Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.
New York and London were the first cities to feel the heartbeat of punk, then bands started springing up in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Like a contagion, the new music spread and mutated from basement to garage, from Athens, Ga., to Santa Cruz.
It was thrilling for New Yorkers to hear about these regional bands and by 1980, we were finally seeing these alternative bands tour. The Suburbs arrived in New York from Minneapolis that summer. They brought the heartland to us with an urgent bounce, playing a brand of danceable new wave that was as funky and melodious as it was infectious. This video clip of their song, “Music For Boys,” captures them at Danceteria when they were at their muscular, modern rock best.
Chan Poling and Beej Chaney were the two front men, on keyboards and lead vocals, respectively. Friends since high school, they went out to Los Angeles in 1974 to attend Cal Arts. Chan played in a local punk band, The Technocats. The exposure to so many musicians and artists inspired him, and he began writing music — he just wasn’t sure for whom or what.
Returning home to Minneapolis in 1977, he found himself listening to a band, Suicide Commandos, formed by his childhood friend, Chris Osgood. “They were the only band in town that played the kind of music that was in my head,” Poling recalls, “I needed people to play with like that.”Chris Osgood introduced him to Michael Halliday and Bruce Allen, who along with Beej and drummer Hugo Klaers, became The Suburbs. They never looked back. The band lived and rehearsed in a warehouse basement that fortuitously had an abandoned bar attached to it.
They couldn’t get gigs because there were no clubs that booked bands with original music. So they began throwing their own parties with a keg or two and a few bucks admission at the door. The Suburbs performed, along with other locals like The Replacements, until the success of their parties caught the eye of a local promoter, who ran a place called Jay’s Longhorn bar. One visit to their basement, and he changed his booking policy from jazz to punk, hiring The Suburbs for the next night. The Longhorn became the CBGBs of Minneapolis.
TwinTone records put out their first EP. The label’s founder, Peter Jeperson, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Locally, they were like The Rolling Stones, always a big deal when they played.” And it was true; they were huge in the Midwest, voted one of the “Most Influential Minnesota Musical Entities of the Twentieth Century.” They toured the country extensively, opening for Iggy Pop and REM, but they always came home to their fan base.The stress of a changing series of record labels, from TwinTone to Mercury to A&M in as many years, and a lack of radio play proved dispiriting. “Exhaustion is the word,” Poling observed. “We broke up in 1987, but we got some rest.” They were back in a few years.
They have continued playing at least a few times a year since 1994. The band mourned the death of their guitarist, Bruce Allen, who passed away in 2009, but continued on with some new players, most recently this past summer in a sold out performance at the Minneapolis Amphitheater.
In recent years, Poling has turned his focus to composing, with two musicals to his credit, “Venus” and “Heaven,” each of which opened at The Guthrie Theater in 2011. He also has scored soundtracks for other theater pieces and films. Another project is “The New Standards,” a jazz trio with Steve Roehm and ex-Semisonic John Munson that reinterprets tunes from Tom Waits to The Clash. They will be appearing at Manhattan’s City Winery in the spring. “Sometimes,” Poling notes with a smile, “we even cover The Suburbs.”
Correction, January 18, 2013: The original version of this post has been corrected to reflect an error. The surname of one of front men of The Suburbs was misspelled. It is Chaney, not Charney.
This post originally appeared on The Local East Village.