage defines British Punk as the 'sound of the suburbs', after a song by The Members. In the compendium Visions of Suburbia (1996) Simon Frith explores 'The Suburban Sensibility in British Rock and Pop' and refers to Sarah Thornton's analysis of the suburban routes of rave. It seems rather like the history of Pop is the history of suburbia. But what happens to this history when Pop is no longer created in garages and basements but on computers, and has ditched the vocals on the way? How do the suburbs respond to Techno, and how does Techno respond to the suburbs?
The division between suburb and city centre embodies the split between work and leisure. In Pop the concept of suburbia is often linked to heavy industry. In the suburbs the factory provides not just employment but identity, shaping people's lifestyles. Rock 'n' Roll, according to Charlie Gillett's classic definition in Sound of the City (1996), celebrates big-city life by reproducing 'the hard and monotonous sounds of urban life as melody and rhythm'. With the decline of manufacturing industry and the demise or departure of the factories, the story of Pop's suburban longing for the inner-city life reached crisis point. If computers are equally capable of production and reproduction, of satisfying wants and providing entertainment, then it makes no difference where these machines are located.

It seems suburbia's first musical obituaries are already being written in Germany. In 1999, Cologne's Techno pioneer Wolfgang Voigt (aka Mike Ink) recorded an album entitled Königsforst under the pseudonym 'Gas'. The title is taken from a scenic neighbourhood of Cologne, named after the forest that it borders. The album cover shows trees silhouetted against the sun, on which is written the word 'Gas'. A veil of sampled strings from Mahler symphonies disguises the heavy beat. Has Voigt composed a requiem to the German forest? Is he hurling a voiceless protest against the death of suburban leafiness? The music is as far removed from the real suburb of Königsforst as Sting's country mansion is from the rainforest.

Take another example. Regensburg is a small town in the prosperous south of Germany, famous for its cathedral and as the birthplace the founder of the German gymnastics movement. A local musician, 21-year-old Marcus Günter, has named a spectacularly beautiful ambient Pop track, 'Regensburg', after the town: 'Regensburg is a typical small town. Not really a suburb, not really provincial, but not a proper city. It's a very nice place, completely cool. I don't think I could create my music anywhere else', he has said. Günter's music, produced in his home studio, is littered with local references: the track 'Donaunebel' ('Mist on the Danube'), for example, was inspired by the early morning mist on the Danube after a long night out clubbing.

Like 'Regensburg', Benjamin Wild's track 'Kronberg' (2000) was released on the Wolfgang Voigt-influenced Kompakt label, based in Cologne. This label has long been working on overcoming outdated antitheses, above all a perceived opposition between Techno (tending towards repetition and de-subjectification) and Pop (tending towards leisure and home). The town of Kronberg lies in the forests of the Taunus Mountains, within sight of Frankfurt. Nowhere in Germany do people spend more in retail outlets - around e6,700 per capita during 2001, some 25% above the national average. The town's most famous citizen is Josef Neckermann, the mail order king of the German postwar 'economic miracle', whose name is immortalized in the slogan 'Neckermann makes it possible'. The groundwork for this particular economic miracle was laid in 1938 when the textile factory and the mail-order business of the Jewish entrepreneur Karl Amson Joel were 'Aryanized'. Neckermann, a member of Hitler's Stormtroopers, took over the business for a fraction of its true value and later became a supplier to the German army (using cheap labour from the ghettos and concentration camps) and an adviser to the Nazi leadership. Karl Amson Joel fled via Switzerland to the USA, where his nephew Billy was inspired by the Drifters to climb on the roof and look at the stars. And at Levittown.

Benjamin Wild could have told this story about the suburbs of New York and Frankfurt on his track 'Kronberg'. But he didn't. Kronberg is the last stop on the Number 4 train line, which Wild used to take to work every day, pining for a woman who used to travel on the same train, driven crazy by unrequited love. He now lives in Hamburg.

Klaus Walter is a writer living in Frankfurt am Main. He works for various radio stations, including