“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)
Special Feature: ‘THE FIXER’ – TNPC interviews DAVID THOMAS (PERE UBU) for Shindig! Magazine
When Pere Ubu emerged from the wreckage of Rocket From The Tombs to infect the industrial heartlands of mid-1970s Ohio with their throbbing, squealing sonic architecture, few would have seriously considered their candidature for rock longevity a viable prospect. But David Thomas had other plans. He always does. “When we started, nobody liked us in Cleveland. We accepted that this was the natural order of things – that nobody would ever like us, much less HEAR us. So when that becomes your world-view then everything is very easy.” An A&R man’s worst nightmare (they stubbornly refused to be pigeonholed), the band have sculpted their own unique trajectory with singularly relentless conviction over these past forty years. Thomas, along with the latest incarnation of Pere Ubu (he is the only remaining original member), is making the final preparations for The North American Coed Jail! Tour, where the current line up – one of the band’s strongest ever – will perform classic material from their ‘historical era’ (1975-1982). While that prospect may be a mouthwatering one to long term fans, it is not something you might expect from him. Thomas has taken great care to ensure Pere Ubu remains a constantly evolving entity, always moving forward, so for him this seems an uncharacteristically retrospective move. But then, David Thomas is hardly likely to do the predictable thing. He thinks about music in pretty much the same way as he does life and art. The great French film-maker Jean Renoir once explained the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour by noting that “in life, everyone has his reasons”. Thomas concurs: “I am not a playful guy when it comes to work – there’s always a reason. Orson Welles was asked why he made Anthony Perkins act in a certain way as Josef K. The critic said ‘Kafka meant the character to be an innocent victim of the machinery.’ Welles responded, “No, he’s guilty – guilty as hell.”‘
Given his own very individual worldview, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pere Ubu is one of the most misunderstood bands in rock music. Steadfastly oblivious to even the remotest commercial instinct, yet paradoxically, possessors of a panoramic perspective of pop’s colourful history, they have outlasted almost all of their contemporaries: a particularly impressive achievement considering they didn’t fit in then and don’t now. “The arty people dismiss us because we’re too pop and we despise talk. The pop people because we are too arty and we talk too much.” Does the lack of commercial success bother him? “We’re still here. I am Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the UN, screaming ‘We will bury you’.” Sixteen albums down the line, two into their ‘Orange period’ and in robustly good health, he may have a cogent argument. As Thomas explains: “Pere Ubu is a continuum. I’ve often said we don’t do conceptual albums – we have a conceptual career. If you look at the body of my work it’s soon apparent that it is one novel-like endeavour with characters, stories and plots interweaving and reappearing over the decades.” Perhaps then, revisiting the work of another era makes logical sense.
Thomas likes to keep himself busy – for him, making music is not the assuaging of some inexorable creative impulse, but something more fundamental. The need to work. At the moment this means ‘fixing’ music. One of his most pressing recent concerns – as the output of Pere Ubu’s last two long players (‘The Lady From Shanghai’ & ‘Carnival Of Souls’) testifies – is his need to ‘fix’ dance music. “Part of that project is an effort to realign how meter and time are incorporated into music. How do you break up the mafia-like hegemony of bass and drums? But I need to stress that I do not react or counteract – I reinvent or realign as if the current world doesn’t exist and never did exist. I reimagine history. For example, what if English prog rock had been the true punk movement? What if Henry Cow had become the Sex Pistols?” Now there’s a thought…
Sometimes misconstrued as a punk band (not many punks nurture a fondness for The Allman Brothers for starters), that sense of hyper-alienation (‘data panic’) from technological society, the dissonant nonlinear song structures, not to mention Thomas’ curdled wails stretching over fizzing garage riffs – certainly at least invited the rather lazy comparison. But there was always substantially more to Pere Ubu, an expressionistic adventurousness far beyond the reach of the punk fraternity, which while leaving them at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, kept their integrity intact. As the band prepare to revisit and perform their late 1970s repertoire, how does Thomas now feel the music they produced over that period fits in the context of the ‘punk era?’ “I stood apart from it. We were dedicated to our own path. Sometimes two different roads converge – going through a mountain pass or along a river or what have you. The difference between the two roads seems negligible at that point. Twenty miles down the line they may diverge and head off in distinct directions.”
As 2016 will see the release of two retrospective box sets (the first, ‘Architecture Of Language’, was released in March, the second is scheduled for August) alongside the forthcoming tour, Thomas clearly has no plans to give up making music just yet. Songs like ‘Golden Surf II’ from ‘Carnival Of Souls’ contain the original vitality, the vital originality, that made the band such a thrilling proposition in the first place. One senses Thomas and Pere Ubu will be at it for some time to come yet. “I have a job that I do and I do it well. I’ll do it (a) as long as I make a living from it, and (b) as long as I do it well.” (JJ)
(This article was first published in the wonderful Shindig! magazine – click here: http://www.shindig-magazine.com/?p=1165)