By Tim Murr
My friend Jase told me and he heard it from Black Francis via Twitter who retweeted from @Ubuprojex: “I quit music. Goodbye.”—David Thomas
“There goes another one,” I thought. Another favorite band gone. We’re also talking about a trailblazing band that has been around almost 40 years and have recorded two of their finest albums in the last couple of years. To have them just break up now, so unceremoniously, would be quite a loss for rock and roll.
Well, false alarm apparently. Thomas had a “fit of frustration,” but no, Ubu was still going.
For those unfamiliar with Pere Ubu, singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed the band in 1975 after the demise of their previous band, Rocket From The Tombs, which also spawned the Dead Boys. All Thomas wanted to do was properly record the songs he had written for RFTT and move on, but the project worked and was expanded and albums and tours started happening. (Here’s the whole story.)
If you are at all familiar with Ubu’s work you know them as a bombastic aural adventure, creating jagged musical landscapes, as likely to be danceable as confusing. Hailing from Cleveland OH, Ubu made a noise you’d expect to hear from New York or Europe, yet it does have a distinct Mid-western, rustbelt sensibility. Must be something in the water, because Ohio has birthed many of America’s great bands (like Devo!).
I once interviewed Wayne Kramer, of the legendary MC5, for a book about Ubu that never got off the ground. Wayne’s membership in the band lasted one show since that tour was cancelled. He told me a funny story about his first rehearsal with the band. While everyone was getting set up he started tuning with the keyboardist, who was also new to the group. David Thomas began yelling for them to stop. He shouted angrily at the keyboardist that “You were not hired to play music, you were hired to make noise!” The place got quiet and Wayne thought, “What an asshole.” Then some of the guys started chuckling and Thomas had a smirk on his face and Wayne realized this was just the man’s sense of humor.
That sense of humor permeates many songs. One of the best examples is the title track from their debut album The Modern Dance. A surf-y pop track at its heart, it has a driving bass line and incorporates found sound.
Down at the bus. (Merdre Merdre)
Into the town. (Merdre Merdre)
Our poor boy can’t get around. (Merdre Merdre)
Eight fifty-five. (Merdre Merdre)
Down at the show. (Merdre Merdre)
She leaves early. He’ll never know. (Merdre Merdre)
Cuz our poor boy. (Merdre Merdre)
He believes in chance. (Merdre Merdre)
He’ll never get the modern dance.
And it moves like . . .
From there we get ambient noise as the music quiets down and it sounds like people shuffling around a bus station. For the second chorus we get a montage of canned laughter from sitcoms—the modern dance! (Merdre is the French word for shit, which was the first word uttered in Alfred Jarry’s play Pere Ubu. The word caused such an uproar in the audience on its opening night in 1887, that it took several minutes to calm them down.)
That kind of cleverness, layering various elements into the music while the lyrics were both literate and rock and roll at the same time, is one of the things that set Ubu apart from most of their punk/new wave/rock peers. Theirs is a sound that is never satisfied and is always searching and recreating itself. It shifts and mutates from song to song and album to album, but is always held together by Thomas’s warbling falsetto and stubborn drive to create new musical experiences despite the trends, despite the state of rock and roll.
Ubu occupies a corner of pop culture that few others can. To be innovators and influences without sounding like anyone or anyone sounding like them. To be the sci-fi B-movie soundtrack that our sci-fi B-movie reality needs. To confound fans’ expectations with something more positive and better than any near 40-year-old band should have the energy to make. In other words, I’ll quote Hunter S. Thompson, whose description of Dr. Gonzo fits pretty well: “One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high-powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die.”
Ubu’s latest album, Lady From Shanghai, was released in January of this year on Fire Records.