Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
The Modern Dance

A simple rule of thumb; if you’re going to name your band after a character from Alfred Jarry’s infamous play Ubu Roi, it behooves you to make music in the same spirit of savage satire, grotesquerie, and scorn that categorized Jarry’s play. A tall order, that. It requires inner resources of mockery, and an abandonment of all conventional notions of what constitutes rock music in favor of Dada-like convulsions of laughter and dread. And who’s up for all that?

Pere Ubu, that’s who. Cleveland’s “avant-garage” (their term) band was formed in 1975, when influential protopunkers Rocket From the Tombs imploded, leaving maniacal vocalist David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner to form Pere Ubu along with guitarist Tom Herman, bassist Tim Wright, drummer Scott Krauss, and synthesist Allen Ravenstine. Rocket From the Tombs played it ferocious and fast; Pere Ubu, on the other hand, played it loud and strange. Their 1978 debut, The Modern Dance, combined a few relatively straight-ahead rockers (“Non-Alignment Pact,” “Street Waves,”) with all manner of weirdness: odd and frenetic vocals by Thomas (aka “Crocus Behemoth”), strange and deviant synthesizer noise from Ravenstine, free jazz skronk, musique concrete, and distorted guitars, all of it seemingly based on the presumption that twisted music makes for twisted minds. Or should that be vice versa?

Whichever, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that while NYC bands like The Talking Heads were establishing a reputation for being “weird” by virtue of mere twitchiness, Pere Ubu, which was stuck in Ohio, was recording music that made The Talking Heads sound like The Archies. And I like The Talking Heads. I’ll freely admit to not liking Pere Ubu the first time I heard them, in Cleveland to boot, but I’d be willing to bet that disliking Pere Ubu’s first album is a not uncommon occurrence; they were just too dissonant and unrelentingly strange for most untutored ears. Frank Zappa had long played with similar elements, but he was no punker and specialized in jejune humor for young adolescents, while Pere Ubu specialized in the themes of alienation, angst, and paranoia (subjects that Pere Ubu did have in common with The Talking Heads).

The strange thing about Pere Ubu—well, one of the 125 strange things about Pere Ubu—is that their singles were much more accessible than the tracks on The Modern Dance. Perhaps that isn’t so strange, really; your normal band wants its singles to shine. But Pere Ubu put our a good half of a greatest hits LP in singles, including the great “Final Solution”; “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” (a book I’ve read numerous times; you don’t want to miss the great leg amputation scene); “Street Waves”; and a different version of “The Modern Dance.”

Laughner—a doomed character and heir to Alfred Jarry’s reputation for not taking too much, besides lethal combinations of drugs and booze, seriously–left the band before The Modern Dance was recorded, and died shortly thereafter due to acute pancreatic failure at the ripe old age of 24, which is not an easy feat to pull off. Lester Bangs wrote an incredibly moving essay about his dope-fiend friend, who once spent an evening scouring the PDR for a pill he couldn’t identify. I did the exact same thing once; it had little spots on it, but I couldn’t tell if they were mold or supposed to be there.

Anyway, this is not an opinion piece on Peter Laughner but a review of The Modern Dance. So let’s commence dancing, shall we? Opener “Non-Alignment Pact” is the LP’s big single, although I’m not certain it was ever released as such. It opens with some squealing by Ravenstine’s synthesizer, then a very cool melody emerges and takes off. As for Thomas’ vocals you’ve never heard anything like them, as Ravenstine makes bird noises behind them and the super-duper catchy chorus has you singing along. Ravenstine’s synths get weirder and weirder as Thomas repeats the chorus, and then it’s over. As for “The Modern Dance” it’s also accessible, although there’s a middle section where Ravenstine employs tape loops of a crowd followed by one of the stranger guitar solos I’ve ever heard. Thomas does nothing outlandish vocally but he captures the spirit of the tune perfectly. “Laughing” is a strange bird, with the horns contributing some atonal jazz noodling until Thomas enters with roar of punk to sing, “My baby says/And if the devil comes we’ll shoot him with a gun.” Then the shades of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders return with more jazz and Thomas repeats singing lines like, “My baby says/We can live in the empty spaces of this life/My baby says/Far away the stars are all coming undone.”

“Street Waves” is, as mentioned, a relatively accessible tune, and is distinguished by Thomas’ vocals, Ravenstine’s synthesizer, and an honest to god great guitar solo. It goes into a long interlude during which Ravenstine reproduces the sounds of space before Thomas returns to sing, ”I ride a street wave right by her side/And I can hear the city city comin’ round/The things I say hit the air and seem to fall apart/And I can see the faces faces fallin’ down/And then I’m/Gone.” “Chinese Radiation” is a great name for a song and opens with some strummed acoustic guitars and exotic fills by Ravenstine, then the bassist comes in and the guitarist plays some Hawaiian music or some such. Then the song segues into what sounds like a live show, with Thomas shouting as the crowd roars like they’re watching the 1964 Beatles. Then a piano takes over and Thomas sings a few lines before shutting down the tune.

“Life Stinks” is a punk number written by Laughner before his exit from the band, and it’s a chaotic take—complete with horns and deranged vocals by Thomas—that tackles a subject near and to the late Laughner’s heart—namely booze. The lyrics, all nine short stanzas of them, are simple but direct: the last five lines go, “I like the Kinks/I need a drink/I can’t think/I like the Kinks/Life stinks.” That was my philosophy for a long time, and the only difference was I preferred Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and The Meat Puppets to any bunch of effete and clever Limeys. “Real World” falls into the realm of I don’t know what—drone? It consists of Thomas and some others repeating “Out in the real world/In real time,” ad infinitum, with mutant synthesizers in the background. Finally the song dissolves into a crashing din, with the drummer blazing a trail of pure noise while Thomas provides some maniacal laughter.

The slow “Over My Head” opens with Thomas singing quietly to some minimal backup. Then somebody plays a happening guitar riff and Ravenstine plays post-apocalyptic synth. The drums are rudimentary and great. As for “Sentimental Journey,” it should be credited as having the first bottle-breaking solo. Meanwhile Ravenstine plays saxophone and makes lots of great synth noise, as the song sorta speeds up a little only to slow down again, giving Thomas, accompanied by what sounds like a squawking bird, to sing/speak as if he’s in a trance. The band then proceeds to play some rapid-fire noise rock, after which Thomas delivers one of the greatest and strangest vocal performances I’ve ever heard—it even includes a raspberry. Then comes the sound of somebody sweeping up broken glass, and that’s that.

“Humor Me” has Thomas talking over one deranged synth riff and drum. He goes on in this vein until he cries, “It’s a joke man! It’s just a joke man! It’s just a joke man!” Then some handclaps come in followed by an excellent and wiry guitar solo. And Thomas, sounding certifiably loony tunes, cries “Humor me” over and over. On this one his singing reminds me of David Byrne—tormented, paranoid, and insistent.

Returning to Alfred Jarry for a moment, one critic wrote of him that his “teaching could be summarized thus: every man is capable of showing his contempt for the cruelty and stupidity of the universe by making his own life a poem of incoherence and absurdity.” I have no doubt that David Thomas, who has remained the only constant in a band that is still making Dadaist statements with its music, feels the same way. “Humor me” is a cry of contempt for that cruel and stupid universe, which isn’t very funny at all. Life’s idea of a punch line is a joke followed by a fist, and David Thomas wants nothing to do with it. It makes perfect sense that Jarry’s Ubu Roi should open with the word “Merde!” The world may be shit, but Thomas has refused to budge an inch in the face of its shittiness. No, he’s too busy turning his life into a poem of incoherence and absurdity, and we’re all the better off for it.


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