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.