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Pere Ubu

Long-standing Cleveland combo, PERE UBU – and its only constant David Thomas – have been at the core of the ever-evolving industrial post-punk scene since their ground-breaking “Modern Dance” album in the early days of 1978. Subsequently combining group endeavours with solo project undertakings, larger-than-life character DAVID THOMAS has re-set the boundaries between experimental rock and arty-pop; between both activities one can find over 30 albums credited to man or his many projects, some like himself, giant in stature, others a little too convoluting and self-indulgent.
Prior to his PERE UBU outings (incidentally, the name stems from a character “Pere/father Ubu” in a 1896 play by French author Alfred Jarry), ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS were Thomas’s inaugural but short-lived pre-Ubu venture. As the pseudonymous Crocus Behemoth, David and an initial crew of Peter Laughner (guitar), Glenn “Thunderhand” Hach (guitar), Charlie Weiner (aka Kim Zonneville on bass) and Tom “Foolery” Clements (drums), the band became residents at the singer’s workplace at the Viking Saloon (from June 16, 1974); he was apparently a bouncer! A re-vamped RFTT (from early ’75) saw Thomas and Laughner being joined by Craig Bell (bass), Gene O’Connor (aka Cheetah Chrome on guitar) and Johnny Madansky (aka Johnny Blitz on drums), and it was this line-up that recorded sessions for WMMS radio stations, later to surface on a number of bootlegs.
A few embryonic PERE UBU tracks, `Final Solution’ and `30 Seconds Over Tokyo’, plus covers of The ROLLING STONES’ `Satisfaction’ and IGGY & THE STOOGES’ `Search & Destroy’, featured on these rare master tapes. Even `Sonic Reducer’ was hijacked by DEAD BOYS-bound Cheetah and Blitz, the pair being united with Stiv Bators, who’d replaced Crocus/David before the Rockets splintered. Incidentally, after all the kerfuffle and a live radio/concert set (see further below), a re-vamped ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS re-united for live gigs in 2003; confusingly enough, they’ve since delivered two brand-new sets in 2004 and 2011 respectively.
Meanwhile, back at the PERE UBU ranch, Behemoth and Laughner instigated their new-fangled combo in September ‘75, recruiting other musicians, namely Tim Wright (bass), Allen Ravenstine (synths), Tom Herman (guitar) and Scott Krauss (drums). Released on their own Hearthan imprint, PERE UBU issued their first of four classic 45s, `30 Seconds Over Tokyo’, which, in turn, led to gigs at Max’s Kansas City. Another gem of a track, `Final Solution’, was unleashed soon afterwards, although Laughner departed (he died of drug/alcohol abuse on June 22, 1977) – the line-up at this stage numbered Thomas, Ravenstine, Herman, Krause and newcomer Tony Maimone on bass/piano – prior to the release of their equally rare third and fourth indie platters, `Street Waves’ and `The Modern Dance’.
The aforementioned THE MODERN DANCE (1978) {*9} finally surfaced on the obscure US Blank label, and a few months later in the UK on Mercury Records. The sound was clearly a break from the over-saturated new wave/punk market, echoing as it did a revival of the avant-garde, aka CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and an ENO-era ROXY MUSIC. An audacious record in terms of experimentalism and their use of controlled feedback, their previous two A-side jewels were snuggled uncomfortably together with the seminal and surreal `Non-Alignment Pact’, `Laughing’, `Real World’ and `Humor Me’.
On the strength of this masterwork, PERE UBU signed up with Chrysalis Records and almost immediately wowed the music world with another abstract beauty, DUB HOUSING (1978) {*8}. Not unlike fellow-Ohioans DEVO in his caterwauling vocal style, the off-kilter David Thomas (and his chaotic band of minstrels) were at their most crucial and complex on the likes of `Navvy’, `Caligari’s Mirror’, `Ubu Dance Party’ and `Codex’.
After the slightly un-penetrable and wayward NEW PICNIC TIME (1979) {*6} however, the Ubu were unceremoniously dropped by their label, the band’s uncommercial eccentricity floating right over the average pop picker’s head. Whether the group had been locked away listening to the equally odd “Trout Mask Replica”, or indeed anything in that mould, the melodious mess of `The Fabulous Sequel’ (a hit or miss for fans of PU), the narrative `A Small Dark Cloud’ and `Goodbye’, were at least reassuringly out there in a world of their own – even bypassing Beefheart on their way to their “Bleak House” musical utopia.
The replacement of Herman with veteran Mayo Thompson (the brainchild behind RED KRAYOLA), might just’ve won record bosses over, as they subsequently found a home at UK indie imprint, Rough Trade. THE ART OF WALKING (1980) {*6} and the equally obtuse SONG OF THE BAILING MAN (1982) {*5} – the latter boasting the drumming talents of Anton Fier (ex-FEELIES) – garnered some harsh reviews, although the DEVO-like `Birdies’, `Go’, `Misery Goats’ and `Rhapsody In Pink’ at least cut the ice inside the former set. At a time when reference point CAPTAIN BEEFHEART (& His Magic Band) were extracting the last but classic remnants of a rollercoaster recording career, PERE UBU were sounding jaded and silly by comparison; their “Bailing”-out set only significant courtesy of `Use Of A Dog’, `Petrified’ and `The Vulgar Boatman Song’.
At this point DAVID THOMAAS put PERE UBU on an indefinite hiatus; subsequently releasing several solo sets under a collaborative umbrella with The Pedestrians and, in turn, The Wooden Birds.
With a few musicians enlisted from his solo sojourn, Thomas’ PERE UBU released their belated comeback album for Enigma Records (Fontana UK), THE TENEMENT YEAR (1988) {*7}, a set which also gathered together old Ubu men, Ravenstine, Maimone and Krause. Keeping some noisy elements from their pivotal punk period, this transitional set traded in the off-tangent for mutant-melody; tracks such as `Something’s Gotta Give’, `George Had A Hat’, `We Have The Technology’ and the almost danceable `Busman’s Honeymoon’ exceedingly good slices of pie for the Ubu-ites.
For their Stephen Hague-produced set, CLOUDLAND (1989) {*6}, Ravenstine’s technology was somewhat lost in the tight, contemporary-rock mix. PERE UBU’s angular atmospherics were swapped for glossy, yuppie-80s sound. The unmistakable warbling of David’s vocal chords was however not compromised, and songs that did fit well with fans were `Waiting For Mary’, `Bus Called Happiness’, `Breath’ and the DEVO-ish `Love Love Love’. With what seemed like their art and talent sacrificed for some production values and post-TALKING HEADS-esque quirkiness, it was on the cards then Ravenstine would bail out to be a pilot!
PERE UBU duly sought out former Beefheart employee, Eric Drew Feldman, who remained with the band for a further two albums, WORLDS IN COLLISION (1991) {*7} and STORY OF MY LIFE (1993) {*6}. Best known for his work with the PIXIES, Gil Norton was drafted in to produce the idiosyncratic pop combo on the first of these. In 1991, `I Hear They Smoke Barbecue’ and `Oh Catherine’ failed to generate any response in the singles market, and the latter set with its sea shanty-cum-grunge opening salvo `Wasted’ had certain moments.
Subsequently signing to indie imprint Tim/Kerr (Cooking Vinyl in Britain), PERE UBU cut one final effort, RAY GUN SUITCASE (1995) {*6}, a record that spoke volumes for their brave attempt to recreate their sound of two decades ago, albeit in a grunge-rock feel; `Folly Of Youth’, `Electricity’ and the confusingly-titled `Beach Boys’ (and the set’s almost unrecognisable re-vamp of BB’s `Surfer Girl’), were part of the band’s mystique and make-up.
PERE UBU’s PENNSYLVANIA (1998) {*6} found the man and his band in a more reflective mood. While he’d been living in London, England for several years now, there was wanton yearning to journey back to his roots. Or at least, that’s what songs such as `Urban Lifestyle’, `Highwaterville’ and `Wheelhouse’ almost suggested.
PERE UBU returned in the summer of 2002 via ST. ARKANSAS {*7}, their body of sound now over a quarter of a century old but still viable and conscious of today’s discerning and fickle market. His strangulated bleat still intact, Thomas portrays his barbed blues in detached style via the JOY DIVISION-like `Steve’ and the TOM WAITS-ish `Hell’.
THOMAS continued to drop the odd (very odd) solo-ish outing from his base in Brighton, but it was PERE UBU the loyal brigade begged for. WHY I HATE WOMEN (2006) {*6} and its misleading musical companion piece WHY I REMIX WOMEN (2006) {*6} – one thinks outtakes here – maintained the band’s cult appeal; Keith Moline (guitar) and Robert Wheeler (synths), reassuring fans of their organic halcyon days of the 70s that little was lost or misplaced in terms of experimentation and drive. Credited with former COMMUNARDS singer, Sarah Jane Morris, the wow factor of “LONG LIVE PERE UBU!” (2009) {*6} was immediate as the pair ran through staccato tune-ups such as `Ubu Overture’, `Song Of The Grocery Police’, `Banquet Of The Butcher’, among others.
After some reunion fun with ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS, Thomas’s PERE UBU were back on song (if that’s the correct analogy) for the early 2013 release of the album, LADY FROM SHANGHAI {*7}. Thomas, Moline, Wheeler, Temple, Gagarin, Mehlman and newbie trombonist Darryl Boon, pushed the boat out again in claustrophobic surrealism; but whether this was dance music for space cadets or just nightmarish uneasy listening for a new deadbeat generation, well, the jury was out for lunch. A concept in respect to movie of the same name, one’s drawn in by the downright cheek of opener, `Thanks’, cleverly shrouded as a mash-up of Anita Ward’s disco-sensation “Ring My Bell”. Others, too, wore a veil of sinister secrecy, two at least, `Musicians Are Scum’ and `Mandy’, recalling songs shaken out from some Room 101 trip. File under weird and wickedly wonderful, `Feuksley Ma’am, The Hearing’ and `414 Seconds’ are ones to sink your teeth into at irregular intervals.
Number two in Ubu’s trilogy of inspirational movies, CARNIVAL OF SOULS (2014) {*8} – from director Herk Harvey’s horror B-movie – Thomas and Co create detached gloom and doom, recalling the vintage years when “The Modern Dance” stirred the sonic punk pot. But for the quiet-period Beefheart-ish `Irene’, PERE UBU’s surrealistic score stuck to the plot, high on anxiety, disorientated and somewhat spooky; jerky rhythms and beats magnified on `Vision Of The Moon’, `Drag The River’, `Dr. Faustus’ and a 12-minute closer `Brother Ray’.
A barren period for David’s PERE UBU was put to one side for 2017’s 20 YEARS IN A MONTANA MISSILE SILO {*8}, for which the experimental outfit had expanded through the addition of guitarist Siperko and SWANS’ steel guitarist Christoph Hahn. Opening salvo `Monkey Bizness’ aped The RESIDENTS and/or The B-52’s performing the “Batman” theme, whilst the nightmarish concept of the eerie record (inspired by caging blind-folded humans with an animal or object) continued with 2-minute thrusts `Funk 49’, `Prison Of The Senses’ and `Toe To Toe’. With that in mind, the reasoning behind `The Healer’, the bluesy `Howl’ and `Walking Again’, became ever more clear.
Adding David’s collaborator and drummer/percussionist P.O. Jorgens (to fill the void left by Mehlman, Siperko and Hahn), PERE UBU’s Raymond Chandler-inspired title, THE LONG GOODBYE (2019) {*7}, might well’ve had significance in other ways: was it the band’s swansong. Thomas was said to have read the 1953 classic noir novel during the set’s conception, and on hearing the framework surrounding each literary transcendence into the streets of David’s mindset (`The Road Ahead’ clocked in at over 9 minutes), the undercurrent was as sprawling as the book’s menacing sidewalks. The spine-tingling and noodling `What I Heard On The Pop Radio’ opened the album’s account, whilst the main character `Marlowe’ was reminiscent of Ubu’s early interludes of otherworldly psyche. Conventionally speaking (at least in terms of DT), the highlights such as `Flicking Cigarettes At The Sun’ (a marriage of PiL and The FALL), the psychotic `Road Is A Preacher’, and The RESIDENTS-addled `Who Stole The Signpost?’ shot holes through The NORMAL/“T.V/O.D.”-like `Fortunate Son’ and the seaside shanty of er… anchor piece, `Lovely Day’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Jul2019

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