As Jason Anderson proclaimed in the Toronto publication eye Weekly, “Pere Ubu is one of the handful of truly confounding, courageous and intelligent groups of the rock era.” Countless critics and indie rock fans— not to mention some highly influential alternative rock artists—share this view. The band, which first flowered in the mid-1970s in the industrial spaces of Cleveland, Ohio, has combined proto-punk aggression, pop melodies, surrealistwhimsy, and flat-out noise with achang-ing roster of musicians—and a panoply of record labels. Though Pere Ubu broke up and reformed several times and have never achieved much mainstream success, they have earned an important place in the development of alternative rock. Frontman David Thomas attempted to summarize the group’s approach in Id magazine: “We don’t think in a linear way,” he explained, adding that Pere Ubu’s work “comes from intuition. We assemble emotions, visions, poetry, beauty, ugliness. We create a cinema of the imagination.”
The middle part of the 1970s struck many young rock fans as a particularly arid time, and soon a variety of
Members include Scott Benedict (joined group c. 1995), drums; Chris Cutler (bandmember 1987-90), drums; Eric Drew Feldman (bandmember 1990-92), keyboards; Anton Fier (bandmember c. 1981-82), drums, piano, marimba, percussion; Tom Herman (left group 1979), guitar; Jim Jones (joined group c. 1987), guitar; Scott Krauss (bandmember 1975-81 and 1987-94), drums; Peter Laughner (left group 1976), guitar, bass, vocals; Tony Maimone (bandmember 1976-92), bass; Dave Taylor (bandmember 1976-82), keyboards; Michelle Temple (joined group c. 1992), bass; David Thomas, vocals, accordion, melodeon; Mayo Thompson (bandmember 1980-82), guitar; Robert Wheeler (joined group c. 1995), keyboards; Tim Wright (band-member 1975-1976), bass, guitar.
Recording and performing act, 1975-82 and 1987—. Band formed c. 1975 in Cleveland, OH; released debut single “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” / “Heart of Darkness” on Hearthan label, 1975; signed with Mercury Records and released debut album, The Modern Dance, 1978; signed with Rough Trade label and released Dub Housing, 1978; disbanded, 1982; members pursued solo projects, 1982-86; group reformed and signed with Mercury/Fontana, releasing The Tenement Year, 1988; signed with Imago Records and released Story of My Life, 1993; signed with Tim/Kerr Records and released Ray Gun Suitcase, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Tim/Kerr Records, P.O. Box 42423, Portland, OR 97242. Fan Info— Ubu Pro-jex, P.O. Box 4, Utica, PA 16362. Electronic Mail— [email protected] Website —Ubu Web, Pere Ubu’s Online Garage Hotline: http://www.dnai.com/~obo/ubu/index.html.
underground rock forms began to spring up. In New York City, the earliest stirrings of what would become punk rose from the dimming embers of glitter rock. Cleveland’s own underground began with groups like Rocket from the Tombs, which included Thomas and members of what would become both Ubu and early punk avatars the Dead Boys. Once Rocket disintegrated, Thomas teamed up with the group’s guitarist, Peter Laughner, and some other friends for a new project.
Named for the protagonist of a play by French surrealist Alfred Jarry ( “Pere Ubu” translates literally as “Father Shit”), the group’s aspirations differed radically from the three-chord anthems of anger and disgust that characterized the punk movement. “We saw clearly at the time that we were the true light in the development of rock music,” Thomas insisted in Alternative Press (AP). “We didn’t see ourselves as revolutionaries. It seemed very clear to us that there had been a progression in rock music—that it had moved from an adolescent stage to a mature stage and like any other art form was blossoming into a period of development and expansion as a true voice of the culture—like literature and painting.” While punk rock ran screaming from the idea of “art” in music, Thomas and his cohorts embraced it. Their jagged, nonlinear musical statements and off-kilter lyrics—not to mention Thomas’s grandiloquently bizarre voice—virtually guaranteed the group’s obscurity, but Pere Ubu never lost their sense of mission.
The new band ventured into the studio for the first time to record some leftover Rocketfrom theTombs material. The result was the 1975 single “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” backed with “Heart of Darkness,” released on the group’s own Hearthan label (later changed to Hearpen). This was before their first gig, which took place on New Year’s Eve, 1976, in Cleveland’s Viking Saloon, where Thomas had worked as a ticket taker. More gigs and singles followed, along with personnel changes. The most notable of these was the departure of Laughner, who was kicked out of the band due to his excessive indulgence in drugs and drink; he later managed to destroy himself completely. As Thomas reflected in “The Official Ubu Communex Version of Events,” a group history posted on their website, “it wasn’t at all romantic to be around.”
Mercury Records executive Cliff Burnstein—who was following indie music in the Midwest—signed Ubu to the label’s Blank subsidiary. Their debut album, The Modern Dance, is considered one of the early classics of alternative rock. After a short tour that included stops in the UK and Europe, Thomas and company returned to the studio to record Dub Housing. Another UK tour followed with an eclectic array of acts that included new-wavers the Soft Boys and the Human League, legendary chanteuse Nico, and avant-psychedelic heroes the Red Crayola; one show saw an audience taking buses from London to see Ubu perform in a cave.
As early as 1979 the group was already struggling creatively. After importing guitarist Mayo Thompson from the Red Crayola, Ubu began to explore their poppierside; more personnel changes followed. Around 1982 they decided to hang it up. “Pere Ubu never really broke up,” Thomas told John Petkovic of AP. “We just stopped talking to each other after the last tour. It was a miserable experience. We were just fed up. We simply got back and nobody called anybody and literally six months would go by. After a while you just say, ‘We’re broken up.’” He pursued a variety of solo projects for the next few years, notably with the Pedestrians and David Thomas and the Wooden Birds. Other ex-Ubu players like bassist Tony Maimone, drummer Scott Krauss, and synthesizer wizard Allen Ravenstine eventually gravitated toward Thomas’s solo enterprises. Soon they found themselves performing impressive renditions of Ubu material. “Everybody kept saying, ‘You guys sound like Pere Ubu, ’” Thomas recalled in the interview with Petkovic. “We were operating like Pere Ubu and it would be cowardly not to be Pere Ubu. We were Pere Ubu.”
Signing with the Mercury/Fontana label, the band’s new incarnation recorded The Tenement Yearanti then took a turn in the direction of accessible pop with Cloudland. By the early 1990s, however, the group’s lack of sales had soured relations with the label. The nadir of this period came when they were granted a spot on TV’s Late Night With David Letterman, but the label refused to pay for their travel to the show. Not to be daunted, Pere Ubu held a press conference. “We’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Thomas proclaimed in Rolling Stone. “We borrowed money from our friends to make our first record, so we thought, ‘Let’s do it again.’” Making a public appeal for funds, Pere Ubu received donations from such leading lights of alternative music as R.E.M., Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jane’s Addiction, the B-52’s, They Might Be Giants, and the Pixies. The incident was embarrassing to Mercury, which stopped promoting the group’s newest record. “The record company invited us to go away and die,” Ubu manager Jamie Kitman told Rolling Stone contributor Michael Azerrad, “and we declined the invitation.”
Ubu briefly found a home with the small label Imago, which put out their 1993 album Story of My Life. Thomas, meanwhile, had begun to dabble in multimedia, creating a substantial database of Ubu history and other materials that Imago used for publicity purposes. Sadly, Story didn’t sell, either, and the struggling Imago—not long before its demise—ended up paying the group not to record. Though Pere Ubu began recording its next album without a label, they soon signed with the Portland, Oregon-based indie Tim/Kerr; 1995 saw the release of Ray Gun Suitcase, which many critics lauded as a return to classic form. Rolling Stone called it “brilliant,” while the New York Times hailed it as their “best album in years.”
Thomas produced the album, explaining in Huh that “like many times in the past, the band was breaking up. I said, ‘Well, we’re going to make this our last record. I simply can’t deal with you people, and I can’t deal with all these strains, we’re just going to do it my way. We’re going to do it, we’re going to get it right, and then we’re just going to quit, okay?’ And everybody said, ‘Okay.’ And then we made the record, it turned out good, and it’s the same old Pere Ubu story.” Meanwhile, the group struck a deal with Geffen Records, enabling the powerhouse label to reissue a 5-CD boxed set of material including the hard-to-find early Ubu albums, live material, and outtakes.
Along with Ray Gun, Tim/Kerr distributed Folly of Youth See Dee Plus, a disc that could be played in both audio CD players and computer CD-ROM drives; it contains music, video, and text. Much of this material was also accessible through Pere Ubu’s site on the World Wide Web. It was clear that after so many years, the group’s “cinema of the imagination” still had much to show the world. “We’ve been making it up as we go along,” Thomas commented in Magnet, adding in Huh that “Pere Ubu is an ever-changing group,” defined not by specific musicians but as “a method of work. And it’s always been a method of work, and so whoever’s in is bound by the rules.” Of course, the rules—whatever they may be—are subject to change.
“30 Seconds Over Tokyo” / “Heart of Darkness,” Hearthan, 1975.
“Final Solution” / “Cloud 149,” Hearthan, 1976.
“StreetWaves” / “My Dark Ages (I Don’tGet Around),” Hearpen, 1976.
The Modern Dance, Mercury/Blank, 1978.
Dub Housing, Rough Trade, 1978.
New Picnic Time (UK only), Rough Trade, 1979.
The Art of Walking, Rough Trade, 1980.
Datapanik in the Year Zero-A (singles collection), Rough Trade, 1980.
390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo, Rough Trade, 1981.
Song of the Bailing Man, Rough Trade, 1982.
The Tenement Year, Mercury/Fontana, 1988.
Cloudland, Mercury/Fontana, 1989.
Worlds in Collision, Mercury/Fontana, 1991.
Story of My Life, Imago, 1993.
Ray Gun Suitcase, Tim/Kerr, 1995.
Folly of Youth See Dee Plus, Tim/Kerr, 1995.
Datapanik in the Year Zero (boxed set), Geffen, 1996.
Alternative Press, November 1995, p. 42.
Anti-Matter, June 1993.
Billboard, May 8, 1993.
eye Weekly, October 19, 1995.
Huh, October 1995.
Id, November 30, 1995.
Kulture, December 1995.
Magnet, August 1995.
New York Times, October 17, 1995.
Rolling Stone, October 3, 1991, p. 25; October 5, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was taken from Tim/Kerr Records promotional material, the Folly of Youth See Dee Plus, and the Pere Ubu website.
"Pere Ubu." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/pere-ubu
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