Su Tissue – Suburban Lawns

Su Tissue is the pseudonym of Sue McLane, who was at college in California in 1978, when she joined fellow art student William Ranson in the post-punk band Suburban Lawns. Like many acts of the time, the impact of Suburban Lawns was huge. There were countless spirited and innovative live shows around LA, but few good photographs, videos or live recordings. Only one album and two singles were officially released featuring Su Tissue. At punkgirldiaries, we often contact women who were involved in music in the 70s and 80s to find out their perspective and experiences. But we know that Su does not want to be contacted or involved in talking about the past; we respect that so we won’t be contacting her. However, we can write about the band and the reported role that she played according to the guys in Suburban Lawns.

All members of the Suburban Lawns took punky names for themselves. The names – ‘Vex Billingsgate’, ‘Frankie Ennui’, ‘Chuck Roast’, ‘John Gleur’ and ‘Su Tissue’ all had more art-school style than the adopted names of some of their more blunt English counterparts. And the fact that they put out a single soon after forming, on their own label says a lot about the Lawns’ serious intent. Their sound was influenced by Talking Heads, Devo, Television and Iggy Pop among others, with the conceptual elements that these bands had in lyrics, clothing and films.

Gidget (1966) comic books
The 1950s version of Gidget

The 1979 release ‘Gidget Goes to Hell’ is a reference to a 1950s American novel that became a book series, a film franchise, a TV serial, and eventually a stage musical. It’s not so well-known in the UK, but we guess it’s an early form of meme. In the 50s and 60s, ‘Gidget’ was shorthand for a spirited, young and doubtless very attractive girl who is pure of heart and in need of some direction. The original ‘Gidget’ story is by Frederick Kohner, based on his teenage daughter, Kathy. Gidget is not interested in boyfriends at all until one day she discovers surfing and the Californian surf-dudes.

Suburban Lawns 1980 'Gidget Goes To Hell " Single flyer | Flickr

The Suburban Lawns song ‘Gidget Goes To Hell’ takes the idea and fascinatingly twists it away from the daddy-idealisation to real girl dark teen fantasy – It’s about bunking off school, stealing Dad’s car, driving to the beach and surfing so well that everyone is in awe of her. But of course none of the boys stand a chance with her because she’s a bad-ass surfer. The film by Jonathan Demme shows the ending where Gidget is presumed eaten by a shark, with Gidget’s giblets washed up on shore cartoon-style. Sue McLane acts, sings and probably had a significant creative hand in this production.

According to band-mate Frankie Ennui, Su was reluctant to have live shows recorded, but this was where she was at her most exciting:

“You had to see Su do her thing live and in person, in front of a crowd, to really get the full, mind-blowing impact. So many contrasting ideas and emotions were being transmitted. What Su did was real. She really put herself out there, exposed and vulnerable, but aggressively sarcastic and in your face at the same time. Brave. Amazing. Disturbing.” 

Frankie Ennui

Starting with gigs at the band’s Long Beach studios, Suburban Lawns soon became the go-to support for local and out of town headliners like The Dickies, X, The Germs, Black Flag, Geza X, Human Hands, The Reactionaries, Fear and The Vandals. They played LA venues like Masque and Whiskey a gogo. Having obvious musical skills (She went on to study piano and later released a solo piano album, ‘Salon de Musique’), Su sang, played keyboards and bass in the band. This level of musical flair, remember, was unusual for the time. Many of the women who had been drawn to punk were sparky beginners, and the music press were used to judging women in bands on their attractiveness, sexiness and beauty of their voices … which now looks embarrassing … Oh hello Slash magazine?

“You see, the Suburban Lawns have this Sue Tissue character that soon joins them on keyboards, a very subdued looking girl with long black hair and a predilection for vinyl raincoats and boots. On keyboards she’s almost invisible but then she borrows one of the guy’s bass and steps up front and that’s when you start realizing that this chickie isn’t no wallpaper and that maybe there’s more to the band than first meets the eye. Not only does she play that borrowed bass with more nerve and mean rhythm than a funk pro but she spits out her backing vocals in a most unsubdued, unbacking manner. Something like tense abandon, except more so. But it’s only a bit later, when she finally decides to do her singing full time, giving back the bass and grabbing the mike stand as a drowning cat claws at a stick you offer it that your lame little heart KNOWS that this here is one of the fuckin’ toughest, most unique, most outstanding performing creatures you’re ever likely to see and hear, here or anywhere. If this sounds like jive to, buster, check it out and then tell me to my face that girl ain’t amazing. She may not be on your list of “in people” yet but you see her once and if you’re halfway alive she’ll make number 1 and you’ll just be another shivering fan before you can spell out Lene Lovich That’s a promise. When Sue Tissue sings, nothing else matters. I don’t even know if she’s got a great voice (their really good single doesn’t quite convey what’s it’s about) or if she’s sexy or anything, all I know is that you can’t keep your fuckin’ eyes off her, so strange is her presence, so surprizing is her way AROUND the songs.”

1979 live review in Slash magazine

The second self-released single Janitor features a not-that interesting mix-up between the word genitals and janitor – again attributed to Su Tissue, who coined the ‘Oh my genitals, I’m a janitor’ line that apparently made the song – again with an accompanying film.

By 1981, Suburban Lawns had signed to IRS records and recorded an album ‘Suburban Lawns’. The support slots became more high-profile, including supports with Siouxsie and the Banshees, 999 and Bow Wow Wow, opening for U2 at Santa Monica and The Clash at Sacramento Auditorium. In some interviews with other band members, there are hints of disputes within the band where the principles of business and art are pitted against one another. To step up from being a reliable and entertaining support band to being a 1980s IRS hit-making success story always seemed to involve compromises and placing particular demands on women in bands. And not all women were happy to comply with the ‘whatever it takes’ view of musical success.

This is where all we can do is speculate. From the outset, Sue McLane comes across as having artistic vision, musical talent and not wanting to compromise her privacy and principles for fame or money. According to band mate Chuck Roast:

“Su had a really cool sense of style, unconventionally speaking — like those blow-up pants or a nice three-piece suit with some pumps, with nails driven into the soles … What you saw and heard from Su was unvarnished and uncalculated. It was an extension of who she was; very organic. She had a wicked sense of humour; a reluctant star. She once proclaimed in an interview with the LA Times that “interviews were obsolete”, which I found refreshing due to the fact that is what all bands wanted to do. “

Chuck Roast interviewed in Something Else 2015

So Su left the band and has, we presume lived her own life ever since, with no desire to revisit, contact ex-band members or tell her side of the story. That is absolutely fine, and to be honest it’s a bit creepy that some people won’t accept this and take on ‘the search for Su Tissue’ like some modern-day Sherlock Holmes. The pathology of this is explained well in Scott Beauchamp’s post in The Outline where he mentions the ‘Whatever Became of Su Tissue’ Facebook group and the Internet phenomenon of chasing some 40-year old dream, or putting up your own theories about Su being an attorney, a housewife, a teacher or whatever. Scott’s comments are spot-on:

“And then there are the obsessive tributes in her honor, which are often a bit much but still easier to take than the creepy sexualization of her as an alt-dream girl which exists in almost every comment section. Reading about Su Tissue on the internet, it seems like her ghostly half-absence has become the work itself, not the music she made. It’s as if she exists in the negative, essentially lost and achingly unavailable.”

Scott Beauchamp writing in The Outline 2019

Suburban Lawns – they were a great US band from the late 70s/early 80s. Sue McLane was a notable performer as Su Tissue, and it’s a good thing that some videos and recordings of the band exist to remind us of how interesting they were. But if you’re still fascinated by ‘this chickie’ – please desist. Appreciate… without being weird OK?

2 thoughts on “Su Tissue – Suburban Lawns

  1. Oh, how I loved The Suburban Lawns. I have every original release except for the “Janitor” indie 7″ which I only found out about in recent years and is too rich for my blood now. I had no idea about the “Cult of Su Tissue.” I’m surprised that you didn’t mention Su’s cameo at the high school reunion scene in Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.” That was the last time I encountered Su Tissue. I still need the Futurismo CD reissue of their debut album from 2015.

  2. Also, I think I’ve read that the “Gidget” name was a portmanteau of “girl”+ “midget.”

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