My first exposure to the essential American art rock band Pere Ubu was their unforgettable performance in the 1982 concert film Urgh! A Music War. Produced by IRS founder Miles Copeland III, Urgh was a kind of new wave and punk portfolio. The war was not between the bands featured in the film but between the new wave scene circa 1980 and the culture of classic rock. Urgh! proceeds from one hyper, weird, snotty, surreal, and theatrical band to another without the musings of critics or narration of any kind. It was, at the time, a shock-and-awe assault on the lumbering of arena rock. The biggest names in it were arena-bound themselves — The Police, the Go-Gos, Joan Jett, Echo & the Bunnymen — but most of the film’s 122 minutes are dedicated to the edgy, underground, and strange, including several bands — the costumed, faceless Invisible Sex and the demonstratively spazzy Splodgenessabounds—who are known primarily for their appearance in Urgh! A Music War.
Amidst all the staged and conceptual weirdness of Urgh!, Pere Ubu stands out as something genuinely weird. Upsetting, even. While Devo demos its famous choreography and Oingo Boingo and XTC hiccup through their skittish numbers, Ubu’s David Thomas commands your…concern. He doesn’t seem quite right. He’s dressed for a business meeting — suit and tie, his clean shaven and pudgy baby face scrubbed raw behind the ears. He gesticulates wildly, the purpose inscrutable.
He paces not nervously but neurotically, changing direction in the herky jerk rhythm of heated, non-linear thought. He’s a big man, and he boils inside. There is an agitation, a perturbation, a lot going on. He seems always on the verge of sorting it out explaining what’s up, but all that comes out is his mouth is wispy, high pitched and half mouthed fragments about the songs of birdies. But slowly, you begin to recognize melody, an original and fine melody.
Behind him is an unabashed, experimental, avant-garde band, noise lovers who have always seemed envious of the music of power tools and failing circuits. No band has ever used electronics in quite the same nano-buggy way as Pere Ubu (often with synth whiz Allen Ravenstine chairing that department), but their novel approach to drums, bass, and guitars became a template for what we would eventually call post-rock — liberated from the rules of rock engagement and from pop song forms, but 100% rock and roll (punk, even) in its impulse.
Bands that far out on a limb tend to have short careers marked by penury if not tragedy, and to be remembered mostly by the guys quarantined on the other side of the record store counter. How then to explain Pere Ubu, who have not only endured but prevailed? It is David Thomas’s secret heart. The melodies hidden in his quavering warble are inspired and beautiful. The sensibility that emerges through his warped persona is full of humanity, hurt, myth, the modern condition, and love. Thomas was probably lucky to have hit the scene when he did. In today’s sensitive indie rock climate, his approximation of mental illness would probably be called out. Instead, it is grandfathered in, and we are all the richer for it. He is, much like Tom Waits, a poet, a keeper and a great confuser of American mythologies as well as a legitimate intellectual and a musical futurist.
With more than 20 albums to consider, including a rash of them in this decade, Ubu’s highlights are many and varied. The first two records — 1978’s The Modern Dance and Dub Housing — came out of nowhere and continue to define the music of nowhere. 1988’s transitional The Tenement Year is plenty weird but also paves the way for Pere Ubu’s pair of strangely heartfelt, hit-bid pop albums at the turn of the ‘90s, Cloudland and Worlds in Collision. Despite a handful of gorgeous and genuinely moving songs that anyone might like (“Oh Catherine,” “Breath”) those records failed to position Pere Ubu where they deserved to be, which is to say right alongside The Pixies among rock’s great surrealists. That didn’t slow down Thomas much at all. With a rotating membership, Ubu was prolific and increasingly rootsy throughout the ‘90s and into the present. 2017’s 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo rocks darkly.
I had to rub my eyes a few times and grasp at the leg of a table near me when I read that Pere Ubu had been booked to play at BSP. For a moment, nothing seemed real. That is the way this band has always made me feel.
Pere Ubu performs at BSP in Kingston on Friday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. In a nice booking touch, the Young Skulls will open, a new project featuring Pere Ubu’s fellow Ohioan avant-rocker, the local writer and punk musicologist Peter Aaron, whose band Chrome Cranks grew from the same soil as Pere Ubu a decade later. Tickets for this singular show are $25. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston.
Pere Ubu with The Young Skulls, Friday, November 10, 7:30 p.m.; $25; BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston.