Pere Ubu - Biography
The members of Pere Ubu are the inventors of a high modernist American rock style, and they are the only practitioners of that style. It is commonplace to explain Pere Ubu’s standing in rock in terms of the influence the group has had on other, more popular musicians, but such explanations do not account for the extraordinary work the band has done, and continues to do, both on record and on stage. Pere Ubu’s catalog offers the dedicated listener intellectual and emotional rewards most of the band’s peers can’t even dream about. The band can make you erupt into hysterical laughter and move you to tears.
Pere Ubu began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 as a recording project under the direction of David Thomas, the band’s singer, leader, and sole consistent member over the last three decades. Thomas, who sometimes went by the name Crocus Behemoth, had been a rock journalist for local weekly The Scene and the singer of Cleveland’s Rocket from the Tombs, a Stooges-loving garage band that included the gifted but doomed writer, singer, and guitarist Peter Laughner. After Rocket from the Tombs split, guitarist Gene O’Connor and drummer Johnny Madansky went on (as Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz, respectively) to form New York’s Dead Boys, who popularized several Rocket from the Tombs songs, particularly (against Thomas’s wishes) “Sonic Reducer.”
In September of 1975, Thomas assembled a group that included Laughner, guitarists Tom Herman and Tim Wright (Wright would later join the New York no-wave band DNA), EML analog synthesizer manipulator Allen Ravenstine, and drummer Scott Krauss to record Rocket from the Tombs’ “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and a new composition called “Heart of Darkness.” These songs made up Pere Ubu’s first single, which Thomas released on his own Hearpen (or sometimes spelled “Hearthan,” as the name is pronounced) label in 1975. After three more such self-released singles, Pere Ubu issued their first album, The Modern Dance (1978 Blank), on Mercury’s short-lived punk imprint, Blank Records. Unfortunately, Blank Records disappeared forever following a legal skirmish with Lodi, New Jersey’s Misfits, who had also used the label name. The Modern Dance integrates “found” sound and noises made in the studio (such as the famous crockery-smashing on “Sentimental Journey”) with the band’s visionary rock arrangements. Allen Ravenstine’s EML synthesizer takes up more space than ever before, but it does not predominate; all of the instrumentalists seem to be collaborating to push rock music into new shapes, extending it in new dimensions. Over the course of “Chinese Radiation,” the last song on side one, the band creates a whole new genre of urban, lonesome soul music, masters the genre, and then leaves it behind. The song remains futuristic and an open door to writers of rock ballads.
Dub Housing (1978 Chrysalis), Pere Ubu’s second full-length album, was also released in 1978 and it remains many fans’ favorite album. It’s a weird, raucous jungle bird of an album, guided by the soul melodies of Tony Maimone’s bass. Disorienting studio experiments (“Thriller”) alternate with some of the most exuberant music Pere Ubu has recorded. Yet when, on one such rave-up, “I Will Wait,” Thomas sings, “Saw secret scenes in the cracks of the cities, secret scenes in the seams of the world,” the sense emerges that Thomas and band approach art with a religious devotion, and are already haunted by moments of artistic possibility they have seen arise and vanish on stages, in movie theaters, or in warehouses. This will remain a major theme in Ubu’s work.
“The working title for NEW PICNIC TIME had been GOODBYE,” Thomas writes in his liner notes to Datapanik in the Year Zero (1997 Geffen), the 1997 box set of Ubu’s “historical period” work, indicating that the band seemed to be on its last legs. On New Picnic Time (1979 Chrysalis), the band sounds weary and confused, and the album is hard going even for those initiated into Ubu’s mysteries. Interesting ideas abound and otherworldly moments occur (the trance of “All the Dogs Are Barking”), but much of the playing sounds discouraged and bored. Also in 1979, Red Crayola, a psychedelic Texas band that had relocated to England, released its Soldier-Talk (1979 Radar/Rough Trade) album on Rough Trade, featuring all members of Pere Ubu, as well as Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex and Essential Logic. Later that year, Red Crayola’s Mayo Thompson joined Pere Ubu following Tom Herman’s departure and would remain the band’s guitarist until 1982.
The Art of Walking (1980 Rough Trade) and Song of the Bailing Man (1982 Rough Trade), Ubu’s Rough Trade albums of the early 1980s, show a band so fearlessly devoted to developing its own musical language that reference points are not readily available to outsiders. In the early days of Pere Ubu, the band would perform the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” By 1980, almost all traces of this American, nihilistic punk influence had been expunged from Ubu’s vocabulary; at its most pleasurable, the music recalls reggae, Motown, and Captain Beefheart, but never, even for a second, does either of these records sound even a little bit like the Stooges. After the release of these two albums, the band dissolved.
Ubu reunited in 1987 for The Tenement Year (1988 Fontana) with new guitarist Jim Jones, formerly of Pere Ubu’s Cleveland comrades the Mirrors and the Electric Eels, and English drummer Chris Cutler from Henry Cow. Ubu’s established persona is present in a spirit of high sonic adventure, but the album’s songs, with their use of reggae, traditional European music styles, and psych/surf/gypsy guitar melodies, offer more intelligibility and familiarity to the rock fan than anything the band had released since Dub Housing. At the same time, one of the instruments (usually Ravenstine’s analog synth) will often take a familiar tune into completely uncharted territory, and familiar signs turn out to be charged with their own meanings in Thomas’s cosmology. On the slow-dance ballad “Miss You,” for example, the band seems to be sharpening its uncanny ability to seduce the listener with tunefulness and its twist on the “Blue Moon” chords, while at the same time frustrating and one-upping the listener’s expectations.
Pere Ubu would, in the same lineup, further pursue these strategies on 1989’s Cloudland (1989 Fontana), the most outlandish album in the band’s catalog. What appears to be a summery pop confection with vocal harmonies, cheery synth color, and chiming guitars turns out to be a run-down panorama of waste, disaster, and doom. The dread AM radio chant (“OO-GA-CHA-KA, OO-GA OO-GA”) from Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” reappears in Ubu’s “Ice Cream Truck,” and the effect is like being stabbed in the jaw with a popsicle. “I Can’t Believe It,” a song in the style of the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” dating from Peter Laughner days, is radically rearranged as a damnably catchy, “punchy” radio jingle with pulsing keyboards. Those who deride this album as a sellout move and scorn its sub-zero, 1980’s production miss out on a gem. While The Tenement Year scratches the Ubu fan’s itch for Beefheartian, creaturely skronk, Cloudland is an ambitious album that sets out down the road Thomas would travel on 1996’s Erewhon (1996 Cooking Vinyl) as David Thomas and Two Pale Boys.
Worlds in Collision (1991 Fontana) takes its name from Immanuel Velikovsky’s 1950 revisionist history of the universe. Eric Drew Feldman, who had played with Thomas’s hero Captain Beefheart and the late, great guitarist Philip “Snakefinger” Lithman, replaced Allen Ravenstine on keyboards. The band had by this time become friendly with the Pixies, whose producer, Gil Norton, recorded Worlds. (Feldman and Pixies leader Black Francis would later collaborate on Francis’s first two and some subsequent solo albums under the name Frank Black.) 1993’s Story of My Life (1993 Imago), which threatened to be a farewell album and was the last album to feature longtime rhythm section Maimone and Krauss, is, despite the party atmosphere promised by its working title Johnny Rivers Live at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, a melancholy record about age, shame, and defeat. Thomas proves to be a credible country singer.
Thomas has produced every Pere Ubu release since 1995’s Ray Gun Suitcase (1995 Cooking Vinyl), named after the “Great Whatsit” (a mysterious nuclear briefcase) in Robert Aldritch’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. Between Worlds in Collision and Ray Gun Suitcase, turnover was high in the band’s human resources: longtime bassist Tony Maimone departed the band in 1993 and was replaced by Michele Temple; drummer Scott Krauss was replaced by hard-hitting teenager Steve Mehlman; and analog synthesizer and theremin electro-conjurer Robert Wheeler replaced Eric Drew Feldman. For all the strengths of Ubu’s Fontana releases, Ray Gun Suitcase and the albums that followed deliver, unexpectedly, the pleasures of heavy rock, especially during Tom Herman’s return to the band. The marriage of Thomas’s cinematic recording techniques with the film noir narrative obsessions that increasingly dominate his writing from Ray Gun Suitcase onward is a beautiful thing. In different forms, this combination propelled Ubu to great achievements in the 1990s and 2000s.
Rocket from the Tombs, with Mehlman on drums and Television’s Richard Lloyd on second guitar, reunited for 2003’s transcendent Disastodrome! Festival at UCLA, which was curated by Thomas. Rocket subsequently toured and released Rocket Redux (2004), a studio album of the reunited band’s live set. In 2005, Cooking Vinyl reissued Ray Gun Suitcase (2005 Cooking Vinyl) and Pennsylvania (2005 Cooking Vinyl) as Thomas’s “Director’s Cuts” with different mixes and bonus material. Mercury Records reissued the band’s Fontana releases in 2007, also under Thomas’s supervision, with bonus tracks and some alternate mixes replacing originals. In the past several years, some Pere Ubu performances have featured the band’s live “underscore” to the movies It Came from Outer Space and X, The Man with X-Ray Eyes. Guitarist Jim Jones died in February of 2008 of unspecified chronic health problems.