Pere Ubu: Long Live Pere Ubu!

Stephen Rylance

Cleveland's finest pay tribute to the granddaddy of Dada.

Pere Ubu

Long Live Pere Ubu!

Label: Hearpen Records /Cooking Vinyl
US Release Date: 2009-09-15
UK Release Date: 2009-09-14
Artist website

No one approaches a Pere Ubu record expecting an easy ride or conformity to a formula. But David Thomas' musical adaptation of Alfred Jarry's notorious proto-absurdist play Ubu Roi -- from which the band took their name when they formed in 1975 -- makes for perverse listening, even by their own standards.

Which is probably as it should be. After all, the original provoked a riot in the theatre when it premiered in Paris in 1896. Ubu is Jarry's bourgeois everyman -- a grotesque, Punch-like figure, gluttonous, infantile, cruel, and cowardly. Egged on by his equally unpleasant wife Mere Ubu, he spearheads a plot to murder the King of Poland, accedes to the crown, and sets about becoming the worst kind of despot.

What follows is a vicious political satire that parodies a number of Shakespearean plotlines including Macbeth and Hamlet. For a flavour of its surreal, farcical energy one need only consider the cast of characters, which includes the princes Boleslas, Boggerlas, and Ladislas, the Whole Russian Army, the Whole Polish Army, Lackeys of Phynance, something called the Disembraining Machine, and a Bear.

The songs on Long Live Pere Ubu form part of a six-act radio play adapted from Jarry's text by David Thomas, joined here by ex-Communards vocalist Sarah Jane Morris as Mere Ubu. Needless to say, a seminal avant-garde work does not good music guarantee (apparently Paul McCartney read Jarry's play while writing the lyrics for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"). But once you tune into its crazed frequency, Long Live is an absolute scream.

The warmup track, "Ubu Overture”, sounds like the reverberations of Satan's tuning fork punctuated by filthy belching noises: “Merde...erer!” Thomas growls in a voice pitch with wickedness. “Song Of the Grocery Police” finds Mere Ubu in Lady Macbeth mode, exhorting her whimpering husband to regicide. "Kill them all / Have a ball", she urges, as he hankers pathetically after a "big sombrero". The darkly hilarious “March of Greed” is an inane stomp featuring a call-and-response routine between Ubu and his court of arse-licking sycophants. "I agree to everything", he shrugs gleefully as they cheer him along the fast track to tyranny.

There's no mistaking we're back in the Ubu sound world -- but along with the signature electronic dissonance and stabbing, post-punk guitar, there's a touch of the gallows theatricality of the Birthday Party and the dustbowl holler of Tom Waits at his scratchiest. Most of all though, Long Live puts one in mind of Captain Beefheart circa Doc at the Radar Station or Ice Cream for Crow.

“Big Sombrero (Love Theme)” sees Ubu opening a ministerial meeting with the command "Bring me the shitter hook / Bring me the finance book". Beneath Thomas' coruscating, gravel-throated vocal there's a cacophony of pig squeals and shrieks, hydraulic whirring noises, the sound of cold machinery in terminal dysfunction. "Now bring all of the judges in", he barks, announcing plans to tax the dead and declaring that dissenters will be tossed "into the pig-pincher".

By “Bring Me The Head”, Ubu's power is total -- as his wife reports: "No more finance, justice or law / Into his belly he's gobbled them all". For “Road to Reason”, a funky thrash of wire-wool guitar and frantic theremin, Thomas reverts to his trademark bubblegum baby voice to observe with satisfaction, "Everywhere you look you can see burned down houses and people bent double under the weight of Finance."

The heart-knocking “Watching the Pigeons” describes Ubu's defeat at the hands of the Russians, while “Snowy Livonia” underlines the pathos of the dethroned Ubu's escape to France with a sad little refrain on electric piano. Perhaps the most deliciously twisted episode of all is “The Story So Far”, eight minutes of sweating dream delirium that takes us on a trip into Ubu's subconscious. It ends with Ubu threatening his wife with an elaborate torture ritual whose delights include "penetration of the little wooden stick... extraction of the brain through the fingernails... not to mention the opening of the bladderine..."

On its own terms, as a bold experiment in fusing spoken word with post-rock, post-punk, and ambient electronica, Long Live Pere Ubu! is an unqualified success. Thomas' adaptation of the play's skewed, dark poetry is brilliant. But does it work as a pop record? Intermittently, yes. Parts of it would clearly be more effective as theatre, and its weakest moments take it perilously close to Frank Zappa's tiresome burlesques. At its best though, it's trippy, twisted genius. Hardcore Ubu fans will love it.

Sarah Jane Morris's self-consciously theatrical vocals do the album no favours. Her singing is mannered and full of flabby jazz singer cliches. By contrast, the way David Thomas brings Ubu to life with his choked, sad, infantile little gurgle makes the character human, and therefore all the more disturbing.

As in all the best epics, at the end of the chapter there's a new horizon to head for. For the album's closer, “Elsinor and Beyond”, we join Ubu setting sail on his escape boat. The banished tyrant perks up and turns to his wife, saying "I sense that many fine adventures lie ahead of us". Full speed ahead, Mr. Thomas.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.