A brand new box set of reissues from the iconic American avant-garde pioneers
Pere Ubu should be monumental. There should be statues of them outside the City Hall in Cleveland, the town in which they formed in 1975. They should have their own corridor in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Ubu Studies should be compulsory in schools for students aged 12 upwards. Maybe a century or so hence all this will come to pass. For it remains one of the great crimes of rock music’s insipid conservatism that Pere Ubu are overlooked in the annals of greatness in favour of skinnier and more conventional leather punk contemporaries. Ubu are bigger and better than the rest put together.
Ubu are both pre- and post-punk, as the timespan of this collection implies. ‘Elitism For The People’ takes in their earliest singles for the Hearpen label, and their first two albums, ‘The Modern Dance’ and ‘Dub Housing’, both released in 1978. There’s also ‘Manhattan’, a set from Max’s Kansas City in 1977, whose raucous, roaring excellence brings home that in frontman David Thomas they had someone with a highly developed theatrical sensibility (and we’re not talking theatrics here, no clowning around – we’re talking theatre theatre, Russian theatre).
Ubu were a truly great rock band, no doubt, rumbling and propulsive and featuring the shredding genius of Tom Herman on guitar. But they were also multi-dimensional. Thomas adopted a fearsome, fearful, quivering, anti-rocking, meandering persona that was fully formed even on embryonic tracks like ‘My Dark Ages’, pacing in circles around his own existential quandary: “I don’t get around / I don’t fall in love much”.
But then there were the abstract synthesiser stylings of Allen Ravenstine, achieved on the ElectroComp EML 200, acquired at great expense. It’s like audible synaptic activity; it was once described as “the sound of Pere Ubu’s brain”. His is the adrenaline, siren screech which opens ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ on ‘The Modern Dance’, which signals the sudden moments of eruption and deflation of the title track, which zig-zags wildly like a blip on a monitor on ‘Humor Me’. Elsewhere, he simulates the sudden “whoof” of nuclear destruction, or engages in abstract rattles and sheet waves of electronics which are non-imagistic and defy description, but vividly capture the moody undertow of Ubu’s songs.
The brilliance of ‘Dub Housing’ is often unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor. Take the opener, ‘Navvy’, whose desperate exuberance is like nothing else in rock ’n’ roll, yet quintessential. As Ravenstine’s synth ebbs and glows red hot, Thomas chants, as if having just emerged from the sea, “I’ve got these arms and legs / Flip-flap, flip-flap!”, before a sardonic counter puts him down – “Boy, that sounds swell” – and, like a baby who first experiences smiling at an adult only for them not to smile back, a lifetime of deflation ensues.
‘Caligari’s Mirror’ lurches and lists, the synth almost seeming to throw up over the side as Thomas rewrites the ‘Drunken Sailor’ shanty to deeply disquieting effect. The gloomy, melancholic arcs of ‘Codex’ are grimly bracing, its irregular rock structures again enhanced by Ravenstine’s interventions, like sonic x-rays of the mind and gut in despair. ‘Thriller!’, meanwhile, is rock concrète, a pitch-black ambient swirl of muffled voices, culminating in an unearthly passage of squelching, frugging electronics, resembling nothing you’ve ever heard before or since.
For all their abstraction and headlong plunges into the bulging heart of darkness, who at Max’s in 1977 could not have suffered life-long radiation benefit from exposure to Ubu’s immortal ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ or the magnificent, toxic terseness of ‘Life Stinks’, composed by the late Peter Laughner? If this is your first taste of Ubu, it’s a great place to start; but then follow with ‘New Picnic Time’, ‘The Tenement Year’, and the present-day line-up, still the best, darkest night of rock theatre in town.