Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu, Elitism for
the People 1975-1978

Based in Cleveland amid the peak bleakness of mid-1970’s USA, Pere Ubu has forged a path unlike any other in rock’s history, and through lineup changes, hiatuses, refocused ambitions, and a refusal to assume the predictable, empty role of rock elders, David Thomas and his many collaborators stand as one of recorded music’s unlikeliest wonders. Those suspecting this claim as hyperbole should please investigate Fire Records’ new 4LP set Elitism for the People 1975-1978. It gathers Ubu’s earliest output, an achievement still capable of dropping jaws 40 years after the band’s formation.

Before even spinning a Pere Ubu platter on a turntable I’d read and was excited by the term avant-garage, and while the tag did prove useful, as time wore on it ultimately became shorthand for “oddball punk.” Ubu’s sole constant member David Thomas has since downplayed it as a joke-bone tossed into the salivating maws of the journalistic brigade, but it’s interesting how the title of this collection revisits the meaningfulness of the phrase.

Circa the mid-‘70s rock was still partially a populist undertaking, and garage bands continued to exist in closest proximity to the masses, sometimes playing right on the floor at audience level; these are the ashes from whence Pere Ubu sprang, with guitarist Peter Laughner and singer Thomas forming the group after exiting the storied (and subsequently rekindled) proto-punk unit Rocket from the Tombs.

Their ex-mates went on to the Dead Boys, and selections from the Tombs’ repertoire (notably sprinkled with Stones, Stooges, and Velvets covers) carried over to both outfits; as evidenced by this box’s The Hearpen Singles (1975-1977) Pere Ubu was immediately the darker of the two; “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” their first a-side (the label then called Hearthan) took the first-person viewpoint of a bomber pilot in dealing with the ugly reality that ended World War II.

Darker and artier; alongside Thomas and Laughner they consisted of guitarist Tom Herman, bassist Tim Wright, drummer Scott Krauss, and synthesizer/sax captain Allen Ravenstine. And even though it’s hardened into a legend reinforcing their status as “intellectual rockers,” here it is again: Pere Ubu’s name derives from Ubu Roi, a wild-assed theatrical piece by French symbolist writer and expert pataphysician Alfred Jarry.

And while “Heart of Darkness,” the b-side of the debut 7-inch (bluntly, a double-sided monster, one of the finest ever), if too loose to be properly called an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella, is certainly inspired by it and for that matter significantly predates Coppola’s Apocalypse Now as it expands upon the horror of Mistah Kurtz (never directly mentioning him, instead referencing H.G. Wells’ equally troubling Dr. Moreau) in a fraction of the time.

Literary allusions are a mere portion of Ubu’s avant side; in purely musical terms they overstepped the boundaries of the genre that would eventually claim them before the lines were even drawn. As The Hearpen Singles plays the undisguised nature of the endeavor remains abundantly clear: This is art. But not with an effete capital A: “Final Solution” b/w “Cloud 149” is also plainly rock ‘n’ roll, combining a rarified experience viewed mostly in museums or discussed in classrooms with the immediacy, spontaneity, and danger possible during a weekend bar gig.

Prior to the third single Laughner was out, sadly dead of acute pancreatitis on June 22, 1977. Additionally, Wright left for NYC to join DNA, his spot filled by Tony Maimone. Thusly, “Street Waves” begins Pere Ubu’s inching toward a masterful breakthrough long-player; it appears on The Modern Dance, as does the a-side to their fourth 45, lending the album its title-track.

Both are essential shards of the increasingly Thomas-focused enterprise’s singular art-rock, but it’s really the tonal extremes of b-sides “My Dark Ages (I Don’t Get Around)” and “Heaven,” the former a chilly brooding dive into dysfunction, the latter an absolute pop jewel emitting off-kilter warmth, that represent the band’s sheer range and ability to amaze, Ravenstine’s synth integral to each one.

Of course, these disaffected Ohioans didn’t discover the potential at the intersection of the avant-garde and rock ‘n’ roll. Predecessors included The Beatles, Zappa, Beefheart, Can/Krautrock, and most successfully The Velvet Underground. Not only did Pere Ubu not sound like any of ‘em (though the impact of VU can be detected early on), they were the first to substantially tangle edgy artistic erudition with the directness of the garage template.

The Hearpen Singles consists of potent homemade stuff (especially when Laughner was aboard), and the collective dangerousness of those songs endures. In the mid-‘70s there was barely an outline much less a roadmap for this kind of ambitiousness, but The Modern Dance documents Pere Ubu’s attempts to hone (not dilute) their sound for wider consumption; that it was one of only two LPs on Mercury subsidiary Blank Records (the other was Make a Record by The Suicide Commandos of Minneapolis) indicates the group’s (and punk’s) commercial fortunes.

Looking back, Pere Ubu did their best; yes, the first sound heard on The Modern Dance is the squealing throb of stressed-out technology, but opener “Non-Alignment Pact” is undeniably punk friendly, the power of the tried-and-true gtr/bs/drms enhanced by the versatility of Ravenstine on synths and the captivating uniqueness of Thomas as lead vocalist.

The title-track’s locomotive drum/keyboard and the employment of pre-recorded tapes brings the scenario into the post-punk territory Ubu helped to shape, but it’s the wiggle-skronk-whine of Thomas’ musette and Ravenstine’s sax across the skillfully calibrated buildup and release of “Laughing” that’s likely to persist in ruffling listener feathers.

“Street Waves” is a sly dose of Stooges extension and the two-minute sprint “Life Stinks” is maybe Ubu’s most overtly punk moment, unsurprising as it reaches back to the book of Rocket from the Tombs, though it’s also shrewdly funk-tinged. Between them sits “Chinese Radiation,” an excursion into progressive ideas that’s temperament is largely quite approachable.

“Real World” deepens the post-punk sensibility, and the slower pace of “Over My Head” spotlights dynamic strengths and Herman’s string burn. But it’s the foreboding abstract severity of “Sentimental Journey”; the shattering glass, moaning horn and beleaguered electronics surrounding Thomas’ riveting dramatics, that travels farthest afield from “Non-Alignment Pact.” The actorly chops carry over to “Humor Me,” the closer a less devastating plunge than the preceding entry but suitably intense and with an appealing touch of reggae to boot.

The Modern Dance hit stores in January of ’78; by the following November they’d switched labels, issuing Dub Housing on Chrysalis. Growing in assurance, it finds them harnessing the extremes, nothing here as distressed as “Sentimental Journey” (the suspenseful “Codex” gets closest perhaps), and simultaneously ditching any nods in the direction of punk orthodoxy; for newbies drunk on the fumes of the singles and Dance it may initially seem a tamer beast, but with time spent it formulates into a post-punk classic.

“Navvy” is a trim stomper with hints of psychosis, and “On the Surface” works up a killer groove accented by keyboards and synth, Ravenstine exceptional on his instrument in the tradition of Eno’s work in Roxy Music. Switching to sax for the title-cut, Ravenstine’s keening couples with Thomas’ spoken-word theatrics to serve as the guide for hundreds of art-damaged disasters, but Ubu succeed by not losing track of the rock paradigm and understanding a few things about art.

Tropical island influence is indeed there, productively as an undercurrent rather than an approximated style, subtlety and taste aiding Dub Housing and this entire box in achieving timelessness. However, “Caligari’s Mirror”’s transmogrification of the sea shanty “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor” presents Ubu at their quirkiest as “Thriller!” ups the abstraction.

By comparison “I, Will Wait” rocks, albeit in a slightly lopsided way, with Herman in splendid form, and “Drinking Wine Spodyody” (not a Sticks McGhee cover) provides a springy foundation for Thomas to pontificate from. It sets up the rhythm section highlight “(Pa) Ubu Dance Party” very nicely, the disc’s most agreeable number leading into the jagged pulse of “Blow Daddy-o.” And “Codex” comes nearest to overt reggae, mainly in Herman’s lilting line as it’s enveloped in cinematic tension and Thomas’ emotional purge.

In 1996 Geffen released Datapanik in the Year Zero, a 5CD doozy tapping all of Ubu’s music up to the ’82 hiatus, its eye-opening splendor topped-off with a disc devoted to related projects and Cleveland cohorts. The value was vast yet somewhat difficult to fully grasp as Ubu’s rigorous individual works of art were programmed together onto single CDs; such was the nature of the era.

Elitism for the People tightens the focus, the whole more digestible and featuring Manhattan, a live LP containing the second set from a Max’s Kansas City show played on February 15, 1977 (the full performance is available for download at Ubu’s website hearpen.com). The least of the four albums here, it’s still a treat, offering Herman’s exceptional slide-squall on “My Dark Ages” and a sturdy reading of “Heaven.”

Predictably, “Sentimental Journey,” is lesser (and earlier) than the studio version, Thomas introducing it as the Doris Day/Les Brown oldie (shortly thereafter, an attendee can be heard asking for matches), but the navigation of its tricky terrain is revelatory. “Over My Head” is strong if noticeably different, and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Life Stinks” close out the night with a fascinating glimpse of rapidly evolving brilliance.

In a nutshell, Pere Ubu is one of the very greatest of bands. Elitism for the People 1975-1978 rounds up the records that put them on the map.

The Modern Dance
A+
Dub Housing
A
The Hearpen Singles (1975-1977)
A+
Manhattan
A-

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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