Ubu Roi

Pere Ubu comes in from the nuclear freeze

By Milo Miles
Published September 16, 1996 9:14AM (EDT)

A model of the CD box set, "Datapanik in the Year Zero" preserves the early history of one of the most inventive American rock bands, Pere Ubu, and the scene around it in Cleveland from the middle '70s to the early '80s. Every serious rock fan should own these five discs. Yet, while the music sounds even more vital than it did almost 20 years ago, the moods and attitudes that created it are now damnably hard to convey.

Pere Ubu album covers often featured black-and-white photos of abandoned industrial zones and empty urban lots. The paisley flowers of the counterculture had long withered by 1975, but the shiny bright chrome promise of mainstream America was corroded as well. The throbbing factories of the heartland slowly sank into rust. Cold War tensions were still heaped on top of everything else. What a fate: first your city goes to hell, then the Russians nuke it because it used to be a great manufacturing center. For alienated teens, everything was dead in a new way -- and for the first time anyone could remember, nobody could manufacture a tomorrow.

In this benighted environment, the lonely young weirdos ("Datapanik" liner notes estimate no more than 50 souls) would gather in bars like the Pirate's Cove to own the majority mind for a few hours. To their ears, the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Burning Spear and Captain Beefheart all seemed closely related. (some would obviously include the absurdist plays of Alfred Jarry in the same lot.) College dropouts dreamed of the New York City underground and felt like mock criminals while real lowlifes could play sage. Exiles together, art and punk were friendly in a way they would never be again.

The bands formed out of this crowd and related scenes played bored, pissed, groping rock that jeered at the symphonics and sensitivity in vogue on the charts. The "Terminal Drive" CD of Datapanik is a bit confusing, since a few cuts are Pere Ubu side projects recorded well after the group was established, but much of the material captures fascinating warmup for the Ubu eruption. Punk zealots will be delighted to know that "Terminal Drive" contains tracks by the Electric Eels, Mirrors, and Rocket From the Tombs. Ohio was spouting oddball outfits in those years. Many like Tin Huey, the Bizarros, and the Rubber City Rebels were worthies that never got past one or two albums. Oddly, it's Devo, the big success story, that now sounds among the most gimmicky and limited of the lot.

Although mid-'70s malcontents would have heard every one of these tracks as hope translated into feral soundwaves, time has trimmed the claws of most -- except the proto-Ubu lineups featuring vocalist and songwriter David Thomas. The basic tone of Ubu work is fierce but fractured, and everyone in the original lineup contributed. Mercurial guitarist and notorious rock critic Peter Laughner was in the coherent stage of what then could still be considered an anti-heroic immolation through drugs. The squiggly guitar lines concocted by Tom Herman and the dark drama of his songwriting added greatly to the singular sour tone of the first Ubu sides. Drummer Scott Krauss (and a little later) bassist Tony Maimone took to blatantly mechanical pulses or shattered reggae rhythms as though they were that backbeat you can't lose. But it was the voice of Thomas that brought on the flinches.

You wouldn't think a bulbous fellow who called himself Crocus Behemoth would need to loosen up, but that's what Thomas has done on the unreleased early version of "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" that sets the course for Pere Ubu. His scratchy near-falsetto has been described as a warble or shriek, but it most suggests an incomplete castration, with every bit of remaining manhood left angry about the missing portion. Or about voids in general. Thomas can seemingly fritter away a song describing furniture or drunken sailors riding buses or just muttering dubious puns while smashing bottles for percussion. But with Herman's ping-pong guitar notes and Allen Ravenstine's coldly whistling synthesizer behind him, Thomas became rock's slyest presentation of the modern man whose love affair with technology has soured violently.

Pere Ubu were determined to scorn commerce, to never be professional rock musicians and to have "projects" rather than a career. Predictably, there are regular break-ups and personnel shifts from 1977 to 1982. Some toughness leaked out of the band when Tom Herman left in the fall of 1979 after the second LP, "Dub Housing." His replacement was the '60s rock eccentric Mayo Thompson, an odd but benign dreamer. This tipped the Pere Ubu scale to the arty side, and Thomas turned into more of a whimsy figure, a punk Edward Lear fixated on birdies and fishies and posies. Then he became a fervent Jehovah's Witness. The good part is that he stayed a crank nature lover who observed it best from behind a windshield or in anxious fantasies. Besides, there was a kind of bruised innocent logic to these transformations, given the Witness fascination with impending apocalypse.

One of the most long-shot candidates for a happy reunion, Pere Ubu nevertheless got four of the original members together for a couple of late-'80s albums that glow with calm, veteran smarts. The second, "Cloudland," even let Thomas be a tender romancer without the protective flinches and whimsy. The initial Ubu explorations gathered on Datapanik remain the unfinished amp, waiting for some future whiz to take the gestures and ideas further. But the band's most touching single moment may be "We Have the Technology" from the first reunion album, "The Tenement Year." In a comely melody shadowed by Ravenstine's harsh squiggle, Thomas re-accepts the oath of improvement through science and industry -- with a twist. He's gained faith in people, with or without the factory up and running behind them. He celebrates not only improved hardware but bolder hearts.

Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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