Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
Terminal Tower – An Archival Collection

Here’s a little bit of autobiography for you. In sixth grade English we were individually required to enact, before the class, little vignettes from our favorite books. My favorite book at the time was Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which recounted the first daring bombing raid on the Japanese Empire by the U.S. Air Force during World War II.

Now I could have picked a lot of scenes from that book, but I was a budding thespian and mentally disturbed to boot, and for reasons of maximum dramatic impact chose to enact the gory leg amputation scene (yes, there’s a gory leg amputation scene). And in so doing I more or less invented performance art in my hometown of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, because my entire performance consisted of me screaming bloody murder.

Based on the horrified silence that ensued, I was expecting an A (if not an Academy Award!) for my performance. Instead my scandalized teacher frog-marched me to the school’s guidance counselor, who did not (I assure you) suggest that I consider a future in acting. Instead he suggested therapy. It simply doesn’t pay to be your grade school’s equivalent of Klaus Kinski.

Anyway, cut to the Rustbelt and Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-1970s, where some highly literate avant-garage rockers inspired by the French “pataphysicist” Alfred “It is one of the great joys of home ownership to fire a pistol in one’s own bedroom” Jarry also turned their attention to Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in a song that is far less disturbing than my performance.

Pere Ubu, they called themselves, and in addition to essaying “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” they also wrote a book review in song called “Heart of Darkness” and another song (their best ever!) in which lead singer guy Crocus Behemoth (aka David Thomas) looks for a “Final Solution” to the vexing existential problems of teen acne and getting thrown out of your mom’s house because your pants don’t fit (?).

All of which can be found on 1985’s Terminal Tower – An Archival Collection, a swell collection of the band’s early singles and B-sides. The compilation’s a study in schizophrenia; side one documents Pere Ubu’s initial forays into art-fractured punk sludge and includes the songs listed above, one of which (“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”) sounds like an unholy wedding between Television and Black Sabbath, another of which (“Heart of Darkness”) bops like an overweight dinosaur in search of Mistah Kurtz (and features an unsatisfied Crocus cooking “I don’t see anything that I want”), and the last of which (“Final Solution”) boasts a big Joy Division bass line and has all the heft and menace of a Tiger tank crushing little green plastic army men. And offers, as solution to the problems mentioned above, guitars that “sound like nuclear destruction.”

Also on side one: the jaunty (and gaga) garage rocker “Cloud 149,” which comes at you like a careering rickshaw being operated by the Standells. The guitars are all spazzed out, while Behemoth sings “Here she comes,” and then “There she goes, such a problem!” As for “Untitled,” it’s an early variant of “The Modern Dance,” and like “Cloud 149” it boasts a lighter touch, demonstrating that Pere Ubu were beginning to lose interest in rototilling in the metal-rich murk in favor of skating along on the thin ice of a new day.

But not completely, because on side two opener “My Dark Ages” they sink once again into the primordial blooze as Thomas wanders around confused and doesn’t fall in love because, get this, he doesn’t have a car! I remember feeling the same way growing up in one-traffic light Littlestown in the mid-seventies, which just goes to show you there’s no difference between small town kids and big city kids, as I’m sure Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop and many other top-notch youth sociologists will tell you.

The vamp-heavy and vaguely tropical “Heaven” could be a Talking Heads song; Behemoth swears the city’s a magic beach (wonder if he swiped that from the Situationists?) and sings it feels like heaven, but if it feels like heaven why does he then go on to say “It’s such a problem” (exact same words he uses on “Cloud 149”!)? The spastic and very subtly reggaefied “Humor Me” was recorded live at the London College of Printing in Merry Olde England and rocks on Oi cylinders; Thomas warbles like the world’s biggest bird and sings, “It’s joke a joke man, ha ha ha!” as Allen Ravenstine’s synthesizer ululates behind him.

LP nadir “The Book on the Table” is a waste of perfectly good musical concrete; giant slabs of noise are dropped at random while some French chick parlay voos, and Einstürzende Neubauten can’t be far behind. “Not Happy” REALLY sounds like the Talking Heads, only instead of being paranoid like David Byrne Thomas sounds as giddy as a schoolgirl as he sings, “Can’t we be happy like the bumble bees on River Tees?/When they buzz they buzz in harmonies!”

Which leaves us with “Lonesome Cowboy Dave,” which sounds like a bunch of mental patients attempting to write the first Arabian Cowboy song (or even worse, a Paul Simon world music foray) and is really kinda annoying in a manic impressive way.

Me, I’ll take side one any day, because my interest wanes as David Thomas flutters away on wings of gossamer whimsy, far from teenage despair on the Flats of Cleveland to some snuggly-wuggly happy place in the cocooned recesses of infantile regress. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to make it his life’s goal to become the Jonathan Richman of Ohio.

Which is okay unless like me your idea of a cure doesn’t run to jejune silliness. Thomas had every right to turn his attention to “The bumble bees on the River Tees,” and to ask “Can’t we be happy like the tiny mice?”, but if happy mice are his idea of a final solution you can buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction, where guitars gonna sound like nuclear destruction, any day.

I didn’t scream my head off in front of that sixth grade class way back when because I was happy.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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