‘We are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock ‘n’ roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio.’ (David Thomas)
How does one measure success? Consider The Velvet Underground, Nick Drake or Big Star for example: virtually nobody bought their records during their short careers, yet collectively their music has influenced scores of musicians and set substantially more youthful pulses racing than that of say, Yes or Fleetwood Mac. By contrast, those two would not be named as musical touchstones by too many modern rock bands, despite accruing bank balances large enough to shame Rupert Murdoch.
The world wasn’t ready for Pere Ubu, so commercial success was never a viable prospect. In a musical wasteland yet to be administered its life-saving punk booster, and inhabited by flatulent megalomaniacs, tedious singer-songwriters, prog excess, glam frippery and poker-faced AOR, there was undoubtedly a gaping hole to be filled. Aspiring young musicians and fans alike might have hoped for, nay even expected, in such desperate times, a messianic gang of rebels, beats or brats to put an end to it all, to kick off those caftans and get back to basics. Only The New York Dolls had threatened to do anything of the sort, but it had been too much too soon for them. Some would have found in 10cc or Steely Dan a distasteful smugness, and craved something a bit more audacious, primitive. That would have to wait a while longer. Nevertheless, who in 1975 could have expected anything quite like this? And who was listening anyway?
It has been suggested that Pere Ubu’s music came from nowhere, but that is neither factually nor figuratively accurate, for first of all, their origins lie in the industrial heartland of Middle America – Cleveland Ohio, and secondly, they are the descendants of an illustrious if loosely connected experimental art-punk heritage which includes artists as diverse as The Velvet Underground, The Red Crayola, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, Silver Apples, early Roxy Music and Faust, although none of those influences may be immediately obvious.
In fact, Pere Ubu evolved out of the remnants of local proto-punk pioneers Rocket From The Tombs, who during their chaotic eighteen-month lifespan cooked up for Cleveland the unholiest of rackets and gained for themselves mythical status into the bargain. Theirs is one of the great ‘coulda shoulda’ stories of ’70s rock, and when the inevitable disintegration unfolded, the legend was assured. In the meantime two of the band went on to form The Dead Boys, while Thomas – shorn of his RFTT Crocus Behemoth alter-ego, as well as his long hair – and guitarist Peter Laughner, worked a moonlight flit, leaving with a small handful of RFTT’s best tracks to form Pere Ubu, the name according to Thomas ‘a joke invented to have something to give journalists when they yelp for a neat sound bite or pigeonhole’. [That may indeed be true but it is also nicked from Alfred Jarry’s play ‘Ubu Roi’]
But what of the music? How to pin down a frenzied fusion of Dadaist experimentation, bizarre rhythmic dissonance, sci-fi surrealism, avant-garde adventurism, thrilling garage punk and musique concrete – all wrapped in Thomas’ desperately freakish vocal delivery, characterised by his infantile almost inhuman, yelps and absurdist lyrical humour, accompanied by guitars so loud they sound ‘like a nuclear explosion’, uniquely garnished by Allan Ravenstine’s radioactive synth rumblings, which sound like they come from another planet, often groaning and skittering like the fragile digestive system of a distressed extraterrestrial?
‘Terminal Tower’ (named after the structure which dominates the Cleveland skyline) brings together the band’s early Hearthan singles and B-Sides and is selected here in preference to the ‘Datapanik In The Year Zero’ EP, which did much the same thing, due to the latter’s omission of ‘Final Solution’, arguably the band’s greatest achievement. [NB. The recent ‘DITYZ’ box set makes amends for this]
The album includes a few later self-consciously arty out-takes, without which it could survive quite happily, but would be worth buying for the first three tracks alone. On one half of their debut single, ‘Heart of Darkness’, with its prowling bass line, Thomas’ paranoiac discontent is unveiled:
‘Maybe you see further than I can see / or maybe things just look differently / Maybe I’m nothing but a shadow on the wall / Maybe love’s a tomb where you dance at night / Maybe sanctuary is an electric light / I get so tired it’s like I’m another man / and everything I see seems so underhanded / I don’t see anything that I want / and I don’t see anything that I want.’
The song’s portentous threatening atmosphere has no direct musical precedent – but is a clear blueprint for Joy Division’s despairing bass-driven sound. And without them, how different would the musical landscape of the early 1980s have looked?
‘Heart of Darkness’ was coupled with the apocalyptic ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ – a dissonant fusion of throbbing bass belching and Beefheartian dismemberment: synths snarl and fizz, and anarchic guitars rocket their sonic symphonies of feedback through a sequence of musical meltdowns and muffled screams, culminating in a genuinely shocking ending which sounds like someone’s dragged the record off the turntable – the stylus ripping through the vinyl with great ferocity, the volume control left in tatters.
The early version of ‘Untitled’ is pleasing enough but was given a more robust reworking as the title track to their indisputably classic debut album ‘The Modern Dance’ where the Ubu experiment reached it’s fullest expression.
Meanwhile one can detect in ‘Cloud 149’ an impetus for the music of Josef K and The Fire Engines and ‘My Dark Ages (I Don’t Get Around)’, is an ironic Beach Boys pastiche, once again showcasing Thomas’ self-deprecating witticisms: (‘I don’t get around / I don’t fall in love much’)
That dark humour is much in evidence on the best track of all, the band’s second single ‘Final Solution’. It is nigh on impossible to believe that this music was made in 1976, and if you have not heard it before, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Those who are familiar will rightfully claim it as one of the most thrilling and influential records of the 1970s. One can forgive it’s preposterous take on teenage dread (Thomas will recall that his mom really did throw him out ’till I get some pants that fit’. No joke), for it takes us on an astonishing sonic roller coaster: a throbbing crackling discordant sing-a-long classic, containing spy movie motifs, synths taking off into outer space, ghostly voices, and Tom Herman’s cataclysmic guitar: one moment the sound of a bell, the next stretching out like Hendrix did on ‘If Six Was Nine’, before paving the way for ‘Marquee Moon’ with his angst-ridden solo to finish, Thomas screaming over the top almost unintelligibly ‘I don’t need a cure, I need a final solution.’
A useful analogy: imagine how audiences in 1976 might have experienced the first sitting of David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’, a contemporary artwork, likewise imbued with a decidedly surrealistic streak. The comparison has been made before – and not simply because of the uncanny physical resemblance between David Thomas and Jack Nance (‘Eraserhead‘s protagonist, Henry Spencer). In truth, like David Lynch’s cult classic, Pere Ubu were so far ahead of the game, that by the time I’d eventually caught up with them (many years later, at The Venue in Edinburgh in March 1988), they still sounded like nothing else on earth. If Bob Dylan kicked popular music ‘kicking and screaming’ into the 20th Century, Pere Ubu were in an awful hurry to take it into the next one. In many ways, the world has yet to catch up.
Thomas might have insisted that Pere Ubu wrote ‘pop songs’, the band themselves have used the term ‘avant-garage’, while the general public may have called their music plain weird . Me? I simply prefer to call it modern rock’n’roll. Now in their 40th year – give or take a few intervals, changes in personnel and personal tragedies (Laughner succumbed to acute pancreatitis in 1977) – their influence can be heard in the likes of Joy Division, Husker Du, Minutemen, Pixies, Throbbing Gristle, Butthole Surfers and more obviously, in fellow Ohioans, Devo. Ubu have outlasted all of those, so surely that accounts for some measure of success. And for the Pere Ubu devotee, a series of decisive victories. (JJ)