THE first time the Subways played live in the U.S., the show lasted 10 hours and consisted of just two songs. That was last summer, when the English rock trio was on set for "The O.C.," playing endless takes and snippets of its U.K. hits "Rock & Roll Queen" and "Oh Yeah" before a crowd of actors.
"It was really strange," said singer-guitarist Billy Lunn, referring to a schedule that had the group flying in to L.A. one day, playing for a white-hot TV show the next and boarding a plane home the following morning. The brief trip was even stranger since the Subways had never been to the U.S.
But the threesome needed to get home. Their debut album, "Young for Eternity," had just been released overseas, the band had stadium shows to play, and the already hyperbolic British media were panting for more from the band that NME dubbed "the sexiest thing to sweep rock 'n' roll off its feet in years."
Now the frenzy is spreading to the U.S., where "Rock & Roll Queen" ranks in the Top 30 on modern-rock radio charts, even though the record won't be out in this country until Valentine's Day. It's a fitting release date. Lunn, 21, is engaged to bass player Charlotte Cooper, 19.
With everyone's knickers in a twist over the group, you'd expect to sniff at least a whiff of cockiness from the Subways, rounded out by Lunn's 19-year-old brother, Josh Morgan, on drums. But onstage and in person, the three don't act the part of "Britain's hottest new band," "the next big thing" or "the cocky, brash perfection of the year," as they've been dubbed in magazines across England.
During their first U.S. concert -- at Spaceland in Silver Lake last November -- their performance was grounded in smiling exuberance rather than swagger. The few times they spoke to the audience were mostly to say polite little thank-yous.
"We're a very new band," said Cooper, a bird-like blond who tends to flit around the stage, shaking her hair all Sassoon-like. "We know it could go either way, and we're going to work really, really hard to try and play to as many people as we possibly can."
They're well on their way. Last month, the group played Australia for the second time. This month, it's Japan. In March, after "Young for Eternity" hits stateside, they'll speed across the U.S. (stopping in L.A. on March 23). It's an impressive track record, especially since as recently as October 2004 Lunn was paying his dad 10 pounds (about $20) a day to drive the band around England for a tour they'd booked themselves.
The Subways go back to 1999. At the time, Lunn and Morgan were living an hour north of London in the city of Welwyn Garden -- " 'Stepford Wives' territory," as Lunn calls it. Cooper lived in a nearby rural village with "literally a couple houses," she said.
Their paths crossed at a local swimming club, where Lunn was a top-ranked competitor and Cooper "really wasn't that good," she admits, in the 100-meter breaststroke. After five months of stealing glances at each other across pool lanes, Lunn got drunk on wine at a Christmas party and worked up the courage to ask Cooper out. They've been dating ever since.
For a while, the three future members of the Subways spent their time hanging out, with Cooper sitting on the sidelines as Lunn and Morgan jammed "in that whole Hendrix thing of being really raw and just improvising for five hours," Lunn said.
After a while that got tiring, Lunn said, and Cooper was just sitting there, so he asked her to pick up the bass.
The Subways were born.
Like any other band coming together without any formal musical training, they looked to the acts they liked for inspiration. At first they played covers -- of Green Day, Nirvana, the Ramones. In time, they incorporated more disparate sounds and influences, Lunn said, citing the "tribal beat" of Prodigy, the "velvety vocals" of Karen Carpenter and the "pure brilliance" of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
While their sound was jelling, they played a lot of "toilets," working odd jobs -- as a supermarket clerk (Cooper), office janitor (Lunn) and hotel housekeeper (Morgan) -- to earn train fare into London and to record EPs.
By 2004, they'd moved from toilets to decent-sized clubs. They decided to take a gamble. They quit their jobs to devote themselves full time to the Subways.
After culling the best songs from their 12 EPs, they sent a demo to Michael Eavis, the music promoter who founded and runs the gargantuan and highly esteemed Glastonbury Festival. They got into the 2004 fest, and the buzz has been building ever since.
The Subways are cream-of-the-crop Brit rock, pure and simple. Lunn leads the charge with brain-lodging hooks and emotionally taut vocals, but it's brother Josh's primal drum work that gives the band its life force. Cooper's main contribution: occasional vocals that temper the testosterone.
That combo proved irresistible for Alexandra Patsavas. After "The O.C." music supervisor heard an advance copy of the record last spring, she immediately sent it to show creator Josh Schwartz.
"He really, really fell in love with it," said Patsavas, who booked the Subways for the program even though she hadn't seen the band live.
"We went by gut," said Patsavas, who hopes to use another song from the band in a future episode. That song is an as-yet-unrecorded track called "California" that was inspired by the Subways' appearance on the show.
According to Warner Bros., the group's label, the song is slated as the single for the band's follow-up album and may even be its first single.