Elitism For The People 1975 - 1978
, July 16th, 2015 10:51
The title of this compilation of seminal proto-then-post-punk legends Pere Ubu's early material immediately brought to mind the tag line for an old cultural radio show in the France of my youth, "L'élite pour tous!". "The elite for all", the show proclaimed, advancing an ambition to share the concepts of high art with those that were supposedly excluded from its lofty realm. Whilst the quick blurb on the album's cover suggests that Pere Ubu reject "high" culture altogether in favour of privileging the rough edges of society's underbelly, it's also inescapable that they brought an intellectual, almost dadaist aesthetic to rock & roll, yet all the while preserved the primeval, shouty essence of rock's origins in ways that perhaps other supposed art rock bands did not.
Pere Ubu grew out of Rocket From The Tombs, a Stooges-meets-Cochrane, punk-before-it-existed Cleveland band that took the essence of 50s r'n'r and added a great big dollop of youthful gob into the mix. Their style, all urban working class male angst, was not all that far removed from the fledgling Ramones, albeit with a more nihilistic Midwestern vibe rather than street-smart New York vip. As they evolved into Pere Ubu (early RFTT material was compiled onto the excellent The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs CD in 2002), however, their teenagery angst made way for greater cerebrality, as they took their name from proto-surrealist playwright Alfred Jarry's controversial play Ubu Roi, immediately signalling an intent to wrench the carpet out from beneath the highbrow notions much rock culture had hoisted itself onto, much in the way Jarry transformed Shakespearean sophistication into a riot of noise, filth and hilarity. From the opening moments of 'Non-alignment Pact', the song that opens Pere Ubu's 1978 debut The Modern Dance, this was clearly a band that was equal parts deeply connected to rock's roots, slyly humourous and ferociously clever.
In his book of essays Mystery Train, famed critic Greil Marcus drew lines between rock & roll and the broader scope of American culture, be it literature or folklore, and placed Pere Ubu as true inheritors of broad "American unities" that included Elvis Presley and The Great Gatsby. Certainly, there is much in the clatter and shuffle of 'Non-alignment Pact', 'The Modern Dance' and 'Street Waves' that instantly evokes the less abrasive but equally immediate surge of early rock & roll, not to mention the murder ballad and blues undertones of lyrics like "My baby says / We can live in the empty spaces of this life / And if the devil comes / we'll shoot him with a gun", from the immense 'Laughing'. But, equally, I'd posit that Pere Ubu's reach was wider, as evidenced by the "Merdre, Merdre" refrain on the title track, which throws back to Jarry's Ubu Roi, and the avant-garde, almost Stockhausen-esque excursions of 'Sentimental Journey', a bizarre collage of found sounds, wailing, atonal sax, weird synth burbles and deadpan moans from singer David Thomas that only in its final 90 seconds expands into something resembling a collision of free jazz and rock, albeit not for long. Of course, the experimental tradition had long been alive and well in the USA (home of John Cage, of course), but its origins and reach are far more universal.
Pere Ubu were, however, using the tools of experimental music to essentially reinvent rock & roll from the ground up. Rip it up and start again, indeed. On Dub Housing, their second album of 1978, there are certain tracks that sound like punked-out echoes of Roxy Music's 'Re-make/Re-model', and what was glam if not old school Presley and Berry rock'n'roll updated to take in British high camp? David Thomas's voice is a strange mish-mash of Little Richard, James Chance and Jerry Lee Lewis, always perched in high registers, its delivery clipped and hyperactive. Tom Herman is an unflashy, understated but solid presence on guitar, avoiding solos in favour of spiky, jangled riffs, leaving space for Allen Ravenstine to drop in sax and synth flourishes that blur lines and contort the directions tracks seem to be heading in. And then you get Dub Housing's title track, a slow blues the structure of which is instantly familiar to anyone who's ever listened to Taste or Free, but with the sax distorted into abstraction and the vocals muted rather than anguished as weird sound effects collapse around the musicians' ears. Dub Housing is more evenly-paced, peculiar and spacious than its predecessor, but still uncompromisingly rough and abrasive where needed, such as on the stop-start 'Cagliari's Mirror' on which they collide 'What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?' with the sort of rama-lama that defined the MC5 or Jefferson Airplane's 'Volunteers'. Topped up with Eno-esque noises and drones of course. And whilst it's hard to detect actual dub on the album, the use of repetition and reverb on a number of the more experimental tracks on the album certainly suggest dub in spirit if not actual effect, except maybe on '(Pa) Ubu Dance Party', another example of both David Thomas at his vocally most hyperactive and the band at their most humourous.
From their first single, 1975's '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' backed with 'Heart Of Darkness' – both more indebted to the Velvet Underground than their later work but nonetheless adventurous and unpredictable – Pere Ubu were looking to tear up rock's rules whilst taking the genre's essentials on board and even sublimating them. Their lyrical references are often oblique, with history and cultural landmarks (the Second World War or Joseph Conrad) reworked so they fit with the anarchic, scatter-gun world of Pere Ubu (non-alignment pacts as metaphors for disintegrated relationships, 'Final Solution' used as a track title for a song about alienation...). The Hearpen Singles that accompany the two official albums in this collection show a more gradual evolution across the years, but from Thomas' voice to the dashes of prog, soul, jazz and hard rock that dot these songs, everything special, beguiling and confusing about Pere Ubu traverses the years. Only the live recording, Manhattan is not essential here, given that, as is often the case with much archival material from the period, the sound quality is uneven, but it at least gives a glimpse of what the band was like onstage.
Elitism For The People confirms two things, essentially: that Pere Ubu were possibly the most original band to emerge from the embers of America's punk scene and, more importantly, one of the best rock & roll bands to have ever spat out riffs, lyrics and noise. They're still going, and all: the flame burns eternal in the hands of constant member David Thomas. Long may he run.