Monday, 1 April 2013

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance

Having neglected my "Formative Years" series for far too long, here's an album that, after The Faust Tapes, was my second tentative step in the direction of the strangely strange. Suitably enough, as if an excuse is needed, this month sees the (gulp) 35th anniversary of the release of The Modern Dance by Pere Ubu.

Becoming something of a musical sponge since the sharp left turn that my musical education masterclass (aka The John Peel Show) took at the tail end of 1976, coupled with the influence of The Bible (aka the NME), I ventured into town in April 1978 and towards its indie emporium of choice already emboldened by a liking for the more accessible end of Beefheart, Zappa and Robert Wyatt, all thanks to Mr Ravenscroft, and took a plunge on the NME's recommendation and bought the Datapanik In The Year Zero EP by a mysterious and faceless band going by the name of Pere Ubu hailing from Cleveland, Ohio. Yes, the same state that gave birth to Devo, sweet little puppies in comparison to this odd bunch of socially excluded misfits, for sure.

Datapanik was an EP combining five tracks lifted off impossible to get singles from 1975 and 1976, a release only made possible by the championing of those same twin pillars of left-field music the NME and Peely, and put out in April 1978 on Radar Records. An odd choice of label really, the Stiff Records spin-off having been set up as a home for Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Anyway, I was hooked and the next week went back to Spinadisc and bought The Modern Dance.

If anything the album was in places even bleaker than the EP, which contained pleasant tales of the dropping of A Bombs on Japan, skewed visions of nirvana and the dark psychological outpourings from the troubled mind of guitarist Peter Laughner, who would die as a result of complications arising from drug and alcohol addiction in 1977.

All the songs on The Modern Dance are group compositions with the exception of side two opener Life Stinks, a short angry burst of misanthropy from Laughner: "Life stinks. I said I'm seeing pink. I said uh I can't wink and now I can't blink. I said I like the Kinks cuz I need a drink. I can't think cuz I like the Kinks. I said life stinks. I said I need a drink. Yeah life stinks. I said life stinks. I said Yeah", snarled to a wiry punky guitar scratching, which just about summed up his sorry exit from the world.

Fusing a mixture of punky aggression, wilful Faustian/Beefheart experimentation, and the knack of writing some very odd skewed pop songs, the music on its own was a treat. Undoubted instrumental star of the show was Allen Ravenstine whose occasionally violent sax honking and primitive synth lines slap the listener round the ears with alarming irregularity. Right from the off, when a very high-pitched synth pulse introduces and permeates the otherwise straightforward fast guitar chords of Non-Alignment Pact you know this isn't your average punky fare.

Of course, the lyrics of one David Thomas are what really makes this stand out. That opening song is a lyrically clever if musically simple call for a truce with numerous ex-girlfriends, but from then on in it is never that easy. The Modern Dance, an earlier version of which appeared as Untitled on the Datapanik EP, is a sideways glance at inertia-inducing inhibitions: "'Cause our poor boy believes in chance (merdre merdre) He'll never get the modern dance (merdre merdre)". Each line calls, and the response each time is a throwaway "shit shit", and it still makes me smile. The song mixes robo-funk on an electric piano with more Faust-like synth scratchings evoking a very disquieting atmosphere. Crowd laughter and applause presage a mad strangled guitar break, all the while David Thomas' tremulous warble bemoans our hero's self-consciousness.

Free-jazz sax wailing sprawls all over the loose-limbed intro to Laughing until it ups the pace to lurch along drunkenly. A romantic tale, David gets all wistful: "My baby says we can live in the empty spaces of this life"..."If the Devil comes, my baby says, shoot him with a gun". Street Waves is a fast-paced love song infused with urban excitement including another one of those "lets hit this synth patch and see what it does" moments that makes this so musically exciting, and, it hasn't aged in the slightest unlike a lot of music from that era.

Chinese Radiation is a very obtuse and strange song from the standpoint of star-crossed Chinese Communist lovers...possibly. After all these years I'm still not sure. If that was odd, by far the most unsettling thing on this record is Sentimental Journey, and to this day it remains one of the most genuinely scary songs I've ever heard, and I've heard more than a few. The sound of a psyche falling apart.

But, before that we have Life Stinks, as already mentioned, and Real World, my favourite piece of music on the record, sounding like Talking Heads on drugs aimed at controlling schizophrenia, a blurred visage of a warped mind in awe of the modern world. Over My Head is space rock for a rocket that never leaves the ground, with an almost conventional guitar break, and a very oblique lyric that is best left unanalysed.

Sentimental Journey starts with the sound of bottles being stacked and smashed to a very minimalistic backing, slow chording, sax wailing, David Thomas muttering and mumbling incomprehensibly, falling over his tongue with frustration building, spitting and tripping over the words that do come out. "Ah. Oh oh, unh-hunh. Table and chair and tvs and books and lamps and other stuff. It's home. It's a rug it's a home it's a rug it's a window. I don't...Phhght! Ah-pa. I'll go home. I'll go home. It's home. It's home. Umm", and wherever that home is David, I hope you are very happy there!

The album is shot through with very black humour, and as David says in the closing uptempo Humor Me, pop handclaps and all, "But what a world to be drowned in. It's a joke, man".

As far as I know, and I'll admit to not having heard every album they have released since, this was probably as out-there as Pere Ubu got, and although Dub Housing, The Art Of Walking and Song Of The Bailing Man certainly have their moments, and it could be argued that ...Walking was even weirder, it was the freshness of The Modern Dance that shocked this then naive listener.

The band later moved on to very left-field pop masterpieces like Cloudland and Worlds In Collision, and having never split up and releasing an album every few years their discography now numbers some 15 albums, with this year's Lady From Shanghai being the latest, and one I fully intend to hear.

As David Thomas has said "Pere Ubu is not now nor has it ever been a viable commercial venture. We won't sleep on floors, we won't tour endlessly and we're embarrassed by self-promotion. Add to that a laissez-faire attitude to the mechanics of career advancement and a demanding artistic agenda and you've got a recipe for real failure. That has been our one significant success to this date: we are the longest-lasting, most disastrous commercial outfit to ever appear in rock 'n' roll. No one can come close to matching our loss to longevity ratio." Except perhaps The Fall, eh?

All lyrics by David Thomas, © 1978 Ubu Projex, administered by Bug Music (US/Can).
© 1978 EMI Music (ROW).

Find out more than you ever wanted to know about Pere Ubu over at the ubu projex, and they are on tour in the UK this month. See gig dates here.

Track listing:
Side one
1. Non-Alignment Pact – 3:18
2. The Modern Dance – 3:28
3. Laughing – 4:35
4. Street Waves – 3:04
5. Chinese Radiation – 3:27

Side two
1. Life Stinks - 1:52
2. Real World - 3:59
3. Over My Head - 3:48
4. Sentimental Journey - 6:05
5. Humor Me - 2:44
Line up:

David Thomas – vocals, musette, percussion, production
Tom Herman – guitar, backing vocals, production
Allen Ravenstine – EML 101 & 200 analog synthesizers, saxophone, tapes, production
Tony Maimone – bass, piano, backing vocals, production
Scott Krauss – drums, production
Tim Wright – bass guitar on "The Modern Dance" and "Sentimental Journey", production

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