Oooh, I like a hostile LP and LP’s don’t get a lot more hostile than Pere Ubu The Modern Dance; absolutely user unfriendly, no-fucks given, ‘let’s see you listen right through to the end of this one, you wankers!‘, whatever-the-opposite-of-ergonomic is.
Crunching into our planet 41 years ago, we still haven’t reached how far Pere Ubu were ahead of their time in 1978. I had vaguely heard of them 15 years ago when I bought a cheapo 1988 Fontana reissue of The Modern Dance, assuming they were a punk outfit.
Imagine if you will, a band conceived amidst the Stooges most outré Fun House sax skronking, weaponizing Television’s odd angularity and being fronted by a psychotic, rather than an Aspergic, David Byrne. Pere Ubu were one of those precious rare bands that understood punk as a challenge to unpick the stitches of rock and roll, rather than just as another uniform to wear whilst playing it fast.
Take ‘Life Stinks’, with lyrics from deceased-by-time-LP-came-out bassist Peter Laughner*, from which this post gets its’ title. It’s a standard punk sentiment, but here it lurches at you hyperkinetically all jitters and jags, despite a slight touch of rock guitar about the edges, sounding like very little else. By way of a perfect contrast it snaps straight into the chugging oddnik recital of ‘Real World’.
That The Modern Dance then flips into the atonal sax offender blues of ‘Sentimental Journey’, replete with all manner of savage muttering, smashing glass and no melody whatsoever, just makes me nauseous. If you can sit through that more than twice in a 24 hour period then you’re probably … me. Oh. Kinda ‘Sheena Is a Disembodied Howl Of Industrial Desecration’; that’s why they don’t sell Pere Ubu T-shirts in fashion shops.
Most hostile of all though is the hideous shrill siren/squeal that precedes LP opener and catchiest tune on The Modern Dance. True dat.
When I blasted this earlier today, my son and wife started shouting at me about the smoke alarm. Don’t worry folks, it’s just the off-kilter art-punk genius alarm tripping again. ‘Non Alignment Pact’ is that, easily. David Thomas is all over the place with his vocals, simpering and rocking out, whilst reeling off a bunch of chick’s names that would do an early 60’s surf band proud; ‘I wanna do a deal with you girl / And get it signed by the heads of state’. Nothing in this tune is where it should be, magnificently so – the production lurches and cuts at you. I must have played this song at least 1.926 million times and it still puzzles and intrigues me to this day.
The comparatively mannered, percussive ‘The Modern Dance’ follows, complete with odd crowd noises and wholesale alienation. The strident, abrasive ‘Laughter’ and ‘Street Waves’ follow, scouring your ears and sensibilities clean ready for new possibilities.
My favourite track on The Modern Dance, tonight anyway, is ‘Chinese Radiation’. It is just sublime. Sliding in under a gently insistent guitar and bass strum, augmented by unidentifiable ping/swish noises** a romance is wistfully introduced referencing Mao’s red book and grey worker’s caps. Then a break, some applause and suddenly it sounds like a drunken creep fronting a wonky bar band for a spell, before it all boils down again to a gorgeous piano and drum outro. There are simply no reference points for this tune, it leaves you flailing and all alone in the godless steppes. Heavy and hopeful, or heavy and resigned? I really can’t deicide.
The musician ship is canny and effective rather than remotely virtuoso, the only comparison point I can think of for guitarist Tom Herman is Marc Ribot, bassist Tony Maimone particularly impresses as does keys and sax man Allen Ravenstine (now a commercial pilot).
So I sit still for a while, putting my head back together again after listening to The Modern Dance and as I always do, I struggle with it, whatever it is. Sure it’s arty, but not in a studied way. There is nothing remotely self-conscious about the weirdness herein, this is pure organic creative oddness and it really should be cherished as such.
Someone get that signed off by the heads of state.
*his obituary being possibly the most Lester Bangs like piece of writing that Lester Bangs ever published.
**excuse me if I am getting too technical for you here. I think they may have been made by David Thomas’ musette.