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Putting Pere Ubu together again

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It's hard enough being one of the hundreds of bands trying to reach the record-buying public these days. More and more, battling for music-television exposure, a slot on corporate rock radio's playlists, and a slice of a label's recession-squeezed promotional budget amounts to a musical Darwinism in which "fittest" too often means "easy to market." So the capacity crowd that greeted Pere Ubu at their recent Cabaret Metro appearance represented a small victory for one band that attempted to change the rules of the music promotion game, just as the impassioned performance the band gave that night proved the worth of their rule-breaking music.

The story behind Pere Ubu's concert, beginning with an invitation to appear on David Letterman, already had received more attention than the music itself. First there was the news that their U.S. label, Mercury Records, wouldn't fork over the $2,500 it would take to send the band to Letterman's show. The group's resulting appeal for contributions from friends in the music business and fans had got them written up first in the Tribune and then nationally in Rolling Stone and Billboard among others, and brought in donations from the likes of R.E.M., Jane's Addiction, Living Colour, and the Pixies. This gambit not only got Pere Ubu to the show's taping, it also suggested an alternative means by which the band could promote its most recent release, Worlds in Collision. Mercury had made it clear that as far as Pere Ubu was concerned, its purse strings were tied; it wouldn't provide money for the band to make a club tour either as headliners or as the opening act on a Pixies tour scheduled for this fall.

The band requested help again, and "The Kindness of Strangers Tour" was born. WXRT increased airplay and discounted its fee for advertising the show. In the end the success of the ploy convinced the label to cough up the money the band needed to join the Pixies tour, which will bring both bands to the Riviera December 6.

Despite their lack of mainstream success, Pere Ubu's brilliant experimentalism of the late 70s has had a pervasive influence on alternative bands of the past decade. But the group is no museum piece; while their early music was as noncommercial as it was influential, their recent more accessible forays into pop music should be a pleasure to anyone who discovers them.

Inspired by the punk movement, but with influences and artistic ambitions that range far beyond punk's narrow confines, the band emerged out of Cleveland in 1977. On early singles like "90 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution" and the first two albums--The Modern Dance and Dub Housing--that followed, Pere Ubu presented a harrowing, sometimes humorous picture of life in late-20th-century urban America. That picture portrayed Cleveland's chemical and manufacturing plants, its crowding and confusion, as well as an urban dweller's isolation, loneliness, and fear.

Above all, the band used the noise of urban life, courtesy of Allen Ravenstine's synthesizer, which unleashed a barrage of industrial hisses, screeches, gurgles, and moans. Alongside these sounds, lead singer David Thomas frantically tried to describe what was happening around and within him (often at once) in a frequently indecipherable warble, so truly birdlike it was more unnerving than lovely. Snatches of conversation and crowd noises found their way into some songs; in others mournful atonal saxophones wailed in the background.

Amid all this confusion, guitarist Tom Herman and the superb rhythm section of drummer Scott Krauss and bassist Tony Maimone moved adroitly between a harsh, driving musical attack (muted to standard new-wave issue by the time of Dub Housing) and rock-reggae arrangements, which preceded and may have inspired the Police. The songs were marked by lurching rhythms, abrupt interruptions, extended instrumental passages, and dynamics that were rare for a rock band.

As a whole, Pere Ubu's early music was the sound of the world falling apart, of entropy in action. Yet for all the chaos, there was a strange calm, even beauty, at the center of the band's work. It was as if, at the same time it was capturing the sound of modern society disintegrating, Pere Ubu was trying to find a new way to put the pieces together, to create a more sensible and human, if unfamiliar, whole.

By the time Dub Housing was released in 1979, the band was beginning to rely more and more on percussion and synthesizer textures for its songs' foundations. After that record, Pere Ubu moved even further from conventional rock song structures. Their records of the late 70s and early 80s were a sometimes stodgy blend of jazz fusion, Ravenstine's synthesizer work, and Thomas's increasingly childlike lyrics and melodies. Krauss and Herman left the band during this period, the latter never to return, and in 1982 Pere Ubu broke up.

In 1987 band members found themselves coming together in different combinations (Thomas had been recording albums with the Pedestrians, a band that included Ravenstine and Maimone), prompting a reunion. The Tenement Year, of 1988, consolidated Pere Ubu's previous work, merging jazz-fusion compositional structures and heavy percussion (Pedestrian Chris Cutler joined the group as a second drummer) with Ravenstine's effects and more prominent guitar playing from new member Jim Jones. On their return Pere Ubu recaptured the muscular energy and compelling anarchism missing from much of their work since The Modern Dance.

The surprise came in 1989, when the band released "Cloudland." Using Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague on some tracks, the record was filled with catchy melodies and hooks, bright vocal harmonies, and strong dance rhythms. The arrangements were uncluttered, Ravenstine's noises added to the fun, and Thomas's vocals were intelligible through most of the record.

It was a pop record, and it was terrific. Rather than abandon the idiosyncrasies that had made their early work so influential, the band had converted them to commercial purposes. Jones, Krauss, and Maimone served up music that was intelligent, inventive, and immediately pleasurable, while Thomas reapplied his concern with things falling apart to such pop verities as lost love and nostalgia for good times gone by.

The group continued in this vein this year with Worlds in Collision, an equally engaging record made without Cutler and, for the first time, largely without Ravenstine (both having departed prior to the Cloudland tour. Former Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman replaced Ravenstine on the road and the new record). The urban dance beats were gone, replaced in some instances with Caribbean rhythms (the title track is a warped tango), and Jones's fine guitar playing, one of the band's great pleasures, was finally brought front and center. Meanwhile, Thomas used elemental and personal symbols (houses on hills, trains, storms, rivers, and the sea) to address a lost relationship and a related sense of dislocation with rare emotional nakedness.

The band's recent 16-song set at Cabaret Metro drew evenly on material from the last three records and the first two, with a few early non-LP singles thrown in for good measure. The contrasts in this material pointed up the way Pere Ubu has integrated its unique musical personality with a more conventional pop idiom.

Certainly the early material retained its sonic wallop. There was the roaring, ascending guitar riff that launched "Non-Alignment Pact"; the eruption in "Caligari's Mirror" from a traipse through a surreal landscape into a surging, nearly out-of-control chorus ("Hey, hey, the drunken sailors / What a mess, tie 'em down!"); and the suspense and menace conveyed by "90 Seconds Over Tokyo" as Thomas moaned "This dream won't ever, ever end" before the band exploded into an industrial-noise free-jazz cacophony. But for all the power of these moments, there was something archival about the songs; they betrayed their origins in an earlier period and cultural milieu.

At its best, the band's more recent music was equally worthy of attention but fresher. Maimone's rippling bass and Feldman's lovely synthesizer work on "Cry" amplified the ballad's dreamlike qualities. Driven by Jones's power chords and Krauss's Keith Moon-meets-Philly Joe Jones drumming, the band pounded through "George Had a Hat," sounding for a few minutes like the Who would if the Who were any good. Then it segued into a crushing rendition of the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard."

It was an apt cover. In trying to bridge the gap between its postpunk roots and 90s accessibility, Pere Ubu has embraced the energetic primitivism of the Seeds and other 60s garage bands. It's the integration of that influence with the band's radical artistic leanings (this is, after all, the group named for the main character in a trilogy of surreal French plays) that led Pere Ubu to coin the term "Avant-Garage" to describe itself, its music, and, lately, its attempts to market itself.

If any one person or thing embodies Avant-Garage, it's David Thomas. These days, with rock stars seeming to divide largely between self-aggrandizing louts and the cloyingly politically correct, it's easy to forget that rock 'n' roll came into being because irrepressible personalities--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard--found in the music a way to express, even exploit, their peculiarities. Thomas is one of the few rock performers today (Prince also comes to mind) who uses the music this way.

A large and inscrutable man, Thomas looks a little like the Buddha dressed as Sam Spade (at Cabaret Metro he wore a raincoat, hat, shirt, slacks, and tie, all black). His curious appearance accentuates his emphatic, expressive stage movements--he flails his arms, pounds his heart with his fist, and paces the stage, whirling suddenly to change direction. His off-the-wall sense of humor can be simultaneously sardonic and gleeful, as when he dedicated the song "Busman's Holiday" to Ralph Kramden ("The heart," Thomas told the crowd, "is a crazy bus driver"), and makes him an adept clown. As the band churned around him during the instrumental break on Worlds in Collision's title track, he turned a silly parlor trick involving a towel and a plastic cup into an elaborate comic ritual.

Mostly, the rest of the band indulges his antics. During his repeated attempts to bind a soloing Jones with his coat, belt, and tie, Jones shook him off as he would a mischievous child. And during "Pushin' Too Hard" Thomas, whose only instrumental proficiency seems to be on the accordion, borrowed Jones's guitar to produce several minute's worth of feedback, while his bandmates looked on tolerantly. He looked to be discovering as a child might that making noise is a way to get noticed.

In some ways, a childlike sensibility infuses all of Pere Ubu's work. The band creates noise and disorder, seeming to thrill at its own destructive power, while at the same time conveying primitive fears:

You don't wanna know what's been beached on the sand

The worse it gets the more I understand

"Les haricots son pas sale"

Something weird is coming this way

Primordial shapes such as these (from "Worlds in Collision") lie deep in the human psyche, remnants of life's earliest, least developed stages. It's the band's simultaneous enthusiasm for and dread of them that gives Pere Ubu's music its mixture of joy and terror, its dark and delightful wonder. Mercury's ambivalence notwithstanding, this music deserves to be heard. In its search for commercial success, Pere Ubu is handicapped; its aging cult following isn't going to get any bigger, while the younger record-buying audience is in search of new bands to call its own. But by keeping its distinctive identity while incorporating pop elements, the band has made itself available to both.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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