Pere Ubu applied for creative asylum in Leeds in 2014, renouncing its US citizenship. Usually thought to have been founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1975, the band’s official history now states they started in Leeds, England. This story typifies the way-out humour and complexity at the heart of Pere Ubu and its project director David Thomas.
On this tour, dubbed Coed Jail, Pere Ubu only play tracks from 1975-82. Thomas is rejoined by guitarist from 1975-79 and 1997-2002 Tom Herman, and other Ubu members are Robert Wheeler (synths), Michele Temple (bass) and Steve Mehlman (drums and backing vocals), who have been in the group since the mid-1990s.
Thomas sits at the front of the stage, as becomes a man in his sixties, drinking red wine and dominating the proceedings through strength of character rather than rock ’n’ roll theatrics. “These days you can’t be a singer unless you can dance. I’m going to dance for you sitting down, because that’s what Howlin’ Wolf would do,” Thomas says towards the end of the set. His Ubu produce a fierce art-punk noise that he comically calls “avant garage”.
A few false starts and technical problems contrast with the incredibly slick performance of support act Rats On Rafts, from Rotterdam, who win over the crowd by playing straight through, bridging songs with mini-instrumentals. Their perfectly rehearsed half-hour set is a neat example of slow-fast indie psych rock.
Pere Ubu are harder to categorise. They are tight and still groundbreaking. The music can be fast and furious, as on 1975-vintage opener ‘Heart Of Darkness’. ‘On The Surface’ from late 1978’s ‘Dub Housing’ is driving and discordant, like Captain Beefheart. But 1982’s ‘Petrified’ showcases verbal gibbering, unlike anything else. ‘Real World’, off early 1978’s debut ‘The Modern Dance’, sounds like Beefheart colliding with Talking Heads. But the watery ‘Rhapsody In Pink’ (1980) is more poem than song.
‘The Modern Dance’ itself rocks in a grungey, relatively accessible way, and anyone that likes Pixies will love the 1978 precursor to their sound of ‘Navvy’ — so fast and angry that it trips over itself. Slowing down for ‘Codex’, Pere Ubu rattle through a set mixing art-rock, blues and soul, punk and jazz (‘My Dark Ages’ from 1976 and 1982’s ‘The Long Walk Home’). Thomas uses a snake-charming pipe on ‘Dub Housing’, which ends like a Sun Ra space-jazz trance.
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In the mesmeric ‘Rounder’, Thomas says “I heard the voice of reason” against jazzy, scratchy guitar and heavy bass — imagine Talking Heads with a wilder no-wave sensibility. The vocals can be dog-like barks, shrieking, talking, sometimes singing. At times, Thomas uses an old telephone as a microphone. Ageing punks pogo to 1980’s ‘Misery Goats’ and ‘The Fabulous Sequel’ from 1979’s ‘New Picnic Time’. From early and late 1978, respectively, ‘Over My Head’ is sinewy and ‘Caligari’s Mirror’ alternately grinds and explodes. ‘Heaven’, a 1977 B-side, hints at 10,000 Maniacs and Pixies, again.
Thomas ironically compares himself to Sting and invokes Thomas Dolby in his white lab coat, but Pere Ubu’s creativity is far removed from the usual parameters of entertainment that mark out most popular music and its quotidian normality. It’s incredible to think that ‘Sentimental Journey’, which starts with fractured noises and builds into a huge post-punk noise like Swans, dates from as early as their 1978 debut. Closer ‘Humor Me’, from the same album, drops a reggae-ish beat over screechy synth, and Thomas intones, “It’s just a joke man”, before walking off with his stick. There’s a lot of humour in Pere Ubu, even if it’s inscrutable.
At the end, Thomas teases the crowd about the choice of a fan-favourite for the encore: “Sophisticated pop audience, I am about to stab you in the back… ‘Final Solution’, are they going to play it?”
The Coed Jail tour continues in mainland Europe. It marks the re-release of three LPs — ‘New Picnic Time’ (1979), ‘The Art Of Walking’ (1980) and ‘Song Of The Bailing Man’ (1982) — in a box set along with out-takes album ‘Architectural Salvage’. The box set ‘Elitism For The People 1975-1978’ was released last year.
This Pere Ubu article was written by Ian Bourne, a GIGsoup contributor. Photo by Ian Bourne.