“Reliable sources say this group and that group have acknowledged great debts to Pere Ubu, but I can never hear it,” says that band’s founding front-man, David Thomas. “I think our contribution is ideas, not styles. I think we point out ways to approach problems and demonstrate possibilities of the medium. We are pioneers, not settlers.”
Thomas blazed his earliest musical trails through the industrial blight zones lining Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline during the early ’70s. He was joined in pioneering that unlikely urban wilderness by a eclectic assortment of traditional and experimental music-makers who — in bands with names like Rocket From The Tombs and Electric Eels, the Numbers Band and Mirrors, Styrenes and Pere Ubu — collectively built one of the most dynamic and influential music scenes of the modern rock era, despite remaining virtually invisible to the record-buying public. Those Cleveland bands instead earned their entries in the rock history books by forging key evolutionary connections between the Velvet Underground-MC5-Stooges’ low-impact primordial punk and 1977’s large-scale New York-to-London anti-pop explosions — unwittingly keeping the flame, if you will, for a musical movement that was not yet conscious of its own existence. These same Cleveland bands also pioneered revolutionary new links between rock’s mutant blues idioms and the more free-form lingua deployed in the electronic and jazz communities; Allen Ravenstine’s innovative and noisy EML synthesizer work with Ubu, as an example, provides a discrete creative bench-mark against which all contemporary rock synthesists must be judged.
Pere Ubu were the only original Cleveland band to survive for long outside of the Lake Erie fishbowl in which they were spawned: they released five albums in their first incarnation (1976-82), have issued another five since regrouping in 1987, and will head into the studio in January to begin the follow-up to their 1995 triumph, Ray Gun Suitcase. Despite their creative longevity, Thomas and his band-mates have remained pointedly low-profile and largely anonymous throughout their creative careers; that attention-deflecting mutual credo found voice in a recent “Ubu Communex” Internet informational release from the seldom-photographed Thomas, explaining that “band photos were considered a necessary evil for press use but had no business being in close proximity to art.”
Pere Ubu have also been vexed with more than a career’s worth of shoddy vinyl pressings and record company indifference and/or incompetence. DGC Records (a Geffen subsidiary) recently took a solid step towards remedying that unfortunate historical situation by issuing an extraordinary document of Ubu’s early work: the five-CD box set, Datapanik in the Year Zero, includes pristine versions of Ubu’s early singles and seminal albums Modern Dance, Dub Housing, New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man. The box also contains a disk of heretofore unreleased live Ubu recordings from 1978 and 1981 along with Terminal Drive, a compilation disk featuring limited or unreleased material by other bands and players from Cleveland’s underground musical heyday.
Jim Jones (a one-time Pere Ubu roadie who has served as the band’s guitarist since 1987) features strongly on Terminal Drive: he can be heard playing with Mirrors (“A cool band to be with, back in ’74, and a great learning experience for me”, he recalls), Electric Eels (“Absolute terror. Dave E.’s unconventional subject matter lyrics and vocal delivery, coupled with John Morton and Brian McMahon’s assault weapon guitars were a frightening experience, akin I imagine to being at sea during a hurricane”), and the musique concrete Foreign Bodies (“Hours of tapes recorded while I squeaked, buzzed and scraped myself to distraction”).
In addition to his on-disk contributions, Jones worked closely with Thomas in compiling the archival collection. “The material had to have an Ubu connection,” notes Thomas when I ask about their selection criteria. “It had to be rare. We wanted to direct attention to some of the other people. We stretched the limits, but it was important to get Mirrors, the Eels and the Numbers Band in. It was important to get name checks for the people we ‘grew up’ with. Some people have criticized the disk because it’s not full of Rocket From The Tombs and Peter Laughner.”
Rocket From the Tombs were an Ubu precursor that featured Thomas, future Dead Boys Stiv Bators and Cheetah Chrome and guitarist-cum-critic Peter Laughner, who died of rock n’ roll life-style complications in 1977. Rock biographer Clinton Heylin’s widely-read 1993 book, From the Velvets to the Voidoids (Penguin), provided an illuminating expose on the ’70s Cleveland scene, with heavy focus on the Laughner legend. That re-fanning of the Dead Rock Star cult flame in alt.music and critical circles contributed strongly to the expectation that Terminal Drive would — and should — be a Rockets/Laughner memorial.
“Rocket From The Tombs and Peter Laughner were important,” Thomas accedes, “but there were other people and other groups just as important, and arguably more original. Peter’s style was rooted in more familiar idioms. [Ubu Guitarist, then and now] Tom Herman, however, was a more radical guitar player. But Tom Herman wore dozy looking clothes and was a steel worker. Peter wore black leather and shades and he went to New York City. [Ex-Ubu bassist] Tim Wright was a more radical player but his style wasn’t rooted in a familiar idiom. [Ex-Ubu guitarist] Mayo Thompson was a more radical conceptualist. But the issue isn’t even radicalism versus the familiar. Pere Ubu is a mix. When we parted with Peter we stopped doing cover versions and abandoned the ’60s idioms that he loved. Is that bad? Is it good? The answer is neither.”
“Peter’s fatal weakness was that he wanted to be accepted. He wanted to be liked. In this way he was out of step with the rest of us. Look at the songs he wrote and performed. Peter was talented. But now you must account for the pastiches he did. Now you must account for the preponderance of cover material in his sets. You must deal with the whole picture, not just the slice that appeals to you. You must deal with the whole person, not just a processable icon that feeds your prejudices. Peter wanted to be from New York City and it killed him. Most people think being from New York City is the thing you should want. It reinforces what they want to believe. Peter in a terrible way got what he wanted. All it took was to die. I hate the nonsense people talk. All it accomplishes is the death of another Peter Laughner in another town.”
So what aesthetic drove the other Clevelanders if not the New York City dream? “Nothing more than blasting open an escape hatch to flee a culture we despised,” explains Jones. “The promise of late-’60s free-form radio was in its final throes, killed by corporate-mandated play-lists and white-powder-nostrilled deejays who rested securely in the back pockets of shifty promo men. Our determination was to expand upon the rich areas pioneered by the Stooges, Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, MC5 and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. Bands that never got played on commercial radio. Music that acknowledged the presence of emotions other than those associated with teen love. Music of substance and mind. Music that existed for its own sake, on its own terms.”
“As a scene, we had reverence for music history. We were hungry to know what preceded us, culturally. We read, we listened, we researched, we shared information, we appreciated the beauty of the bombed-out, defaulted city — our nocturnal playground. We respected, and occasionally only tolerated, each other as fellow misfits who shared in the common experience of being Clevelanders. We were akin to a secret society. Closely linked, yet aloof.”
Thomas boils the aesthetic down to its bare essence: “Nobody likes what we do, nobody will ever like what we do — let’s do what we want.” Fortunately, one of the things that Thomas wanted during the ’70s was an aural document of the music surrounding him, hence his pioneering independent label, Hearthan (later Hearpen) Records.
“The model for what we were doing was the Salvation Army used record bins,” recalls Thomas. “I figured somebody someday would find [Ubu’s debut single] in a used record bin (and at that point the only used record bins were at Salvation Army) and that would be our legacy. That was the extent of the plan.” How did Thomas feel looking back at his Salvation Army legacy while compiling the box? “I was surprised at how subtle some of our ideas were. I was gratified that we weren’t completely out to lunch. I think the box vindicates many of our experiments.”
And would Thomas or Jones offer any “Cleveland lessons” to members of other exciting, but seemingly dead-end, music scenes? “Those who know don’t need being told. Those who don’t know never will,” offers Thomas cryptically, while Jones takes the more pragmatic stand: “Be stubborn. Be devoted to your craft. Give up while you’re ahead.”