Who They Are: Cleveland’s great Pere Ubu were the first, and are still the finest, purveyors of what they’ve dubbed “Avant Garage” music, situated at the sweet spot where four-on-the-floor rock, highly-literate lyrical narratives, and experimental electronic music clash, collide, and combine into something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Formed in 1975 from the wreckage of the influential-after-the-fact Rocket From The Tombs, and named after the vile protagonist of Alfred Jarry’s surrealist/absurdist play Ubu Roi (1896), Pere Ubu issued five landmark albums and half-a-dozen superb singles in their original 1975-1982 run, then have been a going concern since front/main-man David Thomas reconvened the group in 1987. Membership has been fluid over the years, with Mr Thomas as the sole constant; he has also maintained a vibrant solo career with a variety of collaborators, some of them also Ubus. The singularity of their creative approach, and their unparalleled success in merging outré and popular musical forms, have both stood as consistent baseline parameters over their long and rich creative run. Pere Ubu have also always rightly recognized the importance of what most groups would deem “supporting” roles in a group’s narrative, with graphic artist/designer John Thompson (a.k.a. Johnny Dromette) and the late producer/engineer Paul Hamann (1955-2017) of Cleveland’s Suma Recording Studio standing as particularly important “non-playing” members of the Pere Ubu creative core, along with various others over the years. At bottom line, Pere Ubu are a group who can rock you hard, while making you think about what you’re listening to, lyrically, conceptually, and musically. They’re good tasting, and they’re good for you. And that’s a perfectly blended recipe for long-term creative success, even if the “Grocery Police” of the world may choose to under-stock Pere Ubu, as a less-demanded source of cultural nutrition than some of their (far) less-accomplished peers.
When I First Heard Them: During the early part of their hiatus period (1982-1987). For the younger readers: I repeatedly stress in this series how different the musical world was in those pre-Internet days, when you could read about exciting groups in various musical press instruments, but could then spend months or years searching record stores for samples of what you’d read about. At some point in late 1983, I think, I finally found the final two albums of their initial run, The Art of Walking (1980) and Song of the Bailing Man (1982) in a single shopping trip at a warehouse style record store in Maryland, and they both blew my mind just as well as I’d hoped and expected from what I’d read months or years earlier. I acquired the three earlier Ubu albums over the next year or so, along with some of the solo albums that Mr Thomas was issuing in real time through the early-to-mid ’80s, which also moved me deeply (my fave is 1986’s Monster Walks The Winter Lake); I was most tickled to discover that he was working with such favorite musicians as Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Henry Cow’s Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler. Come 1988, the then-current version of Mr Thomas’ solo band looked, sounded, walked, and burbled like Pere Ubu, so he restored the group name for 1988’s The Tenement Year, and they’ve been going steady and hard ever since, just as I’ve been going steady and hard as a stalwart fan and supporter. In 1996, the group issued a stellar career retrospective box set, Datapanik in the Year Zero, that also documented a variety of obscure-to-influential Cleveland-area bands with family tree ties to their Pere. I was a working music critic at the time, and I was most happy to be able to work on a feature piece based on a group interview with Mr Thomas and the late Ubu guitarist Jim Jones (1950-2008). The print-edition synopsis of those paired interviews is available here. The more in-depth elements of my online conversation with Jim Jones continue to reside at the official Ubu Projex website, here. I’ve seen Pere Ubu live multiple times, including one of the very best shows from our four years living in Chicago, documented here. Mr Thomas experienced a serious health scare soon after that show, and it appeared that Pere Ubu might have finally run its course on this coil, but he thankfully seems to have recovered well, and the group’s Datapanik TV has emerged as one of the finest virtual responses to the Anno Virum that I’ve encountered or experienced.
Why I Love Them: Honestly, they had me at “avant garage.” That philosophical and creative merger of nominally high-brow and low-brow forms was just perfect for my personal aesthetic at the time I discovered them, and it works brilliantly for me to this day. (My own creative group of the early ’80s offered what I had dubbed “industrial folk” music, similarly trying to link and merge literate, lyrical song-based elements with noisy overtones and experimental structures; Pere Ubu were much better at it than we were!) A key to the Ubu sound over the years has been their prominent deployment of synthesizers, not as cheap substitutes for string or horn sections, nor as sequenced rhythm engines to hold their bassists and drummers in line, but rather as fully formed instruments in their own rights, percolating beneath the surface of some tunes, rising above the horizon in others to frame whole songs (or even albums) in deeply and truly unique fashion. Beyond the synths (offered most regularly by Allen Ravenstine in the early years, and Robert Wheeler since the early ’90s), Mr Thomas provides the most obvious sound of Pere Ubu as its vocalist, declaiming his literate lyrics in a warbling tenor, his distinctive voice the one constant in the group’s long run. I’ve often compared Mr Thomas to the likes of Captain Beefheart (The Magic Band), George Clinton (P-Funk) and Mark E. Smith (The Fall) as group leaders who may not ever win academic or pop culture awards for the strictly dry and technical element of their individual performances, but who stand unparalleled as distinctive singers and brilliant conceptualists, arrangers, and group directors. All of them have managed ever-evolving casts of players over long careers to create truly unique works, with their groups’ members typically offering the very best efforts of their often long and varied careers under their respective singers’ unique guidance and ministrations. I’ve also frequently cited Mr Thomas alongside King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp as the two very finest thinkers and writers when it comes to examining and explaining just what it means to be a working musician within the rock idiom. Mr Thomas has published several book-length treatises on the subject, and the Ubu Projex website is chockablock with fascinating short pieces about the group’s protocols, policies, and philosophies. I’ve fallen into and been unable to extract myself from its holds many times over the years, entertained, amused, and provoked in equal measure by what I’ve found there. I wholeheartedly endorse a trawl through its back pages if you want to read some truly smart and always well-written explorations into the state, form, and meaning of modern rock culture. It will be time well spent, I promise.
#10. “Dark,” from St. Arkansas (2002)
#9. “A Day Such As This,” from Song of the Bailing Man (1982)
#8. “Come Home,” from Story of My Life (1993)
#7. “Misery Goats,” from The Art of Walking (1980)
#6. “The Modern Dance,” from The Modern Dance (1978)
#5. “Final Solution,” from “Final Solution”/”Cloud 149” single (1976)
#4. “Wasted,” from Story of My Life (1993)
#3. “Street Waves,” from “Street Waves”/”My Dark Ages” single (1976)
#2. “Woolie Bully,” from Pennsylvania (1998)
#1. “Golden Surf II,” from Carnival of Souls (2014)