This is Pere Ubu’s 45th year of existence – just think about that for a moment. Since 1975 they’ve been responsible for many, many hours of unique, angular, beautifully warped pop music that may intimidate casual observers. That’s because it’s made to be intimidating. Also uncompromising. You can rest assured that Pere Ubu do not give a good goddamn about market trends, artist profiling, or demographics. Hooray for that. With all that (not) in mind, the 2017 version of the band is celebrated on By Order of Mayor Pawlicki, a live album, recorded in that most glamorous of venues: Scena Rynek in Jarocin, Poland.
Nowadays, Pere Ubu is David Thomas and whoever David Thomas says is in Pere Ubu. Fortunately, he shares the impeccable taste of Frank Zappa and Duke Ellington when it comes to choosing bandmates, and 2017’s Pere Ubu are in fine form here, navigating the twists, turns, and peculiarities of the repertoire with ease. The liner notes of the album reveal that this date was part of a tour fraught with technical difficulties, delayed flights, and general chaos. That seems to have worked in the band’s favor as they sound righteously indignant here. They were also in a nostalgic mood as the setlist doesn’t stray beyond the early 1980s. Fortunately, this music sounds just as wonderfully out of time in 2020 as is it did in the latter part of the last century.
Led by Michele Temple’s utterly ferocious bass playing, By Order of Mayor Pawlicki is stuffed full of art-rock hidden gems. You get some of the big hitters: “Heart of Darkness”, “Modern Dance”, and “Final Solution” all get an outing here and are delivered with an aggression that would leave musicians many years their junior, breathless and bewildered. Sadly no “Non Alignment Pact”, but I guess you can’t have everything. The tunes are peppered with David Thomas’ left-field song announcements (“Codex” is appended with “oh, baby, I lost my heart to your parking lot”) and desperate pleas to the soundman to “take Robert out of his monitors”, which add to the cinema verité feel of the whole thing. It seems that everyone was just about hanging on by the seat of their pants.
There are some surprises: “Rounder” is prefaced with a bizarre claim that it was written by Lou Reed and Junior Walker, although when you listen to it, in all it’s mutant funk strangeness, it almost sounds plausible. “Navvy” oscillates between an off-kilter verse and a chorus, consisting solely of the words “that sounds swell” sung sweetly by the band. It’s after this song that Thomas asks the crowd, “any questions so far?” There probably were, but he doesn’t hang around to hear them.
One of the most interesting things that you may learn from this album is just how far ahead of the curve Pere Ubu were. John Lydon obviously had a well-worn copy of 1979’s New Picnic Time as that album’s “Small Was Fast” is incredibly close to the sound PiL were going for at the time of Metal Box. There’s more than a hint of Thomas’ distinctive vocal style in Lydon’s work too. He’d probably deny that, though.
The first of the two-record collection finishes with an intense version of the anthemic “Final Solution”. Thomas barks out a twisted variation of the “Summertime Blues” vocal melody while the band stay just the right side of unhinged, behind him. It builds and builds until Thomas says “goodnight” and it stops.
Things get even more unusual on the second album. The band don’t do encores, choosing to announce to the crowd that they are “in the encore portion of the show” and will play a few more songs before they sell their tour merchandise. A refreshingly honest approach, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s in this “encore portion” that weird(er) things seem to happen. Imagine a strange gentleman singing “Kick Out the Jams” whilst sitting in a chair, reading the lyrics off a music stand. Well, that happened. That’s followed by the Dead Boys nihilist classic “Sonic Reducer” and another version of “Final Solution” that manages to capture a little of the mania that made the original version so compelling. Oh, there’s also a smidgen of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to add the fun.
According to the band’s website, this is their 12th live album. That seems a weirdly “rockist” move for Pere Ubu, especially as this release comprises exclusively of songs written 40 years ago. Maybe they’re being ironic, but it really doesn’t matter as it captures some genuinely thrilling performances. If you’ve managed to get to 2020 without hearing anything by them, you could do a lot worse than By Order of Mayor Pawlicki. Thank God for Pere Ubu. They were the first, and they’ll probably be the last.