Pere Ubu

Final SolutionHearpen Records (Hearthan HR102)
Non-Alignment PactThe Modern Dance
The Modern DanceThe Modern Dance
NavvyDub Housing
30 Seconds Over TokyoTerminal Tower
Waiting For MaryCloudland
414 SecondsLady From Shanghai
Monkey Bizness20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo
What I Heard On The Pop RadioThe Long Goodbye

Pere Ubu photo 1

Pere Ubu (l to r): Allen Ravenstine, Tony Maimone, Chris Cutler,
David Thomas, Jim Jones, Scott Krauss
(Enigma Records 1988 promo photo by Deborah Treblitz)



Pere Ubu playlist


Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

I hesitated a bit before starting a piece on iconic avante-garde post-punk rockers Pere Ubu. On the one hand, their output from 1975 to 2019 is truly unique. There aren’t many bands whose sound is so uniquely their own. I also like that over the years, whenever band leader David Thomas has heard the term experimental thrown around concerning his band, he has rejected it, saying they aren’t an experimental band because they know what they are doing. But then Thomas says a lot of things; he coined the phrase avant-garage as a joke and seemed quite please journalists used it because it meant nothing. They are performance art, 60s surf music, garage rock, blues, or post-punk. Just not Punk, because as Thomas has said, his music is not punk. Of course, he has also made the somewhat confusing statement either none of his music is Punk, or it all is.

So why write this piece? Cause they are one exciting band. Why did I hesitate? Because I wasn’t sure what I should include, as where does Pere Ubu start and end as compared to David Thomas? A handful of singles and seventeen albums since 1975? That would include all official releases under the Pere Ubu name. But people come and go like the band has a turnstile attached to it. There have been somewhere between 25-30 official members over the years. And that doesn’t even count the number of other band names Thomas has recorded under, often with lineups that are very close to the most recent Pere Ubu albums.

The whole story started with Rocket From The Tombs who eventually released several albums after 2002. The classic lineup lasted less than a year during the mid 1970s before splitting into three bands: The Saucers, a not too well known Connecticut band; The Dead Boys, formed when Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz joined Stiv Bators, who performed with Rocket From The Tombs at their last live show; and of course, Pere Ubu. Thomas, the band’s sound engineer Tim Wright and, till this day, local legend Peter Laughner. He has been described by rock ‘n’ roll expert on underground music Richie Unterburger as “probably the single biggest catalyst in the birth of Cleveland’s alternative rock scene in the mid-1970s.” Smog Veil Records released a five-album box set of his work last year. A box set for a man who it seems only entered a studio once in his life to record the Pere Ubu singles, but left enough demos and home recordings to fill a box set on the way to dying at 24 from acute pancreatitis brought on by drug and alcohol abuse.

It was with those two musical forces Pere Ubu was formed. Although one of them wouldn’t live to see the band record their first album, even if he does appear and get a co-writing credit on the two songs on my list that were released as singles. Allen Ravenstine, saxophonist and synth player, also made a considerable impact on the band’s work. Especially with his synthesizer work. I really can’t think of many musicians who created the same sort of ominous noises on that instrument.

So now we had a band, one that lasted from 1975 to 1982 with a fair amount of turnover. They broke up for six years, getting back together in 1988. Then they recorded sporadically with twelve albums over thirty-one years. Sometimes releasing three albums in three years, sometimes going seven years between releases. Ravenstine came back for the reunion but for not much longer than a year, quitting music more or less entirely to become a pilot.

From 1981 on though, Thomas has recorded under several other names, which many regard as solo albums, but often with musicians who have also been official band members. Over the years, Dave Thomas and The Pedestrians; & His Legs; & The Wooden Birds; & Foreigners; & Two Pale Boys; Unknown Instructors and the rare single as just Dave Thomas have found release. And as I keep pointing out, often with lineups very similar to Pere Ubu.

So, is Pere Ubu a group or just another name Thomas chooses to record under? I do hear some distinct differences between the band and Two Pale Boys, his two projects over the last few years. Sure it has Thomas’ odd yelping and high pitched howling. But the songs don’t sound quite as much like demented nursery rhymes as Pere Ubu proper does. The songs on their albums have always been credited to the entire band. Thomas though has become the producer as the years have gone one. There have clearly been members that have long tenure and whose influence on the band has been clearly felt. But Pere Ubu is Thomas and Thomas is Pere Ubu.

I’m going to leave it to you do decide what you make of Dave Thomas’ career and musical output. For me, after prattling on a bit about the oddness of the situation, I’m going to ignore that the same five guys on the 1987 David Thomas and the Wooden Birds album Blame The Messenger are the same five guys on the 1988 Pere Ubu album The Tenement Year.

So, after all that, here are my favorite official Pere Ubu songs.

Final Solution was released as a single in the very ‘singles days’ of the group. Regardless, I may call it their best song. It starts out with the wondrous lines, “The girls won’t touch me ’cause I’ve got a misdirection”. It’s a great out of the gate effort. Raw and passionate it set the tone for the group.

The band’s first album, The Modern Dance, is one of the best albums of the punk era. When I came up with my initial list of fifteen songs this album had four on it. But Non-Alignment Pact, recorded in 1977 for this album, is the other song in their catalogue I might list as their best. The first twenty seconds really assault you with, well, a really annoying sound before just exploding and rocking out for three minutes of perfection.

The title track of The Modern Dance is a study in Ravenstine’s oh so weird synthesizer. Supposedly, when the label heard the odd hissing sound, like something leaking on the song, they thought there had been a defect in the recording. Thomas had to explain to them that was the sound the band was going for.

The follow up album, Dub Housing, would have been most bands’ best album, but for Pere Ubu it was just another classic album. And while the title track is amazing it is Navvy that stands out for me. To quote Thomas, That Sounds Swell.

Their third album, New Picnic Time, was another home run but they were already beginning to crumble as a band. While they released two more albums they didn’t really last much longer or manage to do as amazing work as they did on their initial singles and first three albums.

During their six year hiatus they released Terminal Tower, a collection of singles and B-sides. The song 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is another completely out there, original and over the top single. A long instrumental break is mesmerizing as it clearly isn’t meant for band members to solo. It meant to, as I said, mesmerize. Not that it matters but the Terminal Tower is a 52-floor building in Downtown Cleveland. When it was completed in 1930 it was the second tallest building in North America, and stayed the tallest building outside New York City until 1964. It is the focus of Cleveland skyline, where Pere Ubu is from.

The band didn’t seem to be missing a beat when they reunited in 1988. But as good as their first album was from the era, for me, it was the second, Cloudland, that really grabbed me at the time. The music was a good deal more accessible. Guitarist Jim Jones, who was in another Thomas band before being brought into the Pere Ubu fold, had some first rate playing. Waiting For Mary is a great tune that you can actually almost sing along to, a real rarity in their catalogue. It was the closest thing to a hit the band ever had, making the Modern Rock Charts and getting a fair amount of MTV play. The lead song on the album, Breath, was also a great tune that I clearly remember seeing them perform on Night Music, a late night talk show from the era that relied heavily on music, and interesting music. Thomas blew me away that night and I got motivated enough to look the show up:

I had completely forgotten that David Sanborn shared hosting duties with Jools Holland. I don’t think I knew that George Duke and Marcus Miller were the show’s musical directors. The musical guests that night were Pere Ubu, Deborah Harry, Philip Glass and Loudon Wainwright. So, of course, it only lasted 44 episodes. Thomas was mesmerizing though!

I hesitated to add the next song. The period we are in now, roughly 1990-2015, is really the period in the band’s history that I’m really talking about when I question whether Pere Ubu was a band or just another David Thomas project. The earlier stuff had a sound of instruments attacking each other, especially the 1975 to 1980 era. Here is a song that could have gone on so many other Thomas projects, but it’s probably Pere Ubu’s best song in a few years. That being 414 Seconds from Lady From Shanghai. It’s not near as jarring as their best work, but it does have that mesmerizing quality I loved about some of their work. I hoped it signaled a return for the band. Thankfully I was right as their last two albums have been terrific.

Their 2017 release, 20 Years In A Montana Missile Silo, isn’t what I’d call a return to form. It sounds like a different band in some way, but then they often did, album to album. But Monkey Bizness has that reality is unraveling that I always heard in their best efforts. I think Keith Moliné had really grown into being the guitarist for the band, and he was another alumni of other Thomas projects. It’s different from the early anarchy, but still jarring.

In 2019, Chris Cutler of Henry Cow returned for his third stint as Pere Ubu’s drummer and I can honestly say I think The Long Goodbye is David Thomas’ best work. It has a lot of high points, but What I Heard On The Pop Radio is such a great statement both lyrically and musically. If it is their last album it’s a hell of a swan song.

I don’t want to slight any of the musicians who added to the band’s output. Many stayed for years. And I believe there were ten members who left the band and came back, some more than once. And I’m talking about when the band was active, not during a hiatus. A lot of great people added to Pere Ubu. It’s just that, well, David Thomas is the man.




Pere Ubu: The Home of Ubu Projex

David Thomas Discography (Wikipedia)

Pere Ubu on Discogs

Pere Ubu on Fire Records

Pere Ubu on Cherry Red Records

Pere Ubu biography (Apple Music)

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital”. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Some of Calvin’s other toppermosts are on the Dead Boys, Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels and Tin Huey all from Ohio. He has also written about many non-Ohio acts for this website including Chuck Prophet, Nanci Griffith and Charles Mingus.

TopperPost #860

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 1, 2020

    What a great band. First really took note of them through the recommendations of Rowland S. Howard and his brother Harry (whose recent band The NDE has a very strong Pere influence). Would add that the videos for ‘Breathe’ and ‘Waiting For Mary’ here are priceless.
    Great stuff entirely as they would say back home.

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