Meditations… on the suburban surreal
From Pet Shop Boys to Brookside, the suburbia of England is presented as gritty and stifling. Here, William Doyle, fka East India Youth, relates how he learned to find beauty in the brown brick and cul-de-sacs.
As a teenager I devoured the work of David Lynch, whose 1986 film Blue Velvet is one of the best depictions of suburbia ever produced. The opening scene is a montage of the “perfect” 1950s American neighbourhood that turns slowly into eeriness and tragedy, as the frame zooms into the grass revealing the bugs crawling beneath. Blue Velvet, and other David Lynch films, subverted the conservative foundations of the American suburb to produce works of mysterious beauty.
There are numerous cultural depictions of American suburbia that do a similar thing. Arcade Fire’s brilliant 2010 album The Suburbs, described by singer Win Butler as being “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment,” features many vignettes of life in suburban America, often nostalgic in tone and open and triumphant in sound. Similarly, too, the photography of Gregory Crewdson whose large movie-style sets feature small town environments full of loneliness and intrigue; an alien abduction in the middle of the street, or an abandoned car with its door open and its lights on.
These very North American representations of suburbia seem to bristle with possibility, and are unafraid to introduce absurdity and surreality into their scope. But the kind of British suburb I grew up in has been repeatedly shown as anodyne and uninspired; the art born from it resorting to gritty realism instead of deep imagination.
One of the more popular instances of the British suburbs being represented is the soap opera Brookside, set in an actual cul-de-sac purchased by the production company to achieve a high level of realism. Brookside’s socially conscious storylines of domestic abuse, incest and the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss ever seen on British television made it a huge hit in the UK. The surroundings for these scenes were the kind of winding labyrinthine streets and brown brick houses that looked like where I lived, though thankfully nothing nearly as dramatic was happening in my life.
“The kind of British suburb I grew up in has been repeatedly shown as anodyne and uninspired; the art born from it resorting to gritty realism instead of deep”
While the British suburbs have provided fertile ground for musical inspiration – The Kinks, Pet Shop Boys, Blur and Suede have often cited the suburbs they originated from in their work – it has almost always come from a derisive point of view: of wanting to escape it for the nearest urban centre.
An obsession with realism seems to pervade most of the work made regarding these landscapes in Britain. Even the gorgeous paintings of George Shaw are near-photorealistic renditions of these environments. Across the board, very little abstraction seems to be taking place.
It’s important to notice the differences between US and UK suburbs that may contribute to their contrasting depictions. American suburbs are sprawling; large houses with huge front lawns stretching out to infinity. British suburbs, on the other hand, cram many houses into smaller plots of land that nestle on the outside of cities, abruptly turning into countryside. But despite these differences, they occupy a similar role in their respective societies: liminal zones between urban metropolis and open countryside. It’s strange, then, that British art has scarcely been able to access the psychedelia that American artists have repeatedly mined from these places.
My experience was not like the drab scenes I watched and listened to. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of my time walking around where I lived, blaring music through my headphones and merging those sounds with the world around me. It was an often bizarre mixture, superimposing the volcanic landscapes of Björk’s Homogenic onto a dreary cul-de-sac, or mixing the mechanical funk of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light with brown bricks and driveways. But these excursions lent my surroundings an ethereal quality that helped me appreciate them, and even grow to love them.
Once I opened myself to the possibility that my neighbourhood held something beyond its surface, the epiphanies ran fast and deep. Making my most recent album, Your Wilderness Revisited – which is situated in the real and imagined suburbs of my childhood – I attempted to tap into the otherworldliness of that time through progressive song structures, electronic flourishes and moments of free jazz – not something one usually associates with the suburban environment.
Towards the end of the album is a quote read by writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades, who was a huge inspiration on this project. In it, he says, “I, too, regard suburban avenues and riverbanks, backstreets and woods as the best free show on Earth.” Upon hearing these words, everything sort of clicked into place for me. It was OK to find the beauty in a place that I’d repeatedly been told had none.
Your Wilderness Revisited is out now via William Doyle