So what do you think of Pere Ubu?
Due in part to the excellent Cooking Vinyl series of reissues, I've been thinking about Pere Ubu a lot, and I think a lot of Pere Ubu. They created some of the most astonishing blasts of pop, yet it is hard to be obsessive about their memory. Like Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits and The Clash, Pere Ubu had a tendency to make sure they included some extremely irritating material on even their best records.
How to illustrate this? Think of English comedy: I like a joke as much as the next man, and my current favourite is that 'I bet Ryan Gigs and Dwight York are relieved that Rupert Murdoch's move to take over Man Utd was blocked. The darling of Wapping Wharf never did like left wingers and strikers!' I can laugh at some of Ray Lowry's old cartoons still, and give me a P G Wodehouse book I've not read before and I'll be happy. I've an irrational fondness for old Ealing comedies and Carry Ons, yet will run a mile from the Goons or even Kenneth Williams on the radio doing a array of silly voices. I'm not very good at wacky, zany, surreal, and I have to say Pere Ubu had moments when they toppled ungracefully into this arena.
Yet, at their unsettling best, Pere Ubu made music that more than twenty years on is up with even the best of the Fall, and I strongly recommend getting hold of the Cooking Vinyl reissues and immersing yourself in their awkward, uneven beauty.
My own favourite is Dub Housing from 1978. It's title alone fascinated me on its original release. Dub was then such an intriguing abstract concept, and it was hard to reconcile it with the Ubu image which was so anti-pop it was disconcerting. The singer was fat, there was s suspicion of beards. You know the kind of thing. Their songs didn't get played on the radio, but there they were on a major label. Now, Dub Housing sounds terrific, and is probably the most consistent, cohesive Ubu record. They were always slightly defiantly rooted in the Beefheart and orthodox r'n'b, but on Dub Housing this takes more of a garage twist and it's possible to see how they could have influenced the emerging UK explorers like The Fall, Pop Group, Josef K, by fusing the experimental with the finest fundamentals of pop. Like an Albert Ayler composition, familiar snatches of melodic intent crawl from a twisted wreck, and are all the more charming for it.
It's predecessor, The Modern Dance, was famously listed by Julian Cope in a Top 10 in Smash Hits right at the start of his fame, and there is a classic passage in Julian's essential Head-On memoirs about how he bought an early Pere Ubu single and it changed his life. The Modern Dance was the first Pere Ubu LP, released here in 1978 I think, but recorded earlier, and it sounds like nothing on earth. The opening skewed r'n'b punk blast 'Non Alignment Pact' is hard to get past, and it's a song that evokes such nightmarish qualities for me, ones that are far too personal for me to go into now.
It is that ability of Pere Ubu to unsettle that is so striking, and probably best displayed by their very earliest singles, which are collected on Terminal Tower. Some of these songs were brought together in the late '70s on the Datapanik In the Year Zero EP which I remember seeing frequently, though I confess I had no idea how significant it's contents were. I think we are only now beginning to realise how these few singles literally came out of nowhere in the mid '70s, musically and historically. For more on the Pere Ubu legend, I would recommend you to Jon Savage's essential back pages, particularly those penned without the benefit of hindsight, when I was too busy with The Jam. Most attention is perhaps focused on the '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' side of the first single, but I would go for 'Heart of Darkness' for its Conrad compulsion and alarming, brooding blueprint for Joy Division, hooklines and sinker. Yet it is the second single, 'Final Solution', that I have never recovered from hearing, and it wasn't until the mid '80s when I heard it after picking up a copy for 10p at a boot sale. Though I regretfully later sold it for a lot of money, its rush and roar is indelibly printed on my soul, as much so as other exceptional singles like Television's 'Little Johnny Jewel. And the Fire Engines' 'Get Up and Use Me'. 'Final Solution' is utterly absurd Eddie Cochran teen angst, soaring through the trashiest garage punk and the unstable 'Journey Through A Burning Brain' Tangerine Dream cacophony, with David Thomas bumbling and lurching around somewhere between Rebel Without A Cause and Confederacy Of Dunces. Its B-Side incidentally pre-empts the Fall's r'n'r primitivism, as heard to such great effect on Grotesque, and is as equally incomprehensible.
The fourth and final in the current Cooking Vinyl reissue series is New Picnic Time, as muddy and perverse as any record that ever appeared on a major label. This 1979 release arguably saw David Thomas descend into vaudevillian self-parody, playing up the 'ghoulish gent mumbling to himself on the bus' angle, yet it contains half a dozen or so of my favourite Ubu moments, largely on account of the new, more jagged, trebly edge to Tom Herman's guitar work, and certainly some young men in Scotland must have been paying some careful attention to this development for it's there in those awesome Josef K and Fire Engines songs. Personally, I don't remember seeing or hearing anything of New Picnic Time in 1979, and I do wonder what would have been made of it then.
Anyway, so yes, these reissues have prompted me to spend a fair bit of time thinking about and listening to Pere Ubu, which is fair enough. It would be interesting to see if the Cooking Vinyl reissues extend into the Rough Trade '80s phase. If they do, I would recommend The Art Of Walking where Mayo Thompson steps into Tom Herman's shoes, and indeed it would make an interesting tale drawing together the various strands of Mayo Thompson's movements down the years, from the Red Croyola's original '60s punk artefacts to his Rough Trade renaissance as in house producer then odd dalliances with Primal Scream and Jim O'Rourke and so on into this and that.
There's still so many stories to tell.
© Kevin Pearce 1999.
David Thomas interviewed for Tangents by Rupert Loydell