Published May 31, 2019 in Warp & Woof
“Avant-garage” Rock with a Rust Belt Sheen
Cleveland has produced more than the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. Emerging in the 1970s, beneath the radar of its pop music mainstream, was an avant-garde, experimental music scene, epitomized by David Thomas and Pere Ubu.
Starting as a music critic, Thomas decided to try his hand at producing the music he wrote about when he formed the band Rocket from the Tombs in 1974. It didn’t last long, but its members liked the project. Both Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner decided to join up with four other Cleveland area friends to start a new project in 1975. It’s not clear why they chose the name “Pere Ubu” for the new band – after the main character in the avant garde play by Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi. Jarry’s 1896 play is pre-dada, and was received by a skeptical audience who considered it to be childish, like a nursery rhyme trying to pass itself off as meaningful. Indeed, some reviewers have made similar comments about the music of Pere Ubu!
I disagree. The band has coined the term “avant-garage” to describe its style. Thomas says it is a joke, intended to fool journalists who are looking for a sound bite, a “genre” in which to place Pere Ubu. They began with a style clearly in the garage rock mold – but, over time, evolved into a much more openly experimental, or avant-garde, sound. They are still performing, with many personnel changes, 44 years later. They’re still in Cleveland, an archetypal midwestern Rust Belt city. It shows in their music. David Thomas is there, as always (except for a hiatus in the ‘80s, when he went solo, and the band disappeared for a while).
Thomas’ distinctive vocal style, a screechy, anxious, dreamily disconnected-from-reality muttering, is nothing, if not avant-garde. In addition, the varied instrumental back-ups have included EML synthesizer and theremin through the years, especially since the ‘90s. This is experimental rock, not mainstream – critics have called it both “art punk” and “post punk.” Pere Ubu’s style was influenced by French musique concrete of the ‘40s and ‘50s, where pre-recorded non-musical sounds are incorporated into a larger musical tapestry. Pere Ubu uses this technique with synthesizer and theremin to create backdrops like science fiction B-film soundtracks from the 1950s.
The evolution of Pere Ubu’s style can be illustrated with seven examples. Their first singles sound much like “Final Solution” – strictly garage rock. Its lyrics relate adolescent anxiety about social mal-adroitness and raging hormones. “D-d-don’t need a cure” … “need a final solution!” But the EML synthesizer, played in those early days by Allen Ravenstine, is clearly there.
The band’s first studio album was released in 1978, The Modern Dance. It greatly expands the themes of the first singles. David Thomas practices his distinctive vocals. “Nonalignment Pact” is lighter than some tracks on the album, and still sounds like garage rock of the post-punk years. “At night I can see the stars on fire/I can see the world in flames/And it’s all because of you/Or your thousand other names” followed by a long list of women’s names, then the chorus, “It’s all because of you/It’s all because of you girl!” “Sign my nonalignment pact/Nonalignment pact/It’s my Nonalignment pact.” All played to bouncy dance music. “Street Waves” develops Thomas’ screechy voice, with lyrics that evoke a kind of “dance anxiety” – the obvious thrill from the electronic music (synthesizer in full gear), tempered by insecurity about the nature of any liaisons made in a supercharged urban environment.
Still on that first album, “Humor Me” strikes a different tone. It may be a precursor of things to come. It’s a vocal protest of the garage rock origins of the band, while carrying over many of the backup band signatures – synthesizer, drums, guitar chords. But the lyrics tell a story of social alienation and sexual frustration in a very different way. The chorus is a plaintive reggae chant, “It’s a joke, mon!” – as if the real anxiety felt by the singer is merely a joke to the rest of the world. Perhaps a truer insight into Pere Ubu’s soul than their earlier work?
By the mid-90s, Pere Ubu had been through a dissolution, deaths of several early band members, David Thomas launching a solo career, then re-uniting the band with different personnel. In 1995, they released Ray Gun Suitcase, which explores new musical themes with a noticeable swing to experimental sound – tracks with theremin, played by Robert Wheeler, recalling those old B-films. “Folly of Youth” captures the spirit well, especially with its YouTube video. It wants to be a “suitcase” and “hang around inside your Greyhound terminal.” Alienation comes up again in “My Friend Is a Stooge,” with a shout out to T.S. Eliot and “Hollow Men.” It also touches the role of mass media in society, “My friend is a stooge for the media priests. He does the weather map for Channel 3.” He may even be a dog, since he “Stares at the rug if I leave him alone. Lays around the house in misery. He toes the line for the company.”
The album closes with a track which is downright depressing. “Down by the River II” uses some new devices, like electric cello, to create a melancholy sound – is everything hopeless? “The house on fire. The treaty broken. I call for the law. The law’s a token.” Then, “Trip is the worst. I don’t mean maybe. I call for the captain. She cries like a baby. As bad as it gets, it’s gotten worse. I want to run. I had to learn to crawl first.”
But it’s not the end. Pere Ubu goes on. The final verse in “Down by the River II” leaves us suspended in time, “Bye-bye. Bye-bye, baby, my friend. It’s time to leave and I don’t know when.”