Having had their sound and general aesthetic appropriated by so many groups over the intervening 40 years, it seems somewhat hard to believe there was a time before Pere Ubu and their fractured form of art punk. What is perhaps harder to believe, given the musical climate in which they were conceived, is how odd, how modern they still sound all these years later. So ingrained now in the underground, the sound they pioneered in Ohio in the mid-1970s continues to resonate today, coming back in waves as each new generation discovers the pivotal, revolutionary albums collected here on Elitism for the People 1975-1978.
Rising from the ashes of the local cult favorite proto-punk group Rocket From the Tombs, the members of Pere Ubu reconvened into something far odder, far more esoteric and experimental, creating a sort of stylistic rift that can still be felt reverberating across the Midwest and spreading towards the coasts and ever onward. Led by hulking frontman David Thomas, Pere Ubu broke music down to its most primitive elements, refashioning the very notion of what a pop song could be, using their own often highly idiosyncratic rules.
Listening to the songs on their debut, The Modern Dance, the only rule seems to be to refuse to adhere to the basic tenets of what constitutes a pop song. Within the album’s first 10 minutes, the members of Pere Ubu manage to completely rewrite the possibilities for those laboring in the underground; namely in that rules need not apply. Instead adopting a creative aesthetic that would become an integral part of the nascent punk scene, they sought new and different ways to tear apart the status quo, replete with warbling, often half-shouted vocals, atonal guitars, investigations of feedback and the random chaos that can be generated within the moment, and the hypnotic effects of repetitive rhythmic explorations.
On “Laughing”, they largely abandon the bounds of even the underground in favor of an amalgamation of rudimentary rhythms, free jazz and musique concrete. It’s a fascinating four-and-a-half minutes that illustrates that the only creative parameters are the bounds of the imagination, opening a door for the atonal explorations of the post-punk and no wave scenes a full two years before punk even entered the public consciousness. And while largely lacking in the traditional notions of form and structure, there is a defined repetitive motif utilized by the rhythm section which, coupled with the muted chaos transpiring overhead, helps to keep the listener grounded without becoming completely lost in the radical sounds being explored.
While the coasts are often credited with being the true visionaries in terms of pushing pop music forward, the Midwest deserves more than its fair share of credit for producing a host of innovative and even revolutionary acts. Sounding more the product of late ‘70s New York’s downtown art scene, it’s hard to imagine a band like Pere Ubu emanating from the Rust Belt. But given their proximity to like-minded visionaries and sonic terrorists like the Stooges and MC5, their sound comes more as part of the natural evolution of the underground’s potential. While the mainstream was content exploring just how much money and time could be spent on the creation of an album, a host of bands (including fellow Ohioans Devo) were exploring their options in terms of taking the music into decidedly new and different directions.
Elements of the burgeoning punk underground and art rock crop up early in Elitism for the People 1975-1978. On “Chinese Radiation”, they sound like a more highbrow version of the Dictators, working a similar aesthetic but with a more nuanced, almost academic approach that belies their blue-collar origins. Similarly, “Life Stinks”, both in sentiment and musical arrangement, plays as a sort of proto-hardcore, with Thomas shrieking away over an intermittently frantic beat before descending into a Mike Patton-via-Yoko Ono bit of anarchic vocalizing that even today sounds more than a bit out there.
Listening to “Real World”, it becomes virtually impossible not to claim Pere Ubu as one of, if not the first, no wave groups. With its atonal, slashing guitars and sing-shout vocals, it plays as a virtual paint-by-numbers template for everyone from the Contortions to Mars and beyond. That these recordings were made in Cleveland, Ohio and not New York or some other larger, more celebrated city is all the more impressive, proving cultural hubs need not solely exist on the more celebrated coasts.
On 1978’s Dub Housing, the band began exploring an even darker, both thematically and musically, sound that stood in sharp contrast to the majority of their underground peers. Playing with form and structure, augmenting each with copious amounts of noise and random shouts from Thomas, the band here turns the very notion of what a rock album can be on its ear. For despite the chaos, Dub Housing’s 10 tracks show a refined compositional focus over The Modern Dance’s more anarchic sonic explorations. But this subtle alteration of course does little to ease the at-times difficult nature of Pere Ubu’s music.
Opening track “Navvy” opens with a deceptively accessible guitar/bass riff that quickly descends into a static-y squeal and Thomas’ atonal, borderline spastic yelps. When, in a caterwauling voice, he shrieks “I have desire!”, the sheer urgency of the delivery reaffirms the statement, driven home by guitarist Tom Herman’s sputtering, stuttering six-string assault. Breaking away from the more traditional structure of the track’s opening moments, Herman’s solo functions more as an anti-solo, employing sound and rhythm to convey emotion rather than relying on the typical notes and scales. It’s far more effective than any note-y solo could ever hope to manage in its place.
From there, the band furthers its exploration of a darker, more dissonant sound that, coupled with Thomas’ varied vocal styles ranging from the raving to deranged, proves to be one of the more long-term influential styles of the era. Where their peers – if you can consider a band like Pere Ubu as having any – tended to operate in a more temporal vein, the sound of Pere Ubu is one with which modern listeners are still coming to grips. So otherworldly and esoteric are these early recordings that they will provide years of continued influence as more and more young artists and musical visionaries discover the secrets within.
And yet while this collection’s first two discs are undisputed classics, it’s the remaining discs and their period recordings that will hold the most interest for collectors and newcomers to the group alike. The Hearpen Singles collects the group’s first four singles, opening with the iconic “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” Contrasted with the rest of the collection, “30 Seconds” at first seems somewhat rudimentary and the work of a group still finding its feet. But listening to it within its new context rather than chronologically, it shows a band not only well ahead of its time musically, stylistically and aesthetically, but also one extremely assured of itself.
Recorded in 1975 and released on their own label, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” is a remarkable artifact of the pre-punk era, one that carries the very DIY, exploratory ethos that would come to define not only the punk scene, but the majority of the underground and indie scenes of the ensuing decades. Taken within this context, “30 Seconds” is nothing if not revolutionary, an opening salvo not only for a band but for a stylistic exploration for which we’re still, 40 years later, looking to catch up. In just under six-and-a-half minutes, Pere Ubu manages to not only create a resoundingly declarative statement of purpose, but also lay the framework for untold numbers of underground artists and musicians, some of whom have yet to be born.
The remainder of The Hearpen Singles, while no less compelling, feel far more traditionally minded, more in keeping with the work of Rocket From the Tombs, proving them to be a bridge between what had been and what was to come. While each contains its own left-of-center take on pop music, they are far more recognizable as such, functioning as an evolutionary link between the band’s earliest moments and those that would become their most influential.
On the collection’s final disc, Manhattan, we’re afforded a rare glimpse into the live version of the band during this time. Not only does this provide the chance to hear the band attempting their often complex, seemingly random “arrangements” within a live setting, it also allows an immediate, contemporary audience reaction to what was transpiring on stage. The benefit of hindsight will always make the lionization of a group like Pere Ubu (or the Velvet Underground, or the Stooges or a host of other similar groups whose influence far surpassed their original existence) seem something that should have been obvious to the then-contemporary audience.
But taken contextually, those in attendance had little to no precedent on which to base not only their expectations but also their response to what was transpiring in front of them. Hearing the scattered, timid applause after a squealing, mainly distortion-derived guitar solo midway through “My Dark Ages” is nearly as off-putting to modern listeners as the solo itself must have been to those attending the show. More a document of the time than an integral piece of the Pere Ubu legacy, the six recordings on Manhattan provide greater contextualization for the preceding recordings.
Of these, The Modern Dance’s “Sentimental Journey,” here nearly a full minute longer than its studio counterpart, is by far the strangest moment of the set, with Thomas sputtering and shrieking against a grinding backdrop that is often overwhelmed by squealing, unintentional feedback. And while the band expresses their annoyance at the sound guy’s inability to control the feedback emanating from the stage, its spontaneity feels very much in keeping with the band’s live aesthetic, serving to complement rather than detract from the overall experience.
Ultimately, Elitism for the People 1975-1978 functions as a veritable primer for not only those interested in the band, but also those looking to explore the possibilities of popular music. A sort of required reading, these early recordings function as the groundwork for much of the subsequent decade’s musical evolution. While it can certainly be argued that, even without these recordings, similar styles would have eventually emerged, it can just as easily be posited that they would not have been nearly as skewed, intense, affecting and endlessly listenable as the 35 tracks collected here. Providing a glimpse into underground pop music’s past, present and future, Elitism for the People 1975-1978 is essential listening.